When Cancer Takes Center Stage
Olivia Gaines is the 2017 Andre Sobel Award Winner. At time of publication, Olivia is out living life with no evidence of disease as a writer and future medical insurance survivor in L.A. She is an active participant in her return to a full, meaningful life and uses writing classes at Cancer Support Community, the Grief Recovery Method, and weekly visits to City of Hope to complete her healing. She trains with the Center for Innertainment to help young adults live above the noise through brain research, psychology, media, and digital opportunity. Before her AML diagnosis in October 2015, she pursued a mix of traditional and alternative educational opportunities which awarded her a full-tuition scholarship to study art history in Italy. She also earned a certificate in tandem dog sled & kennel maintenance, co-organized TEDxKalamazooCollege, and worked as a housekeeper in Hawaii.
When Cancer Takes Center Stage
When you woke up that morning and learned the news,
I imagine the shock that coursed through your veins as it reached clenched fists with no-one to punch and everything to blame. Your thoughts ran restless with no conclusive evidence, no expert could explain precisely what the world keeps doing to cycle the headline
now shining front and center stage in your life at this age.
Cancer is here and so are You.
It may seem like a death sentence looming near and true.
For a moment did you believe the doctor walked into the wrong room?
Up until now professionals could only dismiss
The signs and symptoms which signaled the lie
You’re too young to experience this.
For me its’ name was leukemia at twenty.
My blood organized to kill and leave my future empty.
I couldn’t cry because the chemo burned my eyes,
And I wondered if all this trouble, treatment, and insurance money was worth saving my life. A tear dripped down as a single drop of a stranger’s blood dived into the river of my vein, Transfusing hope and the gift of another day into every ounce of pain.
So I say the mosquitos of life can die trying to bite me.
Strangers’ blood is now a flowing part of life inside me.
Which is why I believe you can live well beyond this cancer diagnosis. You may lose a sock or two during times your nurse changes the sheets in your hospital room. But there are advantages and opportunities you will unexpectedly find as you enter and exit each treatment phase and recovery grind. They told you your body will most likely kill you, and your initial dreams will now start collecting ‘late’ fees. One day you may find you stop believing in your life when your front stage is filled with procedures, pills, and pain. But awaiting in the wings is the new you in Act III- powered to participate fully without a pole attached to an IV. Today you play the patient and it’s up to you with the help of your crew to find ways to choose to continue to suck the marrow out of life before the marrow is ever sucked out of you.
You are still the director of this show! That may seem odd given death and disease sews itself to your days like a shadow scattering fear when it attempts to lead instead of co-create. But nonetheless, it is the shadow that gives the last line and pushes you to the edge to discover the desires that truly matters. Death is looking to you to produce your best, not test your inherent worth. Your audience is waiting for cues to clap, and gasp, and pay the price to witness you. Many may hand you academy awards for inspiration, some recite prayers without request, and others monologue of a time they encountered a scene like this. The only speech you have to give is the truth, which includes the fact no one knows exactly how you feel but you.
The trick is to remember you can do anything for 5 more seconds with proper rest and medicine. It is not enough to believe, you must also inwardly yell ‘Action!’ with the gusto of super fortissimo until it reaches the attention of the smallest cells swimming inside your bones, bones that would ache for days if they didn’t comply with your body’s impulse to use its own healing design. This is how you’ll come to realize the only way out is from the inside. You can start going in by memorizing your medical record number, which is your given clinical, hospital name. It is a ritual you will perform hundreds of times, so learn the line now to save space in your brain and collect the extra seconds of time.
When you look in the mirror after your beautiful mane transforms into the image of a bald-headed uncle, don’t hesitate to grieve, just don’t get stuck and believe you are a permanent skeleton costume for Halloween. Your body, your mind, and spirit are tough cookies worth catcalling for, and more importantly, your hair is not the living part of you. Your body is taking the hit, but it’s coded with resilience. It is a renewable resource that can never replace or stand next to the beauty in how you treat people with kindness, how your heart beats for what is right, how you breathe what is true, and how you shine joy on others with your smile and gratitude. This does not mean I will exclude the request to keep your eyebrows on my prayer list or ignore the need to ask for people to consistently gift you the exercises and ice-cream to get your butt back.
Your medical team are necessary actors who have studied, stayed up all night on multiple occasions through the years, passed all the health auditions to work for you in this moment. They may not explicitly say it or always recognize it, but you have a white lab coat too. It’s why you need to get comfortable pressing that red button to communicate clearly with your nurses when it is urgent and important for someone to show up in the next 5 minutes to help remove visitors from your room and help you use the facilities before they put on an unnecessary cleanup costume. To get out of isolation requires asking yourself to become aware you need someone to sit with you today. It could be in the form of playing music, it could be asking your nurse to a call a social worker, or maybe it’s simply FaceTiming a friend.
Lastly, there will come many opportunities to dwell on many things with a middle fingers up attitude, which is absolutely necessary to do once a day to keep the insane at bay, but don’t miss out on breathing in all the ways the world is trying to love you, even when it requires re-gifting real bouquets to protect yourself from infection or accepting your 30th adult-coloring book with the same gratitude as the first one you still haven’t and probably will never open. These people who bought a gift, brought their presence, and signed a card are also the people willing to walk miles to help you and others walk through and past cancer’s door. You might be too old to Make-A-Wish, which is why there’s an amazon.com wishlist.
Cancer is here but so are You.
It may seem like a death sentence looming near and true, However, it is more like a seat in the school of suffering. Teaching you pain has goodness too. You have arrived in this space and one day your life will face the right time to set the stage to help the next ones in line. And that, my friend, is the purpose of a lifetime.