To be a teenager is to be stuck in limbo. You are too old to be treated like a child, but too young to make completely independent adult decisions. When I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at 19 years old, I realized that teenage limbo is much more complex after a cancer diagnosis. I had to juggle my medical care, school life, friends, all the while continuing on my path of self-discovery and personal growth. It was a lot to balance, and could be overwhelming at times.
Looking back, it’s easy to pinpoint what helped me navigate my treatment. Here are my top pieces of advice for teenage cancer patients:
1. Listen to Your Body
Listening to your body is not the norm for a teenager. At that age, your body is supposed to be able to bounce back quickly. Aches and pain are usually minor- maybe you got a bruise from soccer practice, or a headache from lack of sleep after studying all night. When I started experiencing unfamiliar pain in my arms leading up to my diagnosis, I thought that I had pulled a muscle exercising— it never crossed my mind that cancer could be the cause.
YOU know your body better than anyone else. If something hurts, you’re more nauseous then normal, or you feel anxious, let your medical care team know. It’s better to over-share with your medical team, because they might be able to catch something early or switch your medication. I found that my nurses were a fantastic resource because they’ve seen it all and usually have great tips and tricks for any situation.
2. Use Your Voice
As a teenager, it can be nerve-wracking to talk with your doctors, especially if you are used to your parents advocating for you in medical situations. It can also be confusing if they use lots of fancy medical jargon. I found it important to learn to communicate with my doctors to make sure that we were on the same page.
For me, effective communication with my doctors meant that I asked a lot of questions so that I could understand every aspect of my treatment. It was important for me to find a doctor who spoke directly to me and treated me as an adult, even when my parents were there. Understanding my medications allowed me to mentally prepare for various side effects so that I wasn’t surprised by anything.
Also, asking a lot of questions helped me to feel more in control of my life. Feeling a loss of control in life can be common during cancer treatment, and was a hurdle that followed me past treatment. When small things like asking questions didn’t help me feel more in control, I found it helpful to reach out to a mental health professional.
3. Practice Mental Self-Care
Cancer is mentally exhausting. Happy days are followed by sad days, and you can expect to experience every single emotion in between. The best thing that you can do is accept that you can’t necessarily plan for your mood. If being social is too exhausting and you need to have a quiet day to yourself, take alone time. If you know that being around others is a good way to lift you out of a funk, be proactive and schedule time with friends. Basically, do whatever makes you the happiest.
Personally, a critical part of my mental self-care was (trying) to stay away from social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Watching my friends’ lives continue on without me made me sad, and I hated to be reminded of all the things I couldn’t do. I tried to limit my time on social media, opting for watching youtube videos or listening to podcasts instead.
4. Distract Yourself
It’s easy to fall into a routine where everything is cancer related 24/7, and that can be overwhelming, and even a little depressing. I found it helpful to focus on hobbies to take my mind off of treatment. Here is a list of some of the things that I did to keep my mind busy.
5. Embrace Your Baldness
Losing my hair was tough- I really felt like I was losing a part of me. However, at some point I had to accept that it was an inevitable part of chemotherapy and tried to embrace it. Treatment is a great time to find fun wigs, hats, and scarves that will make you feel happy. My favorite hat was my Love Your Melon Beanie, which I wore almost everyday. Plus, they will send you a free one if you have cancer (yay cancer perks!), so have someone reach out to them and request a free one.
My personal mantra, that I inherited from a friend, was “bald is beautiful.” Its something I’d say to myself when I looked in the mirror and felt sad or down, to remind myself that I was strong, brave, and beautiful.