What it's like to get cancer right after graduating college
I was a college student majoring in Communication, getting mostly A’s and a few B’s with minimal effort. I was always in leadership roles as a student ambassador for my school and president of my sorority. I had a boyfriend who treated me like a queen. I was a well-known and liked girl on campus. People wanted to be my friend. I had my shit together. I knew where I was going in life. I imagined, 20 years after college, people would check me out on whatever social media we’d be using in the future, and they’d envy my job, my family, my looks, and my success.
I graduated college in May 2016, the most bittersweet time of my life. I was going to miss college. I was good at the whole college gig. I loved it. Still, I was excited to get on with my life. I wanted to work in the NBA industry; I was going to make it happen. While interning over the summer, I went from interview to interview, working hard to get my dream job.
Meanwhile, I had a pain in my leg. I immediately Googled what it could be (big mistake…Google is more drama than that one friend who freaks out over everything). I landed on sciatica. So I upped my working out, running, and stretching in hopes I would feel better.
It just got worse.
The pain spread to my back. It took everything I had to walk from my car, to my desk at work, and back at the end of the day. I had the worst headaches I’d ever experienced.
One day, I crawled into bed after getting home from my internship. My body tensed up. I couldn’t move and my head was throbbing. My vision went from blurred, to black. I called my boyfriend, and made him leave work to take me to the ER. In the ER waiting room, I seized on the floor and dry heaved. After a two hour wait (because apparently my symptoms didn’t qualify as an emergency), I was examined; they gave me pain pills and told me I had a bulged disc in my back.
I knew they were wrong.
Fast forward two days later. I hadn’t been able to keep one pain pill down, so the pain was worse than ever. I went to a different ER. They hooked me up to an IV and told me I had a bladder infection.
The next day, I didn’t know what to do. How could the doctors not see that I was deteriorating?! I finally went to a chiropractor because my boyfriend insisted. I had been hesitant to go, but this chiropractor saved the day when he ordered an MRI.
Tumor. The size of an acorn. Inside of my spinal cord. I needed surgery, and I needed it fast.
And so it happened. I had my back ripped open and the tumor removed. At the time, I was just thrilled to get the damn thing out of me. I didn’t care what kind of rehab I’d have to go through.
But then they sent my tumor to the pathologist: Cancer.
WHAT?! You mean to tell me that I have cancer?!?! But I have things to do! I’m going places! I have a life to live! I’m too pretty to have cancer!
I had to have a bunch of tests to see where else the cancer may be — if it was in my stomach, lungs, organs, etc. I spent the next week having several tests done, while simultaneously thinking I was dying.
At the hospital, I met so many strong people navigating unimaginable trials — and they were so positive, uplifting, and inspiring. They used their misfortune to do good in the world — and then there was me.
What I do know, is that my tests came back — and everything else in my body looked clear. No other cancer found. For a year, every three weeks I would have immunotherapy (chemotherapy except the side effects are WAY less — and I get to keep my hair). Aside from my recent invasive surgery, radiation, and infusions, I was pretty much healthy. THANK GOD…or whoever…
I am so lucky that I’m alive six months later to write this. But being the girl who told everyone she knew where she was going in life and planned to get there at a wildly aggressive pace, this has been really hard for me to overcome.
Before the surgery, I was pretty active. I ran five miles almost every day, hiked, lifted — whatever it was, I did it. And I did it well. After having the surgery, I basically had to relearn how to walk during my first weeks of recovery, and how to run after the first few months. But the worst part was the nerve damage. I couldn’t sit upright for more than five minutes, and I couldn’t stand for much longer than that either. And physical therapy couldn’t help me.
I had heard of people suffering from depression post-surgery, but I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. The constant medical appointments, the infusions, the regular CT and MRI scans, my lost job offers, the uncertainty of whether my back would ever get better, AND the incessant fear that my cancer would return — put all of that together, and I wasn’t doing too well.
People didn’t realize I was struggling. My friends thought I was fine because I acted like it. Acquaintances thought I was normal again because I still had my hair. People would ask me, “So if you don’t have a job, what do you do all day?”
I knew I had to find another way to be happy. Life wasn’t going the way I had planned, and that was okay. It had to be okay.
I decided to slip my big girl pants on and get a job. I knew being productive would make me happier, even if it hurt. I ended up getting a marketing job that was extremely fun, but flexible so I could still fit my doctor appointments around work. I got a gym membership, and have been working hard to get back into shape. And I’ve been reaching out to old friends and regaining more of my social life. I finally admitted to myself that I needed positive people around me — I couldn’t be alone in my depression anymore.
When we go through trials, it may not seem like there’s a good reason — especially when it’s happening to you as a young woman. But if anyone can handle something like this, it’s a woman with a strong community behind her.
So for those of you out there who feel hopeless, whether you feel that your obstacle is worse or not as bad — we all struggle sometimes. I’m here to tell you that you are not alone. There is someone waiting to support you in any way they can. You are strong.