I had a stem cell transplant five years ago today. At the time, it enveloped my entire world and I let go of my dreams and plans. I slowly picked up the pieces and returned to my “normal” life – healthy and cautiously happy. Things never go back to the way they once were. We all know that because we’ve all survived something and faced a myriad of challenges in our lives.
Five years is supposed to be the magic number for cancer patients. Once you hit the five-year mark you’re supposed to be “cured.” Unfortunately, I learned that five years isn’t a magical number the hard way, the same way many other patients have. It still hurt. So, I had a stem cell transplant.
Technically, I don’t even know if I’m at the five-year mark. It’s the anniversary of the transplant. But after I recovered enough from that, they started radiation. Then they let me recover again, and started maintenance chemotherapy. Maybe I’m supposed to count five years from the end of one of those, not the transplant. Who knows? I could ask, but it doesn’t seem that important anymore.
It’s more important to appreciate the days and opportunities that I have. Helping my broken community heal from a pandemic and racial injustice seems more important. Sometimes I’m not sure of the best way to do that, but I know that some action is better than nothing.
I have friends facing their own cancer diagnosis and treatments, and have lost a few more friends to their cancer diagnosis. Coronavirus has affected some of my friends. Racial injustice is affecting others. I know international students who have been on an emotional roller coaster. Some have dealt with a combination of these and other stressors. Throughout it all, I’ve felt privileged and lucky – my cancer treatment wasn’t easy, but it could have been a lot worse. And I survived while others did not.
Survivor’s guilt can change the narrative in your head. I shifted the narrative back by reminding myself that the best way to honor those that have gone before us is to make the most of the time we have. The best way that I can honor those that are still struggling is to use my health and privilege to make the world a better place.
I feel guilty writing about my experiences when others are facing much bigger challenges. I considered what my outcomes could have been. I might not have survived these challenges if I had been born in another time or as a different race. It certainly would have been harder. But, if I don’t write about it, or otherwise acknowledge my privilege, it only perpetuates the problem.
Instead, I’m letting go of my preconceived ideas, expectations, and goals. Letting go leaves space for others. Letting go helps us learn to enjoy and appreciate what we have. I have learned to live more fully by letting go. I have gained perspective on the lives and challenges of others by letting go.
Cancer is still a terrible thing. But instead of focusing on magic numbers and anniversaries, I’m focusing on enjoying each moment. I’m figuring out how to help to make my community a better place so that others can do the same thing.