On Nov. 30, 2002, Molly Prep’s day started out just like any other seven-year-old’s would. The day’s agenda included an appointment at her pediatricians’ office, for what was thought to be symptoms of the common cold, followed by a sleepover at her grandparents’ house.
However, Prep didn’t sleep at her grandparents’ house that night but at the hospital instead because it turned out that the symptoms were not that of a cold but something far more serious. “I actually don’t remember the moment I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Although, I remember the day leading up to it. I can’t remember when the treatment ended either. I don’t remember these exact moments, but I do know it shaped my whole childhood and adult life,” says Prep, now 23.
Prep was admitted to the hospital and committed to a three-year treatment plan. This meant having to miss second grade, due to both her time spent in and out of the hospital and being too weak for school. While she had her formal education through home tutors, Prep relates that she also experienced a second type of schooling. “I was now immersed in learning about the world of sickness. I learned about treatments, procedures, and the names of things that were going into my body. It was a different type of school.”
After the first year of her treatment, Prep was able to return to school full-time to attend third grade. However, her time in seclusion at the hospital created a divide between Prep and her peers. “Even when I was home, in school or in the neighborhood, I felt very separate from my peers. I had very high levels of pain that I didn’t think they could relate to and that I didn’t have language to describe. There was a lot going on mentally and emotionally. I started asking very big questions about life and death. A part of my childhood was lost.”
After the three years, her cancer hadn’t shown up again, and Prep remains cancer-free to this day. “Cancer will never be easy for anyone. But I do think with children it presents different challenges. In my experience, my whole identity was formed on cancer because I didn’t remember my life before I was seven. My formative childhood years were all shaped by hospitals and sickness. I didn’t really know who I was as a five-year-old or a six-year-old. Adults already have a certain sense of who they are beforehand.”
This sense of confusion stayed with Prep even after her treatment was over, “To be in this world of sickness and cancer and then be told ‘Okay, you’re done’ and be back among my peers was very disorienting. The thing that I was using to define myself was no longer an active part of my identity.” Then came the feelings of shame. “I thought I put my parents and family through something terrible. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.” However, a major turning point happened when her school, Huntington High School, hosted its first ever Relay for Life event.
While passionate about the cause, Prep was hesitant to participate, nervous it would bring back bad memories and fear of her cancer returning. However, after pressure from her close friends she eventually joined. The part of the event Prep was dreading most was the survivor lap. This meant she would need to reveal her diagnosis to the world, something she had kept secret. Encouraged by a teacher who happened to be a breast cancer survivor, she relented and walked. This came to be Prep’s most important step in the development of her relationship with cancer. “It felt immensely freeing to just be true to this piece of myself. I thought my friends wouldn’t want anything to do with me, but it actually made my friendships stronger because I didn’t have anything to hide.”
Prep uses a new tool to take control of her identity: writing. It started during her freshman year at NYU as part of the National Novel Writing Month project. Rather than a novel however, Prep wanted to write a non-fiction account about her experience. Halfway through the project she realized that if expanded and edited, it could be something that she would want to share with people. Prep left that draft alone and recently picked it up again after graduation and it is currently in the process of being sent out to publishers.
“Writing I think, in particular, has helped me with that issue of identity and can help me reclaim the story because so much was out of my control when I was in treatment but now I can embrace it as my story and maybe help someone else. I couldn’t write about survivorship if I wasn’t also a writer. There are other pieces to me that make me who I am. I am not just cancer.”