How Cancer Helped Me Figure My Life Out
Updated: Oct 9, 2018
This last post in my series about growing through the pains of life comes to you not from a mom's perspective, but from the teenage daughter of my dear friend. I am so grateful that she agreed to share her story! Cali shares her story as the oldest of six children, and I'm sure you can imagine the financial toll cancer has taken on this family of eight! Please consider visiting her GO FUND ME page today. Every little bit helps!
"Find yourself and be that." - Unknown
For the longest time that quote was on the lock screen of my phone. When I set it as my screen, I had been freshly diagnosed with cancer. I was going through a typical time that teenagers usually go through…confusion, self-doubt, and self-discovery. I had become even more panicked than before because I thought to myself, "How am I going to get my license, a car, save enough money to move out when the time came…oh yeah, and what do I want to do with my life? (I was told from the start that I was fortunate to have a curable cancer.)
I was born in October of 2000 to two twenty-something's who were just starting their lives together in Mount Vernon, Pennsylvania. I grew up around snakes, spiders, and crocodiles. We played in creeks and woods, had dinosaur toys and pajamas, and lived for the outdoors. I enjoyed my Hello Kitty bedroom wall, and my favorite doll that I called my "doo-doo". By the time I was seven years old, the youngest of my five siblings was born, and we were living in a whole new area. I knew from a young age we were never what someone would call a "normal" family. I could tell by the many, many stares we got when we'd go out as a family. Thankfully, as I grew older, I discovered that not being "normal" isn't a bad thing at all.
We were all homeschooled from the start. I remember finishing the lesson book that taught me how to read, and my mother teaching us while resting her hand on her baby bump. I had the naïve belief that nothing bad could ever happen to my family...even after being rushed to the ER many times as we discovered all of the allergies I had been born with! When I was twelve, my mother noticed that my posture was strange, and I was later diagnosed with idiopathic adolescent scoliosis. After many visits to various doctors, I received a back brace which I would wear anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day (including when I slept) for two-and-a-half years, along with periodic appointments to get x-rays and check my progress. I was lucky enough not to need surgery.
Two years into my scoliosis journey, I entered public school for the first time. That semester of eighth grade would shape a big part of my life up until my diagnosis. I would make friendships that would eventually dissolve or only "kind of" stick, I would meet my future first boyfriend and first heartbreak, and I would learn and grow.
But that's a whole other story...by March of 2017 I thought I had it figured out.
The reality was, though, that I was in a really bad spot. I had recently gotten out of a relationship that all but destroyed my self-confidence. It was like a negative bubble constantly dragging me down. At such a crucial time of self-discovery, I didn't take the time that I needed to focus on myself and what I wanted for my life. But the 24th of that March, 2017, changed my life forever. Two days before my mother's birthday, after a concerning event and many tests, my mom received a call from my the hospital. The news?
I had a tumor the size of a large ping-pong ball growing in my cervix.
Weeks of doctor's appointments, tests, scans, and a hundred pokes later, I was ready for my first surgery ever, the tumor removal. Nine days later, I was ready for my second surgery which was to place what's called a Portacath. It's a little thin tube that connects a port to a large vein, through which my doctors and nurses would be able to use a special needle to administer chemotherapy, draw blood, and deliver fluids and antibiotics.
Now, how did this change my life?
How could something so awful actually change my life for the better?
And how did I get through it without losing my mind?
Well, to be completely honest about the last one, there was many a time I thought I had lost my mind. Chemotherapy not only takes a toll on your body but also on your mind, especially the farther you get into treatment. I would go literal weeks without leaving the house except to go to the hospital for chemo. The farther I got into it, the more braincells the chemo killed, and the more my mind would slip away. (Forgetfulness, confusion, etc.)
Having so much time that was spent cooped up in the house really helped my journey of self-discovery. I was spending a lot of time around my parents, so they had more opportunities to slip in words of wisdom. Eventually, I lost touch with the toxic people in my life, and I had more time to focus on something I love: art.
To cope with side effects and the fact I was missing out on so much of my teen years, I turned to art. Often when I was stuck inside, I was either watching a show on Netflix, working on an art project, or both. Since I couldn't work a job, I began selling my artwork. Having time to do basically nothing but sit around really helped me further my art skills and discover what types were my favorite.
