The summer before her freshman year of high school, Pia Phillips noticed a strange lump in her neck. Never imagining it might be dangerous, it went straight to the back of her school-filled mind. After a biopsy, Pia found out the shattering news: She had cancer.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a disease of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. It’s one of the most curable cancers, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an arduous experience.
“The fact that I had cancer hit me a month after I overcame it all,” Pia reveals. “I was in the middle of studying, and I just broke down. I knew about what I had, but I just couldn’t get myself to believe it prior to that moment. High school had distracted me from reality.” She couldn’t get herself to imagine the endless hours she’d be spending in a hospital room, or the painful headaches, nausea, and discomfort she’d endure. She really couldn’t imagine possibly losing her life.
The daily struggle of hospital life, pain, sickness, and fear obviously wasn’t easy, but what really hit Pia hard was losing her hair. Day after day we see people with bare heads on the street or at the grocery store, but we don’t typically come across bald-headed peers in the school cafeteria. When she was told she’d lose her hair, Pia shed her first tears dedicated to cancer. “There was a big ball piling up inside of me, getting bigger and bigger,” she says, “and when I found out I was going to lose my hair, the ball exploded, and so did I.”
It’s just hair, right? Not to Pia. When her hair vanished, so did her confidence. “I was scared to look like the complete opposite of a stereotypical perfect high school girl,” she says. “At times I was more scared about my self-image than my well-being.”
With cancer also came social struggles. Dealing with relationships in high school is hard enough, but having cancer made it even harder. Her biggest concern, after her hair fell out, was sustaining relationships with her friends. She feared ugly stares at her bald head or glares at her in the halls, as if she were a walking disease. For the most part, her friends were faithful, but there were times when she was treated unnaturally. She felt that people tried to befriend her so they could say they were friends with a girl with cancer.
They say that a positive attitude leads to a positive outcome, and this was true in Pia’s case. She had a rockin’ attitude through it all. Though people treated her differently and she felt nauseous half the time, she remained positive. Because of her attitude, her struggles left her with a more appreciative perspective of life. She values life and doesn’t waste a minute worrying about the little things.
Pia said that if she could talk to someone in her shoes, she would tell them four things. “First, you’re going to have a kickass haircut. Second, it’s super easy to shower without hair. Third, be positive and it will change everything. And lastly, don’t let cancer control your life. It doesn’t define who you are as a person.”
Cancer in high school was a challenge, but it was nothing Pia couldn’t tackle. She made it through the hair loss, the awkward friendship moments, the nausea, the painful days of missing school for chemotherapy, and everything in between. “Cherish your life more and live it well,” Pia says. “Some people don’t get the chance.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.