What Cancer Has Taught Me About Living My Life

For someone my age, my experience is far beyond the years I’ve lived.  I’ve been through every kind of traumatic experience you can think of. And being a residential advisor at a university, I’ve seen things most don’t normally get to see. I’ve had someone die in my arms, been through hell and back with the justice system, and battled my biggest fear: Cancer. My first exposure to it was with my grandfather, who passed away with liver cancer in 2004. I remember how scarring the experience was. He went through chemotherapy and the damage it did to his body still, shakes me today. He had always been a small guy, but his personality was more than his small stature could handle. When he got sick, he shriveled up to almost nothing. He was unrecognizable to me during his open casket funeral and the impact his death had on my father is one that I will always remember. He loved deeply, but never showed it and spent his life serving others. He was a role model and I watched how his death shook my strong and resilient father to the core. I couldn’t fully comprehend what my father was going through, but I knew he’d never be the same.

When I entered my sophomore year of high school, I found myself sitting in the office of a urologic oncologist with my father and I felt my entire world crumble at my feet.  His diagnosis changed my world forever, as I felt my faith being crushed, my hopes being spat at, and this thing called cancer, laughing in my face, as tears streamed down.  

And if that wasn’t hard enough, my own diagnosis followed a year later. Every day I lived in fear of the unknown. Fear that I may lose my father, just like I lost my grandfather, to this horrible thing.  I lived in fear that I wouldn’t be able to do the things I wanted to, to accomplish the dreams I had, and to have both my parents with me every step of the way. I lived a life consumed with fear, and I let the diagnosis define who I am, and my life. Despite the fear that lived within me, I learned some very important lessons. My complicated relationship with cancer gave me a different lens to live my life through; a lens of respect, appreciation, compassion, and will.  

One of the most important lessons cancer has taught me is that every bad thing has a silver lining. For me, it was that through my diagnosis I discovered my passion. While my father had been diagnosed, I found myself spending more time volunteering with children. It gave me a new sense of purpose as I worked with mentally challenged students, underrepresented children, and children who had been diagnosed with cancer. Brent’s Place, a wonderful home for children undergoing bone marrow transplants, showed me that compassion and love still do exist in a world full of tears and violence. They showed me that if there’s one positive thing about cancer, it is that it brings people together. We ourselves have the power to define who we are. No diagnosis can change that because you are not your diagnosis. You are so much more. I also threw myself into music and learned that I had a knack for composing, as I mashed up modern Bollywood hits with classical pieces. I started to write more and realized my love for words. I learned so much about myself and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cancer has also taught me to appreciate more of the smaller things in life. I know that each of us has been blessed with this life, whether it be a long life or a short one. Some of us waste it, unaware of its precious nature and sacredness. Some of us take it for granted, going day-by-day complaining instead of appreciating what is around us. But what if we all chose to take a step back. To look at our life and see how everything has led us to where we are today. The good and the bad have made us who we are and continue to shape us every day. Every death, every event, every experience has uniquely crafted each and every one of us. And it is up to us to decide what to do. Our choices define who we are and we have the choice of letting those moments define us, destroy us, or motivate us to be better, to do better. Each day, we grow closer to death. And it becomes ever so important for us to appreciate the beauty that exists around us, and especially within us. Because what’s the point of any journey if you aren’t enjoying it as you go? The world needs a little more love and compassion.

And finally, it taught me to see the beauty that lies in change and new beginnings. We owe it to ourselves to learn as much as we can about selves, to love ourselves completely, and to live life on our own terms. Change isn’t always what is seems. Sometimes the best experiences and lessons in life come from opening ourselves up to possibilities. I shouldn’t run from my past or hide from my future.  Cancer helped me to envision a future for myself in the field of pediatric oncology.  My respect for doctors, nurses, and people who work with and inspire cancer patients every day is enormous. Give yourself the chance to be in an unfamiliar environment. Sometimes what we need is to separate ourselves from everything that is familiar and find ourselves lost in the unfamiliar. As Robert Brault said, “Optimist: someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster. It’s a cha-cha.”

Now, I’m learning to live life in moments instead of days. To live with appreciation for what is, what was, and what will be. To see that there is good in everything, everywhere, and everyone. And most importantly, I’ve learned that by conquering my biggest fear, I discovered a love I hadn’t known existed. The kind of love that comes from within, stemming from soul searching.  I’m learning to love wherever I go, to embrace the unknown and take some risks. Because one day when I look back, I want to be proud of who I am and how far I’ve come. This life is beautiful, despite the horrible and traumatic things may happen. Sometimes, all it takes is just a different lens to see that.

Featured Image via Samantha Walisundara


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