A Cancer Story
Written by Kyle Freeland, M.A.
October 29, 2020
As I write this, just about the whole world is currently affected by the COVID crisis. Most people have experienced isolation as a result. Some have done fine, even flourished, and others have struggled. What if I told you that there is a group of people out there, young and old, who have been experiencing feelings of isolation long before COVID?
Cancer. A word no ten-year-old should be familiar with. Yet at ten, I was all too familiar. While some of the hardships associated with cancer are easy to see, it’s the unseen struggles that are the most difficult part of the journey. Because those things are more of a mental battle then a physical one. But mental and physical are best friends when it comes to cancer treatment or any long-term illness. Physical reactions cause mental reactions, mental reactions cause physical reactions, and around and around we go stuck on an unescapable tilt-a-whirl.
The worst for me was isolation. A second word no ten-year-old should be familiar with. Yet there I was, learning all to soon what it felt like to be truly cut off from the world, friends, family, and life itself. Imagine being trapped in a deep, dark hole where all you hear is the sound of your own thoughts. There seems to be no way out. And feels like you’ll end up there forever.
My name is Kyle. I’m twenty-six years old. And I’ve had the unique experience of battling cancer twice—once as a kid and then again after I relapsed as a young adult. You’ll notice that I don’t use the term “survivor” when I talk about my cancer journey. That’s because I’ve never identified myself that way. I see myself as a “warrior.” And that’s the way I see you too.
Before we dive in, I want to point out that while I’m writing from a warrior’s perspective, I’m also very aware of the battle that people supporting the warrior go through. And that loved ones and caretakers experience this struggle of isolation as well.
At ten, my experience with isolation was more physical then mental. I couldn’t do the things my friends did like play sports, have sleepovers, and go to school. When I was twenty, there were physical things, obviously, but the mental battle was far worse. I felt absolutely alone, despite the fact that so many people on social media cheered me on. Let me be brutally honest for a moment. I could give a (insert your choice of expletives here) about your like on Facebook or your comment telling me you’re praying for me. It was the people who took time to visit with me that made an impact, that made the isolation disappear, if only for a little while.
The truth is that cancer is an isolating battle and no amount of comments on social media or encouragement from friends will ever change that. As the warrior, you’re the one on the battlefield, and you can’t avoid facing the horrors of war head-on. Sure, you can share your experiences with others, and they can try to be there for you. But until you’re forced onto that battlefield by yourself, you’ll never be able to fully understand what it takes to survive beating cancer. Physically, you either beat it or you don’t. Mentally, what happens to you as you come out on the other side isn’t so black and white. Like soldiers returning from war, you carry scars that change who you are.
Now that I’ve fought this battle twice, I want to share things I did and things I wish I’d done. Let’s start with the first time I was diagnosed at age ten. When I think back, I can’t remember much about how I handled those feelings of isolation, because I didn’t fully understand the mental battle I was fighting. I only felt and understood the physical one.
Parents, Please Create Normalcy
Parents and caretakers on the sidelines of the battlefield, pay close attention to how you treat your child. I love my Mom and am so thankful for everything she did for me and still does, but when I was ten and sick, she babied me. You may think that was a good thing, and to an extent it was—I was physically and mentally fragile—but babying a sick child can cause them to become even more fragile. There’s a fine balance, and I wish I could tell you what that is, but the truth is that only you know what that balance is. It might be hard to find it in the midst of things, but remember, your child still needs to feel normal at times.
I’m not talking about just a good normal. I’m talking about all the normal things, good and bad, that other children deal with. Push your child when appropriate, and don’t let them use their illness to get out of things they should be doing. Trust me, I did that all the time, and it worked. If I didn’t want to go somewhere, I said I felt sick. And we didn’t go. If I didn’t want to do something, I said I felt sick. And my mom did it for me. If my brother or sister was annoying me, I said I felt sick. And they got sent to their rooms.
But how did I learn or grow from any of that? I didn’t. Being babied was positive reinforcement for behaving in a negative way and a bad cycle to get locked into. My mom thought she was taking care of me. But she was enabling me. And that caused issues in our family later. Not only did my parents give up things for me, my brother and sister missed out on a lot too.
Now I want to talk to the kids on the battlefield. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Sometimes what your doctors or parents think you need might not be what you really need. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Relapse and Isolation
Time to jump forward ten years. I was in the middle of my sophomore year in college, a high point of my life, had made great friends, and was finally starting nursing school. Then boom, one biopsy later and all of that disappeared. In a matter of days, I lost my friends, my education, my independence, and my health.
That was when isolation became real. While it was mostly social isolation that affected me then, there are other ways isolation affects me still. When I was twenty, I had to watch as my friends graduated college, got engaged, got married, found jobs, and went on with their wonderful lives—all while lying in a hospital bed. That was hard. Actually, hard wasn’t even close. There were many days filled with frustration, tears, and anger. I couldn’t be upset with them for doing what I was supposed to be doing. But I still hated being stuck in that bed, stuck in my lonely bubble, and stuck in my life. In some ways, I still have not fully escaped that bubble. And truthfully, do not think I ever will.
There are things you lose when fighting not just cancer but any long-term illness. For some people, what you lose is physical—legs, arms, organs. For others, it’s mental, and that can’t be quantified as easily. When I was sick, I got left behind and couldn’t move forward. I’m not technically sick as far as cancer goes anymore and I am moving forward, but it’s almost like with each step I take, I’m dragging a massive weight behind me that slows me down. Most of my friends are married. A few even have kids.
"For some people, what you lose is physical—legs, arms, organs. For others, it’s mental, and that can’t be quantified as easily."
While I’ve dated and experienced normal things, in some ways, I’m still a bald, gangly boy just trying to survive. On the outside, I look like a healthy twenty-six-year-old guy. On the inside, not so much. Who I am post cancer is hard to explain so I usually don’t. It only isolates me more. Most people honestly aren’t interested or don’t know what to say about what I’ve survived. Instead, to explain my age with my current employment status, I say I took some gap years. My history will be easier to explain the further away from it I get. But right now, the years I spent fighting two wars with cancer still isolates me from being a normal twenty-six-year-old guy.
Where am I now? I graduated with my master’s in clinical mental health counseling. I still have fallout health issues from cancer complications that I’ll struggle with the rest of my life, but I’m continuing the good fight and charging on. Cancer will only win if I let it. I have friends from all walks of life, and while it’s easy to compare what I do not have with what they do have, it’s become easier to feel less isolated. I still have bad days, but that’s part of being human. To those of you who are in the thick of the fight, don’t quit. Don’t give up. Don’t let isolation define you. Find friends or a support group or a counselor who can empathize with your situation. There are so many great resources out there. I found my “people” at the end of my journey and wish I’d met them at the beginning. Most importantly, challenge yourself every single day. You’re not a survivor. You’re are a warrior!
Kyle Freeland is a two time cancer warrior having beaten it at the age of ten and a relapse at twenty. He attended Texas Woman's University for his undergrad in psychology and earned his Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Texas at Tyler. He hopes to one day be able to use that degree to work with young adults like him.