In 2013, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that required immediate surgery and multiple cycles of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. At the time I was 17 years old, in my final year of high school and was excited to reap the rewards of my hard work from all my years at school. Being diagnosed with cancer changed all that – it made me feel like my world had fallen apart.
Now, at 22 years of age and having been in remission for nearly five years, I am able to look back at my cancer journey and realise that the experience has shaped me into becoming the best version of myself. I am grateful for the life I lead now. Given this, I have written a letter to my 17-year-old self, imparting four pieces of advice I wish I better practiced when I was that age.
I know what you are thinking — how did you end up here? In hospital, getting ready to be wheeled in to the operating room for what your oncologists have told you is a ‘simple procedure’. You were supposed to be in class with all the lads, wondering how you would ever pass the HSC, who you will be taking as a date to formal and what Uni you want to attend. Yet here you are, wondering if you will be healthy enough to complete year 12 at all.
Being told you have cancer at any age is devastating but especially at your age. You will have to miss out on school for weeks at a time to complete chemotherapy and radiotherapy. You won’t be able to meet up with the lads on weekends as much as you could before because your body won’t allow it. I know more than anything, you are stressing out about the effect that your diagnosis is having on your parents and brother, emotionally and financially. You hate to see them sad and want to do all you can to relieve them of their worries.
Indeed, your life changed forever the moment you were told you had cancer. Though you may not believe it now, I want to reassure you that the turbulence you are experiencing will shape you into becoming the best version of yourself. So given this, there are four pieces of advice that I wish to share with you as you embark on your journey.
Firstly, have faith in the people you are surrounded by. You are surrounded by so much love. Your best friends, classmates, teachers, medical team and of course, your immediate family are supporting you every step of the way. You may not acknowledge this at times, especially when things may become so overwhelming and you would rather be by yourself, but please don’t ever forget it. They make their presence felt and that is way better than not having them around at all.
Secondly, be willing to seek professional support. I know the last thing you want to do is sit down with the School Counsellor (or as some of your teachers have tried to get you to do, with a psychologist) to discuss how your diagnosis is impacting your mental health and wellbeing. I know that your diagnosis is indeed having a big impact on your mental health: you now become irritated and angry very easily, have trouble sleeping and regular bouts of anxiety. Let me tell you, true strength is being able to express the negative openly and honestly to others. You will set a great example for your family, friends and school community when you demonstrate that you are not okay but that you are acting on it in the most productive way possible.
Thirdly, be kind to yourself. It’s time to begin appreciating the person you are. You know that guy you see staring back at you every time you take a selfie? He’s actually a great guy and deserving of your time and attention. You have always put the needs of others before your own; it is totally okay to do that to a certain extent but you must remember that you cannot care for and support others until you can learn how to care and support yourself first. You must prioritise some time each week to do things that you love, whether that is watching movies with your brother or going the gym and hanging out with the lads (when your body is feeling up to it). Whatever it is you do, the time you spend each week doing things you love will help sustain good mental health.
Finally and most importantly, listen to your Mama. This is pretty straightforward. Listen to your Mama, kid! She worries about you as much as you worry about her, and like you she is trying to make sense of everything that is going on at the moment with your health. She too, is afraid, so go easy on her! Listen to everything she has to say, whether that is the advice she gives or if she needs to vent. I know there isn’t anyone you love more than you love your Mama. Now is the most important time to show her.
These four pieces of advice will hold you in good stead. Take them on board and in just a few years you will be where you always dreamed of being in life:
You will have graduated from the University you always dreamed of attending, having met the most passionate, driven, intelligent and kind people.
You will still be spending your weekends with the same lads you spent your weekends with during high school. These boys become like your family.
You will become a passionate advocate for youth mental health and youth cancer, devoting your time and energy to represent charities and services that aim to help young people overcome circumstances similar to what you went through.
You will be cancer-free.
Don’t lose sight of your incredible potential, kid. You will do great things.
Your 22-year-old self.