a twenty-something with cancer

Not until I read the column in The New York Times today by a 23-year-old with leukemia did I think about this version of being twenty-something — being acutely and possibly mortally ill at this tender age. It goes against all notions of the natural order of things. And it does something else — something that didn’t occur to me until the writer, Suleika Jaouad, pointed it out. It brings to a screeching halt the progress a young person might have been making along the rough, exciting road to adulthood.

“Cancer magnifies the in-betweenness of young adulthood,” Suleika writes:  “You’re not a child anymore, yet you’re not fully ready to live in the adult world, either. After my diagnosis, I moved back into my childhood bedroom. And as I get sicker, I increasingly rely on my parents to take care of me. But at the same time, I’ve had no choice but to grow up fast. Daunting questions that most of my peers won’t have to consider for many more years have become my urgent, everyday concerns: How will I hold onto health insurance if I’m unable to work? Will I be able to have children? How long will I live?”

No 23-year-old should have to ask herself such questions. Especially the last one.

After I read Suleika’s Times column, I watched the first installment of the video that will tell her story as it unfolds (she’s getting a bone marrow transplant this week).

What I was struck by, in the video, was the brief shot of her mother sitting in the background at one of Suleika’s doctor visits, trying not to cry. Her mother — whose name was never mentioned — spoke in voiceover.

As a parent of a young adult, you have to be careful. You still want to do everything for her, but you’re knowing that doing everything for her . . . is not necessarily what she wants. You’ve got to learn to stand back and to be useless, and accept it, and it’s very hard.

In Suleika’s blog, which she started when her chemotherapy began (and which led the Times Well blog to seek her out as a contributor), there doesn’t seem to be a tag or a category for “parents.” There’s a reason for that. This is one struggle that, at its heart, is something a young adult has to endure on her own. Her parents might want more than anything to take her grief, pain, and terror onto their own backs and somehow spare their child. But they can’t.

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