Cancer is confusing. Young people often struggle to find the words to express their emotions and experiences when dealing with cancer. To help them find their voice, Gilda's Club Chicago hosted their 10th annual "It's Always Something" Teen Essay Contest.
High school students, in ninth through 12th grade, who have a connection to cancer were asked to share their honest, detailed, personal stories in 500 to two thousand words.
This year's winner, PJ Beigh joined ABC7 to share his essay.
The Lessons I've Learned from my Experience with Cancer
By: PJ Beigh
It was always something with me. As a baby, I ate a chip of paint and got lead poisoning. Then, I was diagnosed with a rare anemia condition where I went to Children's Hospital once a week for a couple of months. And then, mononucleosis ("mono") at age 5. It was always something with me. Never with my sister.
So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when one Saturday morning in April, 2012, I woke up in terrible pain. Somehow I wound up writhing in agony on the floor in the hallway. It's always something with me.
That day, 11 year-old me would go through exploratory surgery because they had no idea what the pea-sized thing was that they saw on the ultrasound, the thing that seemed to be tying my intestines together in knots. The surgeon said to my parents, "I don't know what that was, but don't worry, it's not like it's cancer or anything."
It was cancer. Always something. The fastest growing cancer known to medicine, a strain that doubles in size every 24 hours, called Burkitt's Lymphoma. Always something.
Cancer was like a black hole, sucking the life out of me. While other kids were having fun hanging out at the playground playing ball, I was home, constantly nauseated and throwing up. Chemotherapy was intense and frequent. Once a week, one or two nurses would hold me down while another one would insert a needle into my arm so that chemicals could drip venom into my body and hopefully kill the cancer cells floating around my bloodstream. Every week several doses, for nine long weeks. The chemo made my head throb and my stomach turn upside down. All week I would lie in bed, vomiting and feeling sorry for myself. At the end of every week, when I began to feel like I could stand again, it was time for another dose to knock me back down. Coursing through my veins and destroying cells in my body, the chemo also killed my hair. For a kid who once grew his thick, wavy head of auburn hair down to his shoulders, losing it was hard to imagine. As I was starting to have crushes on girls, being bald and sickly felt like a curse. I couldn't stand to have anyone see me that way, because I was afraid they'd make fun of me, or just feel pity for me. I dreaded the first day I would have to go to school bald.
Eventually, my hair grew weak and thin. With my hair falling out in clumps all over the house, I felt like a shedding dog. Eventually, I decided it was too much, and shaved it all off. A few days later, when I was strong enough, it was time to go to school. So, I plopped a ball cap over my bare head, and set out to school. I looked like Charlie Brown -- my head and face swollen from the steroids, and bald. Normally, my mother drove me to school, and dropped me off with my sister. But that day, seemed different. For one, we were late and no one seemed to care. Also, I noticed things were a bit off because normally my entire family doesn't walk me to class like they did that day. I walked up to the doorway of the classroom with my head bowed, afraid of what people would say when they saw me. But when I looked up, I stopped dead in my tracks. The class erupted in applause, and the entire classroom stood up in a huge standing ovation, clapping, wearing plain red t-shirts. Simultaneously, everyone turned their backs to me to reveal "Team PJ" written on their shirts, in bold letters. My friend Nick walked up to me and handed me a matching shirt, with "I am PJ" printed on it, signed by everyone in permanent markers. With my family behind me and my entire class smiling and applauding, I couldn't stop grinning. Nick was a quiet kid, athletic, my science partner in a new school. He hardly knew me, but the support he organized for me will stay with me until the end of my life. When I turned around, my mom and sister had magically put on red Team PJ shirts. My mom was in tears.
A few months later, we had a baby shower for my teacher. One by one, everyone stood up to give her unborn baby the words of advice they had written secretly at home. Nearly everyone said, in their own words, that there's always someone out there who will help you when you're down. They learned that from me. From my cancer. I said I learned how there's a whole world of people out there who care about you, and will help you, even though you don't know them yet. It's an incredible lesson, and I'm glad I was able to witness it firsthand. Since then, I've failed or been knocked down any number of times. But I know how to pick myself up and ask for help, even if that help comes from someone I might not know.
I wouldn't be the person I am today without my experiences from cancer. One of the most valuable lessons I learned is about how important it is to get back up when life knocks me down. Beating cancer in junior high was one of the hardest things I've had to do, but I'm glad I had to do it. Through high school, there have been many times I've failed or been knocked down. Thanks to that awful, deadly disease called cancer, I know what it means to pick myself up and come back again, better than I was before.
What's important is that cancer has enabled me to tap into a well of empathy for friends dealing with issues that range from heartache and school failures, to anxiety and bipolar disorder, to the suicide of a friend to the loss of limbs and ongoing struggles with leukemia and brain cancers, to mourning the death of a cancer friend. I know the value of listening, and being a really good friend. As a high school senior, I was selected as an "Eagle Leader" mentor. Ten freshmen look up to me for guidance and sometimes, comfort. Because of the lessons learned from cancer, I've developed into a leader who helps others get back up in a way that is genuine and heartfelt.
Cancer used to define me. In elementary school, it was very much a part of who I was. I was known to everyone as the "cancer kid," and I owned it as in important part of my identity. Now, as I move past high school, cancer has taken a back seat to the person I am becoming. It will always be part of me, but now, 8 years later, I can reflect on the experience and apply it to who I want to be. I will take the lessons I've learned from those hospital room walls with me for the rest of my life.
'It's Always Something' Gilda's Club Teen Essay winner shares essay