The last day of chemo is supposed to be a wonderful celebration of finally beating the crap out of cancer. But for me, this was my second “last day.” And it felt nothing like a party. The first time I defeated cancer was December 2007, when I was turning fourteen. At that point, I’d been doing chemo for almost four years. I’d put in my time, and I couldn’t wait to be done forever.
And yet there I sat at Children’s eight years later, waiting to do it again. It wasn’t the same. Not when I was supposed to be planning a different kind of celebration. My college graduation should’ve been rolling around in May. But that got pushed back the day my cancer relapsed. Sitting in the treatment room with my Mom, who couldn’t help herself from documenting our cancer “adventures,” I wanted to cry. While she smiled and took pictures, relieved this day had finally come, I stared out the window, miserable. All I could think of was here I am at the end of my two-and-a-half-year treatment and everything that could go wrong was. Confused and upset, I finally did break down and cry. Multiple times. Nothing like the happy crying my mom had been doing all week. And why? This was supposed to be a good day. Why did I have to feel this way on today of all days?
For starters, I was mad that my chemo buddy in the next room was finishing treatment as well. He got to celebrate on the same day as I did when he didn’t take the same journey. He was a one-time survivor who only served a six-month sentence. I know. It wasn’t fair of me to be mad. It wasn’t his fault, and chemo sucks whether it lasts for one month or thirty. But in that moment, I didn’t care. I’d been cheated.
Too soon, the time came to make my last treatment official. I’d ring the bell and sing the song—Pack your bags, get out the door, you don’t need chemo anymore—and move on with my life. Right? Not so much. What was I celebrating really? My life being ruined? My friends deserting me a few months into treatment? Dropping out of a college I loved? Having to move home? Losing my independence? Being forced to regain all my strength? And then there was that giant “elephant” looming in the room—going through chemo again if I relapsed a third time. All I’d known for over two years was sickness. Weakness. Frustration. Confusion. Setbacks. Isolation. Anxiety. Depression. What was I supposed to do now? Start over? And what was the point?
I know what you’re thinking. Well, this is a depressing, sad story with zero encouragement. But I’m not done. I’m writing this over four years later. If I could go back to that day, here’s what I would tell myself in that moment: Cancer sucks. This last treatment is not the last day of anything. In fact, this weekend you’ll be admitted to the hospital for fever and complications from this last chemo treatment. After that, you’ll start to recover. You’ll go back to college and make new friends. You’ll even change your major and find “your place” in the world of psychology. You’ll graduate and apply to grad school. Then, just when you think you might be returning to a sense of normalcy, you’ll be diagnosed with hemochromatosis—a blood disorder that’s caused by iron overload. That will set off a chain of other disorders—liver disease, diabetes, and other complications. Oh, yeah, and you’ll have to figure all of this out while starting grad school.
But hey, yay you! You got in! Earning your master’s in counseling will be tough. You’ll make friends and lose friends. Have a few relationships you wish you hadn’t. And then that diploma will be hanging on your wall, and you’ll finally get to start kicking cancer’s ass by helping others conquer the neverending psychological battle that goes hand in hand with chemo.
Cancer may leave physical scars, but the emotional scars cut deeper. The emotional damage cancer left was far worse than all of the physical damage combined. I wish I’d understood that while sitting in that room in 2016. I get it now. But I survived. I’m stronger. I’m wiser. I’m more peaceful than I used to be. I’ve earned the experiences, not just the skills, to help someone else push through it.
Now that I’m done talking to myself, here’s what I want to tell you: Whether you’re working toward your first last day or your second or third, just know that it’s okay to feel like everything is not okay. It’s even more okay to ask for help. This is hard in a way most people don’t understand. But once you make it through, you can use all that bad to do something good.
By Kyle Freeland