When Cancer Steals–or Postpones–Your Dreams

September 16, 2011. This past week, the New York Times ran two stories involving young cancer patients. The first mentioned Kevin McDowell, a star triathlete who had to drop out of the running for the world championship because he got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In the second story, we learned that Andy Whitfield, the former star of the show, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 39 years old.

Embedded in both of these stories is a truth that young survivors know all too well: cancer robs you not just of time, but of prized opportunities. Even those of us not destined to be champions or Hollywood stars have lost chances that mattered deeply to us: to go to graduate school, to move away from home, to travel the world uninsured, to have a child, to grow old.

Cancer exacted the highest price it could from Whitfield: it took his life. But even before that, it stole his dream. In early 2010, he was playing the lead in a popular show. Women swooned over his looks, and men wanted to copy his fitness routine. Then his doctor told him he had cancer, and he had to step aside so another actor could take over a revised version of the show.

I never watched Spartacus, but I felt crushed for Whitfield nonetheless. I knew what it was like to have cancer corrupt something precious. I was diagnosed with breast cancer the week before my first child was born. I knew I was lucky to have a healthy baby, but my midwife cautioned me that I would still mourn all the lost expectations I had about my son’s early life.

I had assumed I would breastfeed my baby, but then chemo turned my milk poisonous. I had planned on spending long hours getting to know him, but then second opinions, scans, and checkups ate into my day. I had pictured myself comparing notes with other women at Mommy & Me groups, but then baldness made me feel freakish around new mothers. I had imagined I would be the primary caretaker in my newborn’s life once my husband went back to work, but then treatment forced me to rely on a string of friends and family. And I had expected to enjoy pondering my son’s future, but then my prognosis made me question my presence in it.

Each one of these losses on its own was fine—I understood that feeding my son formula instead of breast milk was part of saving my life. But taken together, the missed opportunities eroded my confidence in myself as a mother. Having my son in my life was an extraordinary, joyful blessing, but I didn’t get to experience his infancy outside of the realm of cancer, treatment, and fear of death.

And that is part of the burden of getting cancer as a young person: you only get to be a new parent once. You only get to be a recent law school grad once, or a newlywed, or a first-time author, or a rising rapper, or a world-class triathlete. None of us expected to have cancer overshadow those experiences. Sure many of us come back from treatment stronger and more determined to realize our dreams. But there is no denying we lost ground in the meantime.

There is never a good time for a diagnosis, but perhaps if it occurs during retirement, you have already savored many of life’s adventures. “It is dying YOUNG that bothers most of us,” one sarcoma survivor wrote on a community message board. “At 24, I don’t even have a boyfriend who will commit. My job is sorting mail. I have accomplished nothing in life of any importance yet.”

This young woman’s dreams lay ahead of her before she got diagnosed. Hopefully, cancer hasn’t robbed them entirely, only postponed them.