Coleton Strand is one of my oldest friends, and one of the strongest, most amazing people I know. Growing up, Coleton had it all figured out – he got good grades, was a phenomenal athlete, starred in plays and musicals, and was everyone’s friend.
I’ve never seen Coleton without a smile on his face, and though he just went through the toughest year of his life, he never lost his spirit. His story shows that physical health and mental health are so deeply intertwined, and that hope and faith can make all the difference. – AL
The last 6 months or so have felt like a rollercoaster ride. At the start of summer 2016 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and was set to undergo Chemotherapy Treatment for 6 Months starting in September. After multiple surgeries and diagnostic tests, it was confirmed that I had stage 4 Cancer, and that I was to be set to take a chemotherapy cycle called ABVD which was very aggressive and hard on the body. Little did I know, the events following my diagnosis would change my life completely.
I’m not one-hundred percent certain about what I would like to get across through this dialogue, but I hope that maybe by explaining the hurdles that I went through within my recent health battle, and being vulnerable with the feelings that I had surrounding them, I could maybe normalize these feelings and help anybody feeling this way to understand that it is natural. We are human, and life hits hard sometimes. We aren’t weird for thinking about the why’s in life, and the way our brain processes the events around us. I also wanted to add some context to my journey – by stating that trauma hits everyone in different ways. As Chemo was hard for me, for others it has been a very small blimp in their path. Some people breeze through chemotherapy and can function in society without anyone knowing that they are getting treatments. For others, it can hit harder and cause more nausea. We are all unique and beautiful in our own right. Our bodies, brains, and hearts respond differently to all interactions that we experience. I say this because I believe that as chemotherapy was hard on me, someone struggling with social interaction, or someone being relentlessly bullied could be equally or even more threatened and damaged physically, emotionally, and mentally. These individual struggles exist within situational context, and I think that it is important not to judge based on perceived struggle.
Through my treatment, I was blessed with a very sound group of friends and family that encouraged me to have a smile on my face, and remain extremely positive during the time. I had an optimistic outlook, and a very optimistic attitude towards everything – because there was no other option. I feel humbled to have had the support available when I have needed it. I had friends answer the phone at 3 Am for tough conversations, shave their head as I lost my own hair, produce videos to commemorate this time in my life, and cancel plans to see me on a bad day. I had acquaintances gift me with chocolate baskets and get well soon cards. Family members would visit often to try to make me feel more comfortable. Individuals that should not have had any business doing so took me to my chemotherapy appointments, and displayed wild amounts of bravery in doing so. I do not list these things out of pride, or to brag. I am so appreciative of these people, and for the way that they treated me when I felt that I really didn’t deserve it. I still feel indebted, and pray that anyone going through this kind of an ugly disease would be able to receive even an ounce of the love that was thrown my way.
The sad reality is that for many going through what I have gone through, situationally they are not so lucky. I can say with confidence that I was lucky, and almost gifted with a special group of people around me, and for that I truly do feel blessed.
Another thought that persisted through this time was centered around the lies we are fed about human perfection in our society. One of the many reasons that I really turned to my faith and to God was due to a constant realization that we as humans are not perfect. Even through this overwhelming amount of support, I would find myself sitting in my room sad, and feeling lonely. This happened more times than anyone would have known, as I did not openly express this to many. I know what you are thinking – how could you feel lonely when people were doing these things for you? And I don’t blame you, you are not wrong. But I think the answer to that is that we are NOT PERFECT. I’m human, and I know that I made plenty of mistakes in my recent past. My brain sometimes likes to take over and think its way into different circles that seem very unnecessary. I found myself placing very unfair expectation on those around me. For instance, for every person that was there for me, there always seemed to be somebody that was not there for me that I felt I really couldn’t count on (even though they were there for me countless other times within a recent span). Was my head playing tricks on me? Was I overthinking everything? I mean this clearly wasn’t always the reality. How could I expect life to stop for me as I dealt with my health issue? When I placed my faith in others capabilities to act as I had ideally hoped in my mind – and they let me down – I I set myself up for failure. It was only when I began to pray about things, and trust God to carry things out, and to take it into his hands that I became so much more comfortable about how my life was playing out on a day to day basis. I trusted in things to work out, and when they didn’t I felt more appreciative of the full process. Not everything is going to work out ideally for us personally, but when looking back we can often find that the natural course of how things happened was often vital to a new discovery or experience. By placing my faith in this kind of trust, I could feel that I was communicating better. Decisions became easier to make, and I began really focusing on the things that I loved. This all seemed to distract my mind and heart from the little instances of depression and anxiety that I was experiencing.
