When You’re Diagnosed With Cancer At 23

Young woman in checkered shirt sitting on a picnic blanket at the sand beach in Charleston
Cody Black / Unsplash

Making the most of senior year of college; bar-hopping around town, drinking too much, living out your inner Sex and the City character (personally I’m a Carrie, but to each their own), chasing around your own charming Mr. Big… that was my life. I was young, vibrant, adventurous, and living my best life. Running my own world in five-inch heels and last season’s Free People treasures from the sales rack. I was tenacious about finding the perfect job and a tiny bit obsessed with setting myself up for success. But all of the magazine clipping vision boards I made with my best friends over bottles of wine couldn’t prepare me for what was to come. There was no way I could have known the ways in which the life I had made for myself was about to come crumbling around me.

In the weeks leading up to receiving my diploma and interviewing for some of my dream jobs, I was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As an active and healthy 23-year-old woman this was a total shock. How could this happen to me? I had just had a physical a month prior, and nothing had been wrong. I had even had blood work done and this cancer had gone undetected. I had never heard of Hodgkin’s, and I had no idea that blood cancer was even a thing. Having flown back home to Virginia for my doctors’ appointments and testing, I wasn’t even sure that I would be able to walk at my own graduation a week later. Thankfully however, my doctors were able to clear the trip back to Nashville, TN where I had gone to college. After my graduation weekend, leaving my city, my boyfriend and my friends to return to Virginia for six months of chemotherapy treatment was one of the hardest things I have had to do. But it was also just temporary. It was just a reminder of everything I have left waiting for me back in Nashville. Not only was this a weekend of celebrating my graduation, but it was also a celebration of the life that I had made before being diagnosed with cancer.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most common cancers among young people and is one of the most curable, with survival rates in the 80-90% range. This doesn’t make this particular type of cancer or its treatment any easier though. My treatment plan is 12 cycles, 6 rounds of ABVD (four different chemotherapy drugs). This means that I now go to the cancer center at my hospital twice a month for six months. I have already had three cycles (1 ½ rounds), with my fourth coming up in two weeks.

Receiving the chemo itself is totally painless. I have a port in my chest through which the chemo is administered, and the whole process takes about four hours. What is tough about these treatments are the side effects that come along with the ABVD chemo drugs. The side effects I’ve experienced so far are mouth sores, chronic fatigue, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. I have five more months of these treatments left. While I know that this treatment has cumulative effects and I will likely physically feel worse later on, I also know that I am strong enough to fight this. I know what I am capable of. After all, I am the girl who dreamed up a fabulous life for herself and created it. I am young, vibrant, adventurous. I am a Carrie, damnit.

Cancer is not something you fight alone. Going into this, I had no idea how many people truly supported me. Of course, I knew that I had my family and close friends and boyfriend’s love and support, but it’s really touching how many people have called or written to let me know they love me. When you go through something so traumatic and life-threatening, this is everything.

Coping with this type of thing for me was total, uncharted territory. I’ve experienced loss before, but when it’s your own life that you’re losing and fighting for it’s something else entirely. It really makes you think about what is important. It makes you kind of re-evaluate your values as well as what you really want out of life. It makes you realize the true fragility of life. It’s also amazing how something as life-altering as being diagnosed with cancer can provide a great amount of perspective and clarity to one’s life.

The last month of my life has been a total whirlwind of emotions from devastation to denial, from hope and strength, to solace and acceptance – the list goes on. I feel like I’m in the fast lane to adulthood, and as I’m driving it’s as if everything that never really mattered is being tossed out the window. The social events, the parties, the luxuries I had previously always taken for granted; the things that decorated my life that previously I had deemed important. These last fast-paced month has conditioned me to feel prepared for this journey. From moving out of my apartment in Nashville to getting settled in my house in Virginia, to finishing testing and getting diagnosed and set up with a care team and care plan, to finding invaluable cancer resources – I’ve been surprised to come out of all of this feeling little stress and great clarity.

I see the road that I have ahead of me, I know who is walking beside me, I see the personal growth that I want to make, and I know the mental and physical healing I have to do. There are nights when I feel overwhelmed and breakdown because I know it’s going to be the longest and hardest thing I’ve ever done, but even still there is an overwhelming sense that things are going to be okay. I can’t explain why or how I feel this way, this type of calm and peacefulness, but I am grateful that I do. I am using this calm and peacefulness to look at these next five months as an opportunity to just simply B E and to learn and grow and fall even more in love with life and myself and my dreams and goals in this life. I have the most amazing family and friends supporting me and uplifting me, and this feels like the fight of a lifetime for the best and most fulfilling life possible. And that honestly feels like a gift.

What do the next six months look like for me? I will go through 12 cycles, 6 rounds of chemotherapy. This means I will have my chemo treatments twice a month for six months. What are some things that I’m working on right now?

– practicing conscious mindfulness and meditation

– practicing gratitude and compassion

– slowing way down, letting go, letting be TC mark

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