Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of Diem Brown’s death. The MTV reality star was only in her 30s, but she spent more than one-third of her life battling cancer.
I never met Brown in real life, but the news of her death last year hit me hard, for the simple reason that she is part of a family that neither of us ever asked to be a part of -- the young adult cancer family.
Brown was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 23 and suffered a relapse 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.
Brown had been in remission for seven years when she found out her cancer had returned.
Those ages I stated for Brown aren’t entirely correct, however. Brown said she was born in 1982, but People discovered that her birth year was really 1980. After her death, Brown’s sister Megan 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.”
What’s important isn’t that the reality star lied, but rather, 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, a situation I can empathize with.
I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 27. I was just a few years older than Brown at the time of her first diagnosis. In theory, we, along with every other 20-something, should have had years of health and (hopefully) happiness ahead of us, but for those of us who are lucky enough to survive, our future is full of fear. We were already diagnosed once at a time in our lives when illness isn’t “supposed” to happen, so what’s to stop our bodies from failing us again? How much more will and strength do we have in us if we have to fight again? 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, as it was for her.
Above all, cancer is a thief. Cancer stole all of Diem’s 20s. It stole the end of my 20s. 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 Brown, myself, or any other 20-something 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.
Brown 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 Brown 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, and it pays to take a second and learn from Diem’s overwhelming optimism.
I don’t say these things because I personally knew Brown. I only had one small interaction with her, and it was far from face-to-face -- it was on Twitter.
After I was diagnosed, a friend sent me a video of Brown ripping her wig off during an episode of The Challenge: Free Agents. Brown 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 the shield of a wig. Brown 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 hide anymore. That’s what cancer has the sinister ability to do: take away strength, courage and senses 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, Brown took some of that power back from cancer.
After watching, I tweeted Brown to tell her how much that clip affected me and how brave I thought she had been. 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, Brown tweeted, “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!”
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!
Thursday night, Brown’s family and friends came together to celebrate her life at the First Annual #Diemstrong Fundraiser at No. 8 in New York City. Not only did all proceeds go directly to help patients through MedGift, but they also did the one thing that Brown would have loved: dance like everyone was watching.
Because if there’s anything Brown did in the face of cancer, it was to live.