When I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 2 ½ years old, I never imagined it would ever come back. For leukemia survivors, your risk of relapse decreases significantly as years go by, all the way down to a less than 5% chance of relapse by ten years after your initial diagnosis. When that seemingly impossible occurrence became a reality for me, I was just about to turn 13. I could not believe it. Now that I have been through a cancer relapse, I feel that there is no number of years that will guarantee me safe from cancer.
That is precisely why I made a conscious decision at the end of my relapse treatment to live my best life in spite of the fact there was no guarantee my life would be the long and healthy one I hoped for. This may sound like an impossible mindset and intangible task, but I can tell you that I believe it is possible because I have seen it work in my own life.
When I finished my relapse treatment, I was really struggling to shake the fear and uncertainty that come with the shadow of cancer – that shadow that follows us all after we finish treatment. But, just as I did during my treatment, I decided that the only way out of that fear and uncertainty was to set goals for myself and live goal by goal. I would work as hard as I could to achieve the goals I have for myself in whatever amount of time I may have. Since completing my relapse treatment, this goal-focused strategy has made my life so fulfilling, so happy, and so much more incredible than I could have ever imagined.
More importantly, I live each day with no fear or uncertainty. The lack of guarantee no longer scares me because I know I have at least accomplished some of my biggest dreams and greatest goals.
When I finished my treatment, in my sophomore year of high school, I set a goal to write a book about my experience in order to help other teens and young adults going through cancer treatment. I wrote that book and published it. In my junior year of high school, I set a goal to get into a top-notch university and become a doctor or psychologist, so I could help teens and young adults with cancer as a professional. I am now a month away from graduating from my dream school, Duke University, and will go on to spend the next 2 years at the University of Miami, as a research assistant in a child health psychology lab, where I will assist with research related to understanding and improving quality of life outcomes of children with chronic illness. I hope to get a PhD in pediatric health psychology after that.
In my senior year of high school, I dreamt of a college experience filled with friendships, fun, and incredible learning experiences. Since coming to Duke, I have become a member of an incredible sorority filled with women I am so grateful to call my best friends. I have gone on dates, had my first kiss, had a boyfriend, and danced the night away countless times with my girlfriends. I have also studied abroad and traveled to many amazing places both inside and outside of the United States. And I have met leaders in the field of pediatric health psychology who have personally mentored me as I complete a senior thesis project investigating the impact of social support on the quality of life outcomes of adolescents with chronic illness.
As I prepare to graduate college, I am focused on my next goal: getting a PhD. I dream of one day finding new ways to help teens and young adults cope with life during and after cancer treatment. I look forward to working to reach that goal and making that dream a reality.
So, whoever you are and whatever diagnosis you had, I encourage you to set goals and work toward them. Have dreams and make them realities. You don’t need a guarantee of tomorrow to smile, have fun, be with those you love, and accomplish something meaningful today!
Clarissa Schilstra is a 2x cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia for the first time when she was two and a half years old. She went through two and a half years of chemotherapy and survived. She led a happy and healthy life until June of 2007, shortly before her 13th birthday, when her cancer relapsed She went through another two and a half years of chemotherapy, this time accompanied by radiation. She is now twenty-one years old and a senior at Duke University. Her passion is helping others cope with the ups and downs of life during and after cancer treatment. It is her goal to become a clinical psychologist after she graduates from Duke, and she would like to help improve the psychological care available to adolescents and young adults who have serious illnesses. You can find Clarissa’s book, Riding the Cancer Coaster: Survival Guide for Teens and Young Adults, on Amazon.com. To learn more about Clarissa and her book, or to find AYA cancer support resources, visit her website and blog at www.teen-cancer.com.