September 2015 Articles

Bryn Mawr Woman

BMWoman_FisherVanceFrom Graduation Gown to Hospital Gown

By Dakota Fisher-Vance ’11

I am sick of being extraordinary. Coming from a Mawrter, this might sound blasphemous, but hear me out. While I have always strived to be one in a million, a more accurate estimate is four in a million. Two months after graduating from Bryn Mawr College, I learned I have familial adenomatous polyposis, a rare genetic disease that plagues approximately one out of every 24,000 people. Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with an even more rare tumor that affects 10 percent of us “F.A.P.ulous” people.

My time at Bryn Mawr enabled me to land a fantastic job for my intended gap year, which, by September 2011, I had reluctantly traded in to remove my cancerous colon. It failed to prepare me for the unending job of a young adult, part-time patient.

I cannot fault my alma mater for not offering a “Young, Just Not Invincible” course. However, I resented the hallmarks of a BMC education. Bryn Mawr specializes in producing independent, strong women and instills in its graduates an eagerness to make their mark on the world. These qualities seemed far from synonymous with my post-graduation life. Yet their spirit resonated in me, taunting me to the point where I felt I had let Bryn Mawr down.

Instead of venturing into the world, I remained in Philadelphia’s suburbs, reestablishing residency in my childhood room while recovering from surgeries. When I should have been displaying independence, I was unemployed, often requiring assistance for basic functions. I was no longer able to rely solely upon my judgment and work ethic, having become dependent on that of the medical community. I lamented the gaps this disease left in my resume more than the masses it inflicted on my body. Furthermore, instead of taking pride in my womanhood, I felt distanced from it as I grappled with my inability to conceive resulting from my disease.

The Mawrter trait “strong,” often ascribed to cancer sufferers, is the one I’m most hesitant to accept. A fellow alumna told me I was the strongest person she knew and that I had accomplished more than any of our classmates. Technically, I am physically one of the weakest—I am missing major organs with others strained from the weight of a tumor. Yes, I’ve overcome more harrowing challenges than my classmates, but they’re the ones acquiring promotions and graduate degrees.

Mawrters can easily envision entering the workforce or sitting for the MCATs but likely cannot imagine facing health-oriented postgraduate challenges. It’s not that I am stronger, it’s just that I’ve accomplished things and, consequentially, exhibited a range and depth of qualities—strength occasionally being one of them—which they probably cannot fathom.

The lessons I learned as a biology major turned out to be contradictory to my life experience. I recalled analyzing “survival of the fittest.” No matter how you evaluate it, evolutionarily speaking, I am not meant to be here today and wouldn’t be if I weren’t living in the modern world. A debate in my senior seminar over designer babies reminded me that, ideally, I wouldn’t exist in this modern day with its genetic screening.

With an aversion to biology and no interest in recounting the functions of the colon after losing mine, I tossed my MCAT notes aside. I retreated to the kitchen, the very place from which Bryn Mawr sought to liberate women. Here I discovered baking, which allowed me to subtly utilize my science-centric roots as I executed recipes with laboratory precision.

To gain further distance from my formal education, I traveled to Israel and Indonesia, where I lived for six months. Closer to home, I’ve become a leader in an international community by founding Young Adult Cancer Connection, which hosted “Cancervention,” Philadelphia’s first young adult cancer conference, and launching a YouTube channel that shares my F.A.P. research and experience, helping my diseased peers better advocate for their health care.

Although I have not always handled my disease gracefully and will never celebrate my diagnosis, I am proud of some of its outcomes. My French macaroon successes rival those achieved in organic chemistry.

I had intended to submit a brief update to the Alumnae Bulletin once I could showcase a less illness-focused post-college life. Instead, I discovered I had more to say about how Bryn Mawr does (and doesn’t) prepare you for unexpected turns of fate. Amidst this unending threat of unpredictability, one thing does seem to remain constant: Whether one in a million or four in a million, all Mawrters are extraordinary.

Dakota Fisher-Vance ’11 is merging her interests in medicine, patient advocacy, and education as the co-founder of Young Adult Cancer Connection, which provides a forum for Philadelphia’s young adults with cancer. She is also the creator of FAPulousTV, the first YouTube channel dedicated to discussing FAP.

For information on how to submit your personal essay, visit submission guidelines.

Comments on “Bryn Mawr Woman”

  1. Dear Dakota–don’t worry, I think plenty of Mawrters feel the same way, though without having to suffer the trauma that you have. (and well done for having come through with, if I may say it, such strength!). Many of us left BMC with the uneasy feeling that we would be failures if we weren’t running IBM within 5 years. Individual friends on the faculty would say “Of course not, we just want you to be happy and do well”, but the overall ethos is still that of the first students who had to fight to be recognised as worthy, no matter what they achieved.
    Maybe a new challenge is for BMC to find a way to change its message so that it encourages achievement without inducing panic over unrealistic goals.
    All the best with your health and your macaroons!