On Diem Brown’s Death: How Young Adults with Cancer Effect One Another

I never met Diem Brown in real life. I barely met her in fake life — you know, The Internet. I also haven’t watched the show that brought her fame, MTV’s The Challenge (and it’s many incarnations), in years. Despite those facts, the news of the reality star’s death two months ago today, on November 14, 2014, hit me hard. She was still a part of my family — the young adult cancer family.

Diem spent nearly one-third of her life battling cancer. She was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 23 and again at 30. Cancer survivors pray they’ll hit the five-year mark, that magical measure of time it takes to be declared cancer-free. That doesn’t mean the cancer will never come back or a separate prognosis isn’t possible, but the chances of a recurrence drop significantly after five years in remission.

Diem had been in remission for seven years when she found out her cancer had returned.

Those ages I stated for Diem aren’t entirely correct, however. They are the ages she claimed. Diem said she was born in 1982, but People, the outlet she had been blogging for after her most recent battle with cancer, discovered her birth year was really 1980. After her death, Diem’s sister Megan Brown told People that Diem lied about her age because “cancer robbed Diem of 10 years of her life. She worked in an industry where age matters… She felt cancer took away enough from her. We all agreed whatever age she wanted to be, we would support her.”

The fact that Diem felt she had to lie about her age says more about the entertainment industry and its focus on youth above all else than it does about Diem herself. In Hollywood, it’s common practice to shave a few years off for the sake of a career. What’s important isn’t that Diem lied but the reason for the lie. Yes, it was partially for her career, but it was also because cancer had robbed her of her prime years. I fully emphasize with that.

When I learned I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 27, I was just a few years older than Diem had been at the time of her first diagnosis. In theory, we, along with every other twentysomething, should have years of health and (hopefully) happiness ahead of us. For those of us lucky enough to survive — and I understand that survivorship is roughly a combination of luck, hope, chance, prayers, and voo-doo magic — our upcoming years will be filled with the constant fear of a recurrence. We were already diagnosed once at a time illness isn’t “supposed” to happen, so what’s to stop our bodies from failing us again? Even if you had a “good kind of cancer” (a medical term, if I believe the many cancer specialists who told me this), if the tumor does come back, won’t the disease be angrier and more difficult to cure? How much more will and strength do we have in us if we have to fight again?

I am two years out from my last chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but every day I’m still fighting to figure out who I am in this post-cancer reality. The second battle, the one to be normal again, isn’t as punishing physically as treatment was, but mentally, it’s brutal. I think I’m back to understanding who I am again, but some days, I can’t be sure. Every part of me has been forever changed by cancer, because that is what cancer is — not an old or young person’s disease, but a forever disease. Forever is a long time to deal with cancer PTSD, whether that’s coping with panic attacks every time you visit the oncologist or frustratingly explaining to people that you’re still dealing with cancer even if you’re not actively in treatment or trying to understand why your brain doesn’t function as clearly as it did before chemo. Whether I’m lucky enough to live another 30 years or as unfortunate as Diem to only be blessed with nine, the idea of cancer will always be with me.

Above all, cancer is a thief. Cancer stole all of Diem’s twenties. It stole the end of my twenties. For some of my friends, it hasn’t stopped stealing. People who mean well often say that we are only given what we can handle, but even for the strongest of fighters, cancer is an overwhelming task to take on. I don’t believe Diem, myself, or any other twentysomething cancer fighter or survivor was given what we could handle. We don’t need to prove our strength. Let’s stop trying to find a nice way to explain a cancer diagnosis: It sucks. It’s awful. It’s unfair. There is no “good kind,” of cancer, just varying situations and outcomes. The diagnoses are not “what we can handle” but rather what we’re forced to handle when giving up is not an option.

Diem is a testament to one person having more will than imaginable. She had a light and grace to her throughout her battle. She was open about what it was like to have cancer at such a young age, to go through treatments three times, to be told the cancer had spread, to see her dreams of becoming a wife and mother fade. While she wasn’t able to achieve motherhood, she did give the world MedGift, a gift giving service for people battling any illness.

But the biggest gift Diem gave to me was her voice as an advocate for young adults with cancer. She had unwavering hope for herself and others and a belief that life was meant to be lived to the fullest. We’re supposed to take chances and do what we love because none of us know how much time we have left. I wish I could say I’ve been that optimistic over the past two-and-a-half years, but when fear and survivor’s remorse take over the voices in your head, it can be hard to not simmer in negativity. I’ve dwelled and stayed in one place many times. That’s where it pays to take a second and learn from Diem’s overwhelming optimism. It’s not easy, but taking care of myself and trying to not worry about the stupid crap I can’t change has helped on the road to emotional recovery. I don’t do this perfectly, and some days I fail significantly at treating myself kindly, but the path is there if I’m smart enough to step forward. I believe it’s a path Diem tried very hard to stay on.

I don’t say this from knowing Diem personally, though I did have one short interaction with her. A friend sent me a video of Diem ripping her wig off during an episode of The Challenge: Free Agents. Diem was very open about her attachment to wigs and being afraid of people seeing her without them, or at least a bandana covering her bald head. I was the same way during and immediately after chemo treatments; I felt ugly, empty, and weak without my wig’s shield. Diem cried when she admitted that challenge was the first time she had shown anyone her post-chemo head, and I’ve cried every time I’ve watched that clip. But it’s her words at the very end that hit me hardest, because she said she felt like she didn’t have to hid anymore. That’s what cancer has the sinister ability to do: take away our strength, courage, and sense of self. Something as seemingly simple as hair holds even more value when you don’t have it, when it’s been taken from you against your will and you don’t recognize yourself anymore. It’s not a matter of vanity but a loss of control. By confronting her bald head, Diem took some of that power back from cancer.

I cried when I watched the video. I immediately reached out to Diem on Twitter to tell her how much that clip effected me and how brave I thought she had been, which is not a common thing for me to do on social media. We went back and forth a couple of times, and I followed her journey through tweets and blogs after that. Three days before she died, Diem tweeted [sic], “I NEED PRAyErs and advice my doctors are seemingly giving up but I won’t & can’t rollover. Whatever option I have to LIVE I’m grabbing!” If there’s anything Diem did in the face of cancer, it was live.

It’s taking more time than I’d like, but I do hope I can start to take one important lesson from Diem: You live the life you have while you have it, and you don’t give up.

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