After a brief stint teaching in China, I finally made it to college a year later than most of my peers, where I spent five blissful, tiring semesters studying my brains out. During my sixth semester, I suddenly had difficulty breathing. Two weeks later, after a few persistent nurses and too many tests to count, I was told my cancer had returned. This time, however, I decided to do it without my family. Instead of running back to California, I stayed in school in Pennsylvania and studied as much as I could while undergoing treatment. During those eight months, I survived cancer, learned some important life lessons, and was met with a few surprises along the way.
1. I’m about as strong as an ant
Naturally, having cancer puts a damper on the whole I’m-immortal-and-nothing-you-do-can-hurt-me mentality that so often accompanies the ignorance of youth, but invincibility is overrated anyways. My vulnerability was what made me stronger, what strengthened my will to survive, and what brought me closer to those around me. And like the ant, I felt strong enough to lift 50 times my weight.
2. Death is a bit like a surprise party
When someone tells you that you have a life-threatening illness, your first thought has less to do with death than you’d expect. It’s hard to think about death, because I don’t have a particularly strong opinion on it. It’s kind of like a surprise birthday party: You’re not quite sure what to expect and when to expect it, but you know it’s going to happen at least once in your life. Personally, I think surprise birthday parties are the best kind.
3. Bald is the new black
At some point after my second chemotherapy session, my hair had begun to thin; so I took a razor to my head. It was extremely liberating to not have to worry about waking up to chunks of hair lying on my pillow—something I had no control over. However, I was worried about the connotations of having a bald head; I didn’t want people automatically assume I had cancer (even though they were technically right). Instead of the pity looks I had braced myself for, I got compliments from relative strangers who admired my radical haircut and head shape. It helped me realize that my insecurities were only in my head, not on it.
4. Labels: resistance is futile
I’ve survived cancer twice now. After the first time, I spent the next 3 years running from it. Entering college meant a fresh start without the pity that came with the label, “cancer survivor.” I didn’t want to be labeled as lesser than or weak, but it was exhausting to avoid such a defining part of my life. The second time around, my constant weakened state made it impossible to run from it and I found, contrary to what I’d expected, people respected me for what I was going through. There was more admiration than pity.
5. Life goes on
What most cancer stories don’t tell you is that after you survive cancer, there’s a bit of catching up that you need to do. Cancer is like being drafted to war: You leave your engagements and spend all your time and energy fighting. And when you get back, you realize that you don’t really know what has happened for the last six months. Everything feels a bit foreign, everyone (including you) is a bit different, and you have to adjust to this “new normal.” For the first few weeks I felt dazed and confused, even empty, looking for ways to bring my life back to where it was. But when I started to accept this “new normal,” I realized I actually liked it better.
Cindy Zeng is a 21-year-old LA transplant, slaving away at Carnegie Mellon University. On good days, she’s a prank-loving, wide-eyed, wandering, cancer-surviving web developer, aspiring to change the world one website at a time. Stalk her life at thevagaband.com or on Instagram.
Featured image via Komen