The things I wish I'd known about cancer


As one of our Ottawa media darlings revealed a shocking leukemia diagnosis today, I was swept back to the moment of my own leukemia diagnosis—quite easily the worst day of my life. I still acutely remember leaving my own body and watching myself have a conversation with my doctor (a coping mechanism I know now was dissociation—something I would do repeatedly throughout treatment: uncomfortable conversation, whoosh! There I went, outside of my body. Hideous test with tubes down my throat, whoosh! Having lines surgically inserted into my chest without sedation, whoosh! Escape became easy and convenient. The fallout of that was not).

So I felt nauseous this morning, watching Stu Schwartz announce his diagnosis and then take a big, heavy breath—not because I felt sorry for him (side note: pity steals people’s power. I always hated getting the big, sad puppy dog eyes, and still do) but because I knew the storm he is about to walk into.

None of us are immune, we know that. Suffering is universal. Some of us get a bit more of it than others, but despite leukemia I still feel that my life is insanely blessed compared to most (I mean, come on, I’m not a refugee and I’m not on Doctor Phil fighting with my baby-daddy, so…I’m good). But at the time I was in a fight for my life, and there was nothing else but survival.

I wish I had known I would be okay—more than okay. Amazing. Triathlon in Hawaii, anniversary in France kind of amazing. I wish I hadn’t spent so many years agonizing about what to do with my post-cancer life. I wish I hadn’t felt guilty for surviving while other people with leukemia died. I wish I hadn’t been so angry (for so long) post-transplant. I wish I had been easier on myself, on my family, on everyone.

I wish I had known—really known—that it was not my fault.

I wish I had known that a terrifying 10% survival rate meant nothing and odds are to be ignored (especially if they aren't in your favour). I wish I had known that after fighting so hard and being so sick, life would return to almost normal. My hair would grow back. I would enjoy coffee again and bedtimes with my kids and that, eventually, I wouldn’t be scared every single moment of every single day. I wish I had known that the self-examination I would do because of cancer would lead me to some profound realizations about myself, some of which have utterly changed the trajectory of my life.

I wish I had known that I would turn myself into a triathlete, that I would run my own business, that I would become a yoga teacher, that I would return to acting—all after cancer. I wish I had known how many people I would inspire with my story, or how many lives might be saved because of the people who joined the bone marrow registry because of me.

I wish I had known all of these things. But most of all, in the utter grief and despair that gripped me in the weeks after diagnosis, in the rage and denial and fury, I wish I had known that cancer would only steal my joy temporarily. I wish I had known I would laugh again.

I wish I had known that cancer would not be the end of my happiness.

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