Editor's note: MUSC Hollings Cancer Center patient, Boon Project for Young Adults Fighting Cancer ambassador and College of Charleston student Hannah Neimy wrote this reflection in anticipation of National Cancer Survivors Day, which takes place June 4. Tri-County Cancer Survivors is hosting a Charleston event.
A week after my 20th birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma. Nothing says “welcome to your twenties” like a bone marrow biopsy. A literal needle in my bone (cue Beethoven’s 9th symphony). Searching for some sort of inspiration for this article, I explored my photo gallery from the last year. I found it shockingly difficult to look at some of the earlier photos. My face reeks of innocence and fear. In a funny way, cancer stripped me of both of those things. They were replaced with valuable life lessons. I’m thankful for my struggle.
Cancer taught me how to wear bright red lipstick. Confused, are you? How could cosmetics possibly relate to something as terrible as cancer? Well, for starters, it taught me how to be ultra comfortable with myself. It doesn’t matter what people think about you. What matters is how you feel about yourself. My struggle endowed me with confidence. I can do what I want without being riddled with worries. Before cancer, I was really shy. I was afraid to stand out. Now, I focus on being my genuine self instead of the self I think other people want me to be. Beating cancer made my life more vibrant — cosmetically and mentally.
One time, I had a cold for a week. Before cancer, that was the extent of my poor health experiences. You could definitely say I’ve been blessed with a relatively easy life. It was really difficult to adjust to playing the sick role, but it taught me how to appreciate my good moments on a level that I couldn’t have without chemotherapy. I will never take my health for granted. I will never treat my body poorly. I will never forget what it’s like to sleep for a week and still feel impossibly exhausted. I will always remember the hyper-acute awareness of feeling every single thing chemotherapy did to my body. Because of that, I will always do everything in my power to stay healthy. I will forever cling to the good moments, taking great care to implant them in my long-term memory. It’s hard to realize what a blessing good health is if you’ve never had it taken away.
Humor healed me. OK, just kidding. Chemotherapy healed me, but humor helped me get through it. The day of my diagnosis catalyzed the development of my dark sense of humor. I sought comfort via inappropriately timed, depressingly dark jokes that left everyone in the room with an awkward aftertaste. The more my mom would say, “That’s not funny,” the harder I would laugh. In all seriousness, even in your darkest moments, it is possible to find something worth laughing about. Laughter helps build a sense of aggressive positivity, and you need that when you’re fighting something as scary as cancer.
I found writing to be very cathartic, so I documented the entire process via blog. The following is a quote that I stole from myself: “I didn’t begin feeling icky until Thursday night, which was coincidentally Thanksgiving. This may or may not have something to do with the amount of mac 'n cheese I consumed. (If I weigh 99 pounds and ate 1 pound of macaroni, does that make me 1 percent cheese and noodles?)” This was written toward the beginning of my treatment. Unfortunately, I had gotten an infusion two days before Thanksgiving. Terrible timing, right!?
I persisted in my enjoyment of the annual over-eating session. Steroids gave me an incredible motivation to devour any and all carbs that came my way. I planned on eating as green as possible during treatment, but sometimes it’s just important to get anything down. Hunger and nausea can be confusingly similar sensations. Over time, I was able to decipher between the two. I became very in tune with my body. Truly, I learned how to listen to myself like never before.
Finally, cancer taught me to appreciate every single moment. They are fleeting. Enjoy people and the time you get with them. We all live in our own dynamic experiences. Be bold, wear red lipstick, lift others up, be true to yourself and eat mac 'n cheese.
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