Later in the year, I somehow ended up rediscovering a love for photography. I've grown up watching my mom build a photography business, and, of course, I always practiced it. But in the abundant free time I had, I ended up seeing a lot of photography online, and one day was inspired to move forward. I'm a pretty indecisive person, so I tried to wait it out, but an idea just kept coming back. It took me a little while to build up the courage, but eventually I ended up contacting someone I knew who was pregnant to ask if she'd like a free maternity session. I figured I could start practicing for real, and she could get some potentially cute maternity pictures. She loved the idea, so I waited impatiently for a few months until her belly was prominent enough. When the chilly, cloudy day finally came for the photoshoot, I took my 5-year-old camera/video-recorder and went out to get some pictures. After that day, I knew for a fact I wanted to be a photographer when I finish high school. I was proud of my work, I had tons of fun, and she even loved it so much she paid me a modest chunk of money to do her newborn pictures!
Aside from broadening of my art skills, and discovering my passion, I also learned a lot about myself, grew and matured, and gained a new perspective.
It turned out, I really needed the time off.
(Although, the universe could've given me a little bit of an easier time off, if you ask me.)
I learned that life is short. Even though I have an "easily" curable cancer, I learned to never take what I have for granted. I learned that I shouldn't let fear and anxiety hold me back from living my best life...I want to travel, try new foods, meet interesting people, but also have occasional bits of time when I'm a little bit of a homebody.
I learned that I'm a caring, loving person, but I also have a feisty Italian temper I need to learn how to better control. I learned that I let my anxiety hold me back way too much, and I need to push and challenge myself in order to not end up 80 years old, with no good stories to tell the youngsters.
I learned that I have a lot of compassion, and that once I get my life together, I want to help improve others' lives when I can.
If you're going through the same thing as I have–or something close–here
are some things that I couldn't have made it through the hard times without.
I know it may seem inappropriate to some, but if you view everything as scary or negative it'll be 100x's harder. Take your time to process, be serious when you need to be, but also learn to loosen up a little bit and be able to make jokes. For example, I can't even tell you how many times I've cracked a joke in the middle of throwing up, or my sister has been like "Yeah, I think that person is concerned now, because I called you egg-head." (But, if you're not the person going through it, always, always make sure the person is comfortable with it, or it won't be funny or helpful anymore.)
Ha! Stay positive...that's such a cliché, annoying thing that people who don't know what I'm going through say. Wrong. I won't lie...when it's day 10 of being in bed all day, you've run out of TV to watch, you're spiking a fever, and dreading the upcoming ER visit, it's really, really hard to stay positive. And when you're in the ER vomiting because of an intolerance to saline it can be even harder. But it's not about constant, non-stop, positivity. You're allowed to have your bad moments. What counts is when you've pulled through, and you wake up the next morning, take your antibiotics, and are able to think:
"I made it. One bad encounter closer to being done."
Or when you're having a bad day, being able to take time to remind yourself of the positives in your life. Staying in a constant zone of "This sucks" and "I'm never gonna be done" is only going to make your journey harder.
I was lucky enough to have the biggest support system ever. My parents, siblings, the people in my community who I didn't even know who pulled together an amazing fundraiser for me, and all of my doctors and nurses who saw me every week and cheered me to the finish line were all part of my journey. If you don't have a support system like mine, seek one out! It'll help you more than you can imagine. Look for a support group, create an Instagram page based around your journey, see if your hospital has any programs (I found my best friend through a hospital program I was originally reluctant to participate in!), or if you're religious, take time to focus on your religion, and put faith in whoever you worship.
It really sucks for your life to be put on halt. Especially if you're in your mid-to-late teens like I am, where everything is just starting to happen. But if you're already stuck in this situation, you might as well make the best of it! Take this time to really find yourself, and your passions. You'll find that you'll discover a lot. You'll get so bored that you'll end up trying new things you've been wanting to, but never had the time to, and end up loving it so much that it may become your future career! Embrace it!
Remember the quote at the beginning? "Find yourself and be that." Thanks to cancer I've found myself. And now that chemotherapy is over, I can work on being that.