By ARDEN IGLEHEART
There are many cancer survivors who go on tours and speak at events, but many are middle aged or older and were diagnosed as adults, according to the National Cancer Survivors Day website.
“One that I don’t think I’ve seen often is the college kid just trying to get through life,” said Emily Lang, a junior biology major who survived cancer twice. “The relatable college teen; she studies a lot, but she’s also a cancer survivor. People don’t equate it.” One UT student didn’t even believe she was a survivor, she said.
Lang looks like any other student. Her blonde hair that falls almost to her waist is dyed blonde; she wears a nose ring, fake nails and a gray Kappa Alpha Theta sweatshirt. Lang is thin and taller than average but slouches when she sits, making her look shorter. She has a minor in marine biology, and is hoping to become a marine veterinarian.
Lang, along with Danielle Fabian, a senior biology major, are the heads of Relay for Life this year, which starts on April 1 and will take place in Pepin Stadium. The event, which happens every year at UT, raises money for the American Cancer Society.
Lang talks about her cancer experiences in a positive and joking way, trying to portray them as relatable and never depressing to those she tells. When explaining what her daily life was like in the hospital, she detailed her obsession with the Club Penguin and Sims computer games.
Lang grew up in South Carolina and was first diagnosed with cancer when she was five years old, after her mother became concerned about a bump on her leg. The bump turned out to be Ewing’s Sarcoma, a form of cancer so rare that Lang and her family had to fly to New York for her treatment, living at Ronald McDonald house. She had surgery in her leg to remove the tumor, and even finds humor in the ramifications from that.
“She always jokes because her legs are different sizes that she wobbles when she walks fast,” said Missy Wietholter, a freshman psychology major and friend. “Only she would joke about that.”
Lang had eight rounds of chemotherapy and a bone replacement surgery, and stayed in New York for about seven months. While treatment was difficult for her, she said she didn’t have the fear that many cancer patients do because she was so young.
“I think a five-year-old feels invincible, so the fact that I was in the hospital was like, this is a bump in the road,” Lang said. “But I think for a lot of people, cancer diagnosis can make you do a 180, can make you reevaluate your life, reevaluate your priorities, and a five-year-old just doesn’t have that.”
The second time Lang had cancer she was 10 and had leukemia, which was diagnosed after a sore throat. One of the first things she mentioned about this experience was losing her hair.
“I rocked the hats and the bandanas, but I was like, ‘I’m bald. Look at me. Love it,’” Lang said. “I never wanted a wig. And then [I was] affectionately called Peach Head when my hair was growing back, because it felt like a peach on my head.”
She had to go to New York again, and this time was more difficult for her because she was excited for fifth grade. When she lost her hair, despite being confident about being bald, other people’s reactions to it hurt.
“A couple boys in elementary school because they’re just idiots were like, ‘If you’re a girl, why don’t you have long hair?’” Lang said. “I remember I got very passionately angry at this echocardiologist who checks for echoes in your heart and she called me a boy. She said, ‘You’re such a cute boy,” and I was like, ‘I’m wearing hot pink pajamas, lady, come on.’”
This and missing fifth grade were the most difficult parts of treatment for Lang. It never occurred to her that her condition was potentially fatal.
Lang acknowledges that that part of the reason she is so upbeat is because her experiences with cancer were not as fear-inducing as others’. She’s also “uncomfortable with emotions,” she said, and has always used humor to avoid appearing vulnerable. However, the reason she still talks about her cancer in this way as an adult is to make people more comfortable with hearing about it and asking questions. That’s important, she said, because people don’t often hear about the experiences of children with cancer.
“I can look at it with humor because I am cancer-free; I made it through,” Lang said. “I think it’s just my way to portray my story. If you tell a sad story, no one wants to tell another person a sad story, but if you tell someone a joke, people want to tell their friends. It gets people talking to me.”
At the first meeting of this year’s Relay committee, Lang said to the group that if they don’t know someone who has had cancer, they do now because they know her. Danielle Fabian said this helped give Relay a human face to the members and helped them understand that cancer can happen to anyone.
“It put it in perspective that cancer is unbiased,” Fabian said. “It doesn’t pick a gender; it doesn’t pick an age; it doesn’t pick a race.”
Relay, Lang said, is about honoring survivors, and one thing Lang took on as her responsibility in the committee is making sure UT is honoring them respectfully. At Relay, survivors wear purple shirts and banners, and Lang said that participants often approach survivors differently than they would approach someone else. People don’t ask for the survivor’s name or introduce themselves; instead they’ll start asking the survivor about their experience with cancer or start telling the survivor about a relative’s experience. Lang said she is careful to emphasize that cancer survivors are also regular people and students should treat them as such.
“Sometimes people don’t realize that some survivors, they want that to be the last thing on the list of what makes them, them,” Lang said.
To make Relay a more positive experience for survivors, Lang made a team specifically for them. Survivors can sign up without a team to walk around the track, but Lang said she thought it would be more enjoyable for them to be a part of a team, raising money and participating just like everyone else.
Lang likes Relay compared to other cancer events because it is almost 24 hours long, symbolizing that the fight against cancer doesn’t stop once participants go to bed. She also likes that it raises money for the American Cancer Society, which funds research for all cancers.
“I think Relay is really special because it’s any type of cancer, including pediatric cancers, which are grouped in as a whole even though they vary so much,” Lang said. “Someone who’s had a tumor in their brain, they’re grouped in the same group as me who’s had a tumor in her leg… Having an event that still honors those survivors is so incredible to see.”
For more information on Relay for Life, or to donate/get involved, click here or contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arden Igleheart can be reached at email@example.com.