Youthful Lessons
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By Samantha Walthall

Youthful Lessons

A pediatric survivor reflects on life after cancer

By Samantha Walthall


It was late October 1997 and leaves were falling outside at the same rate that tears were falling down my face. Sitting alone in the lobby of my elementary school, I was kicking my feet with the anxious hope of seeing my mom walk through the door. I wasn’t exactly sure why I was crying—just exhausted I suppose, and scared. My jaw had been hurting so much that I was losing weight from not being able to eat. My mom finally arrived to take me for a blood test, and we were both hoping that the results would explain my pain.

The next day I found myself sitting in a stark hospital room filled with medical equipment. A doctor who would become my first pediatric oncologist soon joined me, followed by my parents, who were using everything they had to hold it together in front of me. I didn’t understand the words they were saying but assumed from the serious tone stifling the air that “leukemia” and “high risk” were not good terms to have in my 9-year-old vocabulary. Little did I know how much these words would affect the rest of my life.

When I think now about my two-and-a-half years on chemotherapy, I laugh at how strange the human memory can be. I remember certain details from my treatment, such as the feeding tubes I fought against and the crushed-up medicines in foods I still avoid today. But often when someone recounts specific details of my treatment, I listen as though it’s a story I have never heard. I guess my lapses in memory can be blamed on a combination of youth and self-preservation.

I find it amusing that I spent every major holiday in the hospital at least once and probably hold some sort of record for missed days of school. I jovially consider these accomplishments rather than tragedies. Although I still deal with complications from my treatment—like fatigue and a compromised immune system, as well as hip replacements due to the death of bone tissue—I take everything in stride.

This October will mark a decade since my diagnosis with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I’m 19 now, with a year of college under my belt as a screenwriting student. Sometimes I daydream about how it all could have been different. I imagine a sort of carefree utopia of sunny days, green grass and running around on playgrounds with friends. Then I look back on how my childhood was actually spent, in hospital rooms where my best friends were IV poles nicknamed Fred, and where sleepless nights created an eternal relationship with Nick at Nite programming.

In my memories I see the people I would have never met, and the people I would have never inspired, had I not been sick. I’ve learned that it’s okay to think about the what-ifs, but I always live without regrets; I readily take my past with me into my current life. Some say it’s a shame I’ll never know what it is to have a normal childhood, but I hold no real value in the term “normal.” I realize how lucky I am to be alive, and because of that, I am constantly re-evaluating my life and what really matters to me. As crazy as it may sound, I would never change any part of my past for the brightest future in the world. I can create that on my own.


Samantha Walthall, of West Chester, Pa., is a sophomore at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.