My name is Urska Kosir and I come from Slovenia, like the US First Lady 🙂
At the age of 22, I received a diagnosis: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, late stage. Just like Hazel from The Fault in our Stars would say, “I lit up like the Christmas tree,” a well-decorated one.
In this essay, I will describe my 5 phases of grieving for the loss of my early twenties and all the stupid things I would have probably done, had I not fallen ill.
Now, I’m (already) 27 and I understand some things better, but a lot of them I still don’t.
Phase 1: DENIAL
I don’t have cancer.
How did everything begin? At the end of August 2014, I returned to campus excited for the new academic year. It was my last year of college! But soon thereafter, my energy levels started to drop. Then, a bump appeared on my neck. Swollen lymph nodes, I knew that, it wasn’t the first time.
Before my morning coffee, the bump felt smaller to the touch than after a long day. I really didn’t feel like going to the doctor’s. Going to the health center would require me to go out of my way, it was in the opposite direction from the library or my classes.
I repeatedly looked at myself in the mirror. The growth on my neck was the size of a golf ball, it looked funny and always attracted my attention. If I leaned my head to the other side, it looked like I broke my neck. I took a picture and sent it to my friend whose »ha-ha« message was quickly followed by a »you should really go see your GP« with a serious undertone.
The above-described like liked this.
Then I went to the doctor’s for the first time.
“How are you feeling?” – Tired.
“Are you coping ok?” – I am very stressed.
That day I was referred to a psychiatrist.
On the way home, I mentally revised my knowledge of clinical psychology. I didn’t recognize enough symptoms in myself for any of the official DSM diagnoses.
Only the third attempt at going to the doctor’s office was successful. Then came the checkup, a scan, a blood draw, another checkup, then a consultation and a discussion with the medics.
At the clinic where I was doing a practical for one of my classes, I managed to convince the nurse and radiologist to show me my CT scan. Fun! For the first time I had an insight into my insides!
Looking at the screen only became uncomfortable when I realized that the white mass on the screen actually resided in my right lung.
The days were passing by and I felt as though I transformed from a student to a patient overnight. Reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis anew took on a whole different meaning.
It was a Friday afternoon, when the nurse on my case called me saying she had the results of my biopsy. She told me the diagnosis. I was completely calm. In fact, I found it entertaining when she ran after me to ask me if I was really OK.
“Yes, tonight there is an event for college seniors, I don’t want to miss it.”
Then followed a Dean’s excuse. Without any reservations, I was issued a valuable paper, which I waved in front of my crying friends: “Hey, let’s go out! I have a good excuse, I can easily move my exam on Monday!”
Phase 2: ANGER
I have a freaking cancer.
Swearing is cathartic. Cursing at the unbearable silence of my minimalist student room often made my life easier, if only for a few seconds. I was brewing a lot of anger, which I tried to contain in public. As a result, I ended up spending most of my time alone.
I was angry that my hospital appointments surpassed the number of my Instagram posts. I was angry that I had to think about my student visa when I was no longer going to be a student. I was angry that I had to think about my future children when I still wanted to be one.
“Please sign here.” Ordered the nurse, pointing at another useless-to-me form. She was getting ready to take my blood for the tenth day in a row in order to check if my ovaries were mature enough. My ovaries were not doing any better than me.
In an ideal scenario, it’s better to freeze embryos than ova (eggs) alone. Hence, all the forms at the clinic included little spaces and lines for your partner’s name and signatures.
Don’t you get it? I’m single! My prince hasn’t arrived yet. Until I got an idea. If they must insist… in the little squares intended for partner’s name I wrote down Johnny Depp.
The form at the fertility clinic looked like this
After half an hour in the waiting room, the thought of that made me laugh. A most welcomed comic relief as I sat among all the hormonal women at the clinic who, just like me, waited for their procedures, but unlike me, eagerly expected the results, whereas I mostly looked forward to all the pain medication.
I didn’t run out of good ideas that day.
During the procedure (egg collection), I was just present enough to observe the doctor who was skillfully piercing through my ovaries. In our conversation, I realized I was no longer angry – awesome meds!
The young doctor with whom I developed a friendly relationship was not bothered by my chat and banter so I jokingly-seriously said: “Hey, can I sell my eggs? I have good genes and I’m Yale educated, I bet they would sell fast!”
Phase 3: BARGAINING
Maybe I don’t have cancer if I don’t think about it?
I already completed 4 chemotherapy cycles. I no longer wanted to be angry. Pointless. I broke a bookshelf and threw a mug from our 4th floor balcony.
Well, I first threw the mug onto the floor in the kitchen, but it didn’t break. This only made me madder, that’s why it ended up flying over the balcony.
Not that great.
The books ended up lying on the floor of my room and I would constantly trip over them. I also had to drink tea from my roommate’s mug, which I always had to wash first.
Life goes on, how can I best distract myself?
I only attended a few obligatory lectures a week and, for the most part, avoided flocks of students who carelessly coughed around without covering their mouths. I was bored, and boredom rarely leads to good ideas.
I wanted attention. The kind that wouldn’t be given to me because I was sick, the kind that wouldn’t be given to me out of pity – TINDER!
