I was probably jealous of you this summer.

Of course, I was happy for you too. I saw you on campus taking summer classes, working dream internships, traveling to parts of the world I’ve only ever hoped to see. It was a game of watching and wishing. While I’d love to say that my summer was spent cozying up in Cabo with a book in one hand and a chilled drink in the other, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, I spent my time in and out of hospitals, subjecting myself to countless tests and (the big reveal) getting my head cut open.

On April 22, 2021, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was my second semester at Yale, and I was one of few first years on campus granted housing in response to the University’s COVID policy. I had been having headaches that wouldn’t go away, so the first thing I did (as anyone does) was Google my symptoms. Of course, WebMD told me I was dying, which is something that the average person would typically brush off. This felt different, though; I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

After a few tedious doctors appointments, I was scheduled for an MRI. They said that I’d likely hear the results in a couple days, but as I was walking back from my appointment, just 15 minutes later, I got the call. Two months later, on June 15th, I was asleep in an operating room having the surgery that would save my life.

Recovery was rough. I had to spend multiple nights in the hospital, relearning basic functions like walking and eating. Even after getting discharged, the smallest of tasks seemed impossible. I spent a lot of time in bed, which gave me an abundance of time to think. I’ve condensed these months of thinking into five points.

Here’s what they don’t tell you about being sick:

  1. “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten sucks. No offense to her. Sure, it’s inspirational; it checks every box. In fact, I don’t even know why I hate it. It would’ve been a lot more useful to be able to listen to it and think, “Wow, this song makes me want to keep pushing forward,” or, “Finally, something I can relate to!” But no. Instead, when I hear it, I feel a wave of irritability consume me. It’s inconvenient, especially considering that it’s a universal anthem for individuals battling severe illness. This same thinking applies to the majority of media surrounding this topic. One might believe that books like “The Fault in Our Stars” makes the experience a bit more bearable, maybe even relatable. But in all realness, I got tired of the “sick girl” trope in film and literature really fast (or maybe I’m just upset at my inability to romanticize it).
  2. You get used to tears. First, your own. Then, when those dry, you have the responsibility of jumping from person to person, breaking the news, and drying theirs, too. It’s exhausting. For this reason, I kept it quiet for a while, but there’s a point where the secret can’t be secret anymore. The worst tears came from my mom. May 20th, the night I returned from Yale, she sat next to me on my bed as I handed her a binder that read, “Smilow Cancer Hospital: Brain Tumor Center.” The pain was immediate, and I could do nothing to ease it. There’s no guidebook on how to tell someone you’re sick. Or, maybe there is, and I was just too tired to read it.
  3. Illness is debilitating in more ways than one. Physically, of course, it hurts. Bad. Mentally, however, the pain is unfamiliar. It’s not something I or anyone else around had ever experienced. I wish I was the type of resilient that sparked beauty in the face of adversity. But I’m not. Instead, I let clutter grow around me. I stayed in bed all day because the pain of the situation grew too strong. I hate-listened to“Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. I felt sorry for myself. But there are times where you learn to really value the time you have left and the experiences you share with others, and that’s what kept me going.
  4. It isn’t as much of a scary process as it is a lonely one. Beyond the literal sense of being alone — in conversations with doctors, in waiting rooms, in the countless hours of pointless WebMD research — there’s a more tangible isolation that comes with illness. Some people hover awkwardly around the situation, unable to empathize. Some people leave altogether. A rare few really stick around, leaving things (mostly) unchanged. Somehow, regardless of the category, I’m grateful to all of them.
  5. Even though it’s a lonely process, it doesn’t always need to be that way. As a first-year student thousands of miles away from home, one of my biggest fears was the inability to rely on the people around me, especially since I had only met them a few months prior. However, my classmates and new friends ended up being some of my biggest cheerleaders. People help, even if it’s who you least expect. My biggest tip: Make friends with a philosophy major; they’re the ones that will be able to walk you through life and death.

As I stepped onto campus this fall, I was nearly overwhelmed with emotion. Outside of learning in a classroom for the first time, eating with friends without having to shout over layers of plexiglass and passing by classmates that I had only ever met on a screen, this was the first time I felt healthy here. It’s true that I’ll never be 100 percent better. I’ll probably always have appointments, always have headaches, always have a weird squishy dent on the back of my head. But that’s okay. Even if things aren’t completely back to normal with me, or if I get stuck sleeping on a random couch during a hurricane, or if I bomb my auditions for clubs that are way too exclusive, I can’t complain. I’m healthy, I’m happy and I have a super cool scar with an even cooler story to tell. I couldn’t be more grateful.

AVA SAYLOR