By ARDEN IGLEHEART
There are many cancer survivors who are empowered and will speak at various events, but Emily Lang, a junior biology major and double survivor, said out of all of them, she hadn’t seen one that portrayed themselves as a regular college student.
“One that I don’t think I’ve seen often is the college kid just trying to get through life,” Lang said. “The relatable college teen; she studies a lot, but she’s also a cancer survivor. People don’t equate it.”
Lang looks like any other student. One UT student didn’t even believe she was a survivor. She has hair almost to her waist that’s dyed blonde, a nose ring, and wears a gray Kappa Alpha Theta sweatshirt. 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 is in Pepin Stadium.
Lang talks about her cancer experiences in a positive and joking way, trying to portray her experiences as relatable and never depressing to those she tells.
When describing her experience, she mentioned that the first time she had cancer, her doctor was named Dr. Healey. It was a joke in the hospital because he’s “healing” patients. When explaining what her daily life in the hospital was like, instead of talking about the chemotherapy, she detailed her obsession with the Club Penguin and Sims computer games. She even finds humor in her legs being different sizes due to surgery from her first time with cancer.
“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 of Lang. “Only she would joke about that.”
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. She had a rare form called Ewing’s Sarcoma, so rare that she and her family had to fly to New York for her treatment, finding residence at Ronald McDonald house.
She had eight rounds of chemotherapy and a bone replacement surgery, and stayed in New York for about seven months. While treatment was difficult for Lang, 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 next time Lang had cancer she was 10 and had leukemia, being diagnosed after having a sore throat. She had to go to New York again, and this time was more difficult for her, because she was excited for fifth grade. She lost her hair, and despite being confident about being bald, other people’s reactions to it hurt. People would whisper and stare, and a nurse thought she was a boy even though she was wearing pink pajamas. However, it still didn’t occur to her that her condition was potentially fatal.
“I never even thought that I had the possibility of not making it through,” Lang said. “I was just like, ‘OK, this is a very, very complicated sore throat.’”
Lang acknowledges that her experiences with cancer were not as fear-inducing as others’ experiences, and that part of the reason she is so upbeat is because she’s “uncomfortable with emotions.” However, she made a conscious decision to talk about her experiences in this lighthearted way.
Talking about cancer in this way, she said, makes people more comfortable with hearing about it and asking questions. It’s important to make people comfortable talking to her, because people particularly 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, which I appreciate.”
Fabian said that Lang’s experiences with cancer help give Relay a human face and help the executive board understand that cancer can happen to anyone, regardless of age.
“It definitely makes it more relatable because a lot of kids at college do Relay because their grandparents had cancer or someone they know, but a lot of times it’s not their classmate or their friend,” Fabian said. “So it puts it in perspective that cancer is unbiased. It doesn’t pick a gender, it doesn’t pick an age, it doesn’t pick a race.”
Lang and Fabian, as the heads of Relay manage the committee, work with the American Cancer Society who started the event and coordinate with the other organizations and administration that is involved in Relay.
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 their name or introduce themselves, instead they’ll start asking the survivor about their experience 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 lowest 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 specifically 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 is about all cancers, including pediatric cancer, like she had.
“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. “For adults it’s breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer and then for kids, every cancer they have is just pediatric cancer. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Arden Igleheart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.