By Blair Richardson
I have told this story many times over the course of my cancer experience. Every time I tell it, I can still feel the emotional impact. It was a defining moment in my journey.
In July 2016, I was hospitalized as soon as a hematologist saw my blood work after I had been feeling unwell for several weeks. The doctors said they strongly suspected a diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), and it was likely that I would have to begin heavy doses of chemotherapy the next morning. I wish I could say I was lucky when it turned out not to be AML, but instead I was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a type of blood cancer that still requires treatment, but not as immediately as those diagnosed with AML.
My doctors were still waiting on biopsy results and did not know that it was MDS yet as I was wheeled from the Peter Lougheed Hospital Emergency Department to Unit 38. When I got to the hospital room, the nurse doing my intake was telling me about how patients who have to stay in the hospital for extended periods make themselves more comfortable.
I eagerly asked her, “Am I allowed to have visitors?”
I was very happy when she told me, “Of course you can!” My response was, “Good, because I’m going to have a lot!”
At the start of this journey, I thought I shared unbreakable bonds of friendship with those from university and the summer camp I was working at. I imagined that within a matter of time my hospital room would be full of my friends supporting and encouraging me.
However, no one ever came.
I received the odd “Hey Blair, I am here for you!” or “Let’s hang out when you’re feeling better!” I was lifted up temporarily only to be let down again, seldom hearing from those people ever again. I can not begin to describe the devastation I felt. Physically, my body was fighting against a disease that was trying to kill me, and emotionally I was left struggling with the feelings of desertion and abandonment by those around me.
I have unfortunately heard similar stories from the majority of other young adult cancer survivors I have met. This is a heavy reality of many young adults facing cancer today. I quickly found out through my connections with YACC that I was not alone in my journey when it came to having feelings of loneliness and being left behind by my peers.
As we move forward today, I can’t help but look at many of these former friends and notice how my life has paused while many of them have moved forward with the natural rhythms of life. In the four years since I was diagnosed with cancer, I have watched many of them graduate university, step forward into the workplace, buy houses, and check off items on the imaginary life to-do list that society has ingrained within us. I feel as though I am left behind; I am still living with cancer.
I have to visit the Tom Baker Cancer Centre every six weeks to receive a chemotherapy treatment that is keeping me alive. At times I have to remind myself that it’s ok that my life does not look like theirs and that I am doing things in my life that fulfill me. One of those is giving back to the YACC community in every way I can! YACC has done so much for me and it makes me so proud to help it grow to support more and more people.
More recently, a once in a generation pandemic has hit and COVID-19 further limited my interactions with the outside world. I feel bitter and jealous because my former peers fears are not as amplified as mine are. I don’t have the normal immune system of a 20-something. They might not need people to wear their masks, wash their hands, and social distance as rigorously as the health officials are preaching, but I do. I genuinely don’t know if my immune system could handle the virus of COVID-19. I lost the freedom to be carefree and now have to worry about my health like they do, and it hurts.
What has this taught me? It has taught me that losing all of my friends because of my cancer diagnosis has heavily affected the way that I make friends and keep those friendships in my current life. Except for a select few, many of the friends I have made outside of the YA cancer community since my diagnosis do not know that I have cancer and am going through treatment. There is a stigma attached to people who are young and “ill.” I withhold information on purpose because I do not want to be treated differently; I don’t want to be the “sick guy” to my peers or have them stop inviting me to things because they think I am too sick or I’ll be busy with my treatments. In some ways, my cancer has become a bit of a dirty secret in my life to the outside world. I am fearful of what would happen to those relationships if I were to tell them. I worry that they would stop talking to me like my friends before my diagnosis did.
While there have been cracks in the foundations with my friendships as a young adult, YACC and the YA community were the light that shone through. I began to form relationships that were honest, genuine and reliable. I am able to surround myself with people who get it.
All of the feelings that I have felt and experienced through this journey — they just “get it.” I never have to explain myself, give reasons to fill holes for my absence, or receive advice when they know I just need to rant. I have found a network of peers that provides me with balance and support and who uplift me when I need it most.
So yes, when you are diagnosed with cancer you will lose people in your life who meant a lot, and it will hurt. However, if you choose to “join the best club you never wanted to be a part of” and begin to make friends within the YA survivor community, you will gain relationships that create deep bonds that will last throughout your life. My YACC friends will all be friends for life, and I hope they know how much they mean to me!