How a Cancer Scare in 2019 Jolted Me Back to Life
It was supposed to be a routine health check. I try to do a check annually, and this year’s check seemed like any of the others. Even though everything was just as it was supposed to be, they didn’t address a stomach discomfort I was having. If everything was fine, as it seemed to be, why did I continue to experience discomfort? My physician, unable to answer this question, referred me to a specialist. The specialist couldn’t make any diagnosis based on the symptoms I described so she ordered a scan.
What had started as a suspicion took on a new life when the results came back. The scan had detected something that could be cancerous. The results weren’t fully conclusive, however, so the specialist recommended a different follow-up scan to get a second opinion. The roughly two weeks of waiting to do the second scan and get the results felt like a hundred years. And the torture of waiting taught me profound lessons about life, gratitude, and living in the moment.
While I waited for the scan results, I began to mentally prepare for every possible outcome. In the worst-case scenario, I’d have a few months to live. In a bad-case scenario, I’d have a manageable but potentially disruptive diagnosis that would turn my life upside down. In a remotely great-case scenario, everything would be fine. I’d have a second chance at life and finally be able to do many of the things on my bucket list: traveling to over a hundred countries, writing for fun, joining a tango/salsa class, achieving some career goals, among others.
Every moment I spent alone became preoccupied with analyzing my chances for a great outcome. Like every self-respecting amateur physician, I turned to online articles for advice while I waited. A few weeks earlier, I’d have mustered a robust argument against searching for health advice online, pointing out that most of the articles may not be written by physicians. The articles are usually so generic that you could make them fit almost any symptom. However, desperate for answers, I turned to online articles.
A few close friends with whom I’d shared the situation would call or visit to find out how I was coping with waiting. Some suggested that I took time off work, but didn’t seem to realize that it would only make things worse since the extra time at home would be spent obsessing about the situation. My worry was exacerbated by the fact that I lost a sister to breast cancer barely three years ago, so there is a higher sensitivity in the family to the word “cancer.”
I had always thought of myself as a reflective person, but the acute state of uncertainty and the heightened sense of my own mortality during those two weeks of waiting took reflection to a whole new level. It became clear that much of my previous introspection had been based on assumptions about having some control over my life and how I lived it. The sudden realization that my life was not in my control was scarily eye-opening.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t share the news with my family who were thousands of miles away in Nigeria because some of them would have been worried to death. My mom would be so scared that she may not have survived it. We have a special bond as her youngest child, and since I came to the U.S. for PhD study over six years ago, she would get worried if I didn’t call her in a few days. I spent a good amount of time thinking about her, the moments we shared, and how all of that could be gone in no time.
I thought about my nephews and nieces, too, who make up a big part of my life. Whenever I visited, we would play whatever games they were interested in or go to get ice cream, and tell one another about our lives, our friends, and the things we did away from family. I sometimes knew more about their friends and things happening in their world than their parents did. Just a week before my first scan, my five-year-old nephew had cried when I didn’t give him a specific date I would be visiting. And now, what if we were never going to see each other again?
My thoughts also shifted to some high school student mentees whom I tutor SAT classes or help to prepare for college. Anyone close to me knows how much these young people mean to me. I would cancel a weekend meeting or event without hesitation if it interfered with a tutorial or meeting with them. Waiting for the scan result, uncertain about my future, I could feel these relationships fading away.
I thought about my family and friends — the times we spent together laughing over silly jokes and doing nothing “productive,” and the memories that only us shared and the experiences that only us would understand. Thinking back, it feels weird that I dwelt so much on experiences that hadn’t seemed to be a big deal at the time. But thinking about them while waiting for the second scan result made me smile and sometimes laugh out aloud.
I spared barely any thoughts for achievements at work or in school. It didn’t seem very important whether I did that great research, or gave that presentation, or won that award. It all seemed irrelevant and inconsequential.
Roughly about two weeks after the first scan, and about a week after the follow-up scan, I saw a voicemail notification on my phone while at work. It was the nurse’s number from the hospital. I found a quiet place, pressed play, and listened attentively. The nurse had great news! The second scan conclusively confirmed that there was nothing there (I would later find out that I only needed dietary changes). I was relieved, more than I could express.
Even though my worry turned out to be for nothing, the experience taught me some important lessons that I will remember for the rest of my life.
First, the importance of health insurance hit home in a very personal way. Throughout that period, I did not have to worry about healthcare costs because I had good health insurance with low deductibles through my employer. I could only imagine how it would have been if I had to personally pay for the tests and scans or worry about the potential costs of treatment were it to be necessary. Being in a situation where the difference between life and death is a good health insurance can open your eyes anew to how important healthcare is to every aspect of our well-being — physical, emotional, psychological, and otherwise.
Tomorrow is a possibility with its own joys and challenges. The best we have is today, and we ought to make it count.
Second, the things that matter most do not necessarily pay the bills. The personal relationships and micro-interactions that leave indelible marks in our lives deserve as much nurturing and efforts as our professional lives — or even more. The memories that brought me the most comfort and smiles during a time of distress were the ones that had seemed silly and mundane when I made them. Even though I still work as hard, I also create time for those smile-inducing experiences.
When I went on a hike to Mount Rainer National Park this summer and it began to rain on the way there, the old me would have turned back in the warmth of my car. The new me, however, focused on the experience and ended up having a memorable hike in the rain with a couple of new friends made along the way. The breathtaking beauty up there, seeing wildlife and flowers and the cloud-covered mountains around us, was an experience I would never substitute for a warm day on my couch. The bucket list cannot wait any longer, rain or shine. The news cycle may not stop being disheartening anytime soon. There will always be a professional goal to achieve. There will always be bills to pay and money to be made.
But, the best time to cross items on our bucket lists is now. As a planner-in-chief who makes detailed, sometimes years-long plans, this was a needed wake-up call. Tomorrow is a possibility. The best we have is today, and we ought to make it count, to make time for the people we care the most about, and be true to ourselves. My life has become much richer and happier because, even though I still make plans (planners gonna plan), I pay more attention to, and do, the things I enjoy. Each day I remind myself: tomorrow is an unknown possibility. Make today count.
Thinking about it now, I don’t want to wake up in 50 years with a long list of regrets about people I should have shown a little more love, places I should have visited, and things I should have done. I don’t want to get so busy preparing for tomorrow that I forget to actually live. It turns out you don’t need too much time or a lot of money to do most of these things on your bucket list. So, why wait?
Fourth, a lot of us carry burdens that are invisible except to those closest to us. Most people who interacted with me during that waiting period never suspected that anything was wrong. And it reminded me that others might also have troubles of various shapes and sizes that they do not announce. While I can’t go around asking random people if they are OK, I can at least try to treat everyone with more kindness and openness. I have always tried to cut people a slack, but I could probably cut them a little more, keeping in mind they may be distracted by invisible concerns.
Finally, life is a gift, and we ought to be grateful for it. I am more grateful for life since I came close to losing it; grateful for every moment of my life, the kindness of strangers, and the love of family and friends. It’s a new lens to the world where no interaction with anyone is taken for granted because our interactions with other people are a gift to them as theirs are to us.
So, having a cancer scare turned out to be a blessing in disguise, much more than I could have anticipated. It turned out to be just what I needed at that moment — a useful reminder to take my life from work-focused autopilot and live more fully, purposefully, and presently.