This is an “Alternative Perspective” post written by Brooke Vittimberga, a Stanford student who was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in the middle of her college career. (See bottom for more.)

I used to be a fairly private person. There are still boundaries, of course, but over the past year or two I have come to learn that being vulnerable can make life much better. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I initially started a blog (found at because it was exhausting to constantly update all of my friends and family with my medical issues. Over time, the blog evolved from a matter-of-fact information source to a place where I shared my hopes, fears, and general feelings about being a teenager with cancer. I learned that sharing these things helped me feel less alone.

I started to learn that vulnerability is important before the cancer. My sophomore year, I made a friend in my dorm who volunteered at the same organization I did. We bonded over the merits of said organization (which are actually incredible) and talked about how great it is etc. It was a great cause, but terribly run and honestly painful to participate in. After a few months of pretending we enjoyed it, late one night I broke down and said “y’know what, I HATE {insert volunteer organization here}.” And guess what, he hated it too. He’s been one of my best friends ever since.

My freshman year at Stanford was a whirlwind of classes and extra curricular activities and cheesy Stanford traditions and a healthy amount of questionable decisions. I loved most of it. I think I still look back on it with a pair of rose-colored lenses, but I’m not complaining. I was careful not to fail during my freshman year – I took a lightish course load, didn’t overextend myself, and stuck close to the first few friends I had made. I’m still a huge advocate of work-life balance, but I like to be a little riskier with my decisions now.

Stanford is a place where, if you aren’t failing at something, you aren’t really making the most of it. You should experience sitting in class and wondering if the professor is speaking English. You should spend time with new people, not for the sake of adding to your friend collection but to see if they’re a good fit for you or simply to experience another perspective. You should be unafraid to fail (not completely, but just a little). Most importantly, you should be unafraid to be honest about it. Or, you should feel afraid but do it anyway.

If you aren’t failing at something, you aren’t really making the most of it.

During my sophomore year, I got really sick. It started near the end of fall quarter, maybe the beginning of winter. It seemed like mostly bad luck – an ear infection, a cold, a flu. I missed all my midterms winter quarter and my professors agreed to let my finals count as almost my entire grade in their courses. I kept this pretty quiet, aside from the usual comments to friends about feeling a little tired. At the end of the quarter, I ended up withdrawing from Chem 33 and Humbio 3A, a decision for which I will forever thank my past self.

I knew I was struggling, but for some insane reason I didn’t want anyone to know. You’ve probably heard of duck syndrome, where we appear to be floating serenely atop a pond but are actually paddling furiously to stay afloat. I thought this was just a (severe) case of duck syndrome. We’re all struggling, right? I decided to push forward, and I studied abroad in Cape Town that Spring. It was horrible – I was so sick.

I knew I was struggling, but for some insane reason I didn’t want anyone to know.

Six days after the quarter ended, I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia.

I posted a cheerful blog post about my prognosis, and at first I was legitimately optimistic about it. Then, my first round of chemo failed spectacularly. Many people responded with the idea that because I am “strong” I would get through this. This infuriated me – so if I die I’m not strong? More importantly, I felt that it invalidated the true helplessness I was experiencing. The scariest part of cancer is that you truly have no control over whether your chemotherapy works. Ignoring that is insulting and un-empathetic.

Many people responded with the idea that because I am “strong” I would get through this. This infuriated me – so if I die I’m not strong?

So, I got real. I wrote blog posts about dying. I shared my feelings about missing out on future milestones with my friends and family. I grieved my future. I had a bone marrow transplant and I got really bad graft vs. host disease. I wrote about grieving the present as I watched my junior year of college happen without me. I lost a close friend from the hospital to cancer and I grieved her death. I grieved and grieved and I’m still grieving the security of a healthy body. I survived – not because I was strong but because I was lucky and because many brilliant people have dedicated themselves to cancer research.

I became interested in cancer outreach. I shared pictures of the most painful parts of my experience – of the central lines that had butchered my body, of the flaking skin ruined by chemotherapy and the chest tubes that drained 5 liters of fluid from my lungs while I was in the ICU. I shared that I was angry and afraid and sad.

I felt so much better. My friendships are stronger and because I am no longer concerned with maintaining perfection I know myself much better. This is probably easier for me both because I had such a difficult experience that it was impossible to pretend to be happy and also because the cancer card is strong – no one can fault you for being a downer when you literally have cancer. That said, I don’t think I could ever go back.

I am afraid of my body. I feel ugly because I have to take steroids and they make my face puff up. I’m proud of myself because I did really well in my classes this summer. I’m heartbroken because two children I know from the hospital are in critical condition. My research is going really well. I feel disconnected from many of my friends and I’m afraid to start trying again because what if they’ve moved on? I want to do a Fulbright when I graduate. I miss college and I want to come back. I am scared to come back. I’m concerned that I might relapse and die of cancer. I wonder if this is really all there is to life. All of this is okay.

I am sharing my story with the CiC community because even though most of us won’t get cancer in college, we will all go through hard stuff. And not only is that normal, it’s a great chance to figure yourself out. It’s so easy to pretend things are okay (and sometimes they really are!), and for a lot of people it’s harder to admit that sometimes they aren’t. I am sharing this because I have learned that the sky doesn’t fall when you admit that life sucks sometimes, and as long as we don’t get too caught up in it, admitting this can actually help us work through the hard stuff and find more peace in our lives.

Boldfacing and quote highlights edited by Cath

I first met Brooke during Admit Weekend 2014, when she and her roommate were kind enough to host me (on the floor of) their one-room freshman double. I particularly remember one afternoon in which she eagerly explained to me why sexuality and reproduction rights are her “thing.” “I’m taking lots of classes in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department,” she explained as she pulled from her bookshelf a neon snapback decorated with a big, boldfaced “SEX” on the front. She tightened the cap over her long, golden locks. I tried to get over the fact that she (and her peers?!) were okay with her wearing the word “sex” on her clothing…

I’ve been a devout follower of Brooke’s blog, AML etc., ever since she shared the first post on her Facebook page. The candor and frankness with which she approaches the subject of her own mortality is, as a writer, awe-inspiring, and as a human, world-stopping. At the same time however, she refuses to let her readers forget that she is first and foremost a human person, with a hometown and a family and friends and favorite foods. (Sushi and red jello, by the way.) It is virtually impossible for us to read her blog without reflecting on how we ourselves interact with those we’ve met whose lives teeter exceedingly close to the cliff of death, or those we know who are close to someone whose do.

Dear Reader, I invite you to read this post as an invitation to explore the deeply brain- and soul-rattling greatness that is AML etc. You can also peep her Insta at @brookevitti. Brooke, thank you for sharing, and I hope to see you again soon 🙂


Written by Brooke Vittimberga

I have cancer...oops

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