The Heartache of Being a Young Cancer Survivor

Today, I feel compelled to write about the heartache of being a young cancer survivor. Many might think that receiving the label of ‘cancer survivor’ brings feelings of pure elation and ultimate bliss. Don’t get me wrong; my world turned from scattered thunderstorms to warm, sunny skies. Yet, not every day is euphoric.

Some days, my heart hurts and the world feels heavy. Those are the days when I’ve lost a friend.

One of the hardest things about being a young cancer survivor is simply ‘being young’. Young people are supposed to explore the world and experience life fully, not sit in oncology wards getting pumped full of drugs. As a young cancer fighter, I felt isolated and alone. I didn’t have any friends or knowledge of other people my age going through what I was. I felt like an outcast.

Fortunately, I reached out to Young Adult Cancer Canada (a kick-ass support group!) and took to social media. I needed that feeling of togetherness. I needed familiarity. I needed my youth.

I surrounded myself with fellow young adult cancer fighters. My network of friends exploded, and it was wonderful. I met the most incredible, kind-hearted, perseverant and superhuman people in the entire world. My loneliness faded, and I finally felt at home.

In retrospect, I wish I would have realized that some of us wouldn’t make it. Some of us would pass on, and some of us would have to move on. It breaks my heart to be writing this right now, but I wish that I could have prepared myself for the heartache that I’ve experienced. The deep pain of losing a friend, again and again. It never gets easier, and it never will.

This past year, I’ve lost five dear friends.

Nicole, Justin, Kim, Danielle and Jody

Each one of these five super-humans continued to push and push through the darkness. They never ever gave up, despite the odds. I am honoured to have had the chance to connect with such empowering people.  They were truly one-of-a-kind… Nicole’s warmth, Justin’s ambition, Kim’s bright smile , Danielle’s heart of gold, and Jody’s unwavering sense of humour.

Nicole, Justin, Kim, Danielle, Jody and other friends who have gone too soon,

this is for you.

My heart goes out to your family,

they didn’t deserve to lose you so young.

My heart goes out to your friends,

of which you should still be among.

And my heart goes out to you,

because, you, you deserve more than the cards you were flung.

 

My light,

you are my light.

When times get hard,

I think of your fight.

You may be gone,

but you still shine bright.

I just wish you could,

come home tonight.

What brings me peace is knowing that each of you have gained your wings. Now, there is proof that you are super-humans. May you rest peacefully, and live on in all of the lives that you have touched.

My unconditional love,

Emily

xo

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I would have missed out on so much

The hurt I’m feeling nobody can see. I use a smile to cover it up. I cry myself to sleep each night in hopes that I will not wake up. But that doesn’t matter because nobody knows. Nobody will ever know the true pain I’m feeling. The ache in the heart and water that fills my eyes. Each morning I wake up miserable and can’t help but wonder why I’m still here. I don’t belong here. Nobody truly knows who I am and what I want from life; to be honest, I don’t either. I’m lost in this huge space, this world of noise, with no direction of where to go. I’m broken inside to many tiny pieces that do not have the ability to be put back together. I’m the deep cracks built within a rock. No matter how hard anyone tries, the flaws just won’t go away. Nothing will change me. No one can. Not even I. I have become something I am stranger to. Each day I feel myself die inside a little more. The days fly by and nothing changes. I’m still broken and hurt. But one day I know it will all stop. I’ll be free and finally experience true happiness.

-2011

When I read this piece, I can feel my heart ache. I can still remember the excruciating pain that I felt. But before I begin, I want to clarify what I meant by “free and finally experience true happiness”. I wasn’t talking about the butterflies, rainbows and flowers kind of happiness. I wasn’t imagining the happiness that I’ve finally found 6 years later. I was imagining the freedom and happiness of no longer being on the Earth. I was envisioning that day that I finally gave in and ended my life.

This pains me. I cannot believe that I was so hopeless at age 17. I hadn’t went to prom yet, I hadn’t graduated from high school yet. I hadn’t… I hadn’t…. I hadn’t.

But, in my mind, I had experienced enough. I didn’t think that things would ever get better. I had been struggling with anxiety for four years. I had developed bulimia nervosa. I began to self-harm. I had lost a friend to suicide. I had severe depression – not yet recognized by the outside world. I gave up thinking about true happiness as I was consumed by sadness and pain. My brain saw a tragic ending to my story and with that, came the happiness that I was so desperately seeking.

This is where I want to touch on the topic of teenage depression. As many of you know, teenagers are very susceptible to suicide. Why? Well, the teenage brain is not fully developed. They lack the development of the prefrontal cortex and executive function. This means that they struggle with decision making, staying rational and seeing beyond the intense emotions that they feel.. This helps explain why teenagers are impulsive and ‘emotional’. Teenagers often view their situation as ‘the end of the world’ because in their brain, they cannot see things ever getting better. This is not to minimize what they are going through. Their feelings are valid, but their interpretations of the duration of sadness and pain is exaggerated.

The reason that I touch on this topic is because I lived this. I had tunnel vision. I thought that the pain that I was feeling would last for the rest of my life. And, I couldn’t live like that. I thought that I would have to end my life in order to feel happiness.

But, no. We may feel as though things will never getting better… that we will always be sad. We will never get better. We will never get over heartbreak. We will never live without a cloud of despair. But, that just isn’t true. We can overcome, and we can thrive.

For any of you who feel like you cannot continue on, please know that there is so much support and love out there for you. I’m not saying that things will be easy and that there is a quick fix, but recovery and happiness is possible. You do not have to suffer alone. You do not have to go through your hardship by yourself. Please reach out and ask for help.

If I hadn’t reached out, I would not be here today. I would not have found a job that I love. I would not have experienced graduating from University, going to Prom, smiling at my reflection in the mirror, etc. I would not have met my best friends. I would not have seen the true beauty in living. I would have missed out on so much. Things are not over for you. Things are just beginning.

Keep on shining,

Emily

Left picture: Living on the edge until I finally gave in to my urges. 2011.

Right picture: Recovering and learning to be in love with the life that I have created. 2017.