The summer months were in full swing in August but my 16-year-old body was more like an 80-year-old woman’s in a nursing home. Only a few short months ago, I was a three-sport athlete. I was playing three back-to-back basketball games in the morning, and by evening I was playing shortstop in a doubleheader softball game. Then, cancer came and it arrived with a vengeance.
July was coming to an end, but the diagnosing process was just beginning. What I would have given for the doctors to be right during that first appointment. I would have asked that initial diagnosis of a mono-like virus out on a date and taken it to dinner and the movies. That mono-like virus and I could have had a really great summer fling. I went to the doctor three times before the word, “cancer” was muttered. During this process, the doctors told me that if I drew the short straw of cancer, non-Hodgkin is a sought-after diagnosis. I could not fathom the doctors were telling me that cancer was even an option. The mono-like virus which I was misdiagnosed for during my first three visits had become incredibly attractive. Rest and antibiotics were not part of my treatment plan but an aggressive cocktail of chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and weekly appointments became my new normal. Thank my lucky stars that I might only need chemo.
August 10, 2008 is a date that I remember like my birthday. I was diagnosed with stage 2 non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I call it NH for short. I am not sure why scientists chose non- Hodgkin for the name of my cancer. If it isn’t Hodgkin then could they at least come up with a different name? That would be like my mom having another child and naming her non-Katrina. I suppose we could call her NK. NH took my seemingly perfect teenage life and knocked it over like a child does to a Jenga tower.
I searched the Barnes & Noble shelves high and low for a copy of "How to Treat People with Cancer for Dummies." My searching was not fruitful but I am sure a copy can be found at he tacky, overpriced hospital gift shop. I would bet my thousands of dollars in medical bills that a copy was given out to all of my friends and family. People interact with the word “cancer” like they do a cold. They want to stay as far away from the C word as possible because standing in the same three-foot circumference means they might catch it, too.
I’ve heard that one of the chapters in "Cancer for Dummies" is about the necessity of giving flowers. Do you know what large quantities of flowers in a small space look like? Funerals. When I was trapped in the hospital for the first time, my room was littered with floral arrangements just like a church during a funeral. I have never understood flowers. Are flowers pretty? Sure. Do they make a bald teenager in a hospital bed look less like death? No, contrary to popular belief, flowers do not make someone look less like death, but closer to it.
I am fairly confident that the author (who was clearly never a cancer patient) of "How to Treat People with Cancer for Dummies" included an entire chapter on how to talk about baldness. The more popular comments were, “It’ll grow back.” or “You look really good bald.” The moments of silence are still my personal favorite. Sometimes I reacted like an annoyed, bitter chemo patient and gave my best death stare. I did look like walking death, so that helped. When I wasn’t trying to frighten the individual staring at me, I would pull out the “cancer card” and puppy dog eyes. This was a sure way to get a sympathetic head nod. The stares of horror, confusion or sympathy that I received while walking down the hallway at school or through the grocery store merely paled in comparison to what I thought while gawking at my own reflection in the mirror.
Not only did my friends and family read "How to Treat People with Cancer for Dummies," but it was on the book list for the doctors and nurses while they were studying to get a combination of letters at the end of their name. One of their favorite tips from the book was offering warm blankets. These were blankets that were placed in a warmer and when the doctors and nurses did not know what do to or found themselves lost for words, they would offer a warm blanket. I think their thought process went a little something like, “Oh you have cancer? Would you like a warm blanket?” Another personal favorite warm blanket offer went, “Honey, you have been in the hospital for 30 days, can I get you a warm blanket?” The offering of warm blankets did not miraculously cure my cancer, but being wrapped in the warm embrace of a blanket made me feel a little less cold and alone.
Throughout this entire process I was told some cancers are better than others. I suppose non-Hodgkin is the charming, graceful and polite one of the bunch, but cancer is cancer no matter how you sugarcoat it. Cancer comes into lives like a wrecking ball and destroys any kind of normal along its path. I never thought that I would be diagnosed with cancer as a teenager, but throughout the months of chemotherapy, blood transfusions and immense sadness, I encountered many well-intentioned people doing their best to show their love for me in the best way they knew how.
Written by Katrina Seibels
Katrina was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma when she was 17 years old. Now nine years past her cancer diagnosis date, she works in youth ministry at St. Therese Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minnesota. To read more from Katrina, read her piece Nine Years Later.