I'm a Young Cancer Survivor, and I Can't See "The Fault in Our Stars"

I want to believe that the world might start to understand what it’s like to be facing death while still at the beginning of your adult life. I just can’t be in the theater to watch it.

Jun 10, 2014 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

I might be one of the few people in America who wasn’t anxiously awaiting Friday's big box-office opening of John Green’s "The Fault in Our Stars."

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It’s not that I don’t love a heartfelt story or an elegant movie. Both are appealing. I also like Shailene Woodley -- I’ve been following her career since my days as a teen magazine editor, which required me to cover the ABC Family hit "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Still, I won’t be seeing the film anytime soon, because as a recent cancer survivor, I just don’t know if I can handle it in a healthy way.

My aversion to seeing it can be viewed as either confusing or painfully obvious. Full disclosure: I know very little about the movie’s plot save for what I’ve seen in the trailer and read in Entertainment Weekly. I have a lot of respect for John Green, though, and his ability to write a bestseller on a topic many people have trouble wrapping their minds around.

I also appreciate that two major factors encouraged Green to write "The Fault in Our Stars": his time spent as a student chaplain at a children's hospital in Indiana and his friendship with Esther Earl, a bright, funny girl he met at a "Harry Potter" conference. Green’s book was dedicated to Earl, who passed away from thyroid cancer in 2010. She was 16.

At 27, I became one of those cancer kids -- well, OK, a slightly older one than the ones Green worked with. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May of 2012 and spent three weeks in the hospital, where I had a biopsy, emergency surgery, PICC line insertion, and my first round of chemotherapy.

I never wanted to be defined by cancer. I was more than my disease, and I did everything I could to prove that I was still a “normal” twentysomething after my diagnosis. I was weak from 20 rounds of radiation and chemo injections every three weeks. I was a walking zombie, consumed by insomnia from the steroids that were supposed to fight the nausea caused by chemo; and I was bald, covering up my shiny dome with bright purple wigs and my mother’s scarves from the ‘70s. But dammit if I wasn’t going to have a beer on my 28th birthday, stand in line to catch the midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," and fly east for a college friend’s wedding.

I was constantly being questioned: “How are you feeling?” “Are you sure you should be doing that?” “Why don’t you just rest?” There were also plenty of back-handed compliments from friends who meant well: “You don’t look as pale as I thought you would!” “I wouldn’t even know you were sick.” “It’s so cool that you can still hang out with us!”

If my sole options included curling up in a ball on my couch, hating myself and my cancer, or popping pills so I could function without puking, I chose the latter. I wasn’t an invalid -- I was sick, and I was going to get better, even if it required seven months of chemo and radiation.

In April 2013, my oncologist told me I was in remission. I still had to visit him every two months and I continue to get scans every six months, but he didn’t project a recurrence. (Of course the possibility is always there.) I was thrilled; screw cancer! I was going to be a normal twentysomething again, focused on family, friends, dating, and work. Easy.

Then, a full year and a half after my diagnosis, I found myself on the floor, curled up and bawling. I had just caught up on season four of "Parenthood" and watched Kristina Braverman’s battle with breast cancer, including her treatments, doctor visits, and scans. Kristina’s fight was portrayed very realistically, which explains why I was in the fetal position with images of the hospital, my oncologist’s office, chemo drugs, bald heads, IVs, and Saltines flashing through my head. I felt like I should have been able to watch my favorite show like every other fan -- crying, but able to function when an episode ended. But the tears kept coming.

I thought I was done with cancer, that the hardest part of my battle had been fought. It turns out the fighting part had been easy. Doing what doctors tell you to do? It’s painful, but simple. The aftermath was not simple. Once I was in remission, there was no one telling me what to do to deal with the disease. Cancer had ripped apart my sense of self and my sense of worth. I was constantly questioning whether anything I ate, drank, breathed, or thought about could bring the cancer back. I didn’t know who I could talk about my feelings with, or if my feelings were even worth talking about, since I was technically no longer a "cancer patient."

I thought I could handle it. I thought I was one of the lucky ones, and in most senses, I was. But there’s still the daily battle of figuring out who I am in my new reality, because I will never be the same person I was before my diagnosis.

Before it came out, Fandango reported that "The Fault in Our Stars" was the biggest pre-selling romantic drama in the site's history. It ended up making $48 million last weekend. To put that in perspective, "50/50," the only other big-name movie to take on young adult cancer in recent memory, raked in $40 million worldwide over its entire theatrical run.

And "The Fault in Our Stars" isn’t the only young-cancer story hitting screens right now. "Chasing Life," the ABC Family series starring Italia Ricci as April, an aspiring journalist who finds out she has cancer, premieres Tuesday, June 10. Some lines in the trailer seem cheesy and inauthentic, like April’s friend asking a waiter to hurry up because April has cancer. But for every line like that, there were ones that bludgeoned me with their honesty. I was right there with April when she declared, “The only way I am going to get through this is if I have some hope of having a normal life one day.”

There is no denying that "Fault in Our Stars" and "Chasing Life" will have a impact on helping to amplify the voices of young adults with cancer. We’re a small group, one that few people think about unless they've been diagnosed or know someone who has, but we have a lot to say and a lot to fight for. Major changes need to happen for young adults, as the 18-49 age group is the least understood when it comes to cancer treatment and support. Groups like Stupid Cancer are helping to raise awareness, and I couldn’t be happier that young cancer fighters are being represented in Hollywood.

I'm glad "The Fault in Our Stars" is a success. I want to believe that the world will start to understand what it’s like to be facing death while still at the beginning of your adult life -- I just can’t be in the theater to watch it. My mental wounds from cancer haven’t fully healed, and I don’t know if they will. One day, hopefully, I’ll be able to watch these works without crying. That day hasn't come yet.