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After surviving childhood cancer, Sabrina Fuoco lived through adolescence with physical and emotional scars. Then, at age 18, cancer struck again. (Photo: Sabrina Fuoco)

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My name is Sabrina Fuoco and I am a five-time cancer survivor. I have been battling this gruelling illness for 31 years: as a child, teenager and young adult. Over the years, cancer has taken my health, my hair, my energy, chunks of my body and sometimes even my sanity – but it has also given me a gift – to live life meaningfully and with great urgency. Not knowing whether I have months or years to live has forced me to live life in the moment and enjoy the present.

This is my open letter to cancer – part two.

Dear Cancer,

Life as a teenager can be pretty daunting – especially at an all-girls' high school.

When most teens think about high school, they envision all of the fun adventures ahead – new friends, semi-formals and the anticipation of getting into a great college or university.

By the time I started high school, I felt like I was walking around with scars you had left me with – both emotionally and physically.

At age three, I was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma. A surgery to remove the cancerous tumour resulted in the loss of a significant amount of muscle on my neck. Because of this, I always felt like I looked asymmetrical. When you're three, this might not matter – but when you're 18, it's all that matters.​

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Image of Sabrina Fuoco
Today, Sabrina is 34 years old. (Photo: Sabrina Fuoco)​

'I didn't want to be known as the girl with the crooked neck'

As I grew older, I became more and more self-conscious about my appearance. I was so angry with you for making my neck look 'crooked' and 'weird.'

I didn't want to be known as the girl with the crooked neck. The pressures of high school seemed to intensify my fixation on my perceived imperfections you caused and the mobility issues with my neck.

To complicate things further, the thought of you coming back into my life always loomed in the back of my mind. That's the tough part about surviving cancer; you're never really the same again. You're always wondering what if.

Although my friends and family were all very supportive, it was difficult for them to truly understand how I felt. Despite my wonderful support system, I still felt lonely and isolated.

I didn't know any other young person who had dealt with a cancer diagnosis and programs like the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Program at the Princess Margaret didn't exist at the time.

So instead, I decided to focus my energy on my school work. I was looking forward to graduating and beginning a new chapter in my life: university.

 

Image of Sabrina riding bike
Living in the shadow of childhood cancer, Sabrina often felt cancer's physical and emotional side effects during her teen years. (Photo: Sabrina Fuoco)

But just as I was getting ready to move on, there you were, ready to strike again.

One step forward, two steps back

I noticed I was having trouble swallowing – but I figured it was just a throat infection. My parents, on the other hand, were on high alert. They insisted on getting it checked out.

I guess it's true what they say about parents knowing best. The pain was caused by a malignant tumour on my thyroid.

The diagnosis: thyroid cancer.

It was just before my 18th birthday and my grade 12 exams. I was devastated.

Was this going to jeopardize my university acceptance?

The protocol was to remove my entire thyroid. I also received radioactive iodine pills, which meant I had to be in isolation for an entire week.

Once I recovered from the operation and additional treatment, I was able to write my exams. I did very well, receiving the highest mark in the class on my OAC law exam.

Image of Sabrina – sweet 16
At 18, Sabrina had received a second diagnosis: thyroid cancer. After a surgery to remove her thyroid, she was cancer-free and ready for the next chapter in her life. (Photo: Sabrina Fuoco)

I was thrilled to be accepted to the University of Toronto, as I was looking forward to the criminology program there. I was going to be downtown, which meant lots of great restaurants and stores. My two favourite past-times: eating and shopping! I could hardly wait.

My plan was to double major in criminology and political science, and my long-term goal: law school.

I thought I had everything figured out.

But you, of course, knew otherwise.

Sabrina Fuoco is a patient at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Tune in for part three of the 'Dear cancer' series next week.​

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