By the fall of my freshman year, I was well on my way to navigating high school when something unexpected came up -- a stage III melanoma diagnosis.
I remember it vividly. It was Nov. 3, 2011 -- the first Friday I'd been invited to sit with the varsity dance team at the Austin High School football game. I had made a trip to the dermatologist after a spot suddenly appeared on my ear and began growing quickly.
After the game, I discovered the news. I had melanoma. I was scared and nervous about what would come next. Everything was happening so fast, and I wasn't prepared at all.
The next two years proved to be both challenging and inspirational for me, as I fought (and won!) my battle against skin cancer.
Undergoing melanoma treatment during high school
My melanoma treatment began right away. I was quickly scheduled for three surgeries on my ear. The first surgery removed the melanoma and the surrounding tissue along with the lymph nodes that surrounded the cancer. The second two surgeries were for the reconstruction of my ear. I also had to undergo a year of interferon, a type of immunotherapy.
For the first month, I had to leave school early so that my mom could drive me to MD Anderson to receive the interferon through my PICC line (a long, slender, flexible tube that is inserted into a peripheral vein, typically in the upper arm). Going to school with my PICC line always made me nervous. I hated walking through the crowded halls, trying to shield my arm so it wouldn't get bumped, but luckily, I was usually able to dodge the backpacks.
Throughout the next year, I got to know the attendance clerks at my school very well. Some weeks, I had up to three absences because of the cancer treatment side effects and doctors' appointments, and the clerks were always extremely understanding.
Through it all, I tried to experience as much of high school as possible. I got to attend every football game, hang out with my friends, and go to homecoming. I even got to stay on the dance team. This turned out to be a huge blessing. Dancing was a great outlet for me throughout the process, and being part of the team helped me feel like a normal high school student. Dancing was a way for me to express myself without having to say a thing.
Overall, my experience was very positive. Every person I encountered along my journey was so kind. The MD Anderson staff always made the best of the situation and made me feel as confident as possible. My family was especially reassuring. They made sure I was feeling comfortable with what was coming next, whether it was surgery or chemotherapy.
My friends from school visited me after a surgery and made sure I was doing okay throughout the day when I was at school. I definitely became closer with many friends as I went through this turn in my life.
Most importantly, I was inspired by my faith. From the day I was diagnosed, I was determined not to let my circumstances rock my faith. It seems safe to say that cancer actually strengthened my faith.
Focusing on my future after melanoma treatment
Getting diagnosed with melanoma was definitely not what I had imagined for my first two years of high school, but it made me a more mature and strong individual. It prepared me for other hard times I will face throughout the rest of my life.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't enjoy having cancer one bit, but the experience did teach me how I want to live my life. I know I'm so lucky to have survived having cancer in high school. My advice to other young patients is to find something that makes you happy and pursue it. Don't let cancer define you. Focus on the activities and people that make you smile!
I did, and today, cancer no longer dictates my life. I am back on a regular schedule, busier than ever with extracurricular activities and excitedly planning my future.
Melanoma is one of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn about our Melanoma Moon Shot.