Does just reading the title of this article trigger certain thoughts, reactions and questions for you? How can being diagnosed with a type of cancer be a good thing, let alone one of the best things? How could a misdiagnosis with something that scary be a positive? Is this author crazy or one of those super cheery optimistic people that are a bit too over the top?
I have to admit that about 14 years ago, I would have been right there with you, asking those same questions, having the same perplexed thoughts you might be having right now. And if you had told me when I received that big scary diagnosis of Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) back in 2004 that someday I would say that it was one of the best things that could have happened, I definitely would have thought you were crazy.
Yet today, 14 years after the initial diagnosis (which I came to find out was actually a misdiagnosis three years into treatment) I look back at that time as a key pivotal moment in my life, a time that woke me up and forced me to face the cold, hard truth that I was living a life that every day was making me more and more miserable.
To start my story, I want to take you back to 2001, when I was graduating from college. At that time, I decided to go to grad school and pursue a PhD in history, thinking I could see myself becoming a professor. Yet looking back now, I see that at 21, I was TERRIFIED of going out and getting a job, which I saw as becoming a “grown-up.” To my 21-year-old self, years of graduate school seemed less scary than entering the workforce (to some of you, you might think the opposite!).
I began my grad program in 2001 and immediately I felt like I was in the wrong place. I was given a position as a teaching assistant, responsible for about 60 students, most of whom could care less about the subject of the history of western civilization. I began taking my own classes and when I saw the syllabus listing just how many books I was now expected to read a week (one 500-600 page book per class, per week!), I was overwhelmed. As my fellow grad students sat in class and happily and passionately debated the arguments in that week’s book, I felt like I was on a different planet from all of them.
For the first few months, I kept telling myself that I was just going through an adjustment period. Coming from a small, private school to a big state school, living in a new place, that had to be the reason why this felt so challenging, right? Yet as the months continued to pass, nothing changed and I had a nagging feeling deep inside that I had made the wrong choice.
Yet despite the feeling deep inside that this wasn’t the place or the path for me, I had no clue of what it was I did want to do and, at the time, the unknown felt scarier than this current known situation in which I was miserable. So onward I went, each day feeling somewhere on the spectrum from somewhat unhappy to downright miserable.
As the months turned into years, I started to develop symptoms like anxiety, depression, and an increase in my migraine headaches. Despite these further signs that I was in the wrong place, I pressed on, until, in the summer of 2004, when I was scheduled for elective surgery.
The night before the surgery, my doctor called to say that my pre-op bloodwork showed some abnormal results and after repeating the labs to rule out a lab error, the surgery was cancelled and I was advised to see my primary doctor to investigate what was going on.
This was the beginning of a two-week period that spanned two hospitals in two cities, countless lab tests, several bone marrow biopsies, ultrasounds, CT scans, and ultimately ended with being given the diagnosis of CML.
The diagnosis was like a nuclear bomb went off in my life, turning my world upside-down and beginning to call everything into question. Yet in the space of fear, grief, terror, and loss, I was not in a place of really questioning and re-evaluating my current life path.
It wasn’t until my best friend died suddenly the following fall that I hit my breaking point, falling into a severe depression and questioning my desire to continue living.
As I finally got psychological and emotional support, I began to realize that the life I had created for myself over the past four years was the source of tremendous unhappiness, suffering, and even misery. I realized that getting a job was far less scary than continuing down a path that I truly hated and one that I came to realize was making me sick.
Being diagnosed with CML and my friend’s sudden death were what I refer to as my two cosmic two-by-fours to the head, there to wake me up to what I was trying so desperately to ignore… that I had gone further and further down a path that was not mine.
Looking back now, without those two pivotal experiences, I might have continued stubbornly and doggedly ignoring the fact that I was choosing a path that was making me completely miserable and was missing out on other possibilities.
Yet this major health crisis was a wake-up call from the universe that I could no longer ignore what I knew deep down inside—that I was pursuing a path that was completely wrong for me.
When I surrendered to not knowing what I wanted to do for a living and just got a job to pay bills and have health insurance, the new path quickly revealed itself. I found as I healed my own self through a variety of alternative medicine approaches, that I was passionate about that field and the idea I could support others who were going through similar experiences.
It was also through letting go of the path that was not right for me that I finally extricated myself from another situation that I had been fighting since my initial diagnosis—being treated by a hematologist who didn’t listen to me and who I didn’t trust but who, because I needed a referral from my primary doctor to see a different doctor, I couldn’t get away from.
When I left grad school and got different insurance, I got a new primary doctor, a new hematologist, and a new diagnosis. My new hematologist quickly uncovered that I had been misdiagnosed. Once I began being treated for the correct issue, my health recovered, I was able to pursue my new passion, and I realized that I had been holding myself prisoner in unhappiness for far too long.
While the events of 2004 and 2005 initially felt like my life was being ripped to shreds, the reality is that I was finally being awakened to the reality that I could choose a different path, that getting a job wasn’t so scary, and that I had a lot more agency in my own health and happiness than I was allowing myself to believe. I now fully believe that this misdiagnosis didn’t happen to me but it happened for me so that I could choose a new path and live the life I was truly meant to live.