Just like all cancers are different, no two cancer journeys are the same. In honor of National Cancer Survivors Month, Love Your Melon is excited and proud to spotlight Mary, who is a 2-time childhood cancer survivor. Anyone who knows Mary knows that is a helper in every sense of the word. If she can do something to make someone else’s life easier or better, she will. She also believes that educating others about cancer (sprinkling in a little humor along the way) makes it easier to understand and deal with. After reading Mary’s story, you will also hope she decides to publish that book she mentions :)
I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for the first time in 1994 and relapsed in 2003, both on Thanksgiving Day.
As a 6-year-old child, people (adults) have an opinion of how you are supposed to feel, act, think, etc. I quickly realized that educating people about what was going on made it easier to deal with. I would show the cashiers at the grocery store my Broviac and made sure they knew to not be afraid of the brown stuff—"it’s not blood, just betadine to keep my tubes clean,” I’d say, wearing my massive coke bottle glasses that turned my sideburns green from the metal reacting to all the chemo in my system. My mom would laugh, and I’d tell them to have a nice day, with a big smile on my face. Kids and adults would often stare, not knowing what was “wrong” with me, and this forced me on an island of isolation. My defense was to make them understand and learn about what cancer was, so they didn’t treat me differently. My friends would help me flush my tubes with heparin and saline, and help with dressing changes without hesitation.
Fast forward to 2003, while I was a Sophomore in High School, I began experiencing a sharp pain in my ribs. “It’s back,” I told my parents. Both argued that I must have pulled a muscle, but cancer is the type of pain you don’t forget. When I tell you I knew, I knew. I remember everything about the first time, every single detail, what I was wearing, how I army crawled across the hallway in pain because my leg wouldn’t work. It’s a pain you just don’t forget.
On Thanksgiving Day, it was confirmed that I had a Leukemia relapse.This time it was different though, I was 16, I wanted to party with my friends, go to football games and learn how to drive. I didn’t have time for Leukemia.
I realized after going through multiple rounds of treatment at different ages that, as bad as it was, it’s so much easier being the patient than the family member on the sidelines. Knowing this, I always tried to help my mom find humor in the situation. When we were in the car and I had to wear my wig, I’d make eye contact with the driver next to us, then bend down as if I were getting something in my purse. I’d take my wig off and pop back up. The look on their face was hilarious and my mom would slam on the gas, both in tears from laughing.
There is this militaristic mindset that people have using phrases like “You keep fighting, you beat cancer, kick cancer’s butt.” Everyone’s experience is different and unique to them and there really isn’t a “right” thing to say as an outsider looking in, but I never felt like I was fighting anything. I looked at multiple relapses with Leukemia as a full-time job. I always felt like I was doing this so someone else didn’t have to. It was a job.
Now, I am almost 35 years old and still dealing with the aftermath of all the treatments, surgeries, and setbacks from cancer. I made the move to NYC from Buffalo, NY to test my limits, and to one day publish a book about my story, so that I can help someone else. I will continue to live with 6-year-old Mary in mind, imposing understanding on others to remove the Cancer stigma and fear to make a lasting impact.