What it’s like to be 16 and told you have cancer.
This article featured in issue 01 of Frowning ('A DIY FASHION & CULTURE ZINE'), 2016.
It’s strange how one moment can define your whole life.
For most people, it tends to be an action or some big event that marks the pinnacle of their days but for me, prior to last year, there was nothing. At 16 I, like all others, followed the mundane Monday to Friday school routine and went about trying to make my sixth and final year of school some sort of success.
It’s one of those ages that I can only define as ‘pretty shit’. Doing the best you can to fit in when everything seems so far out, and you just don’t feel ready for life’s next steps. I mean far out in the sense that the end of school comes at you like an awkward hug; you know what’s coming and it’s time to embrace it but there’s a reluctance to push your own comfort boundaries. Leaving school does that: new pressures, choices, final exams, social expectations, parent’s expectations and, of course, an abundance of uncontrollable stress.
It’s meant to signify the beginning of a new start. Yet, at 16, my final year of school and all of the years foregoing that were defined by a diagnosis. That diagnosis was cancer, and it redefined the meaning of ‘shit’. I would have rather – by any means possible – relived my whole Monday to Friday routine.
There are so many clichés that coexist with the disease and originally I was one to believe them. Cancer comes with a stigma, but it’s riddled with misconceptions. That’s what I learned right from the moment the words were uttered: “Jack, I’m sorry to tell you that it’s skin cancer.” Yep, that really is how it’s said. No silver lining, no prize, not even a sticker for your hard work; just plain old, shitty cancer.
As I sat in that ugly, beige office – an adequate colour for news that was similarly discomforting – and I was given my diagnosis I didn’t combust into flames. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky, either. An aura of normality paved the road ahead and I was still the same Jack I was when I had entered that room. Nonetheless, as I looked to my mum for a strand of reassurance I could tell that she was broken, and the emptiness in her eyes embodied my now drained level of hope. For me, the suffering did not stem from my diagnosis but from those around me, and as we drove home, my dad and sister realised the profound effect cancer was going to have on my life. Thoughts for the future now plagued with doubt and the uncertainty of what lay next almost drove me to the edge of insanity.
At the time, it was relatively easy to think about my position but near impossible to articulate it. Saying the words “I have cancer” would claw on to the end of my tongue like a child leaving home on the first day of school. Much like that situation, it would ultimately end in tears. It was never the cancer that prompted them, but accepting the fact that many would be thinking about how much time I had left, I guess. Yeah, I know that sounds incredibly narcissistic and I am therefore assuming that others were concerned for my well-being but fuck it. I did have cancer, and surely that makes it okay? Post diagnosis was odd. I would wake up to a fruit smoothie and a drawn on smile from mum. Dad tried to not to succumb to the stress and stay positive for me – as you do – and my younger sister looked upon me with a longing for the days where all was normal. Those days had gone. We went about accepting our new, redefined normality and when I met those strangers in the hallways of my house we all maintained the “I’m okay” mantra. I think depression reached out to us all at that stage. It could have been easy to clutch his cold hand, but who likes things easy? As the days passed and I met with social worker after social worker, I began to make cautious steps towards the funny side of it all. My anger subsided to jokes and sadness to a weird, unfamiliar sense of positivity. A positivity that I only found in humour and, funnily enough, not in the comfort of someone saying, “I’m here for you Jack”. I felt secure when I embraced the humorous side of it and began to realise without the laughter there would inevitably be tears.
There was something sort of cathartic about that. Demeaning the cancer to a single puny word and giving it a royal two finger salute in celebration. But, at the end of the day I was ravaged by the disease. It was a waiting game – and a slow, torturous one at that. At sixteen I felt like a stranger in my own body; a mere spectator of the film that was my life. The part that personified my helplessness was operation day. Before I went into theatre, my dad accompanied me into a room to get all the wires and things attached, I’m assuming that it was a heart monitor but I’m not really sure. I was scared; I had succumbed to genuine fear. As the drugs entered my system the doctors counted down. I looked at my dad and he held my hand. It was just nice to know that he was there, but we were helpless.
It was about a month after the operation when my dad passed me the phone. I knew what it was but didn’t know what to say. What do you to say to someone who has that news? They didn’t find any more cancer. I didn’t know how to react, and so I just dropped the phone. For once the tears weren’t torn from my eyes with sadness.
As you can imagine, the sense of relief was incomprehensible. I could relax now and for once I could tell my family and friends some good news.
For me, the days with cancer will never end and I will always be attached to it in some way, or another. I don’t think I’ll ever accept that it happened. But it is my normality – and I’m happy.