By: Catherine Nester
I could hear the crack and the crumble of all I had ever known fall to my feet. I don’t remember the exact words. One word — “cancer” — bounced around in my head until it lost meaning. The results of the precautionary biopsy after a resilient case of mono had turned the “just in case” into reality. My fingers trembled as I typed “Hodgkin’s lymphoma” to my unsuspecting friends sitting in their classes back at school.
I was still naïve enough to assume everything would go as planned. I fought through my chemo. The tombstone of my disease was supposed to read April 17, 2015 – July 29, 2015. I had no reason to believe these strange new bright spots on my post-chemo, pre-radiation scan indicated anything but a faulty machine. My world crumbled again that September. The PET scan machine had turned out to be working just fine; it was the chemotherapy that wasn’t holding up its part of the deal. Cancer stacked another tunnel between the light at the end and me.
I started over. I did my time again, but the moment my oncologists walked into the exam room after another scan, I knew. I hate seeing my parents cry. I can’t say my world crumbled this time because I hadn’t picked up the pieces from the first time I grew resistant to treatment. Plan C would involve me staying in the hospital every three weeks. For six days at a time, I would leave my friends learning calculus and biology to learn how to wake up every morning with a mind that says “I want to live” and a body that tries to make that impossible.
On December 15, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel again. For the first time in a long time, scan results showed great improvement. It was frustrating watching the calendar turn from 2015 to 2016 knowing this burden was still not laid to rest. I don’t think it will ever be. I will carry some of this pain for the rest of my life. I don’t want to forget. On January 27, a patient at my hospital passed away, and I received the news that my current treatment was no longer working. While life was spinning circles around me with propositions of back-to-back bone marrow transplants, the girl I once spent an afternoon watching rom-coms with was down the hallway taking her last breath. I remember my oncologist’s face and the gut-dropping feeling that followed when I asked her if I was running out of options. The voice inside my head screamed “Save me!” I thought I was going to die.
I am alive. I am learning to take one day at a time. I am one of the first teenage Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients to be receiving immunotherapy — an alternative treatment that attacks the cells differently than chemo. For the first time in a long time, I’m winning. I feel great, and my doctors couldn’t be happier with my progress.
It’s been a year and a half since everything I once knew fell to my feet. I haven’t put the pieces back together again. I don’t need to. I have been given a unique opportunity to inspire those around me and do things I never thought I could do. Sometimes I miss that girl I see in pictures when I scroll back far enough on my phone. Sometimes I don’t immediately recognize her. I scroll forward again and am reminded why I need to be who I am now. It’s scary sometimes. The battle is not yet over. I’m still making sense of what’s behind me. I don’t know what’s ahead, but I’m ready. Bring it on.