A Letter To 15-Year-Old Me, Post-Cancer Diagnosis

The doctor is about to come back to the room. No, of course it’s not good news, you should know this by now. Yes, it’s cancer. I’m sorry, but I know that doesn’t matter. You’re fifteen, it’s 2 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, and nothing really matters. Instead of algebra homework and MSN conversations, you’ve spent the night going through blood tests and x-rays, with no idea why everyone’s being so dramatic about a little fatigue and a high fever. I’m so sorry.

I want you to know, you’re going to ask questions. Because you’re smart and you’ve never felt so stupid. Because cancer sucks, but aside from that, you don’t know the first thing about it. But you know something’s wrong.

I want you to know, your mind will wander. Let it. You’re about to move into a hospital with four stark white walls, a bed, a TV set straight out of the ‘90s, and a slew of machines and monitors that will hum and beep endlessly through the night. You’re going to wonder “why you?” and then you’ll see the 7-year-old boy in the room next to you, with a brazenly bald head and a smile you can’t even fathom and you’ll wonder, “why him?” You’ll watch him toy with G.I. Joe action figures and wake up early to catch all the Saturday morning cartoons and you’ll wonder why. You’ll understand what he doesn’t: you know something’s wrong. And then you’ll feel envy, in that you wish you didn’t understand, in that you wish this had happened eight years back.

But there’s something you should know: you don’t understand. And you don’t need to. There is no God, I know. But there are doctors. There are nurses. There’s your family, and your friends, and your school. And there’s a small shot in hell you might actually pull through this thing.

And then you’ll have a change of heart. At some point, pity will seem pointless. You’ve had enough of sorrow in visitors’ faces, of Edible Arrangements and helium balloons. When that elementary school catches wind of your story and sends you one hundred hand-written letters of overwhelming support and sympathy, don’t feel guilty for resenting them. You’ll cherish them in time, and when you’re older, you’ll cherish them still. Maria, I hope you’re still pursuing fashion. Brad, I hope you make the NHL. And Taylor, Merry Christmas to you too.

Life is confusing. We both know this, but what you don’t know yet is that it’s perfectly okay. Because life will always be confusing. After all, it’s not about searching for answers; it’s about searching for questions. And you’re not alone. Find comfort in that.

In the face of adversity, face change. You’ll think about reinventing yourself. Consider a tattoo, perhaps on your middle finger, the word “cancer.” You’ll think about your future, and tell yourself you’re never having kids. “They’re annoying,” you’ll tell people, when in your heart of hearts you’ll know you could never watch a child, your child no less, go through this hell. Besides, they are really annoying. You’ll scoff at the office jobs you promise yourself never to get lost in: a world of 9 to 5 routines, of suits and schedules you never want to partake in. You’ll find something you love, someone you love. You’ll take trips to the Mexican Riviera in the middle of October, because you can. You’ll wake up in beds you don’t remember falling asleep in, and you’ll cook Thanksgiving dinner with your best friend instead of your relatives. You hear that? That’s “responsibility” calling, and you’re running from it. Go. Run fast, and run far. In those moments when you feel alone, when you feel like nobody, feel like anybody you want to.

See the light. There is one, trust me, and you’ll see it. Not right away, but eventually. After months of chemotherapy, of high-fevers and antibiotics, of daily blood tests and constant monitoring, there will be a light. And it will power you forward. All of a sudden, it won’t be a “maybe” anymore, but a “yes.” Yes, you did it. You’re winning all the battles, and soon, you’ll win the war. And then you’ll come to a crossroad, as hard as that is to believe. You’re proud, and justifiably so. Feel that pride, and then feel pain. Feel an unnerving sense of pain that, once again, you can’t understand. Feel worry, feel scared, and feel uncertain all over again.

All of a sudden, the light’s approaching too fast, and you’re not ready. You’re not ready for the real world. You’ve found a bizarre sense of comfort in the bubble of the hospital. Your mother never left your side, for eight months she slept on an air mattress in the corner of your hospital room and stood by you through the darkest of darks. The doctors never left your side; the nurses were always there.

Resent the light. Wish it wasn’t coming. Wish there was another cycle of chemotherapy, another infection, another recovery. Wish there was another season of America’s Next Top Model to watch with your favorite nurse. Sure, she’s twenty-six and married, but that’s what has become your notion of a friend right now, and friendship is something you’re in no place to lose. But that’s okay. Realize, understand, acknowledge that when you felt like you lost your life, you didn’t at all. You gained life, and once again you’re afraid of losing it all.

