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The Tug of War of Cancer

by Susan VillanuevaChildhood Cancer Survivor, NeuroblastomaMarch 19, 2024View more posts from Susan Villanueva

The Tug of War of Cancer: How I Spent Five Decades Holding on to My Soul for Dear Life After Childhood Cancer Walked Away With My Spirit!

I am a long-term childhood cancer survivor. At the age of 11 months, I was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Now I am 55 years young and counting. I would like to share how cancer has impacted my stages of life from childhood to adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and hope of continued blessings during my senior life.

Cancer is a master at tug of war—it will ease on the rope and let you feel the amazing awareness that you gained then abruptly will pull the rope back keeping you at bay. Cancer is here to steal every single piece of you physically and mentally. It will walk away with your spirit if you let it. That is its job.

I let Cancer walk away with my spirit for many decades; however, I knew for some reason my soul was mine to keep. As I aged, I wanted my spirit back. I realized my spirit was still here, just hidden. At this point in my life, Cancer is angry at me. I have been in battle with it my entire life, minus 11 months, that is. Now I am learning how to regain my spirit, bringing it home to me, in my mind, body, and soul.

At the age of four after completing the radiation treatments, bone marrow, two years of chemotherapy, surgery, and remission, the team of doctors announced that I was now a childhood cancer survivor. Little to my knowledge that would be the physical part of this journey. Everything from there on mentally was all up to me.

As a child, I looked forward to all the toys in the pediatric unit. They had crayons and coloring books. However, what has stuck with me constantly has to do with the reason I was there. I was at the hospital a lot, and I knew I was different. Countless x-rays, blood drawn, and getting decorated bandages. I forever thought I did something wrong and that is why I got Cancer. I became withdrawn and felt like I missed out on stuff like playing outside freely and having fun without worrying that if I did something wrong, I would get cancer again, or if I did something right and had joy, I would get cancer again. Those are a few examples of how Cancer stole my spirit as a child. The older me wishes I could have let that little girl know she was going to have major blessings and she did nothing wrong to get cancer. That little girl had no idea that cancer would gift her grit, patience, strength, and one day she would be going to her survivorship program decades later which gave the medical world and other children with cancer a ray of hope.

As an adolescent more in tune with what was going on, I struggled with self-worth, confidence, and the constant fear that a pain or a cough would be cancer again. I thought from being cancer-free for so many years that I was on borrowed time, and it was going to appear physically again. Years ago, cancer was a curse due to the fact it was so new and there was not enough knowledge. Knowing that, I felt the god that I cared about did not care about me. I was at the age of dating and wondered if I mentioned I was a cancer survivor, would I still be liked? Sounds crazy, but years ago some people thought cancer was contagious. I was told that I may never be able to have children because of the cancer treatments. I wondered what if I got close to someone and they wanted children, and I could not have them. I could tell I did not have a free spirit like most people at this age. Cancer made me feel older because I was overpowered by the residue of cancer and all the what-ifs and whys. I am a firm believer that cancer hurts, seen or not. I say that because I continued to go to my survivorship yearly appointments as an adolescent. 

Years ago, you knew who had cancer—it was always the one with no hair; now you can’t tell, and you can’t tell who a survivor is either. When I am at my survivorship appointments, we all look different. There are all walks of life, colors, and ages. One of Cancer’s jobs is to separate you from your connections in life. Your connections with people, the feelings of joy with them. Your connections with nature and the peace you feel when you are looking at a sunset or the moon and stars. We are all given a mind, a body, and a soul—cancer immediately marks your body in all different ways with scars or some kind of trademark. Then it puts its fear in your mind, so now the body and mind are separated, and lastly, it tries to bury your soul here on earth. It really does not want you to be whole. Cancer will give you a bond with people that is uplifting too. Another example of how it plays the game of tug of war. You can see the few times I let cancer walk off with my spirit as an adolescent. The older me wants to go back and give that younger me the loudest motivational speech they would ever hear. I wasted so many of those years in my head and not giving myself the credit that I deserved. I was brave and patient. I had a heavy load on my back, and I maintained good character. I should have been living my best life. I was an adolescent still cancer free from early childhood cancer. I was giving cancer a fight. I was growing stronger and wiser every day and did not know it. Now I clearly see.

As an adult, I knew I was getting older and was thinking much more about the long-term side effects I may have. I am continuing my survivorship appointments as an adult. Getting all in my head about going to them but feeling so relieved and thankful at the same time because I added another year of being cancer free. A few days will pass, and I feel pain and I think it is cancer again. There goes that tug of war I mentioned. At this time, I was still thinking I may not have children. As you can see, even as an adult I still allowed cancer to walk away with my spirit. The older me wishes I could tell my adult self that worrying is a big waste of time. She would eventually experience the biggest shock of her life that she never thought was possible; yup… I had children of my own! I am realizing on a deeper scale how truly different I am and the gifts that I have been slowly shown are now coming to fruition. The gifts of beating the odds, patience, perseverance, and faith which is the biggest of all. I now can feel that hidden spirit starting to emerge and be shown.

Now, middle-aged and a grandparent, my spirit is shining bright! Even though cancer still creates fear in my mind and body, I now have a better perspective on it. The true miracle here is that cancer may have dimmed my light but now I shine brighter than it. Cancer gave me a huge gift of gratefulness; I use that gift in times when cancer wants to play tug of war with me. Walking while listening to music and seeing the beauty in nature has been a favorite of mine. It clears my mind. Over time, Cancer will water and form the roots of your soul in a positive life-changing way, when you change your perspective about it. This middle-aged me would tell myself, “Remember when you are afraid, ask yourself for courage. You will learn to master patience and strength. Most importantly, know that you are not alone.”

Written by Susan Villanueva

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