I am never happy to be in the oncology waiting room. But when I first saw Kristen Howard sitting across from me at Mount Sinai Hospital, I could barely contain my excitement. Since my diagnosis with leukemia two years ago at age 22, I’ve learned that it is a rare sight to see young people in the hallways of an adult oncology unit. Kristen’s bald head confirmed that she, too, was a cancer patient. I beamed at her from beneath my face mask, with a strange sense of relief to see another young woman who looked like me. I knew we had to meet.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Kristen and I became “cancer friends” — a new subgenre of friendship we often joke about. Kristen, now 31, of East Lansing, Mich., was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a year ago. We convinced the hospital staff to allow us to share a room in the chemotherapy suite for our infusions. Suddenly, the hospital became a place not only of fear and loneliness, but of companionship and solidarity.
We joked about everything from our hair loss to our chemotherapy-induced infertility and hot flashes, to our insurance woes. One day in the chemotherapy suite, Kristen and I laughed so hard that a nurse came into our room to tell us to keep it down.
“Ladies, this is not supposed to be fun,” the nurse said, scolding us loud enough for the others to hear but barely concealing a smile.
Of course, we knew there was nothing fun or funny about sitting in a chemo suite — but developing a friendship during our shared crisis became a life-changing outlet. Cancer patients can attest that, whether we are always aware of it or not, we can’t share the same things in the same ways with people who have never had cancer.
For me and Kristen, laughter now plays a more defining role in our friendship than cancer does. One day, discussing our shared love for the Bravo television series “Real Housewives,” we came up with an idea for a spinoff. We liked the idea so much that we even made a video about it called “The Real Housewives of Chemotherapy.” We could not stop laughing while we made it, and we now hope to use the video as a way to connect with other young cancer patients.
It has been almost a year since Kristen and I first met. She’s now in remission. I had a successful bone marrow transplant in April although I continue to do monthly chemotherapy treatments to prevent recurrence. Our hair is slowly growing back. And we’re beginning to find our “new normal.” But the future for both of us still remains obscured by doubt and fear of relapse. Today I’ll travel to the hospital for my six month post-transplant bone marrow biopsy, the invasive procedure that tells the doctor whether my cancer is still gone.
During difficult times, we continue to look to laughter and our friendship as a way of coping with the hardships that cancer has thrown our way.
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced su-LAKE-uh ja-WAD) is a 24-year-old writer who lives in New York City. Her column, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicling her experiences as a young adult with cancer, appears weekly on Well. Follow @suleikajaouad on Twitter.