My mother had cancer a month before she went to Lewis & Clark College.

Zoey Steel, left, and her mother.
Zoey Steel

  • My mom was diagnosed with cancer a month before I left for college.
  • At first, I struggled to connect with my classmates and relied on unhealthy coping mechanisms.
  • Once I started to open up, I found a group of friends who understood what I was going through.

My mom was my biggest cheerleader. She grew up without much money, so she worked tirelessly when she was young to support herself. She couldn’t go to college, so she insisted that I go. My mother wanted nothing more than to see me succeed.

In 2016, our dream came true when I enrolled at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. But a month before I was supposed to leave home for the college dorms, my 43-year-old mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In an instant, my family’s world, which was once predictable, became precarious and uncertain.

My mother always insisted that her diagnosis not derail my college plans, so I went. From afar, I watched my mother undergo treatments and surgeries, which defined my college experience.

At first I had a hard time fitting in with the other freshmen

When I arrived on campus, I felt like a monkey in a business suit; I was outside my comfort zone. In this new environment, I felt reluctant to come into contact with other students.

To begin with, I didn’t really know what to talk to them about. I wanted to talk about my mother’s chemotherapy and the last trip we took together as a family. But those stories wouldn’t exactly make me the life of the party.

My emotions around my mother’s diagnosis often weighed more heavily on my mind than worrying about fitting in with my peers. For the first semester, I chose to be silent and be alone.

I quickly realized that the typical university environment does not promote healthy coping mechanisms

It seemed like all around me people were dating, drinking and experimenting with drugs. Like many of my peers, I participated in some of these seemingly normal college activities. But over time, I realized that I relied too much on these activities to cope – and they only worked as a temporary respite.

I had to change gears. Instead, I opted for weekends in the wilderness of Oregon and got involved in academic projects that inspired me. Both offered me healthier coping mechanisms. Finding these safe spaces grounded me in reality while dealing with difficult events at home.

Eventually I found the right friends that I opened up to

I started to open myself up to acquaintances and I learned that some were going through similar things and were getting out of it quietly too. The societal expectation that grief and sadness should be handled behind closed doors only discourages true connection.

Throughout my four years in college, I was very lucky to find welcoming friends who helped me out of my grief when I was ready to talk. These friends sat with me as I eagerly waited to hear the results of surgeries, scans, and clinical trial appointments.

I learned that having a “chosen family” was the most natural remedy for my loneliness. With them by my side, I was less alone and it made me realize that I shouldn’t have been so hesitant to share in the first place.

I’m glad I could go to college and my mom could see me graduate

I am grateful that I was able to achieve this goal before my mother passed away. I am grateful for the lessons about vulnerability and connection that cancer taught me; it brought me friends who are now an integral part of my life.

I am also grateful that my mother fought so bravely and that we spent four precious years together after her initial diagnosis. Above all, I am grateful for the 21 years of love we have shared in this life.

I always think back to when my mom visited me while I was in college. We shared a beautiful long weekend, ate at my favorite restaurants and walked along the Oregon coast. When she finally met all my friends that I had told her about on the phone, I could tell that made her happy.

“You’ve made a life for yourself and you have friends who love you,” she told me on that trip. “I feel at peace to see that you have everything you need.”

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