Cancer is hard. Really hard. Like, to hell and back hard. So when I became a cancer survivor at 20 years old, I had a newfound lease on life. During chemotherapy, I spent days and days dreaming about returning to school; taking a full course load, going to college parties, feeling confident about my new hair, etc. I was itching to be given the all-clear, ready to take on the world.

I returned to school 6 months after my last round of chemotherapy, Immediately, I was faced with the tough reality that life after cancer isn’t that easy. I found that I didn’t have the same amount of energy that I used to. My full class load completely drained me. Everyday after class I would return to my dorm and crash on my bed, exhausted from the day. My hair grew back slowly, and I had to deal with the buzzcut phase for longer than I liked. Bad hair days called for hats, which made me feel awkward. To top it all off, I had gained a lot of weight from the chemo, and I was self-conscious about my body. I dragged myself to the gym, but was frustrated to find out that my endurance was shot from treatment.

Although it was tough, I persevered, and eventually most of my medical-related problems started to fade. Within a few months, I was exercising regularly. Within a year, I had most of my old energy back. And within 2 years, I could pull my hair back into a ponytail. It took a lot of effort to get to the point I am today, but now when I look in the mirror I see a normal girl instead of a cancer patient.

Now, a majority of my problems aren’t medical-related. I worry about normal college student things like my grades, friends, and boys. However, these things will never be “normal” for me, because I carry around a different perspective than most of my peers. I know what real problems can look like.

Cancer is a real problem. Blood clots are real problems. Fluid build up around a heart is a real problem.

When I catch myself worrying about “normal” things, I weigh it against past medical problems. How can I stress about not having time to fit in a workout with my busy study schedule when in the past I had to worry about giving myself injections everyday? How can I be stressed about a bad grade on a homework assignment when I know other kids are sitting in hospital beds fighting cancer at this very moment? Mentally, I beat myself up for worrying about these small things. The “normal” problems I was facing seemed small and insignificant.

I think that facing cancer at a young age forces you to think differently, and sometimes that becomes overwhelming. For a while, questioning my problems became a significant burden for me. I started having panic attacks about things that were out of my control, because I couldn’t find the mental balance about what was significant in life.

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this post-cancer existential crisis. It was something that I couldn’t turn to my friends or family for help with, because nobody had been through a similar experience. I felt alone and unable to express myself. Luckily, I found a therapist at my hospital that was able to help me address the panic attacks and uncertainties that I was feeling. I have found that talking about these things have helped me find a balance in my life. Now, I move forward with less weight on my shoulders and am still ready to take on the world!

Rebecca Hoffman
Rebecca is a senior at Northeastern University studying Environmental Science. She’s passionate about conservation, and is happiest spending time outdoors. Her favorite activities include running, boxing, reading, and completing jigsaw puzzles with her friends. Rebecca was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in September 2014, and is proud to share her experiences balancing college life and her battle with cancer.