It Happened to Me: I Am An Adult Survivor Of Childhood Cancer
In mid-June, I was contacted by a St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital PR representative regarding a soon-to-be-released study about the delayed health effects many childhood cancer survivors face as a result of cancer treatment. The representative asked if I would be interested in giving an interview for a CBS News piece because I was successfully treated for a bone tumor when I was ten years old.
I once shied away from opportunities like this one because I didn’t want to let this circumstance define me. Sure, it was a big deal, but I am also an only child who loves bright colors, books, dogs and corn tortillas, and I didn’t want to primarily be known as the girl who lost her hair and walks with a slight limp because she puked her guts up for the better part of her fourth grade year.
In the CBS story, the reporter notes that there are about 400,000 childhood cancer survivors living in the United States, yet outside the hospital at which I received treatment I have never encountered one. Cancer in any form TRULY sucks -- truly -- but having been through treatment as a 10-year-old means that the 29-year-old me has a differently shaped worldview than your average 29-year-old. It adds a huge amount of weight to every day -- and I do mean EVERY day -- and like xoJane’s “Health Problem You Can’t See” article, it often means that whatever you’re dealing with is not going to be easily seen or understood.
I’m viewed by most coworkers and peers as a “positive” person, and I am happy about many things in life and about life in general -- again, dogs and bright colors would probably top this list -- but here are a few examples of what’s it’s like to have been through childhood cancer treatment:
“Survivor” is a term most easily understood by those on the outside for what I went through, but it wouldn’t really be my first choice.
I mean, sure -- by definition, because I underwent treatment and came out of it alive, I am technically a survivor. But I personally chalk most of it up to luck. Let’s be honest: I am lucky that my cells happened to react with the chemotherapy drug protocol that was determined to be best for my situation at the time.
If you tell me, “Everything happens for a reason,” it will take great restraint for me not to kick you in your nether regions.
Besides having cancer myself, I have also had the pleasure post-cancer of dealing with: divorced parents, someone close to me dealing with substance abuse, suddenly losing my closest grandmother to cancer (diagnosis to severe health decline to loss of life in a month), and having treasured personal belongings destroyed in a natural disaster that took out my grandfather’s home. I’ve flirted with an eating disorder like a kajillion other American women. My dogs pee on my lovely apartment’s carpet for no real reason despite my having just taken them outside.
While I have certainly continued to learn and grow as a result of these events…just, no. Things happen because we live on a volatile planet and because we’re all lovely but fallible humans. Let’s not say that it’s part of some grand plan to have a human, again, barf up everything under the sun for 12 months straight and come out on the other side only to deal with dog pee on white carpet. Don’t you dare.
This experience has complicated my view of the formation of my “personal identity.”
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve always had a strong sense of self. Even before my fourth-grade year was interrupted, I paved my own path and operated according to my own values. I was a bit stubborn, I went after my goals, and I wasn’t afraid to lead in situations where I was confident in my abilities.
As an adult, though, I’ve wondered what parts of my personality are “core” Morgan and which ones were based on my experience. Were some aspects of myself cultivated during that fourth-grade year—so am I defined by cancer more than I’d like to be -- or were they already there and part of what carried me through treatment? Is it even possible to tell the difference? And is it worth doing so?
I also carry a great deal of guilt around -- some borne of too many years in a Baptist church (my mom was trying, it was the South, it was the social thing to do) -- and I am quite sensitive, but the positive slant to that is that I care and care deeply.
I also have issues with control. Having a bone tumor was something that was entirely out of my control -- it wasn’t genetic or a result of bad habits, just perhaps environmental or cells misbehaving. But prior to that, I was already a high achiever and running for student council and a little bit bossy at times. And trying to reckon that with the fact that so much is out of your control (and may or may not continue to happen out of your control) coupled with being programmed mentally to be an overthinker means, essentially, that my brain never…shuts…off.
The fact that I had cancer comes up every single day. If I forget for five minutes, it’s somehow brought up or randomly enters my thoughts again.
The frankness of others when it comes to my situation is shocking to me. I could never imagine walking up to a stranger and asking her, “Oh, wow, what a cast -- how did you break your arm?” Or maybe, “Gee, what put you in that wheelchair?” But as a child I was legitimately told by a 50s or so year-old-man, outside a Home Depot post-initial hip replacement and while in a reclining wheelchair, “Well, you look like you were between a rock and a hard place.” (!) I also frequently have co-workers who won’t notice for a while and then, apropos of nothing, will ask, “Oh, did you hurt yourself?”
As mentioned I do have a slight limp as a result of losing muscle needed for tumor-removal clearance with my original surgery. I don’t feel it physically, it doesn’t cause me pain, so reminders from other people are especially jarring. My bone tumor was in the upper third of my right femur, so I originally had a partial hip replacement with a titanium implant that replaced about a third of my femur (with a pin that’s seated into the femur bone and reaches down almost to my knee). I’ve since had the implant re-cemented after it wiggled itself a bit loose, and when my partial hip replacement wore out my original cartilage, I had it converted to a full hip replacement. The scar is about 17 inches long.
I constantly feel like I’m running out of time, even though I know that’s probably not the case -- or if it is, what the hell can I do about it? -- and it’s a daily struggle to battle these thoughts while going about my life.
I know that, as a human being with an ever-whirring mind, sometimes I will not sleep well. I also realize not every day is going to be perfect, but I have trouble internalizing that belief. I was groomed to strive for the best from preschool on -- as a result of being in accelerated classes and gifted programs in public schools -- so trying to do this whilst trying to just be a “normal” adult means…ha, well, typically I’m tired. I live in Los Angeles where competition is insane -- I’m not trying to act or perform, at least -- but it’s still a fight to even obtain a parking place in the second, BACKUP lot at my local Trader Joe’s. That wears a woman out.
This has become a recurring theme in therapy over the years and although I grasp it in theory, when it comes to practice, I fail. When I was going through treatment, I never thought of death or that I may not live; however, as an adult, I find it nearly impossible to plan long-term goals. Two to four years is doable, but planning toward where I may be in 10 years? Who knows?
The above also causes me to have a much lower threshold for bullshit.
Why waste time on such nonsense?
I basically expect to have cancer again in my lifetime, and I’m not completely freaked out about it.
I wear sunscreen daily, but I’ve spent a great deal of my life at the beach, and my mother and grandmother both have dealt with skin cancer spots that needed topical treatment. I do my best with eating healthy, having yearly heart scans, attempting to Zumba, etc., but I also would prefer to live life and enjoy things such as wine and chips and queso.
With all of the chemicals in substances we ingest and in the atmosphere -- and, yes, I buy natural lotions but am inhaling Angeleno smog daily -- I assume something in some form is going to happen, and I’ll just have to deal with it when the time comes.
Overall, I outwardly appear and consider myself “normal,” and I would like to be seen that way, but because of what I went through I do carry this different worldview that causes a great deal of internal chaos and conflict. I hope I’m not more delicate than I believe myself to be, though I probably am -- and I’m not sure if/when/how I’ll ever accept that.