Friday, March 20, 2015

Survival requires tenacity. And so much more.

I am eight and one-quarter years out from my diagnosis with acute lymphocytic leukemia. By medical standards and definitions, I am "cured." As part of my treatment plan those many years ago, I signed up for a clinical trial that included follow-up for a number of years post-treatment. I don't know how many years they follow us for, but I do know that once a year, I get a phone call from some research assistant at the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center wherein she asks whether or not I am "still alive?" The first time I received one of those calls, I was flabbergasted. "That's all you want to know?" I queried. But they didn't care about the extensive long-term side effects I was dealing with, just whether the drugs or the cancer or something else had killed me. Maybe the side effect issue is part of another clinical trial I haven't heard about yet.

I haven't really written about cancer in a few years. I actually don't really even think about it all that much. My medical issues have morphed into separate demons, and cancer has become so peripheral that it is almost part of a past life. That isn't to say I don't think about the medical issues because I do. I think about them all the time. I think about them every time I eat a meal or a snack because my stomach gurgles ominously, warning me that in about 15 minutes I'm going to have to find a bathroom. But anyway, over the past week, I have read a few articles that women have written about their own survivorship. One of them, by Suleika Jaouad, you may have already read. She's a celebrity, basically: a strikingly beautiful, young woman who writes about her cancer experiences for The New York Times. I haven't read any of her articles about her life as a twenty-something with leukemia. I didn't want to. But a friend linked to this specific article on Facebook with the caption, "Yes Yes Yes." So, I clicked through. What I read saddened me, more than anything else. She is much more eloquent and honest with herself than I was when I was a year out of treatment. At that time, I still believed I could charge forward with my life, break down walls, inspire others to push through adversity.

My life slowed to an unexpected and drawn-out pause. I lost everything that I once believed I was: driven; motivated by goals; fearless; powerful; confident. Yes, I had a remarkable appreciation for the beauty of living day-to-day, but I also felt there was a significant part of me that wasn't realized. I am grateful for the time I had living at home, and I appreciate so many things about my years at Starbucks and Hyatt. But I wasn't hungry for anything. I was drifting, and it was brutal. It was even worse when I realized that that piece of me was missing, and I had no idea how to either get it back or create it from scratch.

Suleika is barely in her first year post-treatment. Hopefully she will adjust better than I did; she is already heading down her path of recreation. I am seven years post-treatment, and I feel like I am barely getting a handle on my hunger, on my future. That drive is there; that burning in my chest to just Rule the world I inhabit, is Back. I wrote in a post on here, months ago, that there are no absolutes, no black and white situations. Maybe that isn't quite true: You Absolutely Have to believe in yourself. You Have to Want to live and Want to experience everything that this world has to offer. If you hesitate or forget or are dragged from that living river of excitement and emotion, it is its own struggle to find your way back. But we are resilient. We are tenacious. We are all survivors of something, and we are all fighting to find our ways in the world.

It may have taken me longer than some to dive back into myself and what I want from my life, but I am finally beginning to figure it out, once more. And I am not giving up.

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