Book Awards - Essays - 2013
The following three essays were submitted by students at Plymouth State University (PSU) when applying for Joan Merrill Book Awards and Michelle Morse Book Awards in 2013.
Well, to be honest, I saw this scholarship opportunity and it brought back many memories of my past. I thought about the times in my life that the world seemed like it stopped spinning. My life at a complete standstill.
Cancer is quite the peculiar thing. On one hand, it is the most known disease and yet it is so full of shadows. When someone is diagnosed with cancer you have that ominous black rain cloud over your head yet the wonderful human optimism must prevail. Cancer has had impact on me in my life in almost every walk of life imaginable my family, my best friend and myself.
About 7 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not knowing fully what the implications were at such a young age, I drew my significance from two main things. My grandfather who was diagnosed with advanced melanoma on his 50th birthday took me aside that day and said, "Love your mother with all of your heart and do anything that she says. She loves you and you need to support her because you love her too." Quite the remark to hear as a young kid.
The second thing is when my dad got home from work. I rushed downstairs to greet him coming in from the cellar. The minute he opened the door I saw him crying. I rushed up to him and he replied, "Where's your mother?" This is one of the only times I have ever seen my father cry. This image of my whole family that evening still resonates in my head. My mother is now in remission and doing well.
More recently, I have been touched by cancer as well. My best friend, college roommate and practically my brother has been diagnosed with brain cancer. He had complained of frequent headaches, weight loss and loss of energy for the better part of 2 months until the MRI that changed everything. Two days after the MRI, he called me. He said he needed to talk to me and said to come over. I got to his house and we sat down and, with the most frank voice, he said he had cancer.
The feeling of the world stopping again arose. I looked at him then looked at the floor and again at him. I immediately hugged him and said that I was sorry. He told me what the doctors had been telling him and said that they felt confident that he would be alright. This struck me hard and I had a profound realization. My 18 year old best friend now has cancer. This brought cancer close to me. Before this I had the thought that only "older" people got cancer and that it could never happen to me or my friends for that matter. To be short, wow was I wrong.
I am writing this essay on March 26, 2013 and it is a significant date for me. Today is the day I was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer. I got off the phone with my doctor who had conducted the biopsy and simply stared at the wall. The noise of the TV in the background melted away. I just couldn't feel anything. The conversation with my parents from my dorm room was brief to say the least. They said I needed to return home to go to the hospital and offered to come pick me up. I declined the offer and started packing my bag for at least a few days at home. Car started, sunglasses on, 93 south and I was headed home.
Today was a day where I woke up and thought about how well I was feeling from a good night sleep. Throughout the day I got back an exam that I got an A on, a good lunch and 3 good classes. Tonight, I will fall asleep knowing that I now have cancer.
Cancer, plain and simple, really sucks. The most important thing is to learn from cancer and to grow. I have learned that a good attitude, positive outlook and hard work are all key to beating cancer. My grandfather, my mother, my best friend have all beaten cancer and are in remission. I will be the next one on that list. Education is important to me and have so many aspirations for my career and my life. I intend on not letting cancer define me and want to get back to my everyday normal life. You never realize how much you love just being normal. Thank you for the time to read my story.
- Name Withheld, PSU Student
So, there I was sitting in a cold waiting room wearing nothing but boxers and a hospital gown surrounded by people four to five times my age. Waiting my turn to be called by the nurses so that I could walk behind the giant metal door, lie on a table, and wait for the cross hairs of the laser to align with the blue dots tattooed into my left hip, stomach, and right shoulder so that I could receive my daily dose of radiation. This is how I spent a month of my freshman year of high school. My name is (withheld) and this is my story.
It all started with an emergency visit to the hospital when I awoke one night covered in hives from head to toe. Sadly, the doctors could not pinpoint the cause of the outbreak, which lead to numerous doctor appointments, lab tests, and biopsies. It was not until I met Dr. D that I was finally diagnosed. It turned out to be Cutaneous T-cell Lymphoma, a very rare type of skin cancer.
In the United States, there are only 1,500 cases (which is .000005% of the population) and it mainly affects older people, but I had contracted it at fourteen years old. I had also managed to get the even rarer skin cancer that sometimes accompanies cutaneous T-cell Lymphoma called Lymphomatoid Papulosis.
