Illustration: Brian Stauffer

I Didn’t Beat Cancer, My Doctors Did

When well-meant words do harm.

By Brooke Vittimberga

“You’re so strong.”

“I know.”

That’s an absurd dialogue, right? If you practice common etiquette, you probably found the second statement more absurd, but I’m of the opinion that the absurdity started with the first.

I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the end of my sophomore year. It was June 2015, and I had been feeling sick since the end of fall quarter. It was a long, hazy, downward spiral — filled with visits to Vaden and the Stanford ER, blood tests that came back inconclusive and, finally, the decision to study abroad in Cape Town in the spring in the hope that a change in scenery would help.

I wish I could put that period of time into words, but the lack of hemoglobin (and, as a result, oxygen) reaching my brain back then makes this difficult. It was torturous — not simply because of my illness, but because I could not meet the expectations of people I cared about. My friends were exasperated, my professors disappointed and my co-workers furious.

After six months of underachieving by every metric, I was diagnosed with leukemia, and all of a sudden I was “the strongest person” everyone had ever met. This was laughable and awkward for me. When my first round of chemotherapy failed and I was told that I was likely terminally ill, people repeatedly told me that I would survive because I was “strong.”

I survived because I was forced to survive, not because I was strong.

It seemed easier for most of them to pretend that I had a modicum of control over my survival than to face the reality that I did not. To me, the statement that I would survive because I was strong was offensive because it implied that if I died, it would be because I was weak. But more important, it felt like people were refusing to consider the reality that I truly had no control over whether I lived or died, instead pretending that my strength would somehow overcome the cancerous cells spilling out of my bone marrow and into my blood. I didn’t get a choice in whether I faced my mortality, but others did. They were choosing not to face it with me. I felt alone.

A year and a half later, I’m sitting here writing this piece, so the suspense is off and clearly I survived. It was not pretty — I had a bone marrow transplant followed by grade 4 graft-versus-host disease of the gut, which meant my new bone marrow was attacking my digestive system so profusely that it ceased to function, causing about 40 pounds of fluid gain and leaving me in so much pain that I began to view my chemo days as child’s play. I spent seven months as an inpatient at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, three of those months completely NPO (nothing by mouth). At one point, a surgical error left my central IV spilling into my lungs, and I went into acute respiratory distress followed by three days on a ventilator in the ICU. I spent two months in a drug-induced delusion, hallucinating that my legs were a single tree trunk and repeatedly forgetting that a close friend of mine from the hospital had died. I was so confused that I pulled out my own IVs, drank water despite its effects on my damaged gut and threw up all over my iPhone (which Apple replaced for free).

I was incredibly weak. I felt like an infant in a 20-year-old body. I was not strong. I cried; I begged the doctors to sedate me; I asked them to stop treatment and let me die. I survived because I was forced to survive, not because I was strong. I survived because the clinical trial my oncologist selected happened to work, and because I was lucky. I survived because thousands of brilliant people have dedicated themselves to cancer research and to clinical oncology; I survived because dozens of people nursed me, cared for me and refused to let me give up when every cell in my being was screaming for it all to stop.

Courtesy Brooke Vittimberga, ’17

Months later, when I was beginning to recover my sense of self, I realized that I had become a symbol of strength to many people, especially those I do not know well. My bald head had screamed “cancer kid” for so long that people had forgotten who I am. By chance, I happen to consider myself a strong person. Not because I had cancer, but because I think I am accomplished, kind, stubborn and funny. Because I have excelled in my chosen field (which happens to be human biology — but I chose that before the cancer); because I value being a good friend; and because I am carefree enough to wear Birkenstocks with socks, even when my friends disapprove. Not because cancer happened to me. In fact, I consider the time period of my illness to be among the weakest of my life so far.

So when people comment on my writing or my pictures and tell me that I’m strong, I am conflicted. Part of me wants to tell them that they consider me strong for all of the wrong reasons, that they make me feel like my real accomplishments mean nothing, that they make me feel alone, like they refuse to consider my mortality in the way that I was forced to. But the bigger part of me realizes that most of them haven’t faced death in the way that I have, and that they simply do not know how. If you haven’t prewritten your own obituary, wondering what bits of you would be preserved, if you haven’t lain in a hospital bed feeling solidarity with those who had died in that very bed, could you possibly fathom it?

So, I usually pass on the lecture. Whenever it comes up, I simply smile to myself and mutter “I know” in reply. You aren’t supposed to accept a compliment in that way. But if the compliment stings, even unintentionally, why can’t I have a little fun with it? •

BROOKE VITTIMBERGA, ’17, is a human biology major and an enthusiast of cold beaches, dried fruit, caffeine and reality TV. Brooke’s candid journal of her fight against acute myeloid leukemia and graft-versus-host disease—from early in her diagnosis through the present—can be found at AML etc.