The artificial lights in the ward were momentarily blinding. A feeling of exhaustion pervaded my body, a heaviness hugged my bones.
“Breathe in deeply for me. Three, two and… one.”
Quickly and efficiently as only nurses can do, she slipped the needle through the port in my chest. Within seconds human and machine were merged as one. My eyelids fluttered, the delicate wings of a butterfly, made drowsy in summer heat. Slowly the sounds around me grew quiet, the lights flickered and dimmed as I slipped away, cocooned in a world of chemicals. Chemo number 12. The last one. As the medication took hold, I drifted off, thoughts in my head floating back to the beginning…
It was Christmas Eve and still the hospital was abuzz with activity, tired doctors in crinkled scrubs making their rounds, stethoscopes hanging from their collarbones like rubber necklaces. A plastic Christmas tree sat in the corner of the room, silver tinsel strung sadly across its flimsy frame. I lay in bed, cold skin against starchy sheets, wondering how on earth I had come to be here. Having my first round of chemotherapy on Christmas Eve was never part of the plan. Getting cancer at twenty-two was not part of the goddamn plan. But then, we don’t get to plan any of this, do we? I was almost tempted to laugh at the insanity of it all, the absurd notion that one’s entire life could be flipped upside down in just one week, seven days, one hundred and sixty-eight hours. How one could go from obsessing over trivial things, things that used seemed so important: relationships, the number on a scale, what other people thought of me… to suddenly questioning the purpose of life itself. Was there life after death? What did it mean to get sick? What did it mean to be alive? What did any of it mean? But nobody had answers. Nobody could tell me why I was hooked up to a drip, a stainless steel catheter inserted into my chest, a plethora of chemicals racing through my blood. Nobody could give me a reason. They said it was random, that I was unlucky. They said lymphoma is one of those cancers that just happen, mostly to young people, mostly without a determined cause. A weaker set of genes, vulnerable cells, stress, sensitivity, the short straw in the pack. Was that really it though? Was I just unlucky?
I had to believe I was chosen to face this stormy battle, to cry, to fight, to overcome this corporal assault, this psychological succumbing to something entirely out of my control, in order to grow, in order to receive a strengthening, invaluable, life changing lesson. I struggle to believe everything is just random. That things just happen to us haphazardly and then we die. Maybe we are all just somebody’s science experiment, clusters of cells arbitrarily bumping into one another, creating circumstances, forging our paths as we go. But I’ve always tried to find the lessons amidst the chaos. The significance in the struggle. This is why I see cancer as a gift.
I am aware these two words placed together seem antithetical. How can a disease be a gift? How can hair loss, nausea and debilitating fatigue equate to a new pair of socks? How can any of this be a good thing? But then I wonder, what actually constitutes a gift? Something we receive? Something we feel happy to receive. Usually we think of gifts in the form of tangible presents, carefully wrapped in decorative paper, adorned with a shiny bow. But these type of gifts get used up quickly, tossed aside and easily forgotten. We prise them open, tearing the paper carelessly, crying with joy because it’s exactly what we’ve always wanted or forcing a smile because we know inside we’ll never use it. Either way it’s momentary. We receive the gift, we open it, we use it, we carry on. We forget about these objects that pile up inside our cupboards, untouched and unused like empty diaries, only to be tossed in the trash in years to come.
But when the gift comes in the form of a disease that could potentially take your life, you don’t forget it. Instead, you carry it with you wherever you go, wearing your scars like medals that honour the battles you’ve fought. And maybe that’s what makes this disease valuable at the end of the day . To be given a reminder, as I grow older and my hair grows back and time passes and I age. As people move on and break up and get married and move overseas. As life happens. I get to look down at the scars on my chest and remember what it felt like to be twenty two, lying in a hospital bed, lost in a world of cloudy confusion. I get to remember what it felt like to come close to losing it all. I get the present, literally and figuratively, the infinite gift of tasting the transiency of this life, the beauty, the intensity, the wonder to be found in each fleeting, passing, exploding like a firework, ‘never to return again’ moment.
Lying here on the day of my last chemo, I reflect on this journey, on this lifetime of lessons condensed into six months. I see now that I had to endure this hardship, this battle, this steep uphill climb in order to understand the true value of this ephemeral life. Before cancer I took my life, my body, my health for granted.The girl I used to be had no true appreciation of what it meant to really be alive, she didn’t realise how fragile life is, she didn’t realise how infinitesimally glorious every day really is. The woman staring back at me now, with her shaved head, her scarred neck, her illuminated blue eyes, she knows.
Because what greater gift could there be in this life, than to be hurtled into the perpetual realization that it is in fact the insecurity of life that makes it magic. To stand beneath a starry sky, as meteors of truth rain down on you, as the winds of struggle batter your cheeks, with eyes finally open wide enough to see the truth. To feel enchanted by the glow of the moon on an April night. To look up everyday and see those mountains for the first time.
What a journey this has been. What an honour to have received this gift.