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Going Back To College Felt (Almost) As Hard As Fighting Cancer

I took a nine-month leave of absence and beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Returning to a world that didn’t understand or even know about my illness was the next challenge. posted on

Illustration by Perrin for BuzzFeed

Leaning into the mirror, I squinted at the spot where my eyebrows had once been. I could just make out two identical patches of prickly hairs poking through the skin above my eyes. Welcome back, little guys, I thought to myself. I had just returned to Boston University after taking a nine-month leave of absence. I craved a return to normalcy: college friends, parties, even schoolwork. I may have been healthy, ready, but my eyebrows weren’t.

I had purchased the brown eye pencil on impulse while at CVS picking up supplies for my dorm room earlier that day. Of course I couldn’t just buy a brown eye pencil, I found, but “hazelnut cashmere” eye pencil, which looked brown enough from the packaging. I wondered why they didn’t just sell a color called “eyebrow” for people like me. And then I remembered that there weren’t many people like me.

At least, not on a college campus.

Using the dots of where my eyebrows were growing back as a guide, I drew two symmetrical half-moons above my eyes with the pencil. Back home in New Jersey, where I spent my illness, I never bothered with this sort of thing. There, I lived in a protected bubble made up of my family, closest friends, and boyfriend — all of whom couldn’t care less that I looked like an eggheaded alien.

I leaned back and admired my handiwork. I had never been good at makeup, but I was great at coloring books, and this wasn’t much different. I felt good. Confident, even. Until I glanced at the clock and realized I was running late. I tugged a black beanie over my fuzzy crew cut, grabbed my backpack, and headed out into the cruel Boston winter.

An icy wind blew off the Charles as I made my way toward Newswriting and Reporting. I distracted myself by making an informal mental bargain with no one in particular that I would write a 10 — fuck it, 20! — page paper for this class if it meant I didn’t have to say an interesting fact about myself on the first day. What would I say?

“One time I had my own bone marrow sucked out of a freshly corkscrewed hole in my pelvis while I was still awake.”

I found myself walking past a building I had almost had the pleasure of forgetting: Student Health Services. There, only nine months prior, I had heard the words “Hodgkin’s lymphoma” for the first time from a ginger doctor wearing a bow tie. I remembered how I laughed when he said it. I figured as a glorified campus condom dispenser, he was tired of wasting his medical degree on diagnosing garden-variety venereal diseases and threw in the cancer diagnosis at the first sign of a measly neck lump as a way to spice things up. It took about a month of X-rays, blood tests, PET scans, and finally biopsies to confirm his prediction. I had so much time to think about it that when my parents finally told me I did, in fact, have cancer, I didn’t get upset. I just laid facedown between them on their bed and asked into a pillow whether they were OK.

Two years later, after I graduated, I would send him a photo of me accepting my diploma. A short blondish bob sticks out from under my cap. I am smiling too hard. On the back I wrote a message: “Couldn’t have made it here without you. Thanks.” I never heard back from him.

I had forgotten how clinical the Communications building looked from the inside. Heavy metal doors punctuated the long white hallways. Pale fluorescent lights buzzed above my head.

Ironically my hospital in New York couldn’t have been more the opposite. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering the walls were always painted warm colors and natural light poured into the cancer ward from a domed ceiling. There were plants and paintings and even a pool table, if you knew where to look. But most important, I could walk around bald-headed and not elicit a single stare.

I hoped that I wouldn’t recognize a single person in my class. Usually seeing a familiar face on the first day would ease my nerves, but now I had no idea how I would casually explain my appearance to an old acquaintance. A few days later, while shoveling over-steamed vegetables onto a plastic plate at the dining hall, I ran into a girl I had a class with freshman year.

I was happy to see her; she was an active member of a campus group that gave free hugs in the campus plaza on Fridays. I waved.

“Oh my god!” she yelled across the chaotic dining hall before running up to embrace me. She pulled back and cocked her head to one side.

“Why’d you cut your hair?” she asked, still holding my shoulders. “It looks so much better long!”

She wore a hijab. I had never been more jealous of a piece of fabric in my life.

I found the classroom and paused before taking the metal into my hand and pushing inside. It contained nothing more than a large rectangular table with 12 seats scattered around it. Eleven strange faces turned toward me. Perfect. All I had to do was make it an hour and a half without the subject of cancer, haircuts, or eyebrows coming up and I could return to the solitude of my dorm room to bury my face in Netflix. I kept my beanie on the whole time.

After, I had only made it to Commonwealth Avenue when I heard someone calling from behind me.

“Wait up!”

I turned around. A girl from class — she’d raised her hand a lot — was run-walking to me. When she caught up to me I felt like I was twice her height.

“Do you live in South Campus?” Her Midwestern accent saturated each word.

“Yeah,” I said.

She did too. Together we crossed over I-90 using an overpass that connected two parts of campus. It was the same overpass I was standing on when I called my boyfriend to tell him some on-campus doctor said the lump on my neck — that I thought was a pulled muscle from taking the bus to New York, where he went to school — was maybe probably definitely cancer. It had been raining hard, a late April shower. The concern in his voice had made me emotional for the first time since hearing the news, and I allowed the rain to cloak my tears.

My memory was cut short, though. She asked why I was taking that class my second semester, when most journalism students took it in the fall.

“I, uh, took last semester off because I had sick. I mean, I had cancer,” I said to the ground.

“Shit,” she said. Straight out of Chicago. “I switched majors. Yours is better.”

I smiled. “I’m this way,” I said pointing in the direction of my dorm.

She pointed in the opposite direction. “That’s me.”

We parted, agreeing to sit together next class. I felt giddy. My first post-cancer friend. I was still smiling when I put my key into my lock and opened the door into my single bedroom. The sun had shifted and an afternoon light poured through my windows. It’s not such a bad room, I thought, stepping into the sunlight. I turned and caught my reflection in the mirror. Twin shimmery comets streaked across my forehead.

Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.

I ran up to the mirror to get a closer look. The eye pencil I used to shade in my eyebrows was a shimmer not a matte, apparently; a detail I had missed in the dim morning light. I had just sat through an hour and a half class full of strangers with twin metallic caterpillars etched onto my face. I wanted to die.

And then I laughed.

Read more from the Fresh Starts series.

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