I’m going to share something that I’ve never told you before. I have Cancer. Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve personally told. It isn’t something I’ve shared before – that I was willing to share with anyone before – before today. Why? It’s a painful part of me that I’ll always remember. And I’m still a tiny bit terrified of sharing so much of myself with others – I’ve always been guarded, it’s just easier that way.
While you remember your childhood years spent playing outside and going to school; I remember the hospital visits, the surgeries and the sickness, my God, the never-ending sickness – which started when I was six years old. I used to be so embarrassed of what I was, what I had. But I’ve come to realize it’s a hauntingly defining time in my life full of difficult, valuable lessons.
Change the things you can. Confession time: I used to be a slob and quite possibly a hoarder. It’s true, I was the best at hiding things in every nook and cranny in the house. But the sicker I got, the more I started cleaning and organizing. I knew if I couldn’t control some things; I’d work to change the things I could. Now my organization is a finely tuned science. I’ve been working on this skill for so many years that some days I feel like I’ve nearly perfected it. And I’m proud of that. I can use my talents well and often to help others. Would this talent have uncovered itself if I didn’t have Cancer? I’ll never know. My past has given me this gift; yes, it came with sacrifice, but it’s part of me. I encourage you to take control of your opportunities to change what you can, improve your life, and press on toward the goal.
Your positive outlook can make all the difference. When I was in full treatment, my family would make the trip about once a month to the Medical Research facility hours away for my operations. I’d go into the hospital, have all kinds of tests and blood work and then be put under for major surgery each month. Kind of a big, scary deal. But never once did I let a negative attitude be my bed mate – ain’t nobody got time for that. I thought about what I had to look forward to – going back to school, playing with my brother & sister and the bribery candy (see also: probably why I’m addicted to sugar). I had many good things that I was excited to see and even in the darkest of days, I knew that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It seems so simple, but believe me, a positive attitude can sometimes make all the difference in the world.
Even if you don’t believe it, there is power in prayer. I am not often a pray-er. But I respect it and I believe in the power of prayer. I’ve seen it first-hand. When I was too sick to move, I’d see what could only be considered a miracle-working to bring me back to health. When I saw my friends with similar conditions die and I’d survive, I knew there was something else at work. I’m not saying prayer gives you what you want, but it can help you discover what you need.
Don’t take your health for granted. Today, I just tell people I wasn’t blessed with good health. I have teeth that I’m lucky are still (mostly) real. I have hair that I’m lucky hasn’t all fallen out. I have a body that has been beaten and broken many times over by something I’ll never fully understand. And for a time, I really thought that was all there was. But, I’m a fighter and decided that this wasn’t how the story would end.
To say I take my health serious is an understatement. These days, I run/bike 20 miles/week and do four hours of strength training and cardio. I eat whole grains, limit unhealthy foods (still working on overcoming sugar), I don’t drink and I don’t smoke – never have. It may sound self-righteous, and that is fine with me. I’ve worked hard for the health I enjoy today. But it didn’t happen overnight, this process has taken years of mindful focus to achieve my current results. If you want something bad enough, you are going to have to work to make it happen. Work for it every day – you may not see changes, but you’re making progress and it’s worth it.
Your words can be brutal. We moved to a new town when I was in High School. The first interaction I remember was when I was greeted by an older man who said, “So you’re the Cancer kid, huh?!” Not hello, not welcome – just that. I still vividly remember that awful conversation and how helpless I felt about my “new” life in this new town.
Guard your words. You can’t take it back. Even if it was a joke, even if you were being curious; your words can be hurtful, brutal and may stay with the other person forever. It’s better to be silent than to be an idiot.
Kids pick up on much more than you think. I remember listening in to conversations my parents would have with doctors, life insurance agents and “concerned” acquaintances. I remember, even as early as 6 years old, hearing conversations from these people to my parents about how I wouldn’t amount to anything, I wasn’t worth the life insurance and I probably wouldn’t make it. And believe me, I understood every word these “helpful strangers” were saying. I’m not sure I understood the full impact of their words, but I picked up on enough.
Your kids deserve to know the truth. Sure, it can be tempered for a 6-year-old. But don’t patronize them by talking over them. Include kids in these important conversations and I think you’ll be surprised at the strength and the wisdom from them that you uncover in the situation.
You can prove them wrong or you can prove them right. With so many people telling me I wouldn’t make it – literally shouldn’t make it – you would think I would have gotten the hint and given up. Nope. Tougher than that. And what do people know anyway? We’re all inherently flawed, which means we don’t know everything and many of us don’t know anything.
- I’ve had doctors tell me I’d never have kids – wrong! I have beautiful, smart, healthy kids.
- I’ve had people tell me I’d never be able to run like the others – wrong! Nearly 20 years after my first failed race (where my brother placed second), I completed a 5K with my brother (and he just barely beat me – although I’m sure he was jogging and I was working hard)
- I’ve had people tell me I’d lose my health and all of my teeth by 26 – wrong! (35 today, healthy and still going strong).
People only know what they think they know. You know your body and you know what you’re capable of. And guess what? You’re capable of so much more. Believe in yourself and you can prove to them, to yourself, that you could do it all along.
Never, never, never give up. I am the same person you knew before I bared my soul. I’m not a Cancer success story. I don’t feel like a hero and sometimes I don’t want think about the challenges I’ve overcome. I’m just someone that for so many years tried desperately to be normal. I thought that would make things better, not having someone judge me for a disease that I couldn’t escape, but letting them see me for who I am.
But the older I’ve gotten, I’ve realized it’s always been a haunting, defining period in my life and normal isn’t possible – but extraordinary is still within reach. And if you’re wondering, the correct term now is, I had Cancer. I’ve been in remission – since my dad’s birthday – in 1990. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am today – never, never, never giving up. And I’m blessed to not have to think about Cancer anymore, if I don’t want to. Because it’s in my past, it will always be part of me, but now part of my past. Now I’m just me . . . And I’m comfortable with that.
I want you to know I believe in you. I know you’re struggling with something. You’re worried others won’t accept you, you’re worried you’ll lose everything, you’re worried things will change forever. And you’re right. But you’re strong enough and you can do this. I’m not saying it will be easy; but I’m telling you it will be worth it. I’ve been there, I’ve done it too. I know you can. I’ve seen it – and I see it – every day.