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No Grades for Cancer: Redefining Success as a Student

When I was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of college, I threw myself into the study of being a "good" cancer patient. But it didn't take long for me to realize that cancer doesn't play favorites with the teacher's pets.
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I am good at being a student. I thrive in situations where I have tangible, feasible goals in sight and a well-defined path to accomplish them. I play by the rules and am motivated by earning good grades. I was one of those weird kids who sort of liked homework back when I was in school. It allowed me to pat myself on the back once I was done and to feel like I had achieved something. So naturally, when I was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of college, I threw myself into the study of being a "good" cancer patient.

At the beginning, I was practically neurotic about taking all my pills exactly on time and being early to every single chemotherapy appointment. Later I would find out that the dozen daily drugs I was taking were not time sensitive down to the minute, and that the majority of them were to prevent (I kid you not) constipation, diarrhea, nausea, or allergies. I would also learn that "hospital time" is never early and rarely on time, so being ten minutes late is not the end of the world. But at the beginning, I didn't know these things, and being obsessive about pills and appointments seemed like a vital step in succeeding in this new class, Cancer 101.

I was convinced that somehow, if I did everything just right, I could earn my place among the cancer-free. I thought that within six months of diagnosis I would be back to my normal life and that cancer would just be like a bad aftertaste of the previous summer. I even thought that if I tried to stay positive and didn't let myself worry, then maybe I wouldn't have to lose my hair. I was just certain that there was some way to outsmart this whole cancer patient thing and come out as Wonderwoman.

But it didn't take long for me to realize that cancer doesn't play favorites with the teacher's pets. Cancer is an equal opportunity bully, and chemotherapy doesn't play too nicely with you either. As I poured over clinical protocol packets and chemotherapy drug information sheets, I realized that there were no shortcuts for the ambitious and dedicated. Treatment included at least nine months of intense chemotherapy almost every week, and then two years afterwards of daily pills and monthly injections. I would have to drop out of my dream university not just for one semester, but for the entire school year. My identity as a grade-chasing scholar was suddenly very irrelevant to my ultimate goal of staying alive.

I'll admit that educating myself on my cancer and chemotherapy drugs has helped me feel prepared and a little more in control of the situation, but ultimately it has done very little in the goal of saving my life. I've learned that you don't get a grade in cancer, it's kind of just a pass or fail test. And while my doctors can recommend drug therapies to save my life, these drugs won't help me in actually living a fulfilled life -- they merely make it possible for me to decide to do that.

I'm finally realizing that I can't allow good grades and gold stars to define the quality and value of my life -that the definition of success is for me to write on my own. For me, success in cancer has not been the religious checking off of every single dose of chemotherapy I receive, but rather the times I decided to do the things I wanted and spent time with the people I love, even though I was terribly weak and worn out. Success is admitting that I'm not Pollyanna and won't always be an inspiring beam of positivity to others, but that I can still affect change and show compassion towards others in the midst of my own trouble. Success is my ability to dream and plan for a future that I know is still incredibly uncertain and not quite yet tangible. Success is the complete, 180-degree shift in the way I view people and the indescribable significance of each meaningful relationship in my life. Success is the way that this whole experience has taught me to refuse defeat and continue pressing onwards, even when no one is watching or handing out awards.

Success is this obsessive-compulsive student learning to let go of the pursuit of perfection and embrace the experience of the unexpected.

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