Don’t let it go. You don’t have to, and you won’t. What you’ve yet to realize is that even when they unplug your IV, when they take your name off the door to room #9 on the north wing of the fourth floor of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, when the doctor finally says, “Go home. You’re done, it’s done, we’re done,” that she’s lying. It’s never done. You may not have cancer anymore, but you’re still a cancer patient. Realize you never made it to the light, no matter how bright it became. Realize that whenever you want, wherever you want, you’re whoever you want to be, with or without a cancer diagnosis. Never let that go. TC mark

image – Prof. Tournesol

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  • Iamsoy

    Incredible.

  • livmusic

    This is so so so so so so SO good.

  • lili

    amazing

  • Angela

    Wow. It’s like you read my mind. I just finished all my therapies 3 months ago and I do feel that way (resenting the light and all that jazz) because you’ve become so comfortable in that little cocoon. 

    • Sean Leslie

      Thanks for the support and congratulations on winning your battle! :)

  • Timothylamore

    Absolutely amazing.

  • https://twitter.com/iamthepuddles Jordana Bevan

    “You’ll think about your future, and tell yourself you’re never having kids. “They’re annoying,” you’ll tell people, when in your heart of hearts you’ll know you could never watch a child, your child no less, go through this hell. Besides, they are really annoying. You’ll scoff at the office jobs you promise yourself never to get lost in: a world of 9 to 5 routines, of suits and schedules you never want to partake in. You’ll find something you love, someone you love.”

    Heart-breaking. Beautiful. Wonderfully articulated; wonderfully emotional. Incredible ability to procure certain thoughts (especially regarding the above quote) without explicitly leading the reader (or just me) to them. Excellent, excellent, excellent

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrenostacks Andrew Bacque

    holy shit sean you write so good!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • http://twitter.com/seanjleslie sean leslie

      Don’t act so surprised ;)

  • dinik

    this is simply beautiful.

  • Jess

    Wow that was an incredible read.

  • hola

    thank you. I just started crying in the library. 

  • http://twitter.com/Jeweledelephant Sharron

    Best I have read here for ages, absolutely amazing. Thank you for writing it

    • http://twitter.com/seanjleslie sean leslie

      I definitely don’t know about that, but thank you and thank you for reading it. I appreciate the kind words and the support.

  • Jennifer

    I know that floor, that wing pretty well. I know the rest of the hospital even better. I never had cancer, but I know almost exactly how you feel.

  • Rose__green

    did you get the tattoo in the end?
    thank you for writing this, i’m really glad i read it.

  • Anonymous

    First TC that’s ever actually made me cry. Amazing.

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  • Valerie

    Wow

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=657768668 Frederick Jonathan Crowley

    This hits pretty close to home on a number of levels. I was 19 when I was diagnosed with cancer (the first time I had it). Thanks for being a better writing than I and sharing this with the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aminis Sanam Amini

    This…seriously made me cry. 

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  • Adam Banks

    Leacocks to Thought Catalog. Good job sir.

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  • zee

    “…that she’s lying. It’s never done. You may not have cancer anymore, but you’re still a cancer patient. Realize you never made it to the light, no matter how bright it became.”  
    are you saying that once you’re a cancer patient you can never be cured. completely? even when the doctor said so? they just said that to make the patient(and the family)happy?
    im trying to understand what you’re trying to say. it’s been hard for me. it really is. your post seems to give me a little light until i read the last paragraph.. 

    • http://twitter.com/seanjleslie sean leslie

      I’m fortunate to have been cured of the disease, but the journey I took to get there is an experience I carry with me still, that I’ve moved on from, but not away from. It’s the mentality, not the physicality, of being a cancer patient that’s still with me, and gladly so.

      • zee

        its good to hear you’ve won the battle. thank you for your words and enlightenment. it means a lot to me..

      • Jake Silberg

        Sean, I was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma at the age of 14. Last month, I was declared 4 years cancer-free. This article has perfectly captured so many emotions that have guided me since my diagnosis, especially the process from self-pity to eternal hope. A cancer diagnosis is a pretty remarkable thing to a young person. How can anything else ever seem difficult afterwards? The rest of your life becomes a gift, time you are lucky to have and that you should use to help others just because you can. 

        That mindset has helped me so many times whenever I feel lost, down, or confused. As you say, returning to the real world can be difficult, but remembering the strength that got you there can always be a source of comfort. Cancer survivors have an unusual, incredible view of the world around them, and I’m so thankful that you shared it so eloquently.

      • Mikkalette

        Congratulations <3

      • http://twitter.com/seanjleslie sean leslie

        When I write something like this, I write it for myself above and beyond anything else, so the simple fact that you have found something of value in it as well means the world to me. Thank you, and more importantly, congratulations.

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