By the time I was 16 I was a two-time cancer survivor. And I have been surprised to find that it is possible to benefit from the cancer experience.
I count myself very lucky to have lived through experiences and challenges that most of my peers cannot imagine. I have become a passionate writer and advocate for young people living through cancer treatment or cancer survivorship. Through my writing, I have chosen to be a proponent of positive attitudes and try to encourage my readers to stay positive in the midst of some very negative times.
In doing so, I have learned a lot about cancer – both my own experiences and the impact cancer can have on others. For me, I am grateful for the lessons-learned, friends made, and dreams realized thanks to those two bouts of cancer. Although it can be hard to understand this gratitude when going through it, I have come to find that cancer can impact your life in just as many positive ways as negative ones.
In my own case, there are several things that have happened in my life – several very good things – that I don’t know if I would have experienced had it not been for cancer. For starters, my cancer treatment as a toddler sparked in me a lifelong passion for helping others, and that passion that provided me with direction during the early teenage years in which many young people feel most directionless.
My cancer relapsed at 13 and, while it stole 3 years of my adolescence from me, it gave me much more. That relapse treatment provided me with a family of doctors and nurses who showed me the meaning of hope, the value of dedication to one’s work, and the wonderful impact one can have on the lives of others when you choose a career about which you are passionate. I then had the opportunity to be an honorary team captain at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Fall Ball Lacrosse Tournament. I was assigned as the honorary team captain for the Duke University women’s lacrosse team. Although I couldn’t come to the game itself, the team sent me a beautiful and thoughtful care package. When I later went to look at colleges, Duke was at the top of my list because I wanted to find a school like that where students were involved in on-campus activities that could benefit people in and around the community. No less than 5 years after that lacrosse tournament, I received my letter of acceptance from Duke University and will be graduating with honors in May.
Shortly after the LLS lacrosse tournament, I took the opportunity to share my cancer treatment journey at a fundraiser for the hospital at which I was treated. This led to 30 subsequent speaking engagements that allowed me to become a practiced public speaker and give back to hospitals and organizations dedicated to helping children with cancer. At the same time, being out of school because of my treatment led me to realize the unique needs teenagers with cancer have, and the lack of age-specific social and emotional support that they so justly deserve. That realization led me to take an independent research class in high school to research the psychology of teen oncology, a project that led me to writing my blog and eventually publishing my book for teenage and young adult cancer patients and survivors.
Writing my blog and my book allowed me to process my cancer treatment experience and deepened my passion and interest in psychology – specifically in research into and development of social support interventions for adolescents with chronic illness, to help improve their quality of life. In following that interest, I hope to pursue a PhD in pediatric health psychology and work with children, adolescents, and young adults who have cancer or other chronic illnesses.
Long story short, you can take a challenge like cancer and turn it into one or many opportunities. By maintaining a positive attitude and open mind, think about your future and use the challenging experience as leverage to achieve goals that can help to make your future the best it can be.
Clarissa Schilstra is a two-time cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia for the first time when she was two and a half years old. She went through two and a half years of chemotherapy and survived. She led a happy and healthy life until June of 2007, when her cancer relapsed. So, she went through another two and a half years of chemotherapy, this time accompanied by radiation. She is now twenty-one years old and a senior at Duke University. Her passion is helping others cope with the ups and downs of life during and after cancer treatment. It is her goal to become a clinical psychologist after she graduates from Duke, and she would like to help improve the psychological care available to adolescents and young adults who have serious illnesses. You can read more about Clarissa on her website and blog at www.teen-cancer.com. To order a copy of her book, Riding the Cancer Coaster, click here.