I’ve gone through things my friends wouldn’t believe. It’s strange to look back on the horrors from my time fighting cancer—the chemo, the radiation and the painkillers. I didn’t know anyone my age who had cancer—I felt like I was the first to face it. Even though I felt supported by friends and family throughout my treatment, there were still those moments when it was impossible to articulate how I felt. The support could only go so far—they could only sympathize—they couldn’t truly, fully empathize with what happened.
At the end of my freshman year in college, I had this terrible scruff on my face, a by-product of intense studying and attempting to grow a beard. It wasn’t a good look. I shaved it and found this weird lump I didn’t remember on the right side of my neck. At first, I didn’t think it was a big deal, but when my parents saw it, they thought I should get it checked out. I’m glad I did. At first, they tested for mono; I had been very tired, but I thought it could have been the result of finishing my first year of college. After a series of biopsies, they diagnosed it as Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
In college, everyone has a sort of sense of invulnerable youth that sticks around until graduation, when the real world kicks us in the teeth. I got kicked in the teeth much earlier, when I discovered that I’m not as invulnerable as I’d thought. It aged me. I’m an old soul now.
I’m a bit more cautious at times, devoid of that “life without regrets” reckless abandon. There are moments when I think to myself, “It’s really not worth it.” Then, on the other hand, I can feel and act just like my peers, but I don’t have the anxiety about graduating or finding a job that they have. I have a much greater acceptance that things will work themselves out.
It happens in numerous situations. It was really apparent my first year back after cancer. I remember my friends freaking out and going on and on about something that happened during a minor fight. I told them, “I don’t have time for this, I have other work to do. This is so miniscule, I can’t even begin to explain it to you.” They got even madder at me for not caring, and then two or three weeks later, they came back to tell me their fight didn’t matter after all.
I’m not a full-on pessimist about things, but I’ve realized there is always going to be something negative somewhere to deal with. The world can be kind and forgiving or harsh and unyielding, but never perfect. Bad things have touched us all, but we can realize the imperfection and continue to act true to ourselves.
The same is true for the kind of person I became. I’m a contradiction like any human being—in my case, strong-willed yet vulnerable and courageous yet cowardly. Many times during treatment, I had to summon a Hemmingway-esque strength to get through the experiences. I wouldn’t call it courage, though. You’re not really given a choice—either you find a way to fight it or you die.
I never let cancer fully defeat me or break me. On the other hand, there’s a vulnerability that comes with it: the unintended weight loss from the treatments, two visible scars on my chest from the port, and the scar on my neck I can never hide. I’m always self-conscious about it, even though it’s faded somewhat.
I don’t want cancer to be the defining moment in my life or some crowning achievement—as if I peaked at 19 when I beat it. I don’t want that. I want to see cancer as another experience in my life, not as its focal point.
Before cancer, I had struggled with depression. Surprisingly, that helped me deal with the diagnosis because, unlike mental illness, cancer was something they knew how to treat in a straightforward manner. Cancer helped me deal with my depression. I view Hodgkin’s as a turning point because even though there are moments now that look dark, I know when it’s been worse. It absolutely helps to keep life in perspective.
I’m more hopeful. I don’t feel entitled after cancer, but I know I can handle whatever comes next. There’s no sword of Damocles above my head—like the fear of getting diagnosed again. I recognize that it could happen, but I also feel that if I beat it the first time, I can again. I’m healthier now than I was before—I’m running 5Ks, I’m a vegetarian and I’ve changed who I am in ways that I like. I feel more prepared for whatever comes next.
Ian is a three-year survivor.