Today is National Cancer Survivors Day

Today is National Cancer Survivors Day. This is the 26th year that the first Sunday in June has been dedicated to celebrating cancer survivors, inspiring those recently diagnosed, gathering support for their families, and providing outreach to the community. Yesterday I celebrated the nine-year anniversary of my bone marrow transplant. This post was originally published yesterday at The Feisty Liberal.

June 1, 2013

Today I celebrate my second birthday. I am nine years old. The anniversary of my bone marrow transplant is always a time for celebration, even if it’s only me celebrating. It is amazing to me that it has been nine years. I remember it quite vividly, yet at the same time, it seems an eternity ago. So much has happened in the nine years since I wrote the following:

Excerpt from Rebirth:

June 1, 2004 – Tuesday, Transplant Day (Rebirth Day)  Day 0

As the day wore on and the time approached for Barbara’s stem cells to be transfused into me, sorrow replaced anxiety. I am losing a part of me as her stem cells replace mine and begin producing her blood in my body. My blood type will change from O- to O+, which is Barbara’s blood type. This changing of blood type is somewhat unsettling to me. However, I also view this day as one of rebirth—another birthday to celebrate. It is extraordinary how this whole bone marrow transplant process works. It is truly miraculous. And not only is this a physical rebirth, but because of all the self-reflection and positive changes I’m attempting to make in my life, it is a spiritual and emotional rebirth as well. So despite feeling melancholy over what I’m losing, there is excitement and anticipation about what I’m gaining. I thank God for the new stem cells that will generate new and healthy blood in my body and grant me a second chance at life.

Around 3:30 p.m., Dr. Hsu, another physician in Dr. Goldberg’s oncology group, administered the blood transfusion. The transplant was a slow intravenous infusion through my catheter of the bone marrow collected from Barbara. Karen B was already stationed at my bedside and Karen waltzed into the room just minutes before the doctor began the procedure. The transplant, which took all of twenty minutes, was uneventful except for an intense scratchiness in my throat caused by the preservative in the blood. I was given Benadryl prior to the transfusion, which quickly sent me off to la-la land. Meanwhile, my sister and friend sat vigil, watching my blood pressure rise and fall, sometimes significantly, on the monitor. The nurses assured them that this was normal.

I feel lucky and so blessed to have not just lived, but thrived these past nine years. I don’t know why I survived and other cancer survivors I’ve known did not. All I know is that my life is a gift, and with that gift comes a responsibility to give back. I also try to enjoy and appreciate every day I’ve been granted since my cancer diagnosis. I wake up every morning, giving thanks for another day on this glorious planet, even when I’m highly disgruntled with current events in this country and around the world.

The biggest life lesson from my cancer experience is that not one of us is guaranteed tomorrow, so don’t put off doing activities, taking trips, or being with the people who are most important to you; or taking a risk to accomplish a long-desired goal that you have been too scared for one reason or another to pursue. Life is scary; taking risks is scary, but I’ve found those risks to be worth it.

I hear people lament all the time how life is not fair, and ask why do bad things happen to good people? Life is not fair—bad things happen to good people and wonderful things happen to terrible people; sometimes there seems to be no justice. However, and as much as I want justice, fairness, and equality to prevail, what matters is how you play the cards you are dealt. Do you fall apart and live with anger and fear, or do you embrace [accept] what is and figure out how to live your life in the best way possible for you and for those who interact with you at any given moment.

One of my favorite stories that Thich Nhat Hanh includes in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness is Leo Tolstoy’s “Three Questions.” Versions of the story vary slightly, but it is summarized below an the excerpt  from Rebirth.

April 6, 2004 – Tuesday

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh recounts a story by Tolstoy about an emperor searching for the answer to three questions:

  1. What is the best time to do each thing?
  2. Who are the most important people to work with?
  3. What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The answer is this:

Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.

Often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all.

Nine years later, I try to remember the answers to those questions and to be present whether I am with work colleagues, friends, or family members, especially those nieces and nephews whom I was not sure I’d live to see grow up, or even see some of them born. I love being an aunt.

Today, as I celebrate my second birthday, I give thanks to all those who helped me through that difficult period: my amazing family and friends (many of whom are my “framily;” thanks Karen Burke for the new word!); my doctors, the nurses and aides at Hackensack University Medical Center–they were top-notch, caring professionals; and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which has a special place in my heart, and the other cancer support organizations who work tirelessly to support survivors and their caregivers as well as to fund research to cure cancer.

Here’s to the next nine years!

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