A pediatric cancer survivor looks back

Ian Gillen

Editor’s note: This column was submitted in acknowledgement of Pediatric Cancer Awareness month in September.

I still remember the day it happened.  It was a Tuesday morning and the doctor’s office was much chillier inside than out, where I could see the warm sun shining down through a clear sky. I was 16 years old, sitting across from a doctor who calmly told me, in a way that only a man who had done this hundreds of times before could, that I had cancer. In the span of a week, I went from being a Division I college basketball prospect to being a person forced to deal with cancer at an age when most kids are thinking about getting their driver’s licenses and deciding who to take to the prom.

Over the past eight years, I have endured 11 surgeries and, as a result, have required hundreds of hours of physical therapy.  Through countless follow-up appointments, weekly physical therapy sessions and the daily aches and pains of recovery, I remember all the praise I received for being so strong when it was easy to be so weak. But what no one knew was that even though cancer did not break my spirit, it broke my heart. It stole from me the moments and years I should be able to look back on now and remember as the greatest of my life.  It sapped all of my energy, both physical and emotional, and turned me into a shell of the exuberant person I once was. And it forced on me a new life that I was neither ready to confront nor in a position to handle.

I am in the rare position of being a pediatric cancer survivor. I do often struggle with what that is supposed to mean to me. Should I be proud? I have often read of people having survivor’s guilt. Is that something I should think about? I was lucky enough to have survived at a young age what no one deserves to be confronted with at all. What should that mean to me?

I have met a handful of other survivors over the years, and we are able to commiserate together about the pains of “normal” things that are not normal to us anymore. It is comforting to know that I am not alone, and that there are other survivors who understand the fears I grapple with every day: Should I tell the person I’m interested in that I had cancer? Should I risk being honest with her about the defining facet of my life, knowing it could scare her away?  How do I explain the surgical scars that crisscross, dot and span my right shin? Being honest about a topic so foreign to young adults continues to vex me to this day. How should I feel about my high school classmates who failed to support me as I faced my personal battle without them by my side?  Since then I’ve tried to reconcile my pain, but the memory of their betrayal stings me still. I hold on to the belief that, had they been there in the way I hoped, I would have better coped with my challenges.

Because my cancer was in my leg, every step I take is a reminder, not just of my pains but also of my accomplishments.  As I walk to my Arab Spring class after locking my bike, each step reminds me of the days when I was wheelchair-bound; as I navigate the throngs of students on the busy sidewalk in front of PCL, I recall how difficult it was to weave through crowds once I had graduated to walking with a cane.  And finally, as I descend the stairs in Mezes and enter the basement classroom, I recall the pride I felt when I was able to walk under my own power to receive my high school diploma.  Now, I find myself pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic at UT-Austin, with the opportunity to form new dreams for my new future.

As a cancer survivor, I have learned to accept the way my life has unfolded. I will never be able to un-cry my tears, or un-ask the question — “Why me?” — that haunted me for years. I do hope someday to forgive the classmates who shunned me for battling a disease I never would have wished on my worst enemy. By beating cancer, I have been given a new chance at life, and I must learn to love the person I am becoming. 

Cancer has changed my priorities. I have learned to deeply value both those who chose to stick by me as well as the people who have chosen to be a part of my new life, while holding a separate place in my heart for those that I hope will someday come back. I also have begun to grasp the importance of managing my time — I do my schoolwork, but I also find moments to take a breath and do something, no matter how small or inconsequential, that makes me happy.  I am still only 25, and I have much more of life to see and experience. I know I don’t have the ability to do the impossible, but I do have the willpower and inner strength to believe in myself.  So to me, believing and wanting to move on and live a full, happy life is the greatest victory I can have.

As I continue to rebuild my life and become somebody new, I’m often reminded of the words of Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Eight years after that warm, clear, Tuesday morning, I am strong at my broken places.

Gillen is a Middle Eastern studies graduate student from  New York City.