“I built mental strength and determination to do whatever it took to face these challenges.”
In May, 2005, I was a physically fit, 16-year old football player. I felt great. I had no idea what a lymph node was, let alone know anyone who had cancer. With one lump, life forever changed. I initially struggled with the fear of the unknown – cancer. chemo. radiation and losing my hair. I had to quickly educate myself on this disease, and endure a summer of grueling treatment. I relied on my family, friends and teachers to rise to this challenge. Although I had to give up some of the things I loved, I gained so much more from this experience in return.
I was humbled in ways most teenagers would never imagine. I had to grow up fast, starting with my trip to the sperm bank with my father in tow. Having to make such a spontaneous, mature decision about my long-term future, while still just a teen, made me realize I am capable of taking on adult-size challenges and making plans for my life beyond cancer.
One event of particular significance happened at school. Coming from a 2000+ student high school, it took all the courage I could find to walk in the doors on the first day of school. I was still undergoing treatment. My bleached blond, shaggy hair was gone. I was bald and bloated from treatments. Although difficult, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It taught me to face my fears and reinforced the goodness in others. It gave me the courage to continue to face the many difficult situations that lay ahead. No longer would I let cancer get in my way of enjoying each day.
In October, 2008. I went into remission. I was looking forward to living a normal high school life and making plans for the Spring. Cancer was gone and I was cured. Life again was great. I had an appointment set for surgery right after Christmas to remove my port. Those plans soon changed. In a strange turn of events, I was actually undergoing my second neck biopsy on the same day the port removal surgery was scheduled. A huge lymph node had materialized practically overnight and plans were put on hold. My worst fear had come to life, the cancer had aggressively returned, and again it was Hodgkins Lymphoma.
I was able to dig deep to find the strength, courage, and motivation needed to keep a positive attitude and do this all over again. My best option was to undergo chemotherapy, followed by an autologous stem cell transplant. We chose MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, for this procedure. Twice during the same school year I was battling cancer all over again. I had to relocate to Houston and leave my friends and teachers behind to face this battle. I had to bond with an entirely new medical team and learn to trust their decisions.
I built mental strength and determination to do whatever it took to face these new challenges. I learned to seek the positive in every day while being content with my situation, and not worry about what I could not control. Through my sense of humor, I coped with the unpleasant treatments and difficult decisions. I learned to set short and long term goals to get through each step of this process.
May 5, 2009, was day “0” of my transplant. After seven days of intense chemotherapy, my stem cells were reintroduced to my body and I was once again in remission. Since that day, I have remained cancer free. Although the decision to have the transplant was difficult, and the procedure one I would not want anyone to have to experience, it was the best decision I have made. I have learned so many things through this experience.
I have learned to have faith in myself and others. Life will always bring unexpected challenges, I am able to place an importance on the things that are truly important and not let the small stuff keep me down. Cancer prepared me for future challenges by making me a mentally stronger person than I ever was before, I take nothing for granted, including a college education, and know it is going to take a lot of hard work and disciplined to achieve my academic goals, I have worked hard to overcome cancer. I know I will be successful in college by using the same skills.
While I could look at cancer as being something that took away a part of my youth, I find that it has actually given back so much more in return. Battling cancer twice during my high school years has allowed me opportunities I never would have experienced had I not been placed in this position.
Cancer has offered many new opportunities through the trusting relationships I developed with my caregivers. As the medical world opened up before my eyes. I now know I want to pursue an education in the healthcare field. I want to be able to treat patients physically, and use my experiences to encourage others who face the tear of the unknown.
This year, I enrolled in a class called “Service Learning”. I have the privilege of shadowing my Pediatric Oncologist three to four days a week. I have been allowed to observe patient consultations, review protocols, scans, feel lymph nodes, watch bone marrow aspirations, all while being given a one-on-one education into each situation. I have been given the opportunity to meet/other Physicians, including the Pediatric Cardiologist, and have been invited to return for more surgery observations. I have met patients and their families, and have actually had the opportunity on more than one occasion to share my story. It helps them to see someone on the other side of cancer. I love this experience.
As I put on a pair of scrubs one March morning, and headed to the hospital, I felt like the luckiest high school senior in the world. It was my day to stand by the surgeon and observe open heart surgery on a 4-year old patient. Words cannot describe the exhilaration I felt watching a beating heart stop, then start all over again. I am 18 years old and experienced an event most adults will never see in a lifetime, all because I had cancer.
As a Make-A-Wish recipient, I chose a trip to Germany to tour former World War II concentration camps. The journey through Sachsenhausen and Dachau was a trip that inspired me in so many ways, and one that happened because I had cancer. To see what others suffered and know that many overcame horrifying obstacles, yet continued on to become successful members of society, made me realize that what I experienced with cancer should never keep me achieving my dreams.
Cancer has humbled and matured me. It has heightened my awareness of how my actions affect others, and how my own thoughts ultimately affect my success in life. I have learned not to be afraid of the unknown, but to educate myself and ask open, candid questions. Instead of worrying about the things I cannot control, I have learned to seize opportunities to better myself both physically and mentally so that I can pursue my dreams, I want to be someone who makes a difference in the lives of others.
I have developed a deeper compassion for others who are struggling with the unknown and have learned how to encourage and give hope to others. I realize that cancer was more than a disease; it was an event in my life that has shaped my thoughts, molded my future, and made me who I am today.
If you would like to help Cole and other children battling cancer, donate today!