As we go through life we get labeled by everyone we meet, it’s done out of love, hate, or ignorance. Even nature sometimes labels us abnormal. We can choose to play into those labels or we can prove them wrong. I choose to label myself.
On August 15, 2015 the doctor came with my results. He took my parents out of the room; I saw them standing in the empty hallway scared. It wasn’t until days later when the counselors came to see me that I understood what was happening. I had cancer. The official diagnosis was Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, also known as ALL.
When I realized my bone marrow was producing abnormal cells, cancer. I didn’t know how to feel. I was sitting in a hospital bed numb. My brain was stuck in permanent pause. I had never experienced something like this, so I wasn’t sure how to feel or what to expect.
The bone marrow tests, the spinal fluid test and the daily blood tests were conclusive. My bone marrow was producing cancer cells. I was cancer, death.
I was annoyed with people who were trying to help because all they seemed to do was upset me. Their job was to convince me I had cancer. Cancer was my reality, my label and would eventually kill me. They came into my room equipped with survival rates, statistics, chemo and professionals in creating diagnosis and labels. The hospital even invited a professional counselor into my room to help apply the new label. I just became angry; angry hearing them pity me while they gave me these disingenuous smiles. The counselors stopped coming to my room as I rejected my new reality and ignored the label. I tried my best to understand the new label but I also understood if I accepted the label I must accept death. I couldn’t go back to when things were “normal.” As much as I hated the nausea, the daily and constant needles and the fake smiles, I had to endure. I tried to make things more tolerable so I brought pieces of home with me: my pillows, toys, pictures, and even food.
Now I was transformed into the young adult with cancer, in the Phoenix Children’s Hospital 7th floor for cancer patients, with doctors that specialize in treating cancer, and the official diagnosis of cancer. Prognosis unknown. The “cancer” label is highly unpredictable, with miracle cures, god hiding in the hospital chapel, and with certain death.
From 2012 to 2015, in 3 years I was hospitalized 60 times. I didn’t mind it at the beginning, but the rose-colored glasses came off and I started to see things for what they were. I was taking over 10 different medications. The protocol dictates for 3 years of chemotherapy. Each medication was designed to kill cancer and all cells in my body. The chemo was designed to convince every cell in my body and my mind, death is inevitable. The food in the hospital started tasting like shit. My hair fell off and food lost its taste. The chemo was working, everything was slowly dying. The chemo attacked everyone around me, everything, everyone, even hope. The privacy I so desperately wanted was never attainable: permanently attached to a bag of chemo, my mother, several nurses during the day and night, and a constant noise by machine monitoring the medication. Every 20 minutes a nurse or doctor was taking my blood pressure. Constantly asking me “how do you feel?” And I wanted to answer and I wanted to scream —— I have cancer, how do you think I feel? But I was not convinced. I stayed quiet.
Just like my medication, the hospital life had side effects. My comforts from home weren’t enough anymore. I was bored, angry, confused, and dying. I was officially labeled a cancer patient. I was a skeleton covered by a thin pale layer of skin. They had a room there for the “cancer patients” to socialize with other immunocompromised patients, but I was always a shy and awkward child and socializing was just another tool designed to accept “cancer”. Instead I watched Gilmore Girls on repeat. It’s the story of a girl around my age enjoying life, doing things I couldn’t, and having experiences I hoped to have someday. Television and puzzles became a way to protect my mind.
During doctor’s visits, they always asked me questions, and I always had an easy time answering. I learned all my medications, allergies, the port size, and side effects. Somehow knowing my medications and allergic reactions made me feel in control of my own horrible situation.
Three years later I was finally done with my treatment. I would not accept the label, maybe they got tired, or maybe they finally understood I was not going to die. They gave me a new label, remission. I never wanted to hear that word, the death label “cancer” again. After three years of carrying the cancer label I was still alive and the hospital enrolled me in the “cancer” survivor’s clinic. Apparently the “ cancer” trip never ends and remission is just a pause.
At first I was scared of the word “cancer” because it painfully consumed my life. The “cancer” went from being something I did not understand to something defining every aspect of my life. For years, to everyone I was “ the girl with cancer.” A year ago I came to the realization that the “cancer” label had taken enough of my life. I finally understood that the all-consuming word “cancer” is synonymous with death. I didn’t want that word to define me. I realized, by being afraid of it I was letting it do exactly that. This label feeds on fear and death. As time passed I stopped believing I was “ the girl with cancer.” My mind moved from “the girl with cancer” to “the girl that defeated cancer.”
While I was being injected with chemo for 3 years I remained unconvinced. Cancer visited me with all its friends and allies; doctors, nurses, counselors, chemotherapy designed to kill every cell in my body, cause excruciating pain and failed. My mind rejected the label and its meaning.
Between chem and pain I was still doing my homework, reading and planning my life. Now I hold memberships in three honors societies: the National English Honors society, the National Foreign Language Honors Society, and the National Society of High School Scholars. I used the “cancer” label to motivate myself to be the best, be stronger. I want my life back.
Even though the “cancer” label took my hair, my health, a normal teenager life and inflicted horrible pain on my body for over 3 years of my life it never convinced me. Cancer promised to kill me everyday for 3 years and it failed. I was relentless and determined to move forward.
Ultimately the only label that matters is the one we give ourselves. Maybe I was lucky. Regardless of luck, everyday is an opportunity to define ourselves and our reality. Even something like cancer can be a wakeup call or a death. It’s a choice.