I had cancer before I was old enough to drive.
When I started high school, I was an awkward, brace-faced 13-year-old with a bouncy head of brown curls — and a fully functioning thyroid.
That is, until I was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma the following January, at the ripe age of 14.
I was probably not the first person battling cancer that my classmates knew, but I was likely one of the youngest. The National Cancer Institute found that the risk for diagnosis increases with age and fewer than 25 per 100,000 people under 20 years old will be diagnosed with cancer.
Thyroid cancer is among one of the most common types of cancers in adolescents. The type of cancer I was diagnosed with had a survival rate of 99%. I figured I’d get through it, but I wondered how.
My days full of homework and assignments from my eight classes became bookended with blood work appointments, neck ultrasounds and a copious number of doctor’s appointments crammed into the two months leading up to my surgery.
Nothing was as bad, however, as the social aspect tied to being a cancer patient and high school student at the same time.
My identity had been reduced to simply being “the girl with cancer,” without everyone having the facts to inform their bewildered stares. Suddenly, classmates who I’d scarcely spoken to were holding my hand with teary eyes and my crush from Spanish class was asking me if my cancer was terminal, mid-verb conjugation. I’d scurry through the halls, trying to escape the eyes of my peers.
I’d been robbed of my adolescence. While my peers were stressed about winter formal proposals and midterms, I was plagued by a constant fear for my health and my development. I hadn’t even had the chance to cope and mourn my own medical misfortune because I was now tasked with navigating gossiping teenagers.
It was time to take hold of my own story.
I took to social media, as any member of Gen Z would, to deliver the news. I remember almost posting prematurely because one of my tears hit the screen near the share button as I posted a picture on Instagram with a short, simple caption: “Once upon a time there was a curly haired girl who faced a challenge … one she was ready to conquer. This challenge is called thyroid cancer. I have cancer, but I’m ready to win.”
My inbox was flooded with messages of support. Messages came from long-forgotten classmates, friends from high school and people who I hadn’t even met yet, lending a supportive hand. I didn’t post just to set the record straight about my journey. I wanted to send a message to those around me to value their health.
But when it came to getting help from administrators and teachers, I was basically on my own. My teachers were aware of my situation, of course, but only my English teacher showed mercy. She was the only teacher, of the 10 I had that semester, who offered emotional support and gave me extensions on assignments, which is what I needed more than anything. I was a straight-A student. It wasn’t a matter of if I could catch up, I was just never given the chance.
My end-of-semester report card for biology reflected the lowest grade I had ever received. My letter grade was identical to the first letter of my disease. C for cancer and C for biology.
This past January, at the age of 20, I celebrated five years post-diagnosis.
For the rest of my life, I’ll have to be far more conscious about how my immune system is garbage and forever worried about whether the person next to me could pass something on.
Though my blood checks and doctor’s appointments are less frequent, I remain flanked by overzealous medical residents, fondling my neck to check for residual signs of cancer far more than I’d like. But, I made it through.
As the refined, thyroidless young woman I am now, I realize that what I needed more than anything during high school was support from my teachers and administration. Mental health resources were scarce and inaccessible. Having access to counselors who would talk to me about something other than college might have improved my experience and outlook.
I’m different today. My teeth are straight and my desk drawers are stocked with bottles of thyroid replacement pills.
However, I will always carry deep inside myself the 14-year-old who was able to keep her head up and reclaim her agency with resilience and grace, and thank her for not cowering from adversity.
I survived cancer in high school and everything else seems easy now.
Bella Arnold is a senior studying journalism at California State University, Long Beach, and is an intern with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.
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