Cancer Through My Eyes
by Amy Chmielewski, lymphoma survivor
February 1, 2005, is a day I will always remember. I woke up with a feeling that, one way or the other, my life was going to completely change, and I was right.
For the past four days, I had been trying to live my normal day-to-day life. I was an energetic eighteen year-old girl who had just started her spring semester at the college of her choice, Kent State University. As an interior design major with great friends and a fun job, I was extremely content and pleased with my developing life. Like every other young person, I was trying to discover my role in this world and had a feeling that things were coming together.
I called my mom, Lisa, after class and nervously asked, “Have you heard anything yet?”
“No, nothing,” she replied.
We were awaiting the results of a biopsy, which had been done because of a tumor in my chest that was discovered when I went to the emergency room to have an egg-sized, mysterious lump on my neck checked out.
That night in the emergency room was filled with uncertainty and fear. I had never been to the hospital, so it was truly scary. The friends I called were as shocked as I was.
More testing led to more doctors but no results. After many exhausting and confusing consultations, I finally found a doctor who wanted to do the biopsy. A few days later, I was waiting all day for his call.
February 1, 2005, was the longest day of my life. It was like being a kid and waiting several hours in line to get on a ride at an amusement park. In both those situations, you could feel nervous, excited, impatient, and scared. I was all of those emotions wrapped into one.
I went home after school and my mom called to let me know that she would be home shortly from work and that she would be bringing a family friend with her. I thought nothing of this at the time but it makes perfect sense to me now. She brought Stan, a great family friend of ours. She sat me down on the couch and said, “I heard from the doctor. The biopsy concluded that you have cancer.”
Cancer? What could she possibly be talking about? My mom proceeded to tell me that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and that the doctor said that if I were to get any type of cancer, that was a good one to get.
“A good one?” I asked. “Why?”
She said that it had a very good cure rate and that I was going to be fine.
Going to be fine? A good cure rate? Were we really talking about this?
Just a few days before, I was a perfectly healthy young woman and now there I was, talking about if I was going to live or not. All of these questions started to pop into my head and then I went completely blank. I don’t remember a lot from the rest of that evening except calling my brother, Adam, and a few friends to give them the news. The silence on the other end of each phone call was too much to bear. We all went to sleep that night with questions, confusion, and shock.
Within a few days, I met my oncologist and had several more tests. My doc diagnosed me with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Stage IIb. He told me that I was going to have twelve chemotherapy treatments, each two weeks apart. I had to withdraw from school because I could not do both. The day I withdrew from school was difficult because instead of feeling like a young, vibrant woman, I felt like a sick, cancer patient who had to give up important things in her life.
It was all happening so fast. My mom accompanied me to each and every chemotherapy session. I had the best team of nurses and doctors behind me. They were always willing to do anything to keep us as comfortable as possible and were always open and honest.
As my treatment went on, everything changed, from my appearance to my relationships. I didn’t feel like a young woman anymore and was out of touch with many people in my life. My doctor referred me to a local cancer center called The Gathering Place. Through this amazing organization, I was able to find a group of young people just like myself. I started going to the support group as often as I could and realized that I was not alone in this journey. Just when I thought I was alone, I learned that I was not.
After struggling through twelve treatments and countless scans and blood withdrawals, I finally finished treatment. Pending the results of my last CT and PET scan, I would have the opportunity to go back to school.
In August 2005, we found out that there was still active cancer in my body and additional treatment was needed. It was another crushing day for me because I wanted to get back to my old life. Within a few weeks, I started low-dose radiation treatment that lasted for about a month.
Finally, just before Thanksgiving, I received the news from my doctor that everything looked clear on my scan. On that day, I felt like I could finally get back to my old life, but there was something that felt weird about it. Even though I was clear of cancer, I realized that I could not go back to the life I once had. My friends had changed; my family had changed; my job had changed, and even where I lived had changed. I hadn’t realized it as much while I was in treatment because the focus was elsewhere, but when it was finally over, I realized that everything was different.
I went back to college at a new school, Cleveland State University, where I am currently working on my undergraduate degree in psychology and have great hopes for the future.
I have learned several important life lessons from my cancer experience and feel lucky to have learned them at such a young age. I am currently a twenty-two-year-old woman and often feel old beyond my years. I have learned to keep the people that I love very close and informed, and if there are people in my life who cannot be with me through the worst, then they really did not deserve to be here in the first place.
Through my friends at The Gathering Place, I have learned how to live, love, and enjoy each day, because each one is truly a gift. Losing several dear friends from there has taught me what life is really about. I have learned not to take life so seriously, even though that can be easier said than done. I have learned that it is important to take time for yourself and to spend as much time as possible with the ones you love.
Even though my treatment is complete, my journey with cancer is not. I am still learning how to balance being a young woman who is finding her way in the world and is also a cancer survivor. This balance is something that I will always be searching for, as cancer did change my life for the better. I am hopeful that I will find my balance one day.
© 2009 Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.