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 Boston-based contributor who is proud to share her experiences as a Young Adult survivor of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She's passionate about healthy living + the environment, and in her free time enjoys running, reading, and exploring the city.