By Kara Robbins Stoughton
My life with cancer began when I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in August 2014. I’ve since had 24 chemotherapy treatments, six surgeries, 50 gained pounds, seemingly endless conversations about my bowels, and a recurrence that was diagnosed in January 2016.
At my initial diagnosis, I was 32 years old and just seven weeks out from my wedding. Within eight weeks, I had changed jobs, preserved embryos, started chemo, and celebrated love of all kinds with the most joyous wedding. Life moved so quickly during those first six months of treatment; I didn’t have time to reflect on what I was experiencing or how it was affecting me. I was a high-fiving, optimistic young adult with cancer, doing what I could to think of anything else. It worked for a while, but once I ended treatment I couldn’t find my way back to myself. That is when I sought counseling and was connected with Karen Fasciano, PsyD, director of Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program (YAP).
The depression surprised me. I expected the movie version of this disease – the one where I’m declared cancer free and then off I go to tackle the world’s problems. Instead, I was unmotivated, fatigued, and thinking about my cancer constantly. On the outside, though, I masked it all with positivity. With time and guidance, I am working towards acceptance of my diagnosis and how that plays against the life I thought I would be experiencing.
Not long after my recurrence, I attended YAP’s annual conference. It was the first time I’d met other young cancer patients, and though I’d spent a year and a half floating in between my old life and my cancer life, it was a shock to realize that I actually belonged in the cancer world. Luckily I now had resources to navigate that realization.
Following the conference, I was invited to join a team of other YAP patients to collaborate on a video project highlighting identity issues for young adults with cancer. At the same time, I was participating in a Healthy Living program through Dana-Farber and met four other young adult patients. It was these two groups of people – these wonderful, genuine, honest people – who encouraged me and shined a new sense of understanding on my life as a cancer patient.
This summer I was challenged to find something meaningful to do during my most recent rounds of treatment; something that would motivate me to do more than give in to the fatigue, something that represented me. I knew immediately that the event would be a dance party and that it would benefit the Young Adult Program team in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk .
Why a dance party? In a way, a dance party kicked off my “new normal” cancer life. Between the diagnosis in August 2014 and our wedding in September 2014, our lives were a chaotic blur of hospital visits. Our wedding could have easily been tinged with sadness. (Besides my health, we had both already lost a parent to cancer.) At our wedding, though, my husband, family, friends, and I all embraced joy and the dancing at the reception took it over the top. It was impossible to feel anything but awesome! I want to come close to experiencing that abandon again, and to share it with others. I don’t need to forget that my cancer exists, but I do need the love of my family, the support of my friends, and the guidance of my fellow YAP patients to make it bearable. Although the audience might be a little different this time around, I’m looking forward to great music, laughing at cheesy dance moves, and singing along with my community.
To learn more about Kara’s cancer experience, visit her blog, Kara in Cancerland.