After I was diagnosed in my freshman year of high school, I received radiation treatments every day of the week for one month. So, not only was I dealing with the everyday traumas of high school, but also those of having radiation treatments before I was even old enough to drive. The worst was at the end of the treatments when the radiated areas became sore and the skin there took on the appearance and texture of crisp bacon. It could even be snapped like bacon.
For a short time after this, I was embarrassed to take my shirt off in public because the areas that were radiated had become quite visible and easily noticed by the general public. However, after a short time, something strange happened. Not only did I come to accept these spots on my body, but they became a part of who I was, something that let me stand out from everyone else. And, just as I was able to accept these spots on my body, I also learned to accept the other parts of my body and am now quite comfortable with my body as a whole, which is more than can be said for a lot of people these days.
For a couple of years after this, everything was going pretty smoothly and then, out of nowhere, tragedy struck. My doctor, Dr. D, suddenly fell ill and died. This was a great loss to me because I had become quiet fond of this woman; she was extremely nice to me, specialized in my type of cancer, and was determined to help me. It also meant that I would have to try and find another doctor that specialized in this incredibly rare skin cancer.
This brings us to my current predicament as I try to find a new doctor, luckily though we have found a pair of doctors that work together and seem to be perfect for the job. I am also now on a topical chemotherapy treatment where I apply Nitrogen Mustard to the affected areas on my body which helps keep the cancer at bay.
Though my cancer has brought me all of this misery and despair, it has brought me one good thing, and that is a friendship that will probably last until the day that I die. This friendship started because we both found out that we had forms of cancer in high school and this tragedy brought us closer together. Today we fondly refer to ourselves as "Cancer Buddies" and confine our troubles in each other, I feel closer to her than I do to most other people.
As you can see, cancer has affected me in many ways, some good, but most bad. It has made me a stronger person, but has also brought me to my knees in tears at times. The majority of my experience happened to me when I was fourteen years old, but now I am twenty years old and in college where I continue to fight the good fight against cancer.
- Name Withheld, PSU Student
Allow me this metaphor; Cancer is like this permanently placed bookmark in the book that is your life. Once you've had cancer, everything becomes "before" or "after" that time in your life.
Another survivor told me once that "your life may be better after cancer or it may be worse, but guaranteed it will never, ever be the same." Now, almost two years into my own remission, it has proven to be true.
I could write about all of the hardships faced when one has cancer. In fact, I could have written that essay prior to my own diagnosis after losing one aunt, two grandfathers, one grandmother and a great grandmother to the terrorist known as cancer. However, I feel as if everyone knows that side of the story, the part where drugs make you sick, you lose your life's savings, you lose your mind, friendships, relationships and marriages are tested, while struggling with demons that others can't possibly understand.
I acknowledge that all of those things (and many more) are brutal realities of the disease, but there is another side to it, as well. While nothing will give you back the life you had, if you can beat it and if you can see it, cancer may just give you a life that you never imagined.
As a perpetual hard worker, I was fortunate enough to achieve most of my professional goals at a very young age. In my early twenties, I opened a business, which led to another business, which led to a life of being a workaholic early on. I took care of my body by staying active and eating well. I even relaxed by going on vacation once a year. I thought that I was living life to the fullest and seizing the day. My philosophy professor would have been proud of my carpe diem ways, right?
When I went to the hospital in agonizing pain, with what my doctor thought was a blocked milk duct in my left breast, I was most concerned about whether or not the swelling and pain would subside enough for me to work my sixteen hour workday the following day.
I argued about being admitted and the next few days were a blur of testing, medications and feelings of sedation from the drugs. The clearest memory that I have was when a group of doctors walked into my room and told me that my MRI was indicative of inflammatory breast cancer. In that very moment, the world stopped. Everything paused and resumed in slow motion.
My immediate thought was "I need to go running" which was out of left field since I had quit running after a car accident six months earlier and I had never enjoyed running to begin with.
