I’m in a hospital bed in the photograph. Tubes sprout from my chest, weaving towards machines just out of frame. My skin is almost translucent, contrasting with the warm pink of my favorite hat. Wisps of my remaining hair peek out from underneath, the curled insignia of childhood cancer on the brim. I’m smiling at the camera, my grin crooked and gap-toothed, not yet straightened by years of braces. I know that it’s me in the picture, but I feel different. I have the same slope to my nose, the same blue eyes, the same ears (one sticking out slightly further than the other). I know that it’s me.
Why can’t I recognize myself?
The worst memories ache with phantom pain. I remember the sores lining my throat, reopening when the medications caused my stomach to upheave, over and over until all that came up was bile and blood. I remember the ache of bone marrow samples, six-inch needles piercing my spine. I remember the helplessness of slipping on the cold tile floor, pinning myself beneath the wheels of the medical pole hooked to my chest. I remember the day of my diagnosis, eight years old, asking my mom if I was going to die. My voice wavered. I barely understood the concept. Tears streamed down her face. “We’re going to do everything we can.” She told me. It was the only answer she could give.
Eventually, the happier memories come back too. I remember asking nurses to sneak me heated blankets while my mom showered, cackling when she would find me within my cocoon. I remember dancing with a younger girl who had the same illness as I did. Her disco ball sent colorful lights beaming across the blank rooms. I remember making splatter art with the kids from my ward, filling syringes with paint. I remember pulling my little brother into my lap when he visited, using the buttons only nurses could touch to raise the bed as high as possible, just to make him laugh.
People often tell me to look for the good that came out of my experience. I resent this. I have struggled through the aftermath of my treatment for nine years. Remission means that the cancer is gone, but the damage it caused never leaves. I found joyful moments during treatment, but the more I realized how deeply the chemotherapy affected me, the more bitter I became. I lost a year to hospitals and gurneys; I developed a neurological disorder and a heart condition. Cancer stripped me of a part of my childhood, and who knows how much of my future. The concept of anything good emerging from that seemed incomprehensible. It took years for me to realize that it was okay to be upset. There’s no proper way to mourn the loss of the life I could have had. Processing that grief was my way of coming to terms with my experience, not scouring my pain for a silver lining.
Now, I use my life to help others. I work with organizations including the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth, the American Cancer Society, and the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (a summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses), where I use my story to raise money and awareness for kids like me. I’m also in a study of children who underwent chemotherapy in the hopes that doctors can use my data to improve cancer treatments of the future. I am using my experience to enact good. I want to do so much more.
Cancer changed me. I may not be the person my younger self thought I would be today, but that’s okay. I know that I am worthy of the life that she fought to give me. One day, I hope to earn the ability to look back at her and recognize myself. I think I’m finally getting there.