When I Changed My Perspective About Cancer, I Changed My Life
"Nikhil, the good news is, you're 17 and you have leukemia, but the bad news is, you're 17 and you have leukemia.." Thoughts started racing through my mind. Cancer? At my age? How was this fair? The question I asked next was the one I nearly couldn’t bring myself to say: "What are my chances?"
In reply, the doctor pulled off his glasses and sighed. "There’s a 10 - 20% chance you'd live beyond 5 years..."
I cried. For ages. Everyone was telling me not to - they told me that I had a chance, that I could do it. But what did they know about what I was going through? I wouldn't listen to anyone's words. I was stuck in a dark hole - depressed. I spent days clinging to the same pillow in the same clothes, sheets and blankets - crying.
But you can't cry forever.
I felt that I was now a dead body walking just waiting to be removed from this world. But I hated this feeling. What got me out of this was me doing one amazing thing that has literally changed my life. It's something that anyone can do. Without the bravery, courage and willpower that everyone says I had to do this - I took a step back, and looked at what happened to me, as if I was someone else.
With all those gloomy emotions aside, I realised that I had cancer now. I couldn't change that. In the end, I was the one who was making myself feel horrible! I asked myself why I was doing that, when all it was doing was making me feel worse about everything...and after that, I saw that I HAD A CHOICE. I could either keep lamenting the things I couldn't change, or I could do something about it.
I decided to work hard between chemotherapies to stay fit and eat up, so my body wouldn't waste away from all the treatment. I took every precaution there was to keep myself infection free. I may be hampered by who knows what during treatment, but in the end, I could still do so many things. I could still read, write and listen! I could take every opportunity I could to be happy!
Even when one of my most beloved nurses reminded me what was to come, the pain and misery of chemo and bone marrow transplants, I did the same exact thing. I took a step back, and saw that this was all true...that this would happen. But I decided to look at what this was doing for me instead of fixating on what I couldn't change. Because in the end, this was preparing me. It meant when the pain did come, I wouldn't break down into misery. Instead I'd be looking at why they were doing this in the first place.
As a matter of fact, why was I looking at chemo as something that would bring pain? Wasn't it also a medicine? It was the very thing that could get me out of this. The doctors wouldn't be putting me through this if they didn’t think it could help, right? Why not look at it that way?
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn't crazy enough to want chemo. But when I got to my lowest points, this questioning my fears and doubts gave me something to cling to. So I decided to do it again.
At first, I thought I was cursed to get cancer so young. But wasn't it also a blessing? It meant I could get the hardest treatments possible and recover from after them. It meant I’d have my family behind me, rather than having to worry about how they’d survive. And it meant that I could still get back to life after this.
But I’m only human. No matter how much I looked at that "10 to 20%" chance, I could only make that number budge so much. But in the end...wasn't it just that? A chance? A shot at life! Who knows how many people don’t get that chance, around the world?
When I was told that I had relapsed and had a less than 10% chance of survival, I did the exact same thing. Except this time, I was armed with a year of medical education. I looked up every option, every clinical trial and paper that I could, and I ended up finding the drug that saved my life.
I guess this mindset I drone on about, the few simple steps of taking a step back, questioning all your doubts and fears until you see a second way of looking at things, is something that can give you back some hope and happiness in this journey. And life.
But in all this, I had a backup. Something to keep me happy, no matter what. Just in case things went bad...in case I was told that I only had months left..I resolved to look at that as months left...TO LIVE. Luckily, that never came to be. But that attitude itself is probably why I’m still here. At the very least, it’s why I stayed happy through most of my journey thus far.
If you’ve been told bad news, if you’ve been given long odds, or even any odds at all (it’s confronting to hear that you have ANY chance of dying)...it sucks. I’m so sorry that you have to face this. But I hope this has shown that you not only still have just that – a chance – but that YOU also have the final say on how you view ANYTHING in life. In the end, you will always have a second way to look at things. You'll always have something on your side. And I’d be honoured to help you on your journey or to talk anytime.
Did you ever change the way you viewed the chances you were given? Share in the comments below.
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Nikhil is an AML survivor, 2 time bone marrow transplant recipient, medical student, founder of a social enterprise and author of his blog, Musings of a Med Student Patient.