“Have you always had your hair so short?” is the dreaded question I am always asked on a first date. That question requires an immediate decision on my part. The first option is to slough it off and answer with something such as “no, but I wanted to try something different.” This lie always leaves me feeling uneasy, but sometimes it is easier than the second option, “no, I lost my hair during chemotherapy treatment.”
It is challenges such as these that have been the focus since my cancer diagnosis in February of 2011. Nine months prior, I had moved out of my parents’ home after completing a Master’s degree. I was taking time to recharge and reset before beginning my PhD. Suffering from what I thought was some pretty bad heartburn, turned out to be Stage 2B Hodgkins Lymphoma. The new life I was building for myself came to an abrupt halt. A confident and educated young woman became a cancer patient. I had never smoked, ate healthy, exercised a few days a week, and was working two jobs. Immediately following the words “you have cancer” came an extreme discussion on the intensity of six months of chemotherapy treatment, having to move back home, applying for disability, dealing with financial responsibilities, and fertility.
During chemotherapy treatment my life became about survival. I wanted to live. In the beginning, support flooded in from everywhere, friends and family sent me messages, flowers, and words of encouragement. As treatment dragged on, I had days where I was merely enduring. Throughout treatment there were other complications. My heart became stressed and required medication. I had one PICC line removed because of infection and inserted in the other arm. I suffered from painful esophagitis which was managed by powerful medication. Over Easter, I was hospitalized with pneumonia where at 5’4”, I dropped to under 100 pounds.
After six months of severe treatment, I was given the “go ahead” to get back to “normal life.” Looking for an apartment with September only a month away meant I found a place an hour away from campus by public transit (the rent partially covered by the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)) and was on the top floor up four flights of stairs. At the age of 31, I was wondering if I would be able to carry groceries up those four flights when only a month before, I needed help taking the three steps up the stairs to the bathroom at my parent’s house. But I persevered.
In my first class that semester, the professor asked us to find a partner and fill out a “getting to know you” sheet for each other. I wore a wig similar in colour and length to my own to hide my bald head. I had a PICC line scar which I thought everyone was staring at. On the questionnaire, the professor asked us to answer questions such as “what did you do this summer?” and “what has been your biggest challenge?” which hit me like a ton of bricks. I kept thinking “don’t say cancer, don’t say cancer” over and over until I finally blurted it out much to the surprise of my partner. I had exposed my “secret” and felt better about it. However, I have found that it sometimes changes how other people view me. It is a delicate balance to remember that I am still recovering and challenge myself in ways that are healthy and necessary.
My final PET scan in August indicated “activity” in my chest which meant I might need radiation. For the first semester of my PhD program, I was constantly burdened by the knowledge that my life might once again be put on hold to undergo radiation treatment. I worried about my apartment, my eligibility in the program, and my health. At Christmas, I found out nothing more was needed. I could carry on.
My “cancerversary” as it is affectionately called, was an emotionally difficult day. I had a class that evening, and found myself becoming increasingly angry at the professor and those around me. I got so irritated that I left the classroom and cried in the hallway. I realized that I was angry at how my life had changed. I was angry, hurt, and confused and asked myself “why me?” It wasn’t fair. Later that evening I made peace with cancer. I thought of the good it had brought into my life, the friendships, and the closeness with my family that I had never experienced before. I will be making a list on the anniversary of my last chemo treatment, of all that I am grateful for post-chemo. I hope it will bring peace and acceptance on that day.
It is impossible not to be changed by this experience in so many ways. For young cancer survivors, it can be the mental and physical changes post-treatment that are the most challenging. Personally, I am learning to accept my new curvier physique, my short hair, and the physical scars. I am also healing the scars on the inside Although there are the inevitable dark days where I reflect and sometimes mourn the loss of my old self, I am proud of this new person. She has gained strength, patience, caring, understanding, and a will that would have never been fostered BC (aka Before Cancer). I listen to my body, and listen to myself. I started on the straight and narrow path of life like so many others, but cancer put a fork in that path and I am cautiously excited to be following down into unknown terrain.
Nine months after treatment, I finally feel that I am in a good place to begin dating, with the caveat that many people will never understand, and that some will be reluctant to accept I have gone through this experience. I will answer that dreaded first date question with pride and confidence when it comes, “My hair is short because I am a cancer survivor.”
Jennifer K.M. Cogswell was diagnosed with Stage 2B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in February of 2011. Her cancer status will be updated in December 2012. She is currently in her second year of the PhD program at the University of Ottawa. She wrote this article to share the knowledge that cancer is a disease that can touch anyone, in all stages of their life. It is a personal story that was meant to gain perspective and insight into the emotional and physical journey behind a cancer diagnosis. It is meant to be a reflection of the struggles and accomplishments in the past year post-chemotherapy treatment. Although it is a story of one individual, it is one familiar to all young adult cancer survivors.