Seventeen is the idolized coming-of-age age. It’s not representative of a number necessarily but of a concept. The idea of 17 has been explored and exploited in Hollywood since 1965 — “You are sixteen going on seventeen / baby it’s time to think / Better beware, be canny and careful / Baby, you’re on the brink.” Seventeen is notable because it’s between two symbolic ages in American culture. At 16, you’re given a taste of the future that awaits you; getting your driver’s license is less of an obligation and more like a rite of passage. A license means freedom, it means power, it means control over your life. It’s the peak of the romanticization of adulthood. It’s an intoxicating age, and it all leads up to 18, when these dreams and manifestations can be realized because you are now, legally if not mentally, an adult.
Seventeen seems far from both of these vital ages. I felt a bigger distance between 16 and 17 than I had with other ages. I felt old — too old for high school yet too young for any substantial life changes. I certainly didn’t want to be 16 anymore, but I was equally certain that I didn’t want to be 18, either. I was trying hard to avoid change, but it was occurring incessantly: There was no escaping the college search or impending SATs. I could feel the future breathing down my neck, and I shuddered at its uncomfortable warmth. I didn’t find any solace in looking back at the past either, mostly because there was nothing there for me anymore. Seventeen erases nostalgia but fails to replace it with anything else.
This depressing understanding of 17 is only one side of the coin; the other is much more enticing. The fresh start hanging in front of your face is tantalizing. Though uncertain, 17 offers the chance to chase something new, to ride the high of the break in expectations, to explore a new side of yourself, all of which was not lost on me. Avril Lavigne’s “17” captures this essence of the age perfectly. She sings: “We were on top of the world / Back when I was your girl / We were living so wild and free / Acting stupid for fun / All we needed was love / That’s the way it’s supposed to be / 17.” This 17 is unrestrained, unlimited and compelling. The world is right in front of you, you can go anywhere you want to go, and you can be anything you want to be. It’s not yet time for the hard decisions; reality can be suspended for a little while longer.
As an anxious person, the unrestrained possibility of 17 was not particularly enticing to me — it was nauseating. The suspension of reality made me feel lost. Instead of enjoying the delight of avoiding big decisions, I was stuck in a constant loop of said decisions: Where would I go to college? Did I want to be close to or far from my family? What do I want to do with my life? Should I even go to college with no plan in sight? Why does this make me upset?
“Heathers: The Musical” explores the ambiguity of 17. Neither of the protagonists are enjoying their age; instead, they’re singing about how they’re desperate to be “normal” teenagers that “sneak a beer and watch TV.” Although the circumstance they’re in deserves acknowledgment of its absurdity, the sentiment remains: “Can’t we be seventeen? Is that so hard to do?” It is hard to be 17, and not only when you’re in a relationship with a serial killer.
Though the thought of inching closer to adulthood was scary for me, I decided I would embrace the glamour of 17 and use it as a time to explore who I was and the things I wanted. For two months, I embodied this side of 17 to a T. I made lists of potential colleges, I researched the best college towns, I enjoyed commitment-free relationships and I spent too much time having late-night life conversations with friends.
I was preparing to travel out of the country over the summer when I finally admitted to my mom that I was having trouble eating. Anything I ate or drank caused me physical pain. I had been ignoring it for some time for the sake of being 17 the way I wanted to. I wasn’t ready for life to get serious yet. Cancer was simply not part of the plan.
I spent a few weeks abiding by a strict doctor-ordered diet, and after seeing no changes, I had the MRI that showed the first tumor. It was hard to admit I was sick after having spent months forcing myself to embrace the invincibility of 17. It’s the perfect balance between youth and adulthood: At 17, you are free to make mistakes without large repercussions. You can afford to be careless and impulsive because you have the redeeming qualities of youth on your side. At the same time, it’s when you first have the chance to take control of your life. Though most major decisions can be delayed until 18, you start to weigh them at 17. What colleges sound exciting? What new place would you like to explore? How will you decorate your new space? To a certain extent, these questions are largely in your hands. So I didn’t want to be sick. I didn’t want to miss out on this part of being 17 — on the making mistakes, on the manifesting of my future path.
Cancer magnified this paradox. I spent the rest of my summer in Ann Arbor, moving constantly in between the Rogel Cancer Center and the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. For my specific type of cancer, usually seen in patients 60 years or older, the more qualified doctors resided at Rogel and the main University Hospital. But, since I was only 17, I had all of my MRI, CAT and PET scans at the Children’s Hospital. At 17, I was handed a pink Dora pillow as they prepared me for my scans. I took a picture with a Big Bird statue and started to collect hospital stickers. The enormity of the world I originally feared became painfully small.
It was difficult to figure out how to feel about it all — not just the diagnosis, but being relatively young for the diagnosis and all the while being on the brink of adulthood. At Rogel, I was constantly placed next to white-haired, wrinkly patients in the lobbies, and every time I met a new doctor or nurse, they would greet me with “I’ve never had such a young patient here before.” Meanwhile, I stuck out like a sore thumb at the Children’s Hospital, standing next to toddlers as we rode the elevator up to pediatric radiology.
