Lessons from Lymphoma

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt rightfully angry at this year of my life that I was “losing.” I had been at the beginning of an adventure in Colombia on a Fulbright scholarship when I first discovered a lump. Through the language barrier and doctors visits, I came home to Massachusetts to have scans and tests that confirmed what that first Colombian doctor had thought — Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I could go on about the experience that is the diagnosis and chemotherapy process, but as I’m nearing the end of my treatment, I’ve found my thoughts drifting to how much I’ve gained this year.

Family. I’ve always had an amazingly supportive family. But there is nothing like a surprise (isn’t it always a surprise?) cancer diagnosis to help you appreciate and cherish the ones you grew up with. Moving in with my parents, I got to spend entire Saturdays with my dad on the couch and got hugs from my mom whenever I wanted. My oldest brother Patrick became my lunch buddy, putting up with my weird cravings. My sister Caitlin gave me a copy of the key to her Boston apartment for when I needed an escape from suburban life (which was frequent). My younger brother Tim would let me control the tv remote and didn’t even complain. Kevin, my youngest sibling, let me hang out with him at college. I am proud and lucky to be from a pretty kickass familia- this also includes Ashley and Tony, my two soon to be in-laws, and humongous extended family who continuously demonstrated their love through cards, hugs, texts, and phone calls.

Time. With all the side effects of chemotherapy, you’re forced to slow down. I have always thrived on being busy and active. Suddenly, I had all this free time. I got to try new things — yoga, guitar, learning french, podcasts. For me, even watching a full tv series was new (I used to be the world’s best sleeper and would fall asleep 5 minutes into any show). I learned to cherish this extra time to find what interests me. This led to me volunteering at a center that teaches English to adult immigrants. I met some incredible people and saw real strength and kindness in every class. I loved it so much that it helped solidify my career interests.

Empathy. I was lucky in my cancer diagnosis — the doctors were confident in my prognosis and I never once questioned if I would beat cancer. This mentally helped me so much, but physically I went through all sorts of symptoms. I could waste your time listing all of the side effects, but suffice to say I can now relate to a variety of ailments. With all the anxiety that cancer has brought, I’ve felt a stronger connection to mental illnesses. I hope I can be a better advocate for those suffering with stigmatized illnesses. I learned the special value of a mailed card in this technological age. Every time I ran into someone, I would wonder if they had heard about my diagnosis. A quick “I’m sorry I heard about your cancer diagnosis” or a “how are you feeling” always meant a lot to me. I learned acknowledging what someone is going through helps validate their experience.

Humanity. I’ve seen the best of humanity in the months I’ve had cancer. I saw this through my friends, who took planes, trains and automobiles just to sit on the couch with me. When they couldn’t, their phone calls and thoughtful packages helped me feel loved and supported from miles away. I was continually surprised and appreciative when people remembered my treatment days and sent encouragement. Thoughtfulness goes a long way. Strangers showed their kindness in numerous ways. I once had a waitress give my forehead a “healing kiss.” Wearing a headscarf became a badge of honor. It often brought out the goodness in others and reminded me how I should always be treating others.

Cancer is a truly humbling experience. It may sound cliche, but these lessons are always worth revisiting. I have plans to return to Colombia in August and have the adventure I initially planned for. Meanwhile, this past year, I learned from a different kind of adventure.