Just after finding out about the cancer, I felt numb. I paced back and forth as my mom paid for the parking in the Dana Farber garage. When I got into the car, I broke down in tears, managing to mumble to my mom… “I’m sorry.” I know I didn’t need to apologize for what we were just told, and I definitely know that the tumor is not my fault, but I couldn’t help it. After having gone through this as a kid and the years of recovery, I know how much of a toll this experience can have not just on me, but particularly family and friends. In my previous reflections, I have said many times (…and continue to believe), that I would not be here today if it was not for the support of my family, friends, teachers, doctors, nurses, and at times complete strangers. So many people gave so much for me to have lived these past 10 amazing years, but not without cost (…whether it was financial, emotional, time, or energy). Last year when I had reached my 10 year mark being cancer free, I felt like I was finally at the point where I could start giving back to others, so that all of the help I have received along the way could translate to benefits beyond my own life.
…So I cried, because one of the hardest parts of finding out that the tumor had returned was the fact that I had to once again be on the receiving side, and call upon the support of others. My mom, of course being the amazing person she is, told me to never apologize for this, and that she will be here with me throughout every step of the way. I have never questioned once the unwavering support I am so privileged to have from my family and friends. However, I still found it difficult to open up to this support. When I first told my family about the tumor regrowth, I made it a point to tell them that despite this new challenge I had to face, I did not want them to change their lives because of this. I did not want them to have to give up so much for me again, so I closed myself off thinking I could protect those around me from what was going on.
I was asking my family to do the impossible, to continue on like everything was normal. I limited how much I would open up to others in an effort to make this idealist fantasy a reality, but in actuality it made things worse. I felt more isolated because I was apprehensive to share everything I was thinking, and my family was hurting not knowing how to help me. I wanted to protect my family from the sadness of the cancer, but doing so made them more sad. I was unintentionally pushing them away as they relentlessly and graciously continued to push back to support me.
During the times I was feeling depressed and helpless, we could all see that my effort to protect those around me was fruitless. My family, each at different times (…and in their own way), told me to stop. They told me to let them in…that it was not my place to protect them, and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. They were right. Cancer is sad…There is no way around the sadness everyone feels at some point when impacted by cancer. What makes this sadness manageable is leaning on others for support. My family told me they were going to be sad no matter what, but if I continued to push them away, it would make things even worse.
So I opened up, and it felt great. Yes there were tears, but there was also laughter. As I continued to open up I felt closer and closer to my family, and the emotional weight on my shoulders lightened (…and I think it got better for my family as well). When faced with problems, we all at times tend to close off to protect those around us, but it often hurts more than it helps. Accepting that things are going to suck regardless of what we do, and understanding that it will be better to work through those problems together, really does make going through challenges (…no matter how big or how small) that much easier.
Opening up can be difficult though because it means having to make yourself vulnerable. Vulnerability is scary, but it can also be so rewarding. In my life, regardless of the situation (whether it be my physical and learning disabilities, identity, parent’s divorce, or cancer), when I have decided to take the leap and make myself vulnerable, I have more often than not felt a huge sense of relief. When I decided to start this blog, I made a conscious decision to make myself vulnerable to you all. At first it was terrifying, but I have been truly blessed with all of the support I have received.
Recently making the shift to talking openly with my family (…and within these posts) has made me feel so uplifted. In the past two weeks I have reconnected with old friends, spent more time with my family, and met people who have or are going through similar experiences. Since I don’t worry as much about protecting others around me from my cancer, I have more energy and eagerness to go out and see people. This has been one of the best “cures” to my emotional stress. When I am out with friends or family, I get some moments of bliss where it feels like nothing has changed. Since I have already made myself vulnerable, it is easy to move past the medical updates, and just enjoy each other’s company.
There are still times when I feel down, and will start to close off, but when that happens my family pushes me to open up. They have been frank with me that whenever I start to isolate myself, they will try to push me. In turn I have told them that at times I will need that pushing. While I may get irritated, they know that this frustration is never personal, but it is just a matter of circumstance. So far this “agreement” has worked because we all understand that being vulnerable with each other will only make us closer, and is the only way we will get through this together.
Despite how much I open up, there are thoughts and feelings that my family and friends may not be able to understand or relate to, so I have searched for additional avenues of support. I have joined a support group for young adults with cancer, and started talking with someone who specializes in young adult cancer. It is nice to have these platforms, but it has been interesting, and at times difficult, to realize that there is no single solution that can offer the help I am searching for. Instead, they each have their own niche in what I find useful in overcoming the emotional burdens of this journey.
All of these avenues (including my family, friends, support groups, therapists, etc.), each in their own way provide the support I need to get through this. The support I have received by making myself vulnerable to all of these avenues has not only made my current situation a lot better, but gives me the comfort of knowing I can push through whatever future obstacles might come my way. I have also found that opening up to support has not only been beneficial for me, but has provided opportunities for me to help others.
Things are going to get worse before they get better, but knowing I have such a strong support group behind me gives me the hope and strength to push forward. That is why as the new year approaches, my resolution to myself, my family, and to you all, is to continue to be vulnerable, to continue to open up to support, so that I can beat this cancer, and eventually in some small way have the opportunity to give back to others.
I wish everyone a healthy and happy new year.
(This post is dedicated to my close friend who is beginning her journey and battle with melanoma. I wish her all the health and happiness for the future, and want her to know that she will always have my shoulder to lean on)