When I was 23, my fiancé was diagnosed with glioblastoma- terminal brain cancer.
Most of our friends were graduating from college, getting jobs, enjoying the freedom that comes in the years after you turn 21 and you make all your biggest mistakes, but not us. Our lives revolved around chemotherapy, radiation, clinical trials, and managing side effects. While our friends went out to paint the town red we stayed home, carefully administering pills to combat nausea and fatigue, critiquing the hospital dramas on TV and going to bed early.
Our friends tried to be as supportive as they knew how, but most had no idea what that meant. We were so young, we didn’t have any experience with mortality, with friends who were suffering. When our wedding date neared I sent an email to my fiancé’s best friend and best man, telling him he had to plan something other than a night of drinking for the Bachelor Party. I didn’t want to explicitly say drinking wasn’t an option, I thought I’d sound like a bridezilla or nag, and I was still young and naive enough that those kinds of things mattered to me.
Of course, when the Bachelor Party came, my fiancé sat awkwardly in the bar, watching his friends drink, explaining to his friends on the night before his wedding that he couldn’t join in, that alcohol lowered his seizure threshold and that he could end up in the hospital. That chemo doesn’t really mix with alcohol.
People rallied around us as much as they could, but there is no webinar you can sign up for to learn how to interact with a friend who has terminal cancer. Or maybe there is now, but there wasn’t then.
My now-husband has made miraculous progress. He’s still alive, his condition is what they refer to as “stable” in the brain cancer world- which means it’s not progressing. He’s still considered terminal, and over the years our friends have learned how to talk to him about it, somewhat. But with years come experience. Parents and grandparents die, responsibilities increase, the burden of adulthood begins to fall on almost everyone. Now in our early thirties, most of our friends are married, and many have children. Some have even battled their own diseases. Some have lost those battles. Now our friends have the perspective and the maturity to understand so much more of what living with a disease like cancer can be like.
But being young and having cancer is isolating. Young adulthood is for creating the memories you want to cherish when real adulthood comes, for partying and traveling and meeting new friends, establishing yourself in a job or trying something new. We didn’t get to do those things, not the way we ever wanted to.
Having cancer, particularly when you’re a young adult, forces your life into perspective. It forces you to reckon with what your life priorities are. If they’re to travel, you travel. If it’s to accomplish some goal in your profession, you do it. If, as for us, it’s to build a family and focus on domestic happiness, it’s what you do. Having cancer as a young adult is a crash course in reality. You come quickly to understand that this life is all you get. That there are no dress rehearsals in living. That whether or not you live the life you want is up to you, and your time is limited.
Having cancer in these formative years changes you. Not just physically, not just with scars or baldness or amputation. It forces you out of a prolonged adolescence, forces you to recognize what in your life matters, and go for it.
Cancer survivors are some of the toughest people out there, not just because they’ve beaten a horrible disease, but because they’ve been forced to look at their own mortality in a real way, in a meaningful way, and to decide whether or not they like they legacy they’re leaving behind. To decide whether or not they’re happy with their epitaph. Cancer survivors, particularly young cancer survivors, are people who live with purpose. Because how long does anyone really have? And who really knows when your death will come for you?
Read more about growing together despite brain cancer here: What I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Marriage
Read my most recent post here: An Adventure in Misdiagnosis, for Dysautonomia Awareness Months
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