Cancer was the type of thing that I had heard about, but never actually imagined happening to me. I was freshly 17 and had just moved to Michigan after my parent’s less-than-cordial divorce. Normally when I’m sick, I just ignore my symptoms until they go away. But this time was different.

Early Symptoms

beer, coffee
Haley Mellen

My stomach was upset and I didn’t have much of an appetite. I often felt light headed and was constantly tired, yet I couldn't sleep at night. After about three weeks, the symptoms still persisted. The final straw was when I sat in a massage chair and the following day I had bruises running up and down my back.

It’s not like I was in excruciating pain. Honestly, I didn’t even make an association between all of these symptoms until much later. Eventually, I decided that I should probably consult some sort of medical professional, because feeling this way was starting to interfere with my life.

Oblivious, I went to the doctor where they recommended I take Advil, and come back in a week if the symptoms didn’t go away. Almost a week later I came home from school shaking uncontrollably, and feeling like I was about to pass out. 

The ER

pizza, beer
Haley Mellen

I remember sitting in the parking lot of the emergency room, contemplating if it was really necessary to go through the whole ordeal of going to the hospital. I felt like I was being dramatic towards symptoms that didn’t strike me as totally out of the norm. Eventually, I decided that it was better to be safe than sorry, and I went in.

Having never been in a hospital (aside from birth, and when my dad accidentally took too much Vitamin-B and turned purple), I was surprised. Everything seemed to move slowly compared to the Grey’s Anatomy-esque image I had envisioned.

The doctors drew blood counts, and I explained my symptoms to what seemed like 50 different nurses and doctors. After analyzing my blood work, a doctor explained that they found blasts—cancer cells. Relatively unfazed by this information, I watched as my father broke into tears.

Never in my life have I felt such tangible sense of fear exuding from those around me. However, I was mainly looking forward to the fact that I probably wouldn’t have to go to school on Monday. 

What Now?

The following morning, I woke up and forgot where I was. The night before I had been transferred to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, which I would call home for the next six months. I had been officially diagnosed with Acute Promyeloid Leukemia (APML), and I was still pretty numb to the news.

The doctors didn’t present the Leukemia as a potentially terminal, life-altering illness. Rather, they told me that I was really sick, and they were going to help me get better. I started what was the beginning of five rounds of chemotherapy, and three years of treatment that day.

What was chemo like?

Although I had heard of chemotherapy and radiation, I honestly had no idea what either really was. I quickly learned that chemo is a “weed killer,” taking out the bad cells, along with the good.

I came to recognize it as the source of my incessant nausea, migraines, and fatigue. The cancer wasn’t pulling the life out of me, the chemo was. It emaciated my body, forced me to use a walker, and was the reason my hair was coming out in clumps. 

Losing my Hair

pizza, beer, tea, coffee
Haley Mellen

As superficial as it may sound, I did not cry in the hospital until I found out that I was going to lose my hair. Losing my hair meant that this was real. I was a real cancer patient.  This would not just be a quickie hospital stay and real life would go back to normal after a few weeks of treatment.

I watched as my hair came out in the masses, later followed by my eyebrows, eyelashes, and all other follicles on my body. Once my hair had thinned enough, I chose to shave my head. I never thought it could be so ticklish.

My family offered to shave their heads too, but I figured better to have one bald member than six (plus my sisters would not look good bald). After I shaved my head, I went into the bathroom and cried. I kept having to remind myself that this was real. I was actually sick.

Life in the hospital

Given the nature of the cancer, I spent the majority of my time quarantined in my room, waiting for my blood counts to recover. During my first few rounds of chemo, I was too distracted by not feeling well to pay much attention to life outside the hospital.

In later rounds, time dragged on, as I felt fine, but couldn’t leave the confines of my room. I had a room to myself that overlooked downtown Grand Rapids, equipped with a pull-out couch, my own bathroom, and a TV.

I also had a tutor who would come in daily. I conveniently planned my daily nap during this time. Despite my less-than-vigilant attempts at carrying out any school work, I did manage to make ample time for TV and Facebook.

Overall, my time in the hospital was extremely humbling. I looked at myself as a “lucky one,” who knew what it was like to play four square at recess and go to Homecoming, while many of the other patients hadn’t experienced a life far beyond the hospital.

Going back to “real life”

After missing the majority of my junior year and reaching remission, I went back to school to complete my senior year. Getting back was overwhelming as I attempted to navigate the ACT, college applications, AP classes, extracurricular activities, and a social life, all while taking heavy doses of outpatient chemotherapy.

I so badly wanted my friends to think of me as “normal”—the pre-cancer Haley—that I buried my stresses, diverting any negative cancer talk. I used to take my wig off at parties and dance around with it.

I would sarcastically pull the “cancer card,” and sometimes joke about being sick. My family would get mad when I did, but my attitude allowed me to accept what happened and move on.

I was lucky

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Haley Mellen

Cancer taught me a lot. It taught me that you can’t control what happens, but you can control how you react to it. It sounds grossly cliché, but holds so true to this experience.

Honestly, there were times along the way where nothing sounded better than just shutting off. And I realized that finding the way back to the Haley I knew was not through ignoring the pain, but through enduring, accepting it, and choosing to look at the positive.

As crazy as it might sound—I say, and have always said—that cancer was more of a blessing than a curse. I was so profoundly lucky. Lucky to have love and support along the way. Lucky that we detected it early.

Lucky that I got to feel the pain, instead of trying my hardest to imagine what it was like, the way my family had to. Lucky that my doctors knew how to cure it. And lucky to now, be on the other side, looking back on my experience, as if it were another lifetime.