My name is Kellie and I am a stage 3A melanoma survivor. I was looking for a forum to post my latest crazy thoughts on young adults surviving cancer. Luckily, more and more of us who are diagnosed as children or teens are surviving, but along with that, at least in my experience, comes some interesting psychological side effects.
I was diagnosed at 15 and completed a year of treatment with complete lymph dissections. I’m now 22 years old and have had two stage one recurrences in the past five years. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the aftermath of surviving cancer on young adults. I didn’t realize it then, but 15 years old was an incredibly young age to have to contemplate my own mortality and rally for a battle I had only just begun to understand. I’m not sure how, but I simply gritted my teeth and pushed through it. I continued to play my three sports (although poorly) and be a silly teenager. Even though my doctors weren’t so sure, I was always completely confident that I would be fine. The result was that I think I developed what I’ll call “survivalism”. At the end of treatment, I was 16 years old and had beaten CANCER. If I could do that, I could do anything, and that mindset became intensely engrained from that point onward. It was the typical teenage “invincible-ism” on some serious steroids. Lance Armstrong was my newfound idol and “Livestrong” became a mantra (sorry, was it too soon to mention steroids and Lance Armstrong that close together??) When asked to describe myself, survivor was the first word to come to mind. Sure, it was incredibly helpful, in that I was confident in my abilities and succeeded throughout high school and college. But the flip-side of this great “I can take on the world” attitude is that, eventually, every cancer survivor must face something that they CAN’T beat. Something that, no matter how hard you commit to fight against, you simply can’t win, the realization of which can destroy your entire sense of self. Unfortunately, I’ve already experienced that. My 48-year-old father was diagnosed with fibrosarcoma, a cancerous brain tumor, when I was 19 and he died only a year later. From the moment I learned of his diagnosis, I was ready for a good fight, and was confident that he would get through it, and that I could help him do it. I moved home from college to take care of him full-time; I arrogantly swooped right in, ready to take on his cancer and “fix it” for him. I’m a cancer survivor. I can do anything, right? The doctors eventually started giving worse and worse reports, but I refused to acknowledge them, and continued to encourage my dad with everything I had. Losing him was absolutely devastating. Two years after his death, to this day, I still catch myself being actually surprised that cancer won and that we lost. I felt like I hadn’t tried hard enough, that I somehow hadn’t given him everything I had. I’ve had a rough two years grappling with our defeat.
I’m not sure what could’ve been done differently to cushion this blow for me, or for those of other cancer survivors in similar situations. You obviously can’t look to your doctors or nurses to take you down a notch or to tell you surviving cancer doesn’t mean you’re a superhuman. It might just mean you got lucky, and that others aren’t as fortunate as you. I’ve been doing some research, and there’s not a whole lot out there yet about this idea or the psychological side effects of cancer survival on young adults. This is mostly food for thought, but if anyone has had similar experiences, I’d be happy to hear them!
Thanks for entertaining my ramblings :)
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Cancer Council NSW would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work.We would also like to pay respect to elders past and present and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal people.