“There’s something in your latest scan that we need to double check.”
Here’s what I’ve learned about cancer as a survivor: even once you’re past it, and despite doctors’ reassurances that you should go back to your normal life, it never truly leaves you. It clings to the back of your mind and sits there, quietly. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t consume you, but it makes you more aware of your existence. The thought of it is like a fresh scar – a constant reminder of what happened. And even a simple sentence spoken with purposeful vagueness such as “We need to double check something” can cause that dreadful background presence to put your life on hold again.
Thankfully, everything was okay in my case. It’s been over five years since my cancer-free diagnosis; I went into complete remission in February 2013 and hit the 5-year-clear mark following a long series of annual check-ups and routine tests. Because of the type of cancer I had – Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Stage IV with the involvement of my right lung – I had to go through a cycle of radiotherapy (in addition to aggressive chemotherapy and the then-experimental immunotherapy). As it turns out, the proton beam that was shot into my lung left that area slightly “denser” than normal – hence the something that needed to be double checked after a chest X-ray in March.
It’s also been three years since I last wrote about my life after cancer, and how I was using the iPhone and various HealthKit apps to help me recover from treatments and get back in shape. The story, which came out before the debut of the original Apple Watch, outlined my plans to follow a strict diet and exercise regularly. At the time, I thought I had my post-treatment life figured out; I was ready to go back to my old, normal routine.
And that was exactly the problem. Three years later, I’m here today to admit that I failed. It took me a long time – too much time – to realize that I wasn’t keeping the promises made in that article from March 2015. I was so eager to return to my previous concept of “normality”, I didn’t notice that my euphoria for beating cancer slowly morphed into a craving for old and comfortable habits. In hindsight, I wasn’t ready to begin a new chapter of my life after cancer; I just wanted my old life back.
I won’t lie: that was fun initially. I drowned myself in work again; I ate any kind of tasty meals I wanted without worrying about my diet; I chased as many work opportunities as possible because I had to make up for time lost to treatments and feeling sick. I was proud of how much I was able to work on a daily basis, even though that meant declining invitations to go out with friends or spending less time with my girlfriend. I was productive like never before. I was unstoppable and it felt exhilarating. I had regained the life I knew. I thought it was what I wanted.
That lasted for a couple of years. But the self-centered, work-obsessed barrier I built around myself began to crack sometime last year. It didn’t happen suddenly, and I lied to myself by ignoring it for months, but something was changing. I completely poured myself into my job to the point where I was enjoying neither the work nor the reward anymore. I began to feel burned out and often not good enough for the website I had so passionately built over the course of eight years. A constant feeling of unease and dissatisfaction percolated through other aspects of my life as well. I pretended to be relaxed and have fun in social situations and important life events; in reality, there was a persistent sense of anxiety always there, sitting in the back of my mind where the fear of cancer also was, telling me that I wasn’t good enough or hadn’t done enough. That it was only a matter of days until someone figured out that I sucked and everything I had built was easily replaceable – a trivial, forgettable commodity.
Besides work, I wasn’t doing much better from a personal standpoint either. I hadn’t done any serious physical exercise in years. I started gaining too much weight again, and I was often short on breath as I was spending most of my days sitting – either working or worrying about work. I wasn’t in good shape, and I certainly wasn’t as motivated as I was in March 2015.
From my perspective though, the worst part wasn’t that I let it happen again. It’s that I was deeply aware of it yet unable to fix it. I was ashamed for being constantly stressed and not caring about myself. I was both perpetrator and witness to a sense of guilt that stemmed from my selfish pursuit of whatever life I was living before cancer. I couldn’t stand myself for wasting the second chance I was given, but I didn’t know how to break out of my loop.
Thankfully, I reached the tipping point right before the holidays in December, when I decided to take a long break from anything even remotely resembling work. During those days, I started thinking. By myself first, then talking with my girlfriend and close friends. And even when I felt bored and would have rather opened Twitter or blogged about something, I kept thinking and talking and taking walks with my dogs and trying to identify a better path forward.
The more time I spent focused on myself instead of being distracted by busywork, the more I kept reaching the same conclusion. For years, I avoided accepting the reality that my life will never be “normal” again. I can’t hide from the fact that I had cancer, survived, and will always need to pay close attention to my health – more than other people. For better or worse, the experience of surviving cancer will always be part of me. Instead of running from it or finding temporary refuge in an obsession with work, I should embrace it with positivity and optimism. I should treasure the battle I won without letting the fear of a rematch define me.
Ultimately, I realized that embracing my past means being thankful every day, respecting the preciousness of my second chance, and finding my purpose by helping and inspiring other people through my work and past experiences. This took a lot of introspection and opening up to other people. And in the process, I developed a firm conviction that my time is limited; I have to cherish the new opportunity I was given and use it to leave something valuable behind me.
Six months ago, I decided my single goal for 2018 was to begin a second life. Here’s what I’ve been doing to make it happen.
Read all of Federico’s essay, it’s inspiring.