The original beauty of the paradox of 17 quickly turned ugly. I was treated neither like an adult nor like a child. I had to be accompanied by an adult to all of my appointments and scans, but I was the one filling out the paperwork. I was old enough to articulate my pain and understand my diagnosis, but I needed my parent’s consent to receive any medical treatment. I was contemplating my odds of living before I could even buy a lottery ticket.
As angry as I was about the cancer, I was also angry that I was missing out on the other, more acceptable, quarter-life crises known to arise at 17 (cue questioning one’s sexuality, realizing your one academic interest makes no money in the real world, suffering your first heartbreak, etc.). I had to pack all of these worries up, stuff them into a box and store them for a later date. I was no longer able to discuss these shared concerns with my friends or classmates. I knew people felt uncomfortable talking to me about their problems since they seemed so insignificant in comparison. I didn’t want to talk about mine either because I didn’t want them to feel that way in the first place.
As a result, most people stopped talking to me. Those who did talk to me told me how lucky I was to miss out on school. I didn’t, and still don’t, hold these reactions against anyone. Cancer is not something 17-year-olds are equipped to deal with.
I certainly wasn’t handling it well. The lines between the past, present and future blurred. I wondered what I did wrong to be sick now, and I wondered what being sick meant for my future. To stop these wonderings, I distracted myself.
I must’ve watched the “Mamma Mia” sequel, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again,” hundreds of times. I convinced myself that if I wasn’t sick, I would have been doing what Donna Sheridan (Lily James, “The Pursuit of Love”) was doing: leaving her life behind to chase a dream all the way to Greece. I would’ve been falling in love left and right, I would’ve been singing in a band with my best friends, I would’ve been a “Dancing Queen,” I would’ve been making memories, I would’ve, I would’ve, I would’ve.
Of course, I would not have been doing that at all. I would’ve been going to school, and I would’ve been working on my college essays. I would’ve been going to parties and I would’ve been hanging out with friends. None of it would have been as romantic as Donna’s life in Greece, but it would have been enough for me.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” was another obsession. I couldn’t get enough of Lara Jean’s (Lana Condor, “Summer Night”) outfits, and I loved how much she loved love. I remember thinking if she were real, we would be friends. If she were real, she’d be next to me, and we’d watch this movie together.
Both of these films gave me a piece of what I was missing out on. I did not have the coming-of-age experience that Hollywood had prepared me for, but I could depend on Hollywood to give it to me nonetheless.
I loved “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” for many reasons, not just because of my (very apparent) crush on James. It shows a young woman confident in her sexuality; a young woman who is in charge of herself and her body. The diagnosis stopped me short of my planned self-exploration. I became aware of my body in a new way, one that was far from “Mamma Mia”’s portrayal of sex and pleasure. I was distanced from my body. I was angry with it and had trouble finding anything good about something that was trying to kill me. It was even harder to accept that the same body was trying to keep me alive.
I knew of course that it was unrealistic to think that every 17-year-old was happily exploring their own sexualities and bodies, but that wasn’t necessarily what I was upset about. I was angry because the chance to do so was taken away from me, and I didn’t know if I would be granted it ever again. No one is really interested in the sick girl (I don’t care what John Green says). I wasn’t interested in her either.
The distance between 16 and 17, 17 and 18 was exacerbated by the newfound distance between my sense of self and my body. The surgery to remove the cancer necessitated cutting into my abdomen and stretching my stomach muscles. The trauma my body endured was both painful and ugly. I already felt like I could not trust my body, but now I felt like I didn’t even know it.
Again, I resorted to external distractions. I watched the High School Musical films and enjoyed their stereotypical depictions of the coming-of-age experience. “High School Musical 3” was my favorite. I watched Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens, “tick, tick…BOOM!”) labor over how she was going to tell Troy (Zac Efron, “Gold”) she was leaving … again. I watched Troy try to figure out his next steps while balancing the pressures of his family and friends with his own interests. I played “Just Wanna Be With You” on repeat and cried along to the lyrics that described the sentiments and optimism my diagnosis excluded me from.
Though I made it back to school eventually and started to recognize my body again, I was never invited back into the coming-of-age experience of 17. I remember the week I returned to school, a girl came up to me and asked, “Are you going to the party tonight? And are you going to drink?” I looked at her blankly: “I only have half a liver.”
That conversation verified the fact that I had missed out on 17. Fewer people talked to me, which was partly because they didn’t know how to approach me anymore, and partly because I was making myself largely unapproachable. The rest of my 17 was quiet. When 18 finally rolled around, I was not congratulated on my ascendance into adulthood but rather on making it there alive.
Though I was nervous to be 17, the gravity of its paradox only recently became apparent. As I inch toward turning 21 and prepare to graduate next year, I am reminded of the age where I first felt the weight of possibility and the pressure to figure out where, and who, I’d be.
The shroud of sickness has not entirely disappeared, as I’ll be celebrating a third birthday during a pandemic that has no end date in sight, but I am fortunate that I am no longer struggling with the same disease I had at 17. The world is not so small anymore.
Managing Arts Editor Lillian Pearce can be reached at email@example.com.