Walking the halls with cancer

Eva Berezovsky, Contributing Writer

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“The fact that I had cancer hit me a month after I overcame it all””

— Pia Phillips '18

Cancer. Defined as a disease in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and destroy body tissue. Abnormal. Uncontrollable. Destructible. Deadly. What if you were told you had cancer at age fourteen when you’re just getting ready for high school? Shouldn’t high school be about focusing on friends, dances, school and not cancer? Pia Phillips’18, a survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, revealed her high school cancer experiences that will live with her eternally.

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. It’s one of the most curable cancers, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an arduous experience for this freshman. Phillips’s cancerous journey began in mid-July, 2014 and ended in late October the same year. She noticed a strange lump in her neck, but didn’t even consider that it was what it was. It went straight to the back of her school-filled mind. After a biopsy, Phillips found out the shattering news: She had cancer.

“The fact that I had cancer hit me a month after I overcame it all,” Phillips reveals. “I was in the middle of studying for finals, and I just broke down. I knew about what I had, but I just couldn’t get myself to believe it prior to that moment. High school had distracted me from reality.” Being fourteen, cancer automatically translated to death. “I told myself that it just wasn’t the same for me,” she states. She couldn’t get herself to imagine her head of hair gone, the endless hours she’d be spending trapped inside of a hospital room, the painful streaks of headaches, nausea and discomfort, and she really couldn’t imagine herself possibly losing her life. The daily struggle of hospital life, pain, sickness and fear obviously wasn’t fun, but what really hit her hard was losing her hair.

Day after day we see people with bare heads on the streets, at the grocery store, or at a coffee shop. We feel sympathy for those people. Where we typically don’t come across bald heads is coming out of the school cafeteria. For some reason everything changes when it’s a child diagnosed. Maybe it’s the young age, or maybe it’s the loss of living like a normal kid with no responsibilities. At fourteen, you’re about to go to high school. You want to impress the guys and have that to-die-for, long, mermaid hair. “I was scared to look like the complete opposite of a stereotypical perfect high school girl,” Phillips mentioned. The minute it was known that her hair was about to be lost was the minute she shed her first tears dedicated to cancer. It’s just hair, right? Not to Phillips, it wasn’t. “There was a big ball piling up inside of me, getting bigger and bigger, and when I found out I was going to lose my hair, the ball exploded, and so did I. At times I was more scared of my self-image than my well-being.” The pressure of self appearance in high school constantly lingered in her mind. Hair gave her confidence. It was more than hair. Having hair blurred the reality of cancer. When her hair vanished, so did her confidence.

With cancer also came a slight struggle with relationships. Dealing with relationships in high school is hard enough by itself, and having cancer made it even harder.  Her biggest concern, after her hair, was sustaining regular relationships with her friends. She feared ugly stares at her bald head or glares at her in the halls as if she were a walking disease. For the most part, her friends were faithful, but there were times where she was treated unnaturally. She felt that people tried to befriend her so they could say they were friends with a girl with cancer. That’s the thing about cancer in high school versus cancer as an adult. The environment is so judgmental and self-centered without a life-threatening disease, and when you add cancer on top of it all, it’s difficult.

But what was vital about Phillips’s experience was her attitude. Someone going through this at such a stressful, young age would typically complain, but not Phillips. They say that a positive attitude leads to a positive situation, and this was more than true in Phillips’s case. This girl had a rockin’ attitude through it all, seriously. Through people treating her differently and being nauseous half of the time she remained so positive. Because of her attitude, these struggles resulted in a development of a more appreciative perspective on life. She values life itself and doesn’t waste a minute nagging about something small.

Phillips said that if she could talk to someone in her shoes she would tell them four things. “First, you’re going to have a kickass haircut. Second, it’s super easy to shower without hair. Third, be positive and it will change everything. And lastly, don’t let cancer control your life. It doesn’t define who you are as a person.”Phillips had quite the experience. Cancer in high school was a challenge, but it was nothing she couldn’t tackle.

Phillips made it through the hair loss, the awkward friendship moments, the hours of nausea, the painful days of missing school for chemotherapy, and everything in between. She is a strong, young girl because of this. Her experiences will always be apart of her life. Phillips shares, “Cherish your life more and live it well. There are some people who don’t get the chance.”

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