Katerina's Story - “I’m just a little human, with a lot more being.”

i'm not a victim, or a survivor.

i'm not brave, or strong.

i'm just a little human,

with a lot more being.


On January 2nd, 2018, I heard the words “we found a significantly large mass in your chest and will need to do some follow-up testing to see what it is.” My biopsy showed that the mass was cancer. Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma to be exact. I remember getting the news and feeling like my entire world was collapsing like it was impossible to breathe.

The next few days were jam-packed with tears, planning and an attempt at processing the information I had just received. It seemed crazy to me that suddenly, at 20 years old, I had to think about doing fertility treatments, going through chemotherapy and having cancer.

I quickly discovered that with an aggressive cancer comes an even more aggressive treatment. 6 cycles of 3 weeks. Week 1 is chemo week. Monday is a full day at the hospital, and before I leave, I get attached to a pump of more chemo. I come in every day to switch out the old bag for a new bag, until Friday, where I get the big chemo dose in-house. Followed by 10 days of painful injections and a couple of days of rest just in time for the next cycle to begin. I struggled to keep up with a new schedule of doctor’s appointments, blood tests twice a week every week, carrying around a chemo pump, injections, food restrictions, having to wear a mask everywhere I went and needing to sanitize every single surface before I touched or sat on it. I decided to keep going to school despite the fact that I was strongly encouraged to stop. I remember thinking, “I need at least one thing to make me feel normal.”

Then, my hair started falling out. I knew this part was coming, but I kept praying it wouldn’t. One afternoon, I was sitting at the kitchen table talking with my family, and I ran my hand through my hair (out of habit more than anything else), and a little chunk of hair came with it. I remember quickly balling it up in my fist and pretending everything was normal. I excused myself from the conversation and went to lock myself in the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and ran my hands through my hair again. Another little chunk came out. Almost robotically, I kept doing the same thing over and over again, hoping the result would be different this time around. But it wasn’t. I was losing my hair, and there was nothing I could do about it. Throughout the whole hair loss process, I refused to look in the mirror. If I caught a glance of myself in a reflective surface, I tensed up and automatically started crying. This isn’t real. This CAN’T be happening. It felt like cancer was winning; like it was taking everything away from me. Never in my life had I felt so little, so helpless.

I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I didn’t want anyone looking at me, I didn’t want their pity or their compassion, I just wanted to be left alone. I began feeling so vulnerable all the time, like people were staring at me, which unsettled me because I’ve always been uncomfortable with unnecessary (& unwanted) attention. I got frustrated with myself on days where I couldn’t accomplish anything because I was either too tired to get out of bed or too weak to do anything on my own. I couldn’t do my readings for school at intervals longer than 30 minutes, or my migraines would kick in. My attention span was the equivalent of a walnut. And, there were days where I needed absolutely everything to be done for me because I couldn’t manage it by myself.

I began distancing myself emotionally from the people around me. My family began to worry. I knew in my heart that I should be nicer to them. I knew it was hard on them too. But I also knew that in that moment, I didn’t care. It sounds horrible. I know. But I wasn’t okay. I was broken. And I was so tired of everything. I didn’t have the energy to care. It felt like I was detached from my body, like I was going through the motions without feeling anything. But, every night before bed, it would hit me like a train. I’d cry for hours until I was so exhausted I had no choice but to sleep. I went through this cycle for weeks, not knowing how to get myself out of it. I tried my best to find little positives in my day, even if it was something as stupid as being able to walk all the way up the stairs without needing to take a break because I was so exhausted. It was helping.

After the treatments were over, I finally began feeling like myself again. The time came for my big scan. It was supposed to say I was cured but ended up being inconclusive. The next scan showed that the cancer was back and it was growing. I was going to need radiation therapy. A whole new type of treatment, a whole new process to learn, a whole new set of obstacles that I was going to have to overcome. This time around, my reaction to the news was even worse than the first. I didn’t talk to anyone for weeks. I was so angry that I just wanted to scream. I closed myself back up again in an attempt to process the news.

One evening, I had fallen asleep on the couch and when I woke up, I could hear my mom and sister talking in the kitchen, my mom was bawling. I heard her whisper “I wish I could take this away from her.” Hearing those words come out of her mouth, filled with so much vulnerability, killed me on the inside. I had been so angry at the world, so angry with God for doing this to me, I never took a second to realize how well surrounded I was. I wasn’t just doing this for me, I was doing it for them too. My family, the most amazing support system, they did absolutely everything for me. I have no words to describe how perfect they are. Here I was, so angry, that I didn’t even take the time to acknowledge their efforts to take care of me. I promised myself that I would do better. And I did. At least I like to think that I did. I began opening up. Talking about it, to them and to others. I began making stupid jokes about being bald. And soon enough, I started feeling lighter, like I was getting out of the darkness.

As cheesy as it sounds, there are some positive things that this cancer experience has brought me. I have discovered that my beauty is not defined by my hair, my eyebrows or my eyelashes (although I would really appreciate my hair growing back out asap). People may be looking at me because they’re curious, may know someone who’s going through something similar or just flat out don’t know any better. That it’s okay to take breaks when I’m tired. That it’s okay to ask for help when I can’t do it by myself. And it’s definitely okay for me to be angry at the world sometimes, as long as I don’t live in that anger.

A situation like this really does humble you in ways you cannot even imagine. And while, in the moment, it feels ridiculous and infuriating to be reminded that what I have is temporary and curable as if it somehow lessens how I feel and what I am going through, I know how lucky I really am. In my misfortune of being diagnosed with a blood cancer, I am fortunate enough to have gotten a type that is curable. Not everyone could say the same.

I am still waiting for my scan to see where I stand on this cancer journey. I still have days where my short hair causes me so much sadness. I still get extremely anxious whenever I have to go to a doctor’s appointment. But, I am trying to do better and to be better. I am trying to talk about it. I am trying to remind myself that I am not alone. I am trying to remember that I am so much stronger now than I ever thought I could be. I am trying to keep my head up.

I am not the same person that I used to be. I am still growing, and breathing, and living. I know that things will continue to get better. My story is far from over. My struggle with my mental health is still ongoing, but I refuse to let it get in the way of me attaining my goals and enjoying the simple pleasures in life.

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