Advice from a Teenage Cancer Survivor
by Carly Freels
Nearly 16,000 U.S. children and adolescents under the age of 20 are diagnosed with cancer each year. I am one of them. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma when I was 17 years old.
While nothing can fully prepare a person for cancer to enter their life, I want to share a few things that helped my family and me cope with my diagnosis.
Friendly Advice for Friends and Family
If you are a family member or close friend of someone recently diagnosed with cancer, the best advice I can give you is to show them sympathy, but don’t treat them differently. Most of the time, you won’t have been in a situation that allows you to say, “I know what you’re going through.” That is more than OK.
While I was going through treatment, I didn’t need my friends and family to be able to relate to my experience. What I needed was people who simply were there for me. People who could say, “I know this is hard, and it may seem unfair, but I am here for you no matter what you need.”
Once I knew who would face this storm with me, I was comfortable in seeking help and encouragement when I needed it. The fact that my friends and family were still able to joke with me, laugh with me, and participate in everyday events alongside me gave me a sense of normalcy in an unsure situation. Despite my diagnosis, I still longed to have that routine high school life I was used to. By not treating me differently just because I had cancer, my friends and family helped me to hang on to a somewhat normal life.
The fact that my friends and family were still able to joke with me, laugh with me, and participate in everyday events alongside me gave me a sense of normalcy in an unsure situation.
On Redefining Beauty
One of the biggest obstacles I had to mentally overcome was the inevitable fact that I would lose my hair. For anyone undergoing chemotherapy, this is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s especially so for a girl in the prime of her high school years.
I started out wearing a wig that almost perfectly matched my once long, flowing brunette hair. However, as time passed, hiding behind a wig just didn’t seem right. My cancer was nothing to be ashamed of. To help me keep my hair loss in perspective, I decided to cover my mirror with verses and inspirational quotes about inner beauty and confidence. That’s when I began to see my shiny scalp, not as the uncomfortable elephant in the room, but as a sign of my strength and overcoming.
After only a few weeks, I let go of the wig’s security and found safety in knowing I was fighting a good fight. That decision is still to this day one of the best I have ever made. Letting go of the world’s definition of beauty and redefining it for myself has changed my perspective on so much, even now that I am finished with treatment and my hair has grown back in.
No one ever expects cancer to enter their life. When it does, it becomes a learning process for everyone involved. Have patience with the friends who have trouble relaying their good intentions, treasure the ones who never leave your side, and find the beauty in every victory.
Carly Freels is the author of When Faith > Fear…, an autobiography that touches on how to keep a positive outlook after a cancer diagnosis.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2016.