by Angeliki Pelehrinis
When diagnosed with cancer, there is hope. Hope that treatment works. Hope that your health will be restored. Hope that you will make it through the darkness of cancer and be launched into the light of survivorship.
When we meet fellow adolescent & young adult cancer patients, there is also hope. Hope that their treatment works. Hope that their health is restored. Hope that we will be lifelong friends.
But every time we lose a friend, those hopes are shattered. And within less than a month, I lost two close friends to cancer. There was no longer hope. Their treatment did not work. Their health will not be restored. They are not coming back to life, no matter how hard we hope.
Why am I alive when they aren’t?
Over time, I began to feel guilty, especially around my own cancer-free milestones. Why am I alive when they aren’t? My treatment was significantly shorter and less intense. I hadn’t fought any harder and wasn’t any more positive. After years of being a supportive friend, I was now helpless. I pleaded with the world to give me my friends back. I offered to be a cancer patient again if they could still be here.
I worried that I would lose the relationships I had with their family members. Would they no longer want to see me? I was hesitant to reach out even though we had become increasingly close over the past few years. I was concerned they would feel the same way about me that I did about myself. Resentful that I had been the one to survive. Luckily, this was not the case.
But still, I questioned myself. Was it silly of me to think there would be a future with all of us in it? If I had loved them harder would they still be here? Why did we have to say goodbye in our 20s?
At some point, I realized I was searching for answers I would never find. There would never be a way to explain why people more caring, more compassionate, and with more strength than me have passed away, while I continue to live. But I needed to find a reason I was still here, especially if they weren’t. My life required purpose more so than it ever had and I found purpose by applying all they had taught me. Being kind to others. Practicing gratitude. Living in the moment. Showing up for others in times of hardship even if in a difficult time yourself. In applying these lessons, survivor’s guilt morphed into survivor’s responsibility. A responsibility to keep their memory alive and to contribute to the world in many of the ways they would have.
Ultimately, I had been right in some ways about the absence of hope, more specifically, the restoring kind of hope. It’s true that things will never go back to the way they used to be. However, I’ve begun to realize I can have hope in other ways. Hope that I continue to find ways to honor them. Hope that over time, the pain and sadness become more manageable. Hope that I live a life they’d be proud of, one overflowing with generosity and happiness.