Emily Tantuccio

The Moment I Chose To See My Tumor Diagnosis As An Opportunity -- Not A Setback

I choose to continue on and wear my past with pride. It’s not “Look what happened to me," but “Look what happened to me — and then look what I did in spite of it."

I distinctly remember what it felt like to hear that my tumors had spread.

It was only a week into my second semester of my freshman year at Rutgers University. I had spent the past few months living the typical college kid life: enjoying my first internship at a local music venue called the Stone Pony, making a ton of new friends, eating chicken nuggets with my roommate at 3 a.m., and then dragging myself to my 8 a.m. Friday recitation the next day. I loved the change of scenery, and the opportunity to take classes in subjects I was actually interested in, like the ethics of food or the impacts of culture on music. My new school felt like home, and after the battles I’d experienced with my health throughout high school, I felt like life had finally settled down. It all seemed like a new chapter was about to start.

Toward the end of winter break, however, I ended up with a bout of pneumonia that I just couldn’t seem to kick. My doctors decided that my lingering sickness was stemming from infected tonsils, and when I went to go have a physical before getting cleared for my tonsillectomy, my doctor discovered multiple lumps in both of my breasts. Although I had dealt with tumors during my sophomore year of high school before having my thyroid removed completely, I didn’t expect to hear that I had to deal with more. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. I was both furious and heartbroken. I didn’t want to start this fight all over again, and I didn’t understand why I deserved this kind of problem when all I wanted was to be in school like everyone else. I was sick of having sick-kid problems.

My surgery took place on April 18, 2013, which was also my mom’s birthday. (I still feel guilty that I wasn’t in much of a party mood that day -– I know my mom wasn't, either.) The operation included the removal of my tonsils, adenoids, and as many tumors from both sides of my chest that the doctors could access without causing me excess pain. I lived in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the next few weeks, struggling to stay mentally present as I fought to process what had just happened through all of the medication I was on.

Much to my surprise, somewhere toward the end of that first week, I realized that there was actually a pretty serious benefit to being confined to my hospital room. I had bandages wrapped around my body, a chest full of stitches, two IVs in my arms, and a hell of an earache –- but I understood in that moment that I had been given a choice that would define my entire life trajectory as I moved forward. I could allow this obstacle to be the dark cloud that overshadowed all of my potential and my big hopes and dreams, or I could choose to write this into my life’s story as a mere footnote as I continued to write a bigger and better narrative for myself.

I had been working in the music industry for two years at that point and knew I wanted to tour before I graduated, either as a photographer or tour manager. I also was dreaming of landing an internship with MTV so I could learn more about entertainment publicity, which I was very passionate about. Music has always meant a lot to me, and I wanted to spread the word about artists I believed in so that I could help other kids connect with the music community in a positive way, just as I had. I never wanted anybody to believe I was less capable of living the dream just because I was fighting through what felt like hell at the moment. The last thing I wanted was for the people around me to ever feel sorry for me or think my life couldn’t be as special just because I’ve seen some darker days. I wasn’t scared of what I was dealing with –- I was scared that I wouldn’t be well enough to do what I was aspiring to do once this was finally over. And so in that moment, I made a promise to myself that as soon as I was back on my feet again, I was going to hit the ground running. The world had shown me that I couldn’t waste any time waiting around when it was possible for something like this to happen to me more than once. I couldn’t afford to let everything slip away again, and if it did, I wanted to know I had made the best of the time that I had been given.

So that was how I chose to keep going. Fast-forward to today — I just celebrated my 22nd birthday and I’m healthier than ever. After I emerged from the haze of my recovery, I started checking off as many goals as possible on my bucket list. I got that internship with MTV (it was amazing –- shout-out to the publicity team!), I saw my photography published in the pages of some of my favorite magazines, and I returned to Rutgers and got back onto the dean’s list. I’m currently interning with Atlantic Records and am also preparing to head out on tour next month with one of my favorite bands, A Will Away, with whom I’ve been working closely for the past few years on a variety of projects (their label just hired me to manage their social media and digital content).

Although I was very confused about what happened to me at first as I transitioned back into normal life, I was lucky enough to connect with an incredible organization called Living the Dream Foundation later in 2013, which gives kids with life-threatening illnesses the opportunity to spend time with their favorite artists. I’ve been able to work with so many inspiring kids from the NYC area, as well as bands like Paramore and All Time Low. Finding a way to use my own experiences to help ease the struggles of others has helped me find a purpose and clarity in what happened to me.

Emily Tantuccio
Emily Tantuccio

The most important lesson I took away from all of this is that we are all capable of surviving anything that comes our way, as long as we learn to project ourselves past the darkness. I chose to treat my setback as just that — a setback, a temporary bump in the road, not an ending to a much brighter future. The way I see it, I would have been cheating myself out of some incredible adventures if I'd allowed the weight of my health conditions to crush my spirit. Instead, I choose to continue on and wear my past with pride -– it’s not “Look what happened to me," but “Look what happened to me -– and then look what I did in spite of it. Look at who I am in spite of it.”

If you are currently wrestling with an obstacle of any magnitude — whether it is physical like mine, mental, or anything else — please just know that it is an opportunity for you to build a platform for yourself that can allow you to help others facing similar burdens. Treat every setback as inspiration to work even harder to get to where you need to be. Find the strength to see that there is so much left in store for you as long as you stay patient and determined. Raise your voice, and be proud of your struggle — I know I am. It makes life so much more beautiful in the long run.

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