I tuned out the doctor who was speaking in order to explain to him why he was wrong. I had never heard of inflammatory breast cancer, I was only 26, I ate well, I didn't drink or smoke, I felt fine other than the terrible pain in my breast, I stayed active, heck I was a marathon runner!
In essence, I was attempting to negotiate why I was an unlikely candidate to have breast cancer. Call it denial, call it shock, regardless of what you call it, in that moment a part of me died . . . the part of me that believed that statistics could shield you from the unfair ways of life; the part of me that believed that if I felt fine, I must be fine, and the part of me that believed that I was living my life in a way that was fulfilling. At the same time that part of me died, a new part of me was born with one single thought "I need to go running."
I was in no condition to go running, nor was I cleared to do so for a very long time, but the persistent dialogue in my head insisted that I must run again. To this day, I'm not sure what it was about running; whether it made me feel alive or whether it made me feel strong, but I knew on an innate level that it would be part of my recovery further down the road . . . and it was!
Although my first months of running were not the most glamorous, I was determined to feel strong and capable and in control of my life. Within a year of my remission, I once again became a marathoner and for the first time I conquered my fear of swimming and became a triathlete. I participated in Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder and had a blast!
More simply, I became fearless and began living my life without fear. Cancer forced me to look death in the face and stand up to it by fighting and while I was lucky in my survival, it didn't stop there. Cancer has a way of putting life into perspective.
Once you've faced cancer, you know that you can face anything. You also realize that most of what we stress over is not as big of a deal in the long run as we think it is. That's an 2009-2014ible understanding that I wish I could give to everyone without actually having to survive cancer.
If I'm having a bad day, I shake it off. If I have an unexpected expense, well, at least I'm alive and well enough to pay it off. If someone takes something out on me, it's okay because maybe they just needed to get it out. I've slowed down and made time to spend with my loved ones. I've realized that the quote about not sweating the small stuff because it's all small stuff didn't just sound silly . . . it was absolutely true.
I don't want to paint a picture of becoming all-knowing once your doctor diagnoses you. I have come to see things in this light after a great deal of therapy and personal reflection. I've struggled with what cancer meant for me going forward and what my responsibility was as a cancer survivor and that road was a dark one.
Cancer causes you to doubt everything you thought you knew about yourself and, in that, your options are for it to take everything you are and everything you stand for away from you, or you fight to hold on to it. Beating cancer is not only a physical war, but a mental one. It will take all that you have from you until you fight to hold on and for me that led to a huge awakening that my life was not a success story, it was a disappointment by my own standards.
Aside from running, my other persisting realization while I was hospitalized was the fact that my career just wasn't one that meant anything to me. I didn't want to work in the field I was working in and my success didn't matter since it was not what I truly wanted to do.
Throughout high school and college, I had decided that I felt that my calling was in helping others and that I should become a psychologist or a social worker. I was discouraged from that career choice by my family who wanted me to be more ambitious. Whenever I discussed social work, I was reminded that "social workers don't make enough money" and, when I discussed studying psychology, I was reminded that I shouldn't pursue psychology unless I was going to become a doctor because "you can't do anything with psychology."
So, when business took off for me, it was an easy choice to withdraw from college in order to put more time and energy into the businesses. When I lay in my hospital bed, I repeatedly thought, "I don't want to do this anymore." I felt as if I wasted a lot of great energy on something that in the grand scheme of life just did not matter to me. I told myself that if I got well and beat cancer, I would find a way to pay it back and do something that made an impact on the world.
It took me over six months after being discharged from the hospital to figure out what that something would be. I would become a school psychologist. I would help change the lives of students, counsel them, help them, inspire them and make their lives better.
When I work with children, I am reminded of the second chance I have gotten to live the life that is the most meaningful to me. Working with children inspires me to make a difference in the world. I advocate for causes which impact our world, something else that requires fearlessness and courage. I've dedicated countless hours to studying and learning so I have the knowledge to best serve the families within my community when I graduate from Plymouth State University and began working within my field.
My life now has meaning. My life now has purpose. In the past two years, I've traded all that is tangible for all that is not and now, when I look back, it seems as if I've led two separate lives... my life before the bookmark and my life after it; never the same and, in my case, that's been for the better.
- Name Withheld, PSU Student