Cancer at 23: How it Changed Me for the Better
Words by Mariah Halvorson
The moment I found out I had cancer, I was sitting in my cubicle at the first job I had gotten after graduating from college. My biggest worry that day was finishing my Christmas shopping, as the holidays were just a few weeks from then. That was going to be my first Christmas together with my family since moving back from college in Minnesota, and I was so excited to spend time with those I loved. With one phone call from my doctor that afternoon, after a set of yearly routine tests, my entire life was flipped upside down.
I could talk about what it felt like to be in the middle of a crowded office while I was being told they found Lymphoma cells in my small intestine, but truthfully, I don’t really remember the conversation we had. What I do remember is immediately after, and feeling like all the wind had been knocked out of me as I rushed out of the office. I took a few minutes to myself and bawled my eyes out outside of that building. I called my dad; we cried together. I called my mom, who stayed level-headed and talked me through it. I left work and cried the whole drive home.
Over the next six months, I would go through the hardest time of my life fighting, and subsequently beating, stage three Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I did six rounds of an intense chemotherapy regimen that took every ounce of my energy, all of my hair, and so much of my sanity. But, throughout my treatment, I remained surprisingly positive. I kept an online blog to help not only keep my friends and family updated on what was happening, but also to get my feelings out in a productive way. I had so much support from my immediate family and close friends, and they constantly asked me what they could do for me. Although most of the time I wanted to be alone, knowing I had people there to offer a distraction or just to vent to was all I needed. Because, even with staying positive 90% of the time, the fear and emotions were still there. I was often overwhelmed with the uncertainty of whether or not the treatment was working, waiting for test results, worrying about how my family was dealing with the cancer, and how my future would be affected. With the exception of the day I found out, and occasional panic attacks as I went through everything, I felt pretty calm about the whole thing.
Truthfully, I think it was the people around me who were most affected by the cancer diagnosis. It was my boyfriend of 5 years who stayed completely positive the whole time, not letting me see any worry or negativity, but still struggling to see me go through it on the inside. It was my parents who took care of me every day when I could not take care of myself. My dad, the emotional and caring one, as I am the youngest of four daughters, and my mom, who shaved my head when I was ready, took me each time I had to go to the hospital, and worked overtime with me to make sure I was comfortable. It was my sisters who brought me anything I wanted, each one having a very different reaction to the cancer, but never wavering in support. I found that as difficult as it was for me, it was much more difficult for those around me. So, next time you know someone going through a hard time, do not forget to check in on their loved ones as well to make sure they are handling things okay.
As a 23-year-old woman, navigating a world with cancer was not the easiest. Losing all my hair was a big adjustment, as my hair had always been one of my defining features. But, surprising even myself, I found that I was extremely comfortable being bald. I never once got a wig, but instead opted for baseball or winter hats.
The scariest part, though, of being a young woman and going through something so life changing, was the uncertainty of how the chemotherapy would affect my future family. I made the decision to go see a reproduction specialist before beginning chemotherapy to talk through my options. I was given a lot of information in a short period of time, the most prominent being that the harsh chemotherapy could effect my ability to have children in the future. As I was a long way away from thinking of having kids, I never expected to have to make a decision about it at that moment. I had to decide to (1) either freeze my eggs and wait a month to start chemo, possibly making my cancer worse, or (2) to hope that I do not go into early menopause and know that once I decide to have kids, I may have a more difficult time due to the chemotherapy aging my eggs and making my body think I’m 10 years older than I am. I decided right away that making sure the cancer was gone was the top priority at that moment, and I risked it. Looking back, I would have made the same choice all over again, even though it meant I had to consider starting a family earlier than I thought, or possibly not start a family at all. But choosing to beat cancer was worth all of my future worries combined.
As cheesy as it sounds, my biggest realization after finishing chemotherapy was that life is short and extremely unpredictable. The only way to live is to not settle or stay in situations that make you unhappy, but to instead find what does make you happy and do it.
There are a number of decisions I have made in the last year or so that I would not have if I was never diagnosed with cancer. I quit a job that was making me so unhappy, I could feel my mental health deteriorating both at work and at home. Instead I chose to begin looking for a job that made me excited to go to work every day. I found a new passion for calligraphy and art, so I made the leap and started a small business, combining it with my love for graphic design. If I had never been diagnosed with cancer, I really do not think I would have ever started that business that now is such an important part of my life.
Who I am as a person has forever been changed due to those six months of treatment. I am a better, more positive person now, and I no longer sweat the small stuff. I am proud of the way I handled having cancer, and although it comes with its share of fear and problems, I look back at that day I was diagnosed as the pivotal moment in my life that changed it for the better.
About the Author:
Mariah is a young entrepreneur, artist, and owner of MJ Creative Co, a calligraphy & stationery design business in the Milwaukee area. She spends her time focusing on the little details that come together to make something beautiful, always inspired by combining old-fashioned processes with modern design to create the prettiest of paper. Follow along with her work and blog at www.mjcreativeco.com.