Cancer at Harvard

Elizabeth: Last year, I was the girl with the buzz cut. Harvard acquaintances either walked by me unawares or exclaimed the obvious, likely attributing my semester off to a Britney-style meltdown. Then, I’d tell them. With their reaction to the word “lymphoma,” you’d think I was He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

“Well… at least you're better!”

That’s when the conversation really got awkward. I had been shipped back to Harvard with a tentative stamp of approval: My January PET scan had shown either residual cancer or residual healing. The doctors basically said: “Well, we did what we could. You'll probably be fine.” But there I was: bright-eyed and hopeful, craving Harvard’s wrought-iron and red brick, bustle and brainpower that made me feel alive again. Yet I felt that it was all too good to be true.

My first semester back didn’t include all the perfectly landscaped greener pastures I envisioned. Thinking back, I see the disability van that drove me to class. The fertility clinic, where we talked about family planning for the family I didn’t have yet. The mental image of my latent breast cancer, being pushed ever closer to the brink of mutation with each alcoholic drink. And the intangible “chemobrain,” a drug-induced mental sluggishness without any predictable relief. In the natural selection of academia, it seemed to me that Harvard wasn't made for the weak, the worried, and the weary.

Yet I emerged as the bright, bubbly face of Relay for Life’s Survivorship Committee, even though I couldn’t even convince myself that cancer could be beat. Even though I felt like I was fooling everyone with my smile, I started to fool myself too. I accepted that life at Harvard wouldn’t be perfect—it would be a breathless, sobering, anxious time. But from my friend Valerie, my fellow Survivorship Chair, I learned that it gets better with time.

Valerie: I met Liz during her era of chemotherapy, radiation and endless hospital trips, while I was facing a different struggle in the life of someone affected by cancer: the perilous journey of survivorship.

At my small high school, having cancer was something that neither went unnoticed nor was forgotten once my hair grew back and I walked without crutches again. At Harvard, it was strange for me to be able to decide how much of my past with cancer my peers and professors would know. Even if I could filter cancer from my Harvard persona, cancer survivorship has become so integral to my identity that I couldn’t hide it, nor would want to.

No one tells you when you’re diagnosed that being a survivor is as hard as being a patient. I spent my time in treatment striving for a cancer-free life, but when I finally made it to “the light at the end of the tunnel,” the joke was on me. The normalcy I had craved no longer existed. Before cancer, I thought I had a good grasp on who I was—a daughter, a sister, and above all, a soccer player. I wanted nothing more than my team’s camaraderie and validation from a hard-fought game. Cancer made everything I wanted irrelevant.

After surgery to remove the tumor in my leg, my ability to play soccer, or any other contact sport, disappeared. I felt like part of me had died, and in a way it had.   A foot-long scar on my leg and physical limitations are daily reminders that although my tumor is gone, “cancer” in its entirety is not.

As much as survivorship is a struggle, I have come to cherish the small things in life—late-night talks with friends, bike rides with my little sister, family dinners—because I’ve realized how easily they can be lost. Biking satisfies my cravings for athletic achievement, and two summers ago, I raised money for Dana Farber by doing the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a 192-mile bike-a-thon. Cancer changed me completely, but in doing so, it has made me a better person that I otherwise never would have known. For that, I will always be thankful.

We are this year’s Harvard Relay For Life Survivorship Chairs. Our experiences post-chemo have been different, but Relay for Life united us and grounded our lives as survivors. Relay’s support network helps us cope with the fears and struggles of survivorship and lets us support the community that saved our lives.

Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society’s signature fundraiser. The all-night team walkathon honors those affected by cancer and inspires society to fight for an end to this disease. Harvard’s Relay will take place at Gordon Track from 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 21 to 6 a.m. on Sunday, April 22. If you wish to participate in the event, make a donation, or learn about our cause, visit www.harvardrelay.org.

Elizabeth R. Moroney '12 is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House. Valerie C. Bradley '14 is a Statistics concentrator in Quincy House. They are this year’s Harvard Relay For Life Survivorship Chairs.

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