Heading to Organic Chemistry at 9:07am in the morning, half-eaten bagel in one hand and a black cup of coffee in the other, I look like every other Yale student. I wear my long hair clipped back and easily stride across campus, despite being saddled with a textbook that could double as a dumbbell in my college gym. But appearances are deceiving; I am not a typical young adult. I am a cancer survivor and a passionate advocate for teenagers going through treatment. Under my white jacket I proudly wear a t-shirt that sports The Who’s band logo with a Stand Up to Cancer arrow. A little less than five years ago, I was a girl of 15 with no long hair to comb and legs that struggled to make it up a set of stairs. My cancer diagnosis, my chemotherapy treatment, and my road to recovery changed me in ways I could have never predicted. It left me with powerful feelings and a unique view on the world. But very few people know this. To everyone at Yale, I’m just another student, healthy, normal, and sliding into my seat for lecture with a minute to spare.
I was wearing The Who shirt that morning because I was headed to the Smilow Cancer Hospital after class. Not for a medical appointment, but for a meeting with Teen Cancer America to show them the space that will soon become the first AYA oncology clinic in the state of Connecticut. I have been helping out a team of dedicated hospital officials and doctors to design the AYA unit for over a year and was excited to see the construction progress with TCA that morning. I was extra jittery as my lecture finished up, and it wasn’t because of the coffee. Before I headed off to the hospital, I was to meet Mafalda, a freshman at Yale that was also a cancer survivor. A California native, Mafalda had been treated at UCLA, where she met and became involved with TCA. The night before we had been put in touch via email.
I was filled with anticipation, because for once, I was meeting someone on campus who knew what it was like to be a teen with cancer. And she’d know without asking that I used to be bald, that I missed months of school and for a while, I was a complete outsider. What would it be like, meeting someone who knew you weren’t just a normal Yale student?
The minute I met Mafalda I knew I had found a kindred spirit at Yale. We had arranged to meet outside of the chemistry building and took an Uber to the hospital. As the driver navigated the New Haven streets, we started talking. The conversation came remarkably easily and I felt as if Mafalda and I were simply old friends catching up. Interestingly, our connection sprung without even mentioning the word cancer. On route to our destination, we discussed classes and travel, confessed our creative outlets, asked about extracurriculars, and joked about our families and hometowns. We didn’t dance around the topic of cancer, but we weren’t pressured to mention it either. We enjoyed being teenagers, talking and laughing and gossiping in the way that only two people close in age can.
When we got to the hospital, I took Mafalda upstairs to tour the unit in progress. I introduced her to the doctors, nurses, and staff members that I had been working with. After a brief tour, we had lunch with TCA staff and the Smilow Cancer Hospital team. Usually, I’m the only young adult at the table, but this time I had Mafalda. The topics discussed were about the future of the AYA space at the hospital. It was wonderful to converse with her how they’ll handle teens and young adults with cancer. As she shared her stories and explained her opinions, I heard many of my thoughts reflected in hers. All too soon, we headed back to campus, (since we were still college students after all!) As we rushed to our separate classes on opposite sides of campus, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming satisfaction that at least one other person in the area knew a bit more about my past and a bit more about my passion than anyone else at Yale.