Daniel Bral: Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Daniel Bral 3I was 11 years old when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was misdiagnosed about six or seven times over a period of two months. At first, the doctors thought it was the flu or pediatric onset asthma. By the time they finally confirmed I had cancer, time was ticking. A metastasized tumor was compressing my windpipe, leaving only two millimeters of air space. Had they not diagnosed it right when they did, I would have suffocated and died.

Even though my chances of survival were good, I had to go through two years of chemotherapy non-stop from ages 11 to 14. I kept up academically in 7th and 8th grade, but when the chemo stopped, I was still dealing with cancer. I had a lot of repercussions to deal with.

Middle school was a time for mental, emotional and social growth—and I missed out on all of it. It was very, very difficult for me to try and fit in. I didn’t really have any friends who were my own age. I bottled up a lot of feelings from going through the cancer experience. I developed these defense mechanisms that shielded me from dealing with the normal emotions and stresses of daily life. I never was very self-aware because I learned to constantly suppress my emotions until I became severely depressed or had nervous breakdowns.

I stopped showing pain because it made my parents uncomfortable. Talking to psychologists wasn’t helpful either because they didn’t understand the cancer experience; I had to teach them what it meant to be an adolescent with cancer.

Eventually I found one psychologist who helped me discover better coping strategies, using natural and normal ways to handle the stress I was dealing with. I stood at the threshold of death. I remember telling her that I felt like I was robbed of my childhood. I became an adult at the age of 11. It’s funny, but also not.

XMVEdGT 2But you know what? As much as having cancer sucked, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It has made my life so much richer, so much fuller and so much more meaningful.

College became my savior. I made friends with people older than me and that didn’t feel weird like it did in high school when I was friends with my parents’ friends.

I also had a huge breakthrough. When I got to college, I could barely keep up with the reading and understanding all of the material. All that stress caused my depression to resurface. I sought out psychological help and got referred to some psychiatrist who put me on anti-depressants. I hated being on pills again. I had this association with anti-depressants and chemotherapy that I needed them to feel normal and live my life. And so I cut them out cold turkey.

Nothing bad happened, thank God. I needed to cure myself and I couldn’t rely on those pills. I never took them again.

From that moment, I lived life for me. I embraced who I was and I didn’t care what other people thought. I needed to do what was right for me and what would keep me healthy.

That’s not to say I don’t still have my challenges with depression, but I’m able to pick myself up and move on, which feels normal to me. I feel I’ve overcome it.

I’m a crazy med student right now, but I’m very happy. Life definitely has its sucky moments and I have test after test after test. The cliché answer of “I went through cancer, so a lot of things are easier” is not true at all.

Daniel Bral 2Cancer was cancer and it was difficult. But med school’s still hard, it’s stressful, and I’m human! I’m allowed to have emotions, but I try not to let them get the best of me.

My priorities have definitely shifted. School is still very important, but I realize that there are sometimes more important things and that school has to be put aside. A lot of times my professors will say, “You have to study.” And I tell them that being a good doctor is learning how to balance a bunch of different things like understanding when someone needs to talk and a listening ear.

I’ll put aside my studies when a friend needs to talk. Or for someone who gets newly diagnosed because I have the ability to help with the right words at the right moment for a person in need. Nobody’s really going to care if you got a 97 on your neuropsychology exam, but they will remember how you helped them or made the world a better place.

Cancer shaped the journey that brought me to med school. Before cancer, I wanted to become a doctor, but after it, I had no other choice than to become a doctor. There were so many times I thought about veering down another path, but I always came back to medicine.

I’m on bonus time. I’m living my life to the best of my abilities and to the fullest I can.

Daniel is a 15-year survivor.

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