In 2015, I was a senior in high school. My school was home to about 1,200 students, and just over 200 of these were in my graduating class. Though being surrounded by that many people daily sounds daunting, I never felt alone. Luckily for me, throughout my adolescence and budding adulthood I had become part of wonderful friend groups filled to the brim with loving and supportive people. In addition to my friends, my family had always been supportive of me in all ways, backing me in my decision to go to college in the upcoming fall following my graduation.
At this point, you may find yourself thinking “Wow, how lucky is she to have had such good support?” and you are right. I was very lucky. But the moment cancer entered my life, something changed — not with my support, but within me.
“I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me, and I walk alone”
– Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
With cancer came loneliness. Much like the lyrics of this Green Day song, cancer for me was a very lonely road, one that I did indeed feel like I was walking alone. This loneliness took a significant impact on my relationships with both my family and friends because of thoughts like “How could anyone else on this earth understand or know what I was going through?” It felt like it was me against it all.
I cannot say that I was ever physically lonely. Day in and day out, visitors would enter my hospital room and offer their condolences, tokens of love, and company, yet, as I lay in my hospital bed surrounded by adoring and supportive friends and family — in a crowded room — I had never felt more alone.
They said things like “you’ll get through this” and “you’re strong” as if they had any clue what I was going through. I certainly didn’t feel strong, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was going to get through this. Hearing others say these words often angered me and only added to the loneliness I felt. No one truly understood my experience.
Watching my friends get to experience momentous life experiences via FaceTime from a hospital bed or treatment room only added to my feelings of isolation. I couldn’t go prom dress shopping with my friends, I couldn’t attend class with them, or graduation dinners, or graduation award night. In all actuality, I could hardly get out of bed by myself, let alone do anything my classmates were doing. And though they did their best to try and include me, I never felt like I fit in. How could I enjoy these things when I was more preoccupied with how my body would feel after my next chemo treatment? I had gone from feeling like I belonged in my social circle to once again feeling alone in a crowded room full of people who cared about me. I went from being Michaela to feeling like “the girl with cancer.” How could they see me as me anymore? This change in my identity had been the result of this burning loneliness I felt.
I do have to affirm that it is not that my friends or family who ever made me feel alone. All along, it was simply the cancer talking (I find cancer tends to do that). My friend group and my family never left my side. I was never physically alone. At any moment I could have my loved ones surrounding me, something I certainly do not take for granted. However, loneliness took hold, and it took a long time for me to feel at home again within my own circle (this only came after I truly came to terms with my own cancer journey).
I would argue that for me, the worst part about my cancer diagnosis is not how I felt physically, it’s how cancer impacted me emotionally. It is really hard to be lonely. It is really hard to feel like no one understands you. It is also really hard to watch from the sidelines as people live normal lives around you because of creeping thoughts like “that should have been me.” But, for me, the hardest part about cancer was feeling like I didn’t belong in a place where I once felt so at home.
But, some aspects of this kind of loneliness remain true. It is true that your friends and family may never fully understand what you are going through with your cancer experience. In all honesty, even other cancer survivors may not understand. Why? Because cancer is a journey for the individual.
For me, it was important to take all of my feelings in stride, allow myself to navigate through my feelings of loneliness and remind myself that I won’t feel this way forever. My relationships suffered because of these feelings, but, thankfully once these feelings subsided, I no longer felt alone in a crowded room — I felt like part of the crowd for the first time in a long time.