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Disappearing Behind the Diagnosis

by Rachel MihalkoSurvivor, Hodgkin's LymphomaJuly 20, 2020View more posts from Rachel Mihalko

It’s funny how one thing can change your entire perspective. It takes one diagnosis, one message of bad news, or one thing that turns your life upside down for the way you look at the world to change. 

Before cancer entered my life personally, I separated myself from it completely. Being from Memphis, I see ads for St. Jude Children’s Hospital all the time. I always knew cancer was awful – especially for those little kids – but I never realized how awful it was until it showed up on my own doorstep. I always thought it was something super rare and never really thought about the possibility of it ever happening to me. 

I guess you could say I was a typical teenager: stuck in her own world, feeling invincible. Having health issues wasn’t something for the young. At least, not me. 

Until it was. 

I had just finished my freshman year of college when I received my diagnosis. It was a rough transition to school at first, but a few weeks in and I was already feeling like I was at home there. I made friendships that I thought would last. I got involved in the theatre department. I felt like I finally belonged somewhere, and once I got to college, I realized just how miserable I was in high school. I never quite felt like I fit in back then, but I found a place where I finally felt like I did. 

And then I was diagnosed, and again, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. I took medical leave for a semester and returned to school with very little hair on my head and extra chemo weight to boot. I didn’t know how to tell new people about what I had been through. Would it be too much for them? Would they even want to stick around? Would I just be a burden on them? 

I would make new friends, but I wouldn’t tell them about my prior diagnosis. I didn’t want to let it define me. Once I disclosed, I was sure that it would be all that they would see. I would disappear behind the diagnosis, even though it was in my past. 

After a while, I realized that this tactic would not work out in the long run. I needed to find a balance, one where I could let people in without diving headfirst into my cancer trauma. Let me tell you, I struggle with this to this day. I’m a little over a year and a half out of treatment, and I still don’t have a perfect solution for the issue of disclosure.

I’ve always been the type to want to invest in friendships from the start. If I find someone I want to be friends with, I become friends with them, not simply casual acquaintances. Real friends. Last fall, there was a girl in my advertising class who just seemed sweet, authentic, and super cool. I saw her sitting at a coffee shop right before class, and just went up to her and asked her if she would want to get lunch sometime and get to know each other. 

And that’s all it took. We’re now really close friends, and I just had to take initiative and go for it. She still brings it up every once in a while, still baffled that someone would approach someone like that, but very grateful that it happened all the same. 

I guess this isn’t typical, but it’s how I’ve started operating. I’ve realized how important true friendships are and I’m starting to learn to go after what I want, whether it’s relationships with others, or something else. These days, I’m not going to pursue a friendship with someone that I don’t deem trustworthy or just doesn’t seem to mesh well with my personality. I want to continue to surround myself with people that I love and that I see in my life for the foreseeable future. 

While it’s great to have acquaintances, and there is a place for that, I’m realizing the significance of deep-rooted friendships. You need people to lean on when things get hard, and in some ways I’m grateful to have something that really tests people as to whether they’ll stick around or not, because it’s easier to realize who will truly stay and invest in the relationship to the extent that I will. 

I’ve found myself pondering and writing about friendships a lot lately. I think all human beings are created for connection, and that is something that I personally crave so much. Having obstacles to that connection is so frustrating, and I’m still piecing together what life looks like these days since finishing treatment. 

Since quarantine, I’ve found myself missing my friends most of all. Because even the ones who I failed to personally disclose my story to, still stick around and bring so much joy to my life. It’s so heartwarming to see people around me who are so accepting and loving about what I have been through. On the days when all I can see are my scars, I have friends who will send me encouraging quotes, poems, and TikToks. 

I’m going to keep trying to hold onto those friendships and allow them to lead me further and further away from disappearing behind the diagnosis. 

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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