Cancer is My Teacher
This piece was first published in Aspiring Docs Diaries, a publication by the Association of American Medical Colleges, on February 9th, 2021. The link to the piece is included at the bottom of the post.
The patient was a twenty-two-year-old male with a history of classical Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. If you perused the chart, you could learn that the patient had survived a blood clot in their jugular vein, sixteen days of chemotherapy, COVID-19, and had endured four surgeries and procedures. All of this had come in the last seven months. The patient had recently been informed that their Hodgkin’s Lymphoma had relapsed at the conclusion of the first line treatment, and this meant that they would need to undergo an autologous bone marrow transplant. This transplant would have the potential to cure them forever. If you’d been there, you might have learned that the doctors thought that the chances of that happening were about the same as a coin flip. You also may have learned that after the transplant, the team started counting the patient’s life expectancy in days while they watched, and hoped, that the transplant would take, and the cancer would be banished.
If you looked closely, the chart would alert you that the patient had started chemotherapy on their twenty second birthday. It would also describe countless side effects that the patient experienced, and even further, secondary conditions that had arisen as a result of the disease and the treatment.
What the chart could not tell you was that the patient had only been two weeks away from submitting their medical school application, and just a few weeks later would be graduating from university when they were diagnosed. The chart could not tell you that instead of watching their hair fall out in increments that only the shower drain would ever know, they shaved their head as an act of defiance. The chart could not tell you what it was like for the patient to watch their life become something they thought they would only ever cure, not endure.
The chart could not tell you that I did not want them to count my life in days.
Prior to my diagnosis, it seemed as if the only important things in life were MCAT scores, extracurriculars, and gathering letters of recommendation. I was hurtling toward what I had always wanted to become at a breakneck speed, and thought that nothing could knock me off of my path. When I was initially diagnosed, my world was ripped apart just when it should have been coming together. I had worked so hard to get to where I was, as we all have, but it felt so unimaginably unfair that I was the one who would have to put their dreams on hold, maybe forever.
Early on, I was faced with a decision: I could decide to let my illness work on me, and I could crumble under the randomness of it all, or I could decide that my illness was going to work for me. In those early days, there was really no choice at all. I was going to turn cancer into the greatest opportunity that I had ever been given.
I set out on a journey to do just that. Suddenly unburdened with the responsibilities of my former life, I made a list of activities that I was going to pursue solely because they interested me, and I could grow from them. Yes, I was very sick, but that was just a part of the deal that I had struck with myself. No one had told me it was going to be easy, but I was going to make cancer allow me an amazing chance to do what I was passionate about.
My list was simple:
I wanted to do something that terrified me.
I wanted to teach someone something.
I wanted to do something new and something old.
I wanted to tell my story.
I have been chasing these goals ever since. I am going skydiving as soon as I am allowed in order to accomplish my first goal. I have been regularly tutoring a high school student in need from my area for free to accomplish my second. I designed a website and began to write my own blog to accomplish the third. I vowed to read a stack of books as tall as I am (I am 6’5”) to accomplish the fourth, and I am more than halfway there. For the last, even now as I write this, I am accomplishing that, but I have been working on my first book for months now to fully realize that goal.
The first lesson that cancer taught me is that no matter the circumstances we’re faced with, there is always a way to turn your greatest challenge into your strongest ally.
When I was informed that my cancer had returned, it became obvious to me what the second lesson from cancer was. Life will keep presenting you with the same challenges until you discover how to overcome them. This was something I realized during my first line treatment, even though I had been working towards my goals, I was still holding onto the initial anger that I felt. I had to learn to let go of those feelings to help me overcome the obstacle before me. So, I decided that the best way to do so would be to commit myself fully to a positive outlook, stop hoping that my treatment would work and start believing it would instead. This way of thinking has completely changed my lifefor the better. I am grateful for the lesson.
While cancer has taught me so many valuable lessons, the last one that I will leave with you is one that I hope you can turn to when times seem the darkest, and the way forward seems unclear. Cancer taught me how to be strong for others even when I didn’t know if I could be strong for myself. In finding strength for others, you will find it in yourself. In the beginning of my diagnosis, I came to realize that when people contacted me to check in, in a lot of ways, they were the ones needing to be reassured that everything was going to be ok. At first, it was incredibly difficult. But I learned to say just that, even when I was unsure myself. This allowed me to cultivate an unbreakable mindset and spirit. Now I know there is nothing that can happen to me that will break me. I know that this is a lesson that will return time and time again in my life, and I will draw on this experience to make it through whatever new challenge faces me..
Each time that I walked into the cancer center for treatment, and was attached to the machine I’d once said was poisoning me but now say is curing me, I would see a quote on the wall by Rikki Rogers, “Strength does not come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things that you once thought you couldn’t.” I used to wonder if I could be strong for myself, or really anyone else, when it really mattered.
I never wonder now.