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Lessons Learned from Being a Young Adult Cancer Survivor

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

[NCSD guest blog post by Heather Hall] 

Heather HallCancer changed my life in a way that is difficult to put into words. Diagnosed at 21 with bone cancer, I underwent aggressive chemo and surgery that replaced part of my femur and tibia with titanium. When I walked out of the hospital 13 months later, I knew my life would be forever different. When you face your mortality as a 21-year-old on the cusp of becoming an independent adult, life changes forever.


The past 20 years have been a myriad of ups and downs. I will soon have lived longer as a cancer survivor than not. That concept sometimes overwhelms me with gratitude for being alive. I have learned an enormous amount about life and people, but mostly about myself. While I never answered the “why me” question about my cancer diagnosis, I am grateful for the many lessons I have learned during my cancer journey. 


1. Cancer will always be part of my life. I used to think the longer I was post-treatment, the less I’d worry about cancer. I thought I could squeeze my cancer journey into the back of my mind and shut the door. But that’s not how life works. While the worries faded over time, I’ve accepted that they will never disappear. Every year as my annual check-up approaches, I admittedly feel a bit anxious. As a survivor, I learn to balance positive thinking with the worry. I am alive, and cancer will forever be part of my life. My wish is to live for another 45 to 50 years to enjoy my life and body.


2. My body is stronger than I give it credit for. I babied my body for months post-treatment, terrified of minor aches and worried that any wrong step would hurt my leg. Then I realized (with support from doctors, family, friends, and fellow survivors) I was holding myself back from living. I started biking and hiking, returned to the gym for strength training, and tried new activities. My confidence in my body slowly came back. I’ve learned to channel my doubts into cautious courage. I still sometimes get irritated when there is something I can’t do, but I try to focus more on what I can do. 


3. Make great memories whenever you can. Listen up: Life is short, whether you live to be 50, 80, or 97. And it goes fast. Don’t pass up opportunities to make memories and try new things.


4. The simple things really are the best and most important. Laughing with friends, my mom’s hug, the sound of waves in the ocean, a good book, a long bike ride, fresh flowers. There are so many wonderful things to enjoy in life. Too often we get caught up in the drama, responsibilities, and demands of life, and we forget to appreciate the simple acts and moments that touch us. When you face your own mortality, you start to recognize those simple things as blessed moments in life.


5. Laughter is the best medicine. I used to take life a bit more seriously. But cancer made me realize there is always room for laughter and looking at the lighter side of every situation. 


6. Life is an adventure—embrace and explore it. The world around us is big and beautiful. There are so many activities and opportunities waiting for you. Make a list of new activities you want to try and then do them. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Book that trip with someone you love. Take a bike ride. Take a road trip to somewhere new. Explore a big city.


7. Don’t wait to tell someone how you feel, especially if it’s love. Being vulnerable and emotional isn’t easy for anyone. Sometimes it’s easier to just assume someone knows how you feel. But don’t assume; say it. Don’t waste a chance to share how you feel. That moment may never present itself again. There may come a moment in life when you can’t share how you feel, and you don’t want to regret having stayed silent.


8. Life is a gift not to be wasted. You get one opportunity to enjoy life. Don’t waste it. That doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes or that you must smile all the time. It means you should make the most of the time you have. Learn what you love, who you love, and go for it. Living life isn’t about sitting on the sidelines.


Heather Hall is an osteosarcoma and melanoma survivor. She has spoken at events around the country, written for news sites, and is a passionate cancer advocate who works with other advocates and legislators to create positive change for people facing cancer. Heather blogs at HeathersHangout.com where she shares tips and resources to inspire other cancer survivors. You can also follow her at @heatherhall3 (Twitter) and @HeathersHangout (Instagram).