Teenagers with cancer have it hard enough, but when you add in high school … well, we’re pretty much screwed.
Freshman year is when everyone starts to meet their classmates and, unfortunately, starts to form a list. This list consists of people they like or dislike, and it includes some things that set each person apart from others.
Now, for me, on a lot of peoples’ list, I was the cancer girl. And this wasn’t just students, it was teachers and parents as well. So, while it certainly didn't feel great, it fortunately wasn't the only thing people had on their list.
I had been going to the same tiny school since second grade. So, when I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, everyone knew. But because I had known them for so long, that wasn’t what people always thought of. When I came back to school in eighth grade, it was amazing. When around my friends, I felt almost … normal. It was incredible.
Adapting Favorite Activities after Cancer
I hadn’t felt normal in so long, but I still had cancer. I missed almost a month of school because it was flu season. I still struggled watching my friends play volleyball without me.
Since I couldn’t be out there doing everything I wanted to do, I found ways to participate. Instead of being on the volleyball court, I took photos for the team. And I felt included!
Dealing with Changes in How You Look
But being included definitely wasn’t the only struggle. A big struggle for me was my appearance. I used to have the longest brown hair, and now, here I was with the shortest pixie cut I’d ever seen. And I HATED it. Oh, my word, it was the absolute worst!
Now go ahead and picture that with my blown-up, steroid face and you have the spitting image of a self-esteem problem. Ha-ha … no. I was definitely not confident in how I looked. But I got used to it. So, by the time I was graduating from my small middle school, I loved the way I looked again. It took time, and a lot of it, but I felt ready to put myself out there and walk into high school confident in myself.
I had enrolled in a summer school class. I was told it was a great way to make friends. It was mostly field trips, so I did it. And it was rough. I remember it so clearly. I was walking back to the bus with one of my new friends and my teacher turned to me and asked me about having cancer.
Well, next thing you know, the entire bus is asking me questions about cancer and telling me about their family members who have some form of cancer. It was absolutely terrible. That moment is what truly sparked my anxiety about entering high school as the “cancer girl.”
Beginning High School as the ‘Cancer Girl’
“Cancer Girl.” That was definitely my biggest fear entering high school.
I still ask my friends if they knew me because of cancer. The answer is always, “No.” Now, I am aware that every once in a while I was identified by cancer, but that was rare. It just felt like cancer was my life, so I assumed others felt the same way.
No matter how little I talked about it, it was hard to miss the fact that I left class twice a week for my entire freshmen year. Missing school was definitely hard for me. Not only did it make keeping up with school just that much harder, but I also couldn’t hide my cancer from my classmates.
I was, however, able to work with the school to schedule my electives for the classes that I missed so the catch-up wasn’t as difficult, and that helped. But that didn’t stop kids from asking me where I was going. And weirdly, having to tell them the truth helped me. I was able to be real with my peers and start joking around with them about my illness instead of hiding it. It was, in a weird way, exactly what I needed.
So, I guess the truth is, we aren’t screwed. Things have a way of working out for the best, and I know that was the case for me.
Sure, high schoolers will make their lists, and sometimes they'll identify you with cancer. But the people whose opinions should matter won’t label you as the “cancer kid.” So, it’s going to be okay.
And high school? It’s gonna be great.