Let me see what is out there on the market. And because I’m from the generation that prefers to meet people while mindlessly swiping, possibly while sitting down on their toilet (efficiency or madness?), I too, excitedly, lying down on my bed, created a new profile.
In the little window for ‘my description’ I only wrote: I’m a fighter ;).
*Notification sound*, match, and a new message:
“Hey, how are you? What do you mean you are a fighter?”
– Ah, boring.
Then there came the day, a few days before my next chemo, when I got ready for a date. It was a winter night, yet I put on my little black dress. I covered the scar on my neck with some foundation and drew a smile with a red lipstick. Only when putting on my new high heel boots the thought occurred that – sh*t, his Tinder profile had no information about his height…
Before stepping out I looked in the mirror and carefully rehearsed in my head: stay for an hour or so, your immune system is too weak. Avoid any alcohol, tell him that you were very sick recently. Do people kiss on the first date? No, I don’t think so.
Don’t allow him to run his hand through your hair, he’ll be left with a clump of it in his hand. Try explaining that to an innocent stranger…
I did great.
After 3 hours, two glasses of wine, and unmemorable kissing, I returned to my room, exhausted.
The very next day I cut my hair short and deleted my Tinder account.
(Note: The guy was short, we sat down for most of our date.)
Phase 4: Distress
Cancer has me.
That year, I was constrained to spending the winter holidays in a student-less New Haven. The only company I had was a life-long friend who came down from Boston, and my worried mother, who flew in from Slovenia. I had my chemo a day before Christmas, and despite my hope that the holiday spirit would improve my appetite, not even my mother’s carefully prepared and overpriced organic chicken couldn’t remove the metallic taste in my mouth.
I had so much free time and struggled with having too little energy for all the things I wanted to do.
Reading put me to sleep, activities made me tired, movies bored me.
The city didn’t inspire me either. Counting down to the next therapy became an obsession. Social media and all their filtered photos from events I couldn’t be a part of often made me sad.
And then came the moment when my impulsive nature kicked in, I purchased a plane ticket to go home, where I wanted to finish my treatments.
People are sometimes also lenient with you when you’re very sick. At the airport, when I came to the window wearing my mask, they didn’t charge me for the extra luggage. My mom could not be angry at me, despite causing her many headaches and adding on the expenses.
Yet, with every treatment the days became more difficult. I guess I felt like my phone probably feels – even after a whole night of charging, it’s only at 90% in the morning, an hour later only at 40%, and then spends most of the day running at 1% in hopes that I connect it to a source of power, asap.
When moving to Slovenia, luckily, I brought along a whole pallet of different pills and meds from the States. From pills that (supposedly) work wonders for hangovers (these I wanted to keep), to capsules that take away all of your senses.
For the most part I avoided these medications, but just knowing that I could rely on them, were the situation to worsen, made me feel better.
Up until another great moment, Ha! If I’m stoned enough, I won’t feel nausea either! Knowing I was not likely to get the same medication in Slovenia I carefully dosed my days.
I already mentioned, boredom never leads to good ideas.
Phase 5: Acceptance, Accepting…
I have cancer.
My illness made it hard for me to do the things I used to do. Running was replaced by walks, stretching by meditation, and instead of studying, I exercised my slowed-down brain cells by reading novels.
“It’s important to accept the illness and be positive. Glass half-full perspective, blah, blah, blah…”
Agreed but, sometimes, such platitudes made me even more sick than chemo alone.
Of course, I focused on the positive sides, but I reserved myself the right to feel angry and upset. The fact remains, cancer in young adults is a rare illness, and not even the slightest fun!
So how did I even begin to accept my illness?
I called up a friend with the longest hair and handed over a basket of many natural and unnatural hair products.
“Here, take it and use it. Please! I just shaved off about $500,” while saying to myself how lucky I was that my head is nicely shaped.
Other positive things?
I didn’t need to shave my legs for an entire year! Chemo is great in this respect. Unfortunately, I also lost most of my eyelashes.
But since fake lashes are in vogue, I spent too much money, as well as two hours of my precious time at the esthetician’s.
I pulled off half of the fake eyelashes glued to my eyelid that same afternoon. They irritated me terribly.
Then for the following two days I looked like Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
My fake eyelashes did not last long
Accepting the illness is a process that takes time. Serious ordeals like cancer force us to face our own mortality and to rethink things that we take for granted. Since Antiquity, the topic of our finitude has been the source of most of mankind’s anxieties and uneasiness, but also of philosophy. As Socrates famously said in Plato’s Phaedo, “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”
I don’t have any special recipe or advice for your own well-being or inner peace, you’ll have to find it yourself. But it’s precisely the process of finding it that delineates what we call life, so festina lente.
I am currently pursuing a PhD in England and am trying to understand (in a scientific way) how young people cope with cancer and adapt to life with and after their illness.
I am grateful for my friends, parents, and brothers who always support me in my endeavors.
If you want to know more about my work, please check out my website (https://urskakosir.netlify.com/).
If you are a young person who is facing or faced cancer, then please consider participating in my online study! I will also appreciate if you share it with anybody who might want to take part!
Just follow the direct link to the study:
*This post was originally written in Slovenian and published on NasmejAna Blog on July 25th, 2019. Here is the link: https://www.nasmejana.com/?p=397