“Okay. What’s next?”
Those were the first thoughts that came into my mind when I was told I had cancer at the young age of sixteen. While this is devastating news for millions of people every year, for me it was a pivot point -- the first time in my life that I was made aware of the power of my choices and the strength of my voice.
My name is Savannah, and this is my story.
I sit writing this article on Christmas Eve, exactly thirteen years to the day I first began losing my hair due to chemotherapy.
Diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma as a junior in high school, my usual routine quickly shifted from cheer practice, AP homework and football games to chemo, blood counts and weekly hospital visits. I went through biopsies, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments. I lost my hair, the ability to walk independently and 45 pounds, all as side effects of treatment. I missed the first half of my junior year and the first few months of my senior year of high school but managed to return in time to embrace the final months of being a “normal” teenager and graduate with my class. And though it took a little longer to recover from the side effects, I now walk all on my own (and in heels!), my hair is long and curly, and, to my chagrin, the 45 pounds have all returned. I am now twelve years out since my last chemotherapy treatment and thriving as a fully functional, independent adult (turns out it is not as glamorous as it looked when I was younger).
Thanks to my cancer experience, I have been blessed with opportunities to meet many wonderful and life changing people. As a member of the Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program, I have gotten to share my story through speaking engagements, radiothons and television specials. I have had my life changed in the most magnificent of ways, and this is what I ALWAYS focus my speeches and stories on. And while the experience did indeed end up being an incredible blessing in disguise, there are not so “wonderful” times – times I rarely, if ever, talk about. But I feel it’s time I do.
As a cancer survivor, not every moment was coated in strength and determination. There were days where I felt so sick and weak that I questioned if surviving was indeed what I wanted. And if I did survive, what would the “after” look like? Those thoughts only lasted a fleeting moment, before other thoughts invaded my mind. Thoughts of my mom who never ever left me alone during my treatment getting me wet towels and stroking my bald head. Thoughts of my dad who absolutely hated being in the hospital, so he channeled his fight on working to earn money to support us so my mom could be home to take care of me. Thoughts of my friends who drove over the day I was diagnosed in a parade of cars, hugs and laughs and made every effort to keep me involved while I missed out on so much; Of my youth pastor who called me every single Tuesday afternoon to check in and pray with me over the phone (even if it was me only being able to listen and close my eyes in prayer); Of my boyfriend at the time who showed up to my second admission with a bald head in solidarity of this new journey; Of my dog who lay loyal and quiet at the door of my room after every treatment, knowing something was wrong. It was never just about me, and still isn’t. Everyone involved was impacted by my diagnosis. So instead of waving the white flag when those thoughts of giving up arose, I made the choice to turn to hope, determination and resilience. To keep going.
After six weeks of radiation and nine months of chemotherapy, I was declared cancer free and given the opportunity to begin my transition back to “normal life.” But to my surprise, the nine months of treatment were not the only battles I would be fighting as a result of my diagnosis. Along with treatment came late effects, like neuropathy, potential infertility, post-traumatic stress and anxiety. The battle that I was once so thrilled to be done with (chemo is done so this chapter is closed, right?) was far from over. My first year of college proved anything but simple as these new challenges began to surface, but also surfacing was the opportunity for me to begin making choices. Choices about my health, mental wellness, relationships and academic/professional goals. Born in me was the realization of the power I held by simply being authentic. These choices further strengthened my journey of vulnerability, resilience and hope.
Now, at almost thirty years old and twelve years off treatment, this experience has not only sculpted the person I am, but it has influenced every area of my life. I work in Fresno Unified as a clinical school social worker, a field I highly doubt I would have gone into without this experience. I provide on-campus mental health services to students, knowing just how much mental health can permeate and affect every area of life.
I tell my students constantly that life is not rainbows and butterflies. It is not and will never be one glorious, happy event after another. There are times life is hard. Those moments are painful, challenging and at times can break us down until we feel like we have nothing left. It is in those times that we must dig down deep and search within ourselves to find our driving forces. Those forces can be the reflection of what challenges we have survived thus far in our lives, a reminder of the things we love and are willing to fight for in hopes of a future with them, or it can be in the form of perseverance, “this is not how I will be taken down.” But the key takeaway is that power comes from within.
There’s a technique I use in my counseling sessions with students, whether to stay or shift. This refers to one’s feelings. When we are sad, we have the choice to sit in that sadness. Which at times is ok, and is therapeutic in and of itself. Heaven knows I have had my fair share of “stay” moments where I think, “This is completely unfair. Why must I experience this? I hate this!” And in those moments, I chose to sit and stay with those feelings. But we also have a choice to shift. To shift to happier thoughts, actions and reflections. To shift into “What’s next? How do I keep going?” And even during a sit and stay moment, it is critical to remember that the choice to shift must come eventually.
We can all say it: 2020 was quite the year. It seems as though nearly every person/family had an experience of struggle and challenge last year -- myself and my family are no different. Displaced by a fire, health scares, loss and grief, is there even a need to mention the great pandemic that is COVID-19? But through it all, I have chosen hope. I have chosen to have strength and resilience. Was that always what happened? Absolutely not! Not even close. But in those moments of anguish, tears and questioning, I had to continue to choose hope, for myself and those around me.
At the base of resiliency is hope and vulnerability. As the saying goes, “this too shall pass.” It means acknowledging that yes, this stinks right now. But it is also the ability to reflect on all the other negative things you’ve encountered thus far, and you’ve survived. It does not mean that in that moment, the struggle is any easier. The great author, researcher, therapist, and scholar Brené Brown states, “Hope is a function of struggle.” We will never know our own strengths and capabilities until we are challenged with what we feel is going to break us. And then it doesn’t. Or it does and we persist anyways. Through those times, we find what it means to have hope, because there may be times where we feel that is all we have left. But we can choose to have that.
Most years, the New Year would bring specific goals for myself: graduate from college, pay off my car, reach a milestone in my relationship, etc. This year, it’s time to take it back to basics. For 2021, I choose health, love and peace. It is because of the struggles that came with 2020 that I have been grounded and recognize what truly matters. Now more than ever, our state, our country and our world need health, love and peace. We need peace within ourselves so we can love others. We need health so we can return to a more peaceful existence. And we need love, because there is a world full of things that will try to break us, destroy us and tell us we are not enough. And because we are human, at times we may believe it. So we need love and compassion, to build each other back up when others are on their knees.
So my final word moving into 2021: recognize the choices you have and act on them. We have more power than we often realize. We have the power to affect change on ourselves, and most importantly, on others. We have the choice to have hope, be resilient and spread happiness. This will not be easy by any means, and some days you may question it, but I can promise you, it will be worth it. We have experienced a year of struggle, pain, anger and sadness. But through that struggle, born in us is the option of hope, life and happiness. The question is yours: what will you choose?
Wishing you all health, love and peace in this New Year.
Written by Savannah Gomes. Photo taken by Savannah Gomes as part of the Valley Children’s Childhood Cancer Survivorship Photovoice project. Photo features Savannah’s hands with both her mother and father’s hands, her interpretation of “Love and Beauty.” Learn more about the project here.