High school is not an easy period for many folks. As young adults, we begin to learn what we value in life, as well as who our close friends are. We battle our inner urge to be popular yet be true to ourselves. We slowly become distant from our parents as we strive for independence. Our sexuality matures as our hormones flourish and our crush begins to notice. Yet above all, we begin to understand what our interests and strengths are. These are the key challenges and milestones that, as adolescents, we all go through. Adolescent cancer survivors, as well as patients, face all these same challenges but to a different degree. Depending on the age and stage of a patient’s diagnosis, the level of stress and challenges vary. For one, our appearance changes drastically in a very short period of time. Thanks to the severity of treatment, our skin becomes very pale. Our hair becomes soft and falls within the first rounds of chemo. We wake up to a patch of hair on our pillow and wonder if it’s due to the treatment, or the stress that comes along with it. Some lose their eyebrows while others, like me, lose everything. At a time and place where our appearance is everything, it feels hard to fit in when we look completely different. As our self-esteem turns to an all-time low, we start questioning “Why is this all happening to me?” We feel alone, and ponder whether anyone knows what we are going through.
Being the rebellious teens that we are, it is rather hard for us to feel a sense of control in the hospital especially when we are confined to a small room with such strict hospital rules. While admitted in the hospital, we are often told what to do, when to do things, how often to do them and are subject to being woken up several times for vitals and early morning rounds. Yet soon enough, it’s time to be sent out into the real world. We receive our discharge papers and are sent out of the hospital expected to fly. Just like a baby bird being pushed off a tall branch, some birds will soar quickly while others free-fall for a while. This is what it feels like transitioning back into life after treatment. A leap of faith, where this is no longer a safety net. Every bird will free-fall, thats guaranteed. Yet the difference between the ones that soar and the ones that take time, is character.
I struggled my first semester in high school. I put more emphasis on being the social class clown than I did on my grades. My GPA dropped to a record low of 1.6 and resulted in a serious talk with the assistant principle. I made friends quickly yet I questioned how real my friends were. I was not cleared to play sports since I had just come out of treatment. I felt out of place and always a step behind. Even when it came to dating, I was never fully comfortable with myself. I debated whether or not to state that I had cancer. Whether it would hinder my opportunity to go out on another date, or whether the girl would pity me and treat me differently. I was rather ashamed that I had cancer, and shied away from telling anyone who didn’t go to my middle school. Yet it was my teachers and old friends who motivated me forward. Due to my intense chemotherapy, I felt fatigued and needed more time on exams. This phenomenon is often termed as “chemobrain.” My teachers knew I was in this program; all of them were supportive, and told me if I needed anyone to talk to I could turn to them.
During the first or second week of my sophomore year, one my teachers mentioned in class that he was a cancer survivor. From what I could tell, I could see that his hair was growing back. One day, I waited till everyone left class to approach him. I came up to him and told him that I too was a cancer survivor. I’m not sure what made me stay after class, but I had the need to tell him. He gave me a pat on my back and we both teared up. It was the first time in high school that I told someone I was a cancer survivor.
As high school progressed, I cared less and less about the type of cars my peers drove, and focused more and more on what made me happy. Instead of leaving school when the bell rang, I stayed and headed to my school’s library. A stack of psychology books, handpicked by the librarian, would be waiting for me on the front desk. Here was where my passion for the social sciences began. A book by Allan Pease titled The Definitive Book of Body Language was what sparked my interest in understanding human behavior. At the time I knew my grades weren’t strong enough for me to get into a four-year college straight away. So senior year I focused on preparing myself for community college, trying to decide which major would lead me to the ultimate path of success.
Avi Khanian is an intern working with the Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer team at Hopelab. Avi recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara, majoring in psychology. He currently is the California State Representative for TeenCancerAmerica and has helped UCLA create one of the first Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer units in the greater Los Angeles area. Avi’s passion is to foster relationships between patients, and inspire resiliency through his story.