I got diagnosed with cancer at the mere age of 17. It was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to be exact which accounts for approximately 5% of yearly childhood cancer cases. Up until my diagnosis, I didn’t think much about the deadly disease. I’d heard of childhood cancer before but assumed I would be one of the teenagers spared from that great tragedy.
I was very wrong.
Before my diagnosis, I considered myself a normal 17-year-old. I had a fair amount of friends, cute shoulder-length hair, and the much desired curvy body made popular by Instagram models. What more did I want? I was finally content with my appearance and life. Though my focus had been on superficial things, I was still happy. So happy that I didn’t take the time to acknowledge my deteriorating health.
In December 2017, I found myself being hit with the flu. After suffering for days, I noticed that a quarter sized lump had appeared on the right side of my neck. A month later I decided to get an ultrasound done but received the answer that it was “nothing to be worried about.” I did what I was told and forgot about it. Days before my 17th birthday I came down with a nasty cough. I put it to the side to celebrate my birthday and packed my bags for the spring break cruise planned by my sister-in-law. What I thought would be a fun family vacation turned into a living nightmare. My cough only worsened and I couldn’t keep a single meal down. Immediately after returning from our trip I visited my doctor once again. “It’s most likely acute bronchitis.”
The majority of the following weeks were spent in and out of the clinic and hospital rooms. My messages overfilled with friends and teachers asking why I hadn’t been to school for weeks or if there was something wrong. The truth is that I didn’t know what was wrong and the multiple doctors that had examined me didn’t know either. I angrily ranted to my mother about their incompetence. How could they not know what was happening to my body? It was then that I started losing myself. The once tiny lump became large and noticeable, my right eye turned lazy, and the curvy body I used to have disappeared along with 30 lbs of weight. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I realized how much my physical appearance contributed to my identity and how important it was to feel good about myself.
On May 23rd of 2018, after going back and forth with an ENT specialist, I finally received the results of my surgical biopsy. Although I was grateful to finally have answers to the ongoing mystery that was my health I was also lost and scared. I had no idea what a cancer diagnosis meant. I cried on the way home from the clinic and texted my friends my unfortunate fate. With difficulty, I tried to describe to them what diffuse large B-cell lymphoma meant but of course, I was no oncologist and I too had little knowledge about my diagnosis. Later that day as I sat in my room alone I googled the one thing that was on mine and everybody else’s mind. My search bar read “am I going to die?” I was sure many others like me had done the same.
Although I tried to stay positive, it was becoming apparent that my mental health was at an all-time low. Days before being admitted into the oncology unit at Arkansas Children’s Hospital I had an anxiety attack. It was to be expected. I had become incredibly irritable and sleep deprived. The feeling of uncertainty haunted me day and night. I showed up to the emergency room of a local hospital and told the nurse my symptoms. He asked me if I was depressed. After feeling sad for months on end I answered: “I don’t know I’m just sad all the time.” They sent me home with a bottle of anxiety medication and papers explaining what anxiety and depression was. That night I lay awake, like many nights before, wondering what had become of me.
The first week of my admission my oncologists informed me of the many side effects of the steroids and chemotherapies. It felt like they were stripping me of my identity and freedoms. Wasn’t it bad enough that I had cancer? On top of the changes in my physical appearance, I was no longer allowed to be in a public setting without wearing a mask for fear of exposing my compromised immune system to deadly bacteria. I tried to fight the side effects and precautions for as long as I could, but that was short-lived. I inevitably lost my shiny black hair and gained the round face that is typical of many cancer patients on steroids. I wondered what strangers thought of me when I went out. I wondered if they saw the mask and bald head and felt pity for me. I wondered if they thought I was strong. At last, I asked myself: “Why does their viewpoint matter to me so much?” The answer was simple. I, myself, was unsure of who I was.
It is easy to forget who you truly are in the midst of a cancer diagnosis. I went from being myself to that “girl with cancer.” Between the weekly checkups and chemotherapies, I had no time to figure out who I really was. My sole purpose at that moment was trying to survive. It was all my life revolved around. I diverted my attention and the little energy I had from the things I enjoyed to trying to recover. To my family and friends, I was brave and an inspiration. I believed them but it also felt wrong. I was just another human being trying to live my life and not the hero that I was made out to be. Despite being declared in remission months later in September I still felt an attachment to the whole ordeal. I was considered a “cancer survivor” and I labeled myself like so, but deep down I was tired of being one. Out of fear of sounding ungrateful I kept those feelings to myself and continued on.
Finding an identity after beating cancer can be hard. I know I had trouble trying to make something out of myself afterward. The pursuit of being cancer free had engulfed me and I found myself feeling empty once I had reached that goal. It took me long to acknowledge that cancer was definitely a life-changing experience but that it didn’t define me.
I am much more than a sad story.
I am simply Maria.
Story by Maria Pineda, 18