College student with lymphoma advises: Don’t let cancer define you

April 9, 2014 | by

Young adults and adolescents with cancer face unique challenges both during their treatment and afterward. Not only are therapies for children and older adults not always appropriate for them, they also must come to terms with the disease and treatment's impact on their relationships, finances, school or career, and fertility.

All of these challenges point to the need for more research to improve care and follow-up for this age group. Here, one of those patients –  20-year-old Monica Curiel – shares her experience with lymphoma and also her advice for others in her position.

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By Monica Curiel

Monica Curiel strikes a pose with actress Anna Kendrick at a recent Lipstick Angels beauty event for patients at City of Hope. Activities like this that are dedicated to boosting confidence and feeling beautiful again are important for young female cancer survivors.

Lymphoma patient Monica Curiel,  20, right, strikes a pose with actress Anna Kendrick at a recent Lipstick Angels beauty event for patients at City of Hope. Photo credit: City of Hope

My story began April 10, 2013. I was diagnosed with lymphoma (stage 2) cancer on that day. The cancer was found after I blacked out in a car accident while driving on the highway.

At first, the doctors could not figure out if I had an infection or if it was cancer. I spent weeks in and out of hospital visits, trying to figure out a diagnosis. After many pokes from needles, biopsies and consultations from teams of oncologists, physicians and various types of specialists, it was concluded I had cancer.

At first, I really did not believe it. I was a 19-year-old freshman at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles.  Having grown up in a rural town on the outskirts of Dallas, I was far from home. I was trying to pursue a career and establish friendships, essentially beginning a new chapter in my life, like millions of other 19-year-olds do at this point in their lives.

As the doctors began to explain my type of cancer and the stages, the next steps and treatments, my first thought was: "This is a mistake, other people get cancer, not me.... I am not strong enough for this; strong people can take on the disease. I am too young, I have so much to learn before I can fight cancer, so much to do." 

It all went in one ear and out the other. I realized I would have to undergo “chemo,” which at the time I had little understanding of and didn't know what to expect.

Although undergoing treatment is difficult, the love of those around me offering their support and love, their hope –  when I had none – was something that I clung to. It was such a blessing to know that I was worth fighting for. Although I do not consider cancer to be a blessing, I have found many blessings from undergoing the journey of a cancer patient.

It's been a long year. I am still here doing my best to survive this journey. I am blessed to know there are people with breast cancer, brain cancer and all other cancers who are true fighters and crowned survivors. I have been so inspired by their strength, their stories, their loss and their fight. This helps put my struggle into perspective. I have been given an opportunity at life and I am embracing it.

I am sharing my story because I want to give back. I want to help others who are going through similar trials. Because of the cancer diagnosis, I have redirected my interests to study for a masters in art education. Ideally, I would love to seek a second degree as an art therapist to work primarily with children who have cancer.

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We asked Curiel to share her advice for others facing cancer. Her responses are below:

Do not allow cancer to define you. Throughout the journey, you may question your self-worth because there was a “pause” in your life; forming who you are and who you want to be. Take the cancer as a time to reevaluate what matters most to you in life and prioritize what your goals are.

Seek help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a cancer patient, you are limited to being dependent and that is OK. Friends and family want to help and be caregivers for you. Don’t feel like a burden, people love you and want to help in the ways you cannot help yourself quite yet.

Develop a good relationship with your doctor. Many times you may be fearful if you get sick, or worry that it’s “something more.” Talk to your doctor frequently. They will help you understand what you need.

Talk or write about your struggle. Do not let things bottle up inside you. Turn to a friend or family member who knows you best –  someone you feel comfortable around – and express what you’re going through. Finding a peer group or people who are undergoing the battle may be just as helpful.

Keep the faith. Even if you feel hopeless, depressed or alone, as if no one could ever possibly understand what you’re going through, there will always be people around you who care. Cling to their hope. Find your faith – for me it has been to seek God’s will – but practice things that make you happy and productive.

Practice letting go, and making use of the life you have now. Don’t let fear consume you. It’s natural to mourn the life you had before cancer. Don’t live the rest of your life with the fear that cancer will take it away. Live today now. Don’t worry about what will happen tomorrow.

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Learn more about City of Hope's Adolescents & Young Adults program.