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. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Prof. Tournesol

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