The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Without The Bad, How Can There Be Good?

by Rachel MihalkoSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaDecember 16, 2019View more posts from Rachel Mihalko

Dear Cancer,

You really screwed things up for me. I thought I was happy. I thought life was good. Before my diagnosis, I had probably the best year of my life. I had finished my freshman year of college and truly felt like I belonged somewhere.

And then, you came.

You wreaked havoc on me in every way possible. You caused friends to disappear, friends I thought would stay through anything, but here I am, a year later, without them. I lost hope in the world and forgot all the good there can be, because all I saw for six months was the bad. I got chemo every other week, leaving me nauseous and fatigued because of you. “Why me?” I asked myself. What did I do for this to happen?

Once I reached remission, you wreaked havoc on my mind, forcing me to deal with survivor’s guilt and the mental pain of such an experience. I wallowed in the suffering I had just undertaken, unsure of how to proceed after something so heartbreakingly different from what my life used to be.

I didn’t know how to be a 20-year-old cancer survivor. I didn’t know how to relate to other people my age anymore; how could anyone ever understand what I’d been through? I struggled through going back to school, hoping to feel normal, and finally realized that might never happen again. I was faced with the relentless task of creating this “new normal,” amidst those who proceeded with life as usual. How could everything seem the same, yet so different, all at the same time? I felt safe in the life I had; I was healthy, I was content. Or was I? Is ignorance really bliss? How had I lived my life at all before cancer, oblivious to the true level of the suffering of others?

Cancer, you may have given me some good. As much as I hate to admit it and really don’t want to be that person who is grateful for their cancer and wouldn’t go back and change a thing, I know one thing; I’ve grown immensely. And I’m still growing.

Nine months out of treatment, and my world hasn’t stopped spinning. I’m asking big questions, questions about life that no one really has the answers to. Leaving behind the naivety, I have a clearer view of the world and the hurting that exists; but I must remember the good: the people who wrote me stories, crafted poems, made me chain link decorations, sent me gifts, and let me know I am loved. For every person that left me, there’s one who came out of the woodwork and proved that they cared. They spent time painting quotes from my favorite musicals for me, or asked friends of friends to write me encouraging notes, even though they had never met me.

I’ve discovered so much more about myself: who I am and how I love. Sharing time and getting a cup of coffee with a new or old friend and just pouring out all of your feelings and getting to know one another is the way to my heart. After cancer, I’ve come to cherish getting to know who I am. Maybe it takes being stripped down to almost nothing and rebuilding from there to truly become oneself.

In my mind, there’s nothing better than a good, authentic, heart to heart. I had one the other day: the first one I’ve ever had in person with another AYA survivor. After four hours together, I still could have spent the rest of the day with her. The community that cancer has taken from me cannot compare to the community that I have gained through mentors and friends whom I connect with on the deepest level after being affected by the same awful disease.

Sweet Kaylee and I met for coffee and clicked immediately; we each shared our stories, my struggle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, her struggle with ovarian cancer, and the conversation flowed so readily. It was one of those storybook moments where you know, no matter how long or short the friendship lasts, this is someone who will impact your life in the long term in such a powerful way. Sometimes I have to remind myself of the friendships I have made through cancer; I’ve always longed for authenticity, and it turns out, cancer was the road to it. I’ve had truer, loving, understanding conversations in my time during and after treatment than I have had in my whole life before cancer. Those conversations have become a core part of who I am, and I cannot imagine myself without the purpose that those connections give me.

One of my biggest fears is that when people look at me, is that all they will see is the cancer. I want to be more than the cancer. Simultaneously advocating for those going through cancer while still not wanting that to define me has proven to be a hard line to walk as a young cancer survivor. It may be a big part of my life and my story, but it will NOT be all of it. It has changed so much of my life and outlook that it’s hard for me to realize that I truly am more than the cancer. Yes, it has taught me so much, all the while giving me the worst six months of my life. How do I tell someone new that I meet that I’ve been through cancer? Should I? Will it come up naturally? This is one of the ways my battle with cancer plagues me on a daily basis.

However, without you, cancer, I couldn’t have had so many moments. I still hate you for doing this to countless people, taking loved ones, and ripping normalcy from so many. But without the bad, how can there be good? To have someone who can support you through your hardest days, you have to have those hard days. To connect emotionally with someone through mutual sobbing tears, you have to be able to cry. To learn and grow, you must start somewhere. At 20, I have seen things that most people my age have not, and I have been through trials others rarely see so young.

I’m not going to thank you, cancer. Because I’m not quite there yet. I’m still angry and dealing with the hurt you have caused me and those I love. Grieving my old, pre-cancer life is a process, one that I’m still in the middle of. You’ll be there, hanging over my head for the rest of my life. I’ll have scans and tests regularly and know that I am at risk for a lot of other things now too. These are things I shouldn’t have to worry about as young college student. So let me grieve. And leave me alone to do so.

To my fellow cancer survivors: it is okay to grieve, even if you’re no longer facing death. Cancer still knocked on your door. And you still had to answer. But you did it. Or you’re doing it. And it hurts like hell. It rips your life apart and leaves you with shattered pieces. But beautiful things can be remade, and they can turn out even more spectacular than they were before.

Rachel Mihalko


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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