Life is very short – and this experience has opened my eyes to that. In a lot of circumstances, death is a natural part of life, and there are so many threats to individual existence. I feel so fortunate to be able to live through what I am dealing with and to experience the pain of Chemotherapy than to have lost my life quickly and not have had the opportunity to connect this way with the people that I have. I know that naturally it was hard to look at things with this kind of perspective, but the positivity and support that was given to me allowed me to be open to that idea. Going through this kind of trauma really changed me in this way, because my life on this earth had never really been threatened until now. Looking at the glass half full made a world of difference for me, as my perception for my life, how it was to work, and where I was heading was something that I kept thinking about. This experience almost nurtured my personal ability to take a step back and to understand who I was, enabling me to find value in what I wanted from my life. I was never fully thinking about things from a month to month standpoint though – as my head processed things day by day. This was because I was in complete survival mode to keep healthy. This sound stressful, but it was actually SUCH a refreshing experience because I was living in the moment. I started to not worry about how things would shape, and began living in the present, appreciative of each passing moment and event that occurred. Every day became more and more a blessing, and every chemo treatment that passed became more and more exciting. I remember thinking to myself “Another chemo session off the books, I’m going to go and eat a burger”.
I never have truly experienced bad anxiety in my life until chemotherapy. Little things began to really bother me. I found that I was unable to eat foods that I had the day of some treatments, looking at red liquids reminded me of the drugs that were injected in me, I wasn’t thinking clearly always – and I still feel the effects of what is called “chemo-brain”. The best way that I found to deal with these kinds of things was to talk about them. I found that being very vocal and open about my experience made it easier to communicate with those close to me, but also served as a way for me to find comfort in a therapeutic sense. When I told others about the weird nuances of my journey and my trauma, I found that almost everyone was extremely open and in many cases sought out more information from me. You wouldn’t BELIVE the amount of people that do not understand what cancer is, and how chemotherapy treatment works. I do not blame them at all because there are so many different types of cancer, so many different streams of information about it online (do not trust all sources that are on the internet), different treatments, different treatment methods. Every single cancer diagnosis is also situationally different. An example of this can be seen through drug prescription. It took me the first couple of treatments to really understand what type of medication reduced my nausea. This is different for every person – but It took me until treatment 4 to have the guts to be more vocal and request more anti-anxiety medication from my oncologist.
Currently, I have finished my 6-month chemotherapy treatment. I not only feel healthy from a physical standpoint, but also feel healthy from a mental standpoint. I realize that the journey does not end here. For the rest of my life, I will need to go in for checkups, and have the understanding that the cancer could return. That used to really bother me, but this experience has taught me to trust, and be faithful that I have been healed. This process has been a complete blessing in my life. Before my diagnosis, you could say that I did not really understand who I was, or know what my purpose was. By tackling things like depression and anxiety, I found out the amount of courage and mental toughness that I had. I was also able to see friends and family rally behind me and create a tight knit group that showed me I was loved, supported and cared about. It doesn’t feel like I was the one to get through my diagnosis. The team around me that became my family allowed me to find myself, and provided me with outlets to deal with these emotions, and conquer them. I will experience anxiety and depression in the future, I have no doubt in that – but I will be prepared to face them, and learn more from each new challenge.
I hope that we can start to have more conversations about the struggles we are dealing with. Being able to acknowledge our imperfections in my belief is an important therapeutic method to deal with these mental health issues, and reminds us that we are not alone in our battles. If you wanted to talk about anything that you are going through, or just cared to have a conversation on a day you really need it, I would love it if you sent me a message on facebook.