September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and I wanted to make a post about what that means to me, and what I think it should mean to you.
I’m an 11 (almost 12) year cancer survivor. I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 7. I underwent various forms of treatment (mostly a drug cocktail and numerous sessions of chemo) for the years of my life that were supposed to be designated as my childhood.
While I’m beyond grateful for the support I’ve had over the years, there are many aspects of childhood cancer that I don’t think are discussed enough. In lieu of the current commercialization of cancer (what I call the movement surrounding things like the TFiOS movie [
I actually don’t consider the book to be part of this movement] and TV shows like Chasing Life and Red Band Society), I feel now is a good time to talk about what hasn’t really been discussed much in-depth before: the affects and effects cancer treatment can have on a child post-recovery; and what better place to start that discussion than on Tumblr?!
There seems to be a double standard with childhood cancer: As a society, we certainly care about (and perhaps adoringly pity?) the bald kids on billboards, the kids who go on talk shows, and the kids who pose with visiting celebrities. We champion these children and those who acknowledge them. I want to stress that I do think that all of this is very important. Children going through treatment should most definitely be championed. However, when their hair grows back, we don’t seem to know how to interact with cancer kids anymore.
I can say from personal experience that I often deal with more discomfort from people when I tell them, now, that I’m a childhood cancer survivor, versus when I was a child who had cancer. There’s an unease, where it can’t be determined whether I should be celebrated (as someone who is cancer-free) or pitied (as someone who had cancer at a young age). The word “survivor” is a one that not only others have struggled to handle, but it’s also a word I’ve struggled to identify with myself.
After my three-year-treatment was done, there was very little in place for me to process the intense thoughts and emotions that my cancer treatment had incited. Before I was ten, I had already begun to bury my, what I firmly believed were, unspeakable fears. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone, simply because surviving cancer wasn’t something people talked about with children, let alone helped a childhood cancer survivor process.
By the time I was in high school, my fear of a body that had betrayed me turned into an obsession to control my body (which manifested itself in the form of a restrictive eating disorder). Though talking about my eating disorder in the years to follow proved extremely difficult, I still found it easier to talk about than I did the topic of cancer.
It’s only been two years since I’ve really begun to face my past, largely independently (though I’ve had vital support from friends and family as well) through process writing and finding ways to identify with the “survivor” I supposedly am. Reconnecting with my former hospital roommate, Danielle (in the second, third, and fourth pictures above), has also proved to be one of the biggest factors in my multi-faceted recovery. We didn’t have one another’s contact information after we were discharged from the hospital. It took an experimental survivor’s reunion (which I decided to attend very last minute) for us to reconnect. Danielle, as a childhood cancer survivor as well, has been able to relate to so much of what I’ve felt over the years. We’re able to speak uninhibited about our fears, our struggles, our joys, and our immense hopes. In seeing the survivor she embodies, I’ve been able to find more of the survivor in me.
Now, my point in writing all this, is to stress that it shouldn’t take 10 years and a perfectly-timed reunion for a childhood cancer survivor to feel understood. If not understanding, as I can’t expect everyone to be able to relate, childhood cancer survivors should at least be entitled to acknowledgement and support post-treatment. Yes, it’s incredibly important to be there for children while they’re going through treatment (I could write quite a bit about that too), but it’s also equally as important to be there for them once their treatment ends.
This September, I challenge you to truly consider what life post-treatment for any cancer survivor is like. If you know any cancer survivors (of whatever age) see if they’re willing to share their story with you. If they’re not, that’s okay too (goodness knows I wasn’t ready for a long time). Acknowledging that a survivor has a story beyond cancer can be just as important and empowering as well.