I was diagnosed with leukemia the first time when I was two and a half years old, successfully completed that treatment, and lived a healthy life for eight years before facing the same cancer again. It has been almost nine years since that relapse diagnosis and thankfully it has been almost seven years since I completed my relapse treatment. But, no matter how long it has been since that fateful day of diagnosis, I remember it very clearly. I remember that moment so clearly because it was a moment that redefined my life.
Before you have a chance to grasp what has happened to you, and process the fear and uncertainty that come with diagnosis, treatment starts. It may feel like cancer treatment becomes this all-consuming marathon. Hospital visits and taking medications fill most of your time and feeling sick and tired takes up the rest of your time. But, it does not have to be a marathon. I can speak from experience when I say that there are ways to find joy, feel better, and accomplish things in spite of treatment’s best efforts to prevent you from all of that.
I was diagnosed in June, the summer before I would begin eighth grade. I was told I would likely not be allowed to go back to school due to the dangers school would pose to my nonexistent immune system. So, cancer was threatening life and my identity as a teenager. School and learning were a major part of who I was – I loved to learn and I dreamt of being a doctor. I loved my teachers and I loved my friends. School was my life so I had no idea what I would do without it. Being tutored at home could not possibly compensate for that loss. I was feeling really isolated and angry and scared those first months of treatment because I felt aimless. I had no reason to wake up in the morning, other than going to the hospital or taking medicine.
My mom could tell I was struggling with the transition between what my life used to be and what it was becoming. I’ll never forget when she sat down with me one day in the fall of my first year of relapse treatment. She said: “Clarissa, you have a choice. You can sit here and feel sad and sorry for yourself, or you can turn this adversity into an opportunity.” It was a statement that I am sure has changed my entire life.
Because she gave me that choice, and encouraged me to be productive rather than feel sorry for myself, I spent the two and a half years of my cancer treatment turning the adversity of the cancer experience into opportunities.
I learned that two and a half years of cancer treatment is a good opportunity to:
- Take time to do things you like, and to find joy in doing those things
- Laugh a lot, which can make you feel better
- Live with a purpose each day, which can help you feel like you are accomplishing things in spite of how your treatment may try to hold you back
I spent my treatment painting, baking, watching all ten seasons of “Friends” over and over, studying more and working harder on schoolwork than I ever had before, and relishing time with my wonderful family.
I loved to paint and bake, so doing those things made me really happy. I loved watching “Friends” because the show made me laugh so much and the laughing gave me precious moments of escape from the nausea and tiredness. I also decided that I would think of the purpose of my cancer treatment as a way for me to set myself up for success in the future. I had no control over my present life, but I could do my best on my homework and assignments so that I could get the best grades possible and have a chance at getting into my dream college and eventually become a doctor.
Even now, as I prepare to graduate from Duke University in May, and look forward to pursuing a PhD in pediatric health psychology, I try to keep these lessons in mind. More importantly, I remember the wise words of my mother as I continue to take any challenges I may face and turn them into opportunities.
If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer, I encourage you to take the adversity you are facing and turn it into an opportunity take time to do things you like, find reasons to laugh, set a purpose for each day, and spend time with those you love. Cancer treatment can be challenging, but you can also find joy, laughter, accomplishment, and love in the midst of it.
Clarissa Schilstra is a two-time 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, when her cancer relapsed. So, 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 read more about Clarissa on her website and blog at www.teen-cancer.com.