I was sitting in the corner of a blue couch on the fifth floor of the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital when I was told that I had a pancreatic tumor.
My mind went blank. I clutched a blanket closely while my parents sat beside me. I don’t remember how much time passed, but eventually I was ushered back to my room. I didn’t sleep that night.
I was diagnosed in the winter of 2017. In the following six months, I went through two different chemotherapy treatments and left school, and my life changed completely.
The physical side effects were unavoidable. I didn’t eat solid food for two months, then I couldn’t stop throwing up. There were also the perpetually achy joints, mouth sores and strong taste aversion, which I can only describe as food tasting like the color gray.
My tumor was inoperable, so the goal of chemotherapy was to reduce my tumor enough to have surgery and remove it.
Throughout my treatment I struggled to adjust to my new version of life, where seeing doctors every morning, lugging around an IV pole and going to my support group was the norm. It was an abrupt change — I missed every moment of my “normal life,” from going to class to waking up without pain in the morning.
What kept me going in the beginning was the idea that it would be over soon.
My doctors were very straightforward with me and told me they couldn’t guarantee that treatment would work. But after my first round of treatment, I had convinced myself that chemotherapy must have worked. There was no way I’d gone through all of that pain and time for nothing.
I eagerly attended my CT scan, and then my appointment. But my doctor told me there had been no improvement.
I was devastated and lost, but I tried to do what I could. Every day I put on my socks, grabbed my IV pole and walked around the hospital floor until my legs were too tired to keep going.
One day as I was making my usual rounds, I passed an open room where the parent of a patient saw me and asked how I was doing. I considered answering honestly, but decided on a simple, “Good, thank you.”
In the following days, every time I passed by that room, the parent would stop me and talk to me, and even gave me chocolate once. Those daily talks gave me something to look forward to, and when the family left, I still passed by that room everyday. I saw plenty of patients, parents and hospital personnel on my daily walks, but that parent had been the only one who always stopped me.
Walking became my solace. I walked with my roommate, who normally refused to get out of bed and could only be tempted by the promise of chocolate awaiting her when we got back to our room. I walked with a little girl who’d already had cancer even though she was barely 1 year old. Walking gave me consistency, something I’d craved among all the chaos.
After trying various chemotherapy treatments with little improvement, my doctors decided it would be best to stop, and I went back to school two months after my last treatment in June 2018.
I was still tired, sick and anxious, but I thought this was my chance to get my life back on track. I muddled through senior year. I was finishing homework assignments from a year ago, trying to catch up and struggling to apply for college, while also attempting to physically recover from sitting in a hospital bed for six months.
I used to wonder about all the ways I would be different if I had never gotten sick. I don’t think I will ever really know, but I’m beginning to become intimately acquainted with the uncertainty I was terrified of and learning how to accept it.
The first step was confronting what scared me. I was afraid that I had fallen behind in school and that I would never catch up, that losing my hair meant I was starting to lose myself and that I might get sick again and wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. My life had been upended and I realized that I couldn’t do something about everything.
I still think about that parent and his child all the time. I wonder if my old hospital roommate is OK, and if there’s someone else dragging her out of bed to walk around the hospital floor. I think about the other patients in my support group and where they are now. I wonder about the volunteer who taught me chess and helped me with math homework.
I still plan for the future, hoping that I can do things the way I want. But I feel a twinge of panic when I think about the possibility of having to go through chemotherapy again and being thrown off course. But for now, I know exactly what I’ll do if I get sick again. Put on my socks, take hold of my IV pole and get to walking.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.