In College, with Cancer

In her own words, Caitlin describes her story of cancer

College student Caitlin Waters was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia when she was 20 years old. In the following post, Caitlin shares her thoughts about the video clips depicting her story of cancer.

In these first scenes, I’m in my hospital room at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. This is post-transplant, and I’m already feeling anxious to get out of the hospital and back to my life, though I stubbornly refused to accept how long I’d be out of commission – I wouldn’t even be allowed outside without a mask on for months still.  The first few scenes you see are some of the first times I was filmed, and I can remember how hard it was not to look into the camera, and to act naturally. When my four friends come to visit, I think they are initially feeling the pressure of the camera too, until we slowly became more at ease, as evidenced by my friend Jackie saying, “Woof.” I keeled over laughing at the fact that that was kept in the video, but it is a perfect example of all of us becoming comfortable being filmed. Also, though my eyes look horrible (I had ruptured blood vessels), they didn’t hurt at all!

My desire to be away from the hospital as fast as possible is obvious here. We haven’t even left Hopkins’ campus yet before I am calling my friend Linda to make plans for that night. Though I am happy that I finally get to go home, it was slowly becoming clear that I wouldn’t be able to do everything I wanted, like go to the beach or back to school. And instead of accepting this, I fought it. And the further away from the transplant I got, the harder I fought, as you will continue to see in the upcoming scenes.

These scenes with my doctor Doug Smith and my nurse practitioner Valerie Ironside take place about a month and a half and then probably somewhere around three months after my bone marrow transplant. Though my sulky angst might make it seem like my doctor and I have a strained relationship, we do not. This part was the most difficult for me to watch, because I get frustrated with myself for having such trivial concerns and with my inability to see the bigger picture, also known as the rest of my life. My doctor’s metaphor about the bar representing the overall theme of my worries is spot on – all I cared about was having fun and making memories and mistakes. I’ve never been good at taking it easy, or slowing down, especially when that request is coming from another person. Now, almost two years later, I can see both how I have grown and matured since this doctor’s appointment, but I can also see how I have not. I am far less worried about whether or not I can make it to the bars this weekend, but I am still not content with the idea that I should be sitting still for months to come. This restless determination lives on within me. It may lie more dormant that it once did, but it is still easily roused.

What is also difficult is remembering the disappointment I set myself up for. Every two weeks, I’d get my hopes up that I’d be allowed to return to Austin, even when really, I knew better. I just wasn’t satisfied with accepting my fate of staying at home and inside and away from crowds for half a year, so I plotted my escape, as those who feel trapped are wont to do. I convinced myself before every trip to Hopkins that THIS would the time my doctor would set me free, and so every time, I left heartbroken. The period of time I spent at home after my bone marrow transplant has been one of the biggest mental struggles throughout my cancer experience. I still struggle with the idea that something unpredictable has control over my life and my choices, but I have found a way to balance that uncertainty with my dogged determination to land those choices back in my hands. All I had to do was learn a little patience.

It is much easier for me to watch this last scene than it is to watch the previous two. Watching yourself cry on film in no fun – 0/10 recommend. This scene takes place in October, four months after my transplant, and I was back in my happy place – at my co-op with my friends in Austin. I got to spend time with Sid and Dave, my friends from the hospital, and I was reunited with all my closest friends from school. As you can probably see, I can hardly contain my excitement, although my doctor’s worries still faintly echo in my head. These worries, of course, do not stop me from going out. Despite my careless behavior, I remember how ecstatic I felt during this trip, and how much more like myself I felt. Cancer was trying to drain my life force, literally and figuratively. It was trying to make me feel less like me, less positive and spontaneous and adventurous, and here, in that big smile, was proof that it couldn’t. That spirit was still there, and this was crucial for me to remember.

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