My cancer was discovered late. Doctors estimated that even with a bone marrow transplant my odds were still only 55% at best.
Three years of treatment (including two failed bone marrow transplants) resulted in a plethora of late effects: cataracts, preset osteoporosis, stunted growth, damage to my pancreas, changes in my skin pigmentation and a few others. That said, for me the worst part was not the effects on my body but the mental impact of it all. There was the feeling of isolation that came with being a kid in cancer treatment during my formative years; the fear of relapse and believing I was just on “borrowed time”; the self-deprecating thoughts that I didn’t earn my grades, my teachers just pitied me; and finally, the guilt of surviving when others did not.
Many of us childhood cancer survivors know at least one person who did not make it. I actually know a few but the one who stands out for me is Andy. Andy came to our school in grade 10 after just having finished treatment for leukemia. I thought we would bond over our shared cancer experience, but it turned out Andy wasn’t interested in talking about his illness. Still we became fast friends. In grade 12 when he relapsed, doctors gave him a low chance of survival. He decided to forgo treatment and within a few months, Andy passed away. I remember when I got the news one of the first things to pop into my head was, “I wish it was me.” To this day, the guilt of that being one of my first thoughts has etched itself into my brain and soul.
When high school ended, I decided to push the negative thoughts deep down. At that time, I decided to go to college for social work. I often tell people that I chose the field because I wanted to give something back for all the help I received. In reality that is only partially true. The other reason was that I wanted to make sure no other kid turned out like me.
After completing a Bachelor’s in Social Work from Carleton University, I was only able to get part-time work. I was seriously underemployed and despite my efforts, had difficulty launching a full-time career. All of those negative thoughts started to bubble to the top. The voice in the back of my mind told me I was broken and worthless and within a short period, I started to believe it. I secretly wished that I had died during my treatment or that I would develop a secondary cancer. I had hit rock bottom.
It was during a routine checkup at Princess Margaret Hospital that I met a nurse practitioner who sensed something was off and asked some questions. It was the first time in years that someone in the healthcare field seemed to care about my mental state (not just the physical) and it just all came bursting out. She recommended therapy and gave me the contact information for the survivor care program at POGO.
With a few months, my confidence started to grow. I was volunteering at POGO and I started to get interviews with government agencies and major non-profits. Even though I was not hired, I always received great feedback and was often told that I was within the top three final candidates.
Soon a position opened up at POGO and I was recommended for the job. To my surprise, I got it and now work as an Administrative Assistant to the POGO Financial Assistance Program. Even though I still have moments where negative thoughts creep into my mind, I feel as if this is where I belong and thanks to my supervisor and the other POGO staff, I continue to grow both on a personal and professional level.
I now know that I am not worthless and broken. And although treatment has left me physically and mentally battered and bruised, I am still standing.
For more on survivor guilt, read Leanne Brown’s story The Burden of Surviving Childhood Cancer.