12 Lessons I Learned As A 21-Year-Old Cancer Patient (Or, Advice The Doctor Doesn’t Give You)

Richard P J Lambert
Richard P J Lambert

I was diagnosed with stage two cancer when I was 21-years-old. It was the summer before my senior year of college. I was interning at two prestigious television shows in New York City. I was supposed to be having the summer of my life, spending all my time in Central Park or in the studio, not in the hospital.

I quickly realized that doctors only tell you so much. They tell you what medications to take. They tell you how big the scar will be. They don’t tell you that your alcohol tolerance will go down and your hangover will last three days. They don’t tell you that explaining to people what is happening is the most draining part. They don’t tell you that your peers won’t understand.

But now, hopefully just days away from hearing that mythical word (remission), I feel that I have taken on cancer and kicked it’s ass, not necessarily physically, but mentally. The following lessons are the ones I learned along my way. They are my own. They work for me. And keep in mind, #11 is the trump rule.

1. Talk to people in the hospital waiting room.

Trust me; they will make you feel better. On my first day of radiation, a middle aged woman – picture Mrs. Weasley – started talking to me. She simply said, “What kind do you have?” I explained that I had a rare type of sarcoma in my right wrist. Then, unprovoked, she went into full detail about her rectal cancer, her extensive surgery, and the discomfort it was causing her. Yes, rectal cancer. (No one should be ashamed of their type of cancer, but no one should share such intimate facts about their anus before even sharing their first name.) Suddenly, having cancer in my dominant hand didn’t seem so bad.

2. Accept all the help you can get, even if you don’t need it.

You will need it in the long run, believe me. People are less likely to offer you help after you’ve turned them down, so accept everything you can get from the start, even if it’s walking your dog or mailing your bills. That way, in two months when you can’t get out of bed due to treatment-induced fatigue, someone will be there to walk your dog and mail your bills.

3. Make. Stuff. Up.

When people asked me what happened to my arm, I used it as an invitation to get creative. I convinced one college educated young man that I was caught in a Colorado forest fire and had to ride a wild deer to safety. I persuaded another guy that I had a nasty altercation with a huge jellyfish off the coast of Cape Cod. After my upcoming surgery, I will undoubtedly be telling people about my llama bite…

The fact of the matter is, nothing is as bad as saying, “Cancer. Cancer is what happened to my arm. Cancer is why I look like this.” Anything and everything you make up will be better than saying that word. So if a stranger on the street says, “Oh my God! Why did you lose all of your hair?” Smile and respond by saying, “Bad batch of false eyelash glue.” It’s for their sake just as much as it’s for your entertainment.

4. If you are going through radiation: lotion.

Lotion is ALWAYS the answer. Lotion, lotion, lotion, lotion, lotion.

5. Use cancer to your advantage.

Listen, don’t feel guilty about it. You were dealt a crappy hand, so you have to make the most of it. Take a spontaneous long weekend, skip the line at Six Flags, and accept the best seat on the train. It’s part of your identity now, so learn to love it by using it to your advantage. When you spend half of your time at the hospital, you have to make the other half count. Don’t feel bad about that.

6. On that note, appreciate the little things that come with cancer.

There are very few benefits, but there are indeed benefits. When your roommate gets a burn or your neighbor gets a cut, whip out your giant first aid kit. Give them a dab of prescription burn lotion, and provide them with state of the art, hospital quality bandages. Share the few benefits that you have. (But don’t share your pain medication. That’s illegal. Also you need it.)

7. Everything changes.

You change. But that’s beautiful because you learn new things about the world and about yourself every single day. You grow.

8. Let things go.

Let responsibilities go. Let people go. Even if you look perfect on the outside, your body is battling something huge right now, and that has to be your number one priority. Skip class for MRIs. Skip work for blood work. That’s okay. Know that some friends are for shoe shopping and other friends are for talking about life. It’s appropriate to re-categorize them, and cut the crappy ones out. Know that your priorities will shift drastically, and your true friends will surprise you.

9. Don’t let go of your family.

They will not let go of you. Call your mom and dad, because no matter how old you are, they can make you feel better.

10. Find one friend that will always respond, “That sucks.”

This is crucial to cancer treatment. A lot of people will mistake your treatment updates or your venting as asking for advice. But the last thing you need to hear is, “At least it’s not…” or “My cousin had cancer and…” Sometimes, all you need to hear is, “That sucks.” Make sure you have that friend on speed dial.

11. Know that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do cancer.

Every single case is different. Every single person is different. If you have to move in with your parents, enjoy the free food. If you cry all day or you quit your job or you spontaneously fly to Tahiti…just do what makes you feel good. That’s what’s right. This is the rule that trumps all others.

12. Laugh.

Laugh about the time the sexy nurse witnessed you struggling to put on your skinny jeans. Laugh about the time your tumor got lost in the mail en route to the next doctor. Laugh every single time your doctor checks your motor function and you feel like you’re sassily voguing. Laughter is the best medicine, my friend. Maybe radiation or chemo or surgery is the best treatment for malignancies, but laughter is the best medicine for the soul. If you can remember that, you will kick cancer’s ass no matter how the next PET scan comes out.

P.S. As a young person with cancer, you are suddenly faced with the reality that you may not live to 30 or 40 or 50. That, if you once thought you would live until 80, that means this disease has 60 years to make a comeback. You may lose your fertility, you may lose feeling in a limb. You may lose a limb entirely. So I didn’t put “Live every day like it’s your last,” on this list because, if you are a young person with cancer, you already know that. TC mark

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