"This isn't forever; this is just a roadblock along the way."
My 12-year-old self couldn't have seen it at the time, but the truth of what my nurse said to me when I was diagnosed with stage-IV Hodgkin's Lymphoma would come to reveal itself in its own timely way. It resonates a little more deeply at each roadblock I encounter along the journey of surviving childhood cancer.
As a 23-year-old adult who hasn't had a relapse since officially entering remission eleven years ago, I often wonder if cancer is still a topic worth writing about, let alone dwelling on. It's deep in the past and often evokes painful memories -- ones I've probably spent enough time trying to process. And so I've realized it's not really healthy for me to think about much anymore, at least in the two unhealthy ways I'm prone to.
So why am I writing about it, then?
A few years ago, out on the Flathead River in Glacier National Park, Montana, I discovered my love of whitewater kayaking. Thanks to the volunteerism of professional kayaker Brad Ludden and his program First Descents, the bizarre experience of constantly finding oneself upside-down and underwater set me on a path that, thankfully, led somewhere beyond contemplating my pathetic water-logged demise as large rocks repeatedly tapped against my head. (Don't worry, I was wearing a helmet.)
First Descents is a one-week adventure-therapy camp, and it's just for adult cancer survivors. Being placed in a solo kayak and thrown into class-III rapids was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It was physically terrifying and mentally overwhelming, so much that I gave up on it.
But thanks to the wonderful support of the fellow cancer survivors and mentors around me, I came to believe that I could get back in the kayak and give it another shot. I knew I might do nothing but wipe out, but this time was different. The realization that I even wanted to try, knowing I would fail, was empowering in the extreme. Suddenly I had nothing to lose. Maybe it was just luck, but on our final course I perfectly maneuvered the section of the river that I had first utterly failed at. I was beginning to see how the same attitude I applied to beating cancer could be applied anywhere else.
Yet I took away something even greater from this experience. Each night around the campfire, I listened as other cancer survivors opened up about their experience at the camp. Besides learning to kayak, we were all dealing with our own personal struggles, whether it was cancer itself or the emotional scarring that follows. The common thread in all of our unique experiences was how empowered we felt out on the river. Cancer had taken so much from us, perhaps more so mentally than physically. In enduring the rapids, we could once again affirm ourselves, this time stronger than before. After all, whitewater kayaking is pretty badass, as any of us will have you know.
Watching people come alive like this, so grateful to feel something again, made me realize what it really means to love a stranger as yourself. The connection we shared made us a family -- even though we had only known each other for a few days. The indescribable joy, sadness and love I felt all at once left an imprint on me, and a yearning to devote more of my life to doing something about human suffering. I wanted more people to know that no matter what they're going through, anything is possible.
I don't ever want cancer to define me, and that's why I'm usually hesitant to bring it up. At the same time, it has given me so many valuable insights -- why would I keep these to myself? If it helps even one person, then sharing my story is worth it.
Before, cancer was just a dark thought. Suddenly it was the beginning of a new outlook on life. Over time this feeling became a sense of boundless possibility. More often than not, I can recall my brush with death and instantly feel more appreciative of being alive -- so much that it feels as though I've transcended into a higher mode of consciousness.
However, this adrenaline-fueled mentality is not always healthy, and can lead to dangerous thrill-seeking. It's the other extreme end of the emotional spectrum, opposite despair and depression. Finding a happy medium is probably a good thing. Only recently have I begun to understand how to do that.
I used to cope with the depression associated with cancer by obsessively focusing on its positive aspects, thinking that adversity was only a source of strength. But I can't reconcile that anymore with the fact that many others are not given a second chance, or even the time to think it through as I have. Death, in whatever form it comes, is cruel and unfair, and it would be the epitome of arrogance to ignore that.
Is cancer only bad then? Or is it part of some greater good?
It is neither. It just is. In my opinion, realizing that it doesn't have to be one thing or the other, and can in fact be both good and bad, is an important step towards acceptance and ultimately finding peace. That way, I can step outside of myself and just marvel at the fact that it happened. I can face some of my grief without it consuming me as much, which is a huge step. And I can still tap into that boundless appreciation for life and determination not to give up, while at least being aware of the importance of having limits.
In a passage from his poem "September 1st, 1939," W.H. Auden wrote:
Defenseless under the night,
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Like one of my intellectual heroes, Chris Hedges, I see Auden's ironic points of light as those instances of pure love, truth, selflessness, and hope that come about amidst dark times. They are those moments of clarity, illuminated by the realization that as long as you are alive, you can choose to follow your heart.
I can't speak for everyone, though -- I can only speak for myself. I have no idea what to ultimately make of these experiences. But I can have hope in an affirming flame, and I wouldn't if I hadn't first felt it.
Joseph Sabroski is a 23-year-old writer and is participating in Above and Beyond Cancer's transformational journey to Peru this fall. You can learn more about the organization and donate to Joseph's fundraising campaign by clicking here.