I 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.
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.
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.