October 13, 2021 | by Melody Bartholomew
“What do you do?”
I dread answering this question, but not for the reasons you might think.
“Well, I work for an organization that awards scholarships to cancer survivors,” I say, and uncomfortably shift in my seat.
Some variation of “Oh, how lovely!” or “Wow, what great work!” is typically the reply, and I watch their pupils dilate as they subconsciously promote me to some kind of angel or heroine or savior. Maybe a virtuous young woman to set their friend’s son up with.
They don’t realize how much I need my job (not the other way around). In order to feel alive, I need to do something that feels important. And in this case, it feels important to give a bit of relief to families that have been through…um…hell. And while I know their suffering was in no way my fault, I also know that part of what feeds me is their extreme gratitude and positivity, emotions that are a direct result of them going through something most people (including myself) cannot even imagine. Therefore, I can’t help noticing a direct link between the suffering they endured and the ego boost I get from “helping” them.
I know someone’s got to do the job. I just wish people understood that it’s a privilege and that I’m not saintly, I’m lucky.
Another thing I want people to understand is that if anyone is the hero of the story, it’s our scholars. Sure, most people are aware that higher education and healthcare costs are rising, so financial assistance for young cancer survivors is necessary. What they don’t usually realize is that these survivors are tougher and wiser—like A LOT tougher and wiser— than their counterparts.
Something about facing your own mortality before you’ve even reached adulthood really puts things in perspective. When they finally get to join the world again, many, if not most of these young people act as if they’ve been shot out of a cannon. They want to LIVE while they can, and the vast majority go into the medical field, helping professions, or advocacy work. They go full force towards whatever goal they’ve set, knocking down any obstacle that might obstruct their path. They beat cancer—do you really think a difficult class, selfish friend, or bout of insomnia are going to take them down? Pfffft, yeah right.
The other side of the coin is that you can’t go through something that makes you tougher and wiser and emerge unscathed. These kids bear the scars of cancer. Physically and emotionally.
Most people don’t realize that 60-90% of childhood cancer survivors develop some sort of ongoing health issue. Sadly, in addition to any destruction caused by cancer itself, current treatment options for children with cancer are harsh and extreme, often replacing one BIG problem with several others. Childhood cancer survivors can face a variety of issues ranging from cognitive problems (like balance issues or a learning disability), vision or hearing problems, issues with the heart, lungs, bones, joints, hormones, fertility, and even secondary cancers. And that long list is not exhaustive. Ugh.
Call me a Debbie Downer, but I haven’t even started on the toll cancer can take on one’s mental health. It’s extremely common for children, adolescents, and young adults who battle cancer to grapple with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Many of them find out who their “real friends” are while on their cancer journey, and I’ve too often heard that in their hour of need they discover with dismay that in fact, they don’t have any real friends.
Many of them watch their parents and siblings struggle with the weight of their disease, losing jobs, life savings, and even marriages. All because of them, and all while they’re in some very important years of emotional development.
But then, miraculously, they’re cured (if they’re lucky), labeled a “survivor” and sent on their merry way (possibly to a dorm room) to start a new life, when they didn’t get to fully experience the first one: a childhood they can never get back.
“Congratulations! Be grateful you survived!!!” we cry, ignorant of the fact that they’re already crushed under the weight of balancing survivors’ guilt with their unbelievably bad luck. It’s a perfect storm to lead a young person straight into an identity crisis.
And that’s where Cancer for College comes in. Clearly, financial assistance alone is not enough. But what can we do for these young survivors, who’ve already experienced (while simultaneously missing out on) so much? How do we know what they need, in order to grow into healthy, fulfilled, and secure adults?
There’s no way for us to understand. What we can do is listen…or in my case, provide a platform for scholars to speak.
That’s the purpose of this blog: To give our young cancer survivors and cancer warriors space to air their grievances, celebrate their triumphs, and process all the suffering, chaos, and even sometimes beauty that cancer brings.
I’ll let them take it from here.
Melody Bartholomew joined Cancer for College as National Program Director in November of 2019. She became passionate about helping cancer survivors after losing her grandma to cancer in 2007 and working with cancer warriors at Shanti Project in San Francisco. She is also passionate about helping young people stay out of debt, after fighting her own battle with student loans. She currently lives and works in Temecula, CA.
If you’re a CFC Scholar, and you’d like to contribute to this blog, please send your post or idea to email@example.com.
To support Cancer for College Scholars, please visit https://www.classy.org/give/153059/#!/donation/checkout.
Photo credits: Christina Wocintechchat, Christophe van der Waals, Andrés Casas, Samantha Bodger, Keith Wong, Aspen Heidekrueger, Melody Bartholomew