I sat on the crisp white sheets of my friend’s bed, scrolling through my phone. Suddenly, my face felt wet and my hand pulled away from my nose, covered in blood. I sprung from the bed so as not to sully the new sheets, dashed to the sink and stuffed paper towel after paper towel in my nose. As each one quickly soaked through, my hands shook and my heart clenched. I was having a full-on proper nose bleed: the second and largest one in my life. I stood over the sink, and all I could think was that my cancer was back.
Tomorrow marks nine years since my bone marrow transplant birthday. I’m in Colorado visiting my siblings for spring break and catching a few friends as well. My sister Rachel, who spent countless nights in the hospital with me, was always by my side. She slept on the floor at home near me, in case I needed anything.
Ruth and Dan were nine and eleven when I first got cancer. They didn’t understand the full extent, but they knew their lives were also upended by my diagnoses. Ruth often helped the volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House with lunch and desserts, and loved to read under the giant tree there. Dan was with me the night my hair fell out before transplant.
My hair had stayed through several rounds of intense chemo, and all the medical professionals and myself were beginning to believe I might be in the tiny group that kept their hair through transplant. But then one lovely night, after I had ordered fun snacks and ice cream for Joe and Dan to eat, my hair started coming out. The boys took turns with me, pulling out the giant clumps and laughing. Because if we didn’t laugh at the once-in-a-lifetime chance to just grab giant handfuls of hair and literally wipe my head smooth, we’d have all been a sobbing mess.
I stare in the mirror at the bouncy curls now framing my face and remember that night, a lifetime ago. I’m sitting on Madison’s bed here in Colorado. I met her in college. She knew me with the short curls after my first cancer, sent me cards when I had to drop out after transplant, saw me bald to begin sophomore year, and has seen me recover from cancer and deal with all the other health challenges ever since. She represents my college friend group: the people who saw me at my toughest time, fighting cancer and college, and have chosen to remain in my life ever since. For my college graduation, Madison had a beautiful bouquet of tulips delivered, a celebration of completing college and living life.
And Sunday I’ll see Brenna. Brenna is part of my young adult career friend group. We met just a few years ago, and she saw me as a hair-having, job-holding, mostly healthy adult. She hasn’t seen the vomiting, bald, steroid-crazy, exhausted cancer Jen. Not that she’s any less of a friend, but she’s seen me at a completely different life stage. And she represents the people in my life who haven’t seen the intense trauma that has shaped me into the woman I am today.
That’s what these nine years have given me. Life, yes. But life more abundantly because of the people in it. Siblings who have grown into incredible, thoughtful, empathetic people. Friends who have stuck around despite cancer diagnoses. New friends who have come alongside to support me in new life stages that are hard and scary and exciting.
When I announced my move to Boston, Madison immediately mailed me a “Homesick Ohio” candle, along with a journal and devotional about transitions. Brenna’s Christmas gift was a Cleveland keychain, to always remember where I’ve come from. I know cancer has taken “friends” from us all. But I challenge you to look for the people who choose to remain in your life. Quality over quantity.
Not that it’s all golden and rosy. Cancer has taken so much from me. My dreams and ambitions. Last week I tuned my violin, but angrily had to put it down after my fingers refused to play my favorite pieces, still working through the effects of the neuropathy. My Instagram feed is filled with pregnancy announcements, and my heart aches knowing it will never be my own. Two nights ago I snuggled the head of my one year old friend, filled with sadness at my cancer losses. I roll over in my bed and feel the hard lump of my insulin pump pulling against the wire twisted around me. And I feel like screaming because this is what I will wake up to every day for the rest of my life. I can’t quit corporate America because I need the healthcare.
And cancer has taken my security. As my nose continued to pour blood, I took comfort that Madison was a PA, and only in the shower if I needed anything. But my brain didn’t consider that I had been on multiple trains and two flights over the last 18 hours. It didn’t consider that I was dehydrated and adjusting to the mountain air. It didn’t consider the stress of the day and how exhausted I was. It didn’t consider all the rational reasons I was having a nosebleed. It jumped to cancer. I hate that. I hate that every headache, body ache, weight loss, night sweat, labored breath on a staircase, or bloody nose immediately convinces me the cancer has returned.
Nine years ago today I remember sitting in my hospital room alone. Wondering what my life would look like. I had been warned there was only a 50% chance that transplant would work, and I had chosen to gamble on it. Sometimes it’s hard to look beyond the now, especially once cancer enters the picture. I didn’t know if I’d live to graduate college. I wasn’t sure if I’d be alive in five years to be working for the same company. I didn’t think I’d reach my 25th birthday. And I still don’t know about so many more milestones in my life. But I soldier on. One weary foot after the other. Supported and surrounded by people who care for me.
I feel like I should say something like “here’s to the next nine or 90 years”. But that seems wrong. I don’t know what my life holds, but I know I’ve been given today, and I’m grateful for that. So here’s to today. And every day that we make it through this rough world together.