Commentary: The Perks of Having Cancer

Being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia was a probably one of the most terrifying moments of my life, but the experience also taught me how to make light of seemingly terrible situations. At first, everything about my diagnosis seemed frightening — the hoard of doctors that came into my room daily and the lengthy list of medications I now had to take did not exactly help to alleviate this feeling. Additionally, the name of the disease itself, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, did not sound like its treatment would be a walk in the park. I had always thought of the word “cancer” as akin to a death sentence; it sounded very irrevocable and very tragic. In fact, I felt as though it was among the worst diagnoses someone could ever receive.

During the two months I spent in the hospital, I found out that I was accepted to Andover. I was so overjoyed that, for a short while, the thought that I might not be healthy enough to go to a boarding school did not even cross my mind. Despite my rather grim physical condition, I decided to come to Andover as a Junior in the fall of 2016. This decision proved extremely difficult because my almost non-existent immune system, which was destroyed by an extensive amount of chemotherapy, caused an abundance of hospital visits and a staggering 53 excused absences. These circumstances also resulted in a rather substandard GPA during my first term at Andover.

As unfortunate as these events may sound, however, they did not come without a silver lining. Throughout my journey with cancer, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and focused my attention elsewhere: I started noticing many of the benefits that I now had at Andover. For example, as I was going into the dorm lottery at the end of my Junior year, I could specify that I did not want to live in Abbot because “in case of a medical emergency, I wanted to be closer to [Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center].” To be perfectly honest, this wasn’t necessarily true. I mainly did not want endure a daily 15 minute hike to class, which is quite the journey for someone with my athletic capability.

I would also be lying if I said that many teachers didn’t implicitly lower their expectations for me because of my unfortunate circumstances. One teacher even wrote on my transcript that because I have “been a joy to teach,” and because of my “pluck and constant smile,” my grade was able to “sneak in to the 5 territory.” I am eternally grateful to the teacher because it was perfectly clear from the term “sneak” that my grade did not exactly correlate to my performance in the class, but rather to my “good attitude.”

One of the side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss, so I was completely bald during my first year at Andover. Admittedly, losing my long hair was very challenging at first, but even that had its perks. For example, when all of my friends were racking their brains for a quirky, fun, and edgy halloween costume, I had a wide range of costumes right at my disposal: I could be Eleven from Stranger Things, Gru from Despicable Me, Voldemort, Dr. Evil from James Bond, and so on. The opportunities were truly endless.

There were also small, memorable moments in my daily life that I found extraordinarily entertaining. For instance, although it is a rather common occurrence for girls to ask one another for a hair tie in the locker room, I thought that my absence of hair would exclude me from this routine. Ironically, this assumption was entirely incorrect. I could not count the number of times that my fellow peers would ask me for a hair tie and then proceed to profusely apologize after realising that my head was about as bare as the Sahara Desert.

On a more serious note, though, I am very grateful to be healthy and cancer-free. I am extremely lucky to have made a full recovery, even if the treatment was rather stressful. In this light-hearted article, I am by no means attempting to say that anyone’s experience with cancer is positive; in fact, I can confidently ensure the opposite. I do believe, however, that even in awful circumstances, such as being diagnosed with a rare and cancerous disease, some unexpected benefits may come to light. While my benefits do not even begin to make up for the distress the disease caused me, they certainly make me look back on my battle against cancer with a little more fondness.

Ana Nikolaeva is a three-year Upper from Moscow, Russia. Contact the author at