Dear Cancer, You Stick to Me Like Glue

by Alique Topalian PhD, MPHSurvivor, Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) June 28, 2022View more posts from Alique Topalian PhD, MPH

Dear Cancer,

My word, you really are a tricky little one. I don’t remember a life before you or without you. You seem to love to stick to me like glue. First popping out your dirty little head in 1998 when I was only four, taking my eye and my trust in my own body. You left me with existential questions a four-year-old can barely understand. You left a mark that guided me into my career for answers, searching in psychology, moving on to a master’s in public health, and finally achieving a PhD. I was applying for my first survivorship grant not even a year from graduation to help others like me. I turned in the grant March 5, 2021, and was so excited to finally be able to turn my dreams into action. Little did I know that two weeks later, I would be getting a bone marrow biopsy, packing my things, and moving home to be inpatient for the next six weeks, which turned into six months.

Tricky, tricky, little one, hiding in the shadows of my body just enough to be undetectable for 22 years. It’s impossible for you to relapse, a doctor told me in August 2020, claiming I no longer needed follow-up or monitoring. Take this as a lesson to never say never because anything can happen. Cancer can hurl your life over the edge of a cliff and leave you in freefall so long that you forget there is a bottom. The winds rushing around you, nothing to catch you, nothing to hold onto. You continue to fall. Until one day, you are out of the hospital and there is no further active treatment, no follow up every day or week, and visits become further and further apart. That is when you hit the bottom, the moment you have a second to catch your breath and remember everything that has taken place since the day you were diagnosed. You let it consume you. You learn to navigate life on oral chemotherapy for 3-5 years. You feel as though you are being eaten alive just to be spit out into a ball of mush. The walls have crumbled around you. What is this new life, this new normal I never desired to have?

You must rebuild. You must start again. You can’t hide from life or relish in the comfort of your bed. You must face people who may no longer recognize you. You look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself. You question everything that has taken place. Was it all a dream? Did it even happen? For me, the more I felt lost, the more I wanted to live. I reached for life, for nature, and for friends and family. The foundations that hold everything together.

Cancer, you have made me a better person. A happier person. You changed my values. You made me realize what I did not want my life to be. I want to be centered around things I love. You helped me find my way back to the path. You brought incredible people into my life that I never would have otherwise known. You taught me not to take the fresh air for granted—the ability to go on walks or move, and the beauty of nature. You taught me that everything can be taken away from you at any time, so value all the things, people, and experiences you have. Don’t skip the vacation or experience because you don’t want to take the time. The memories and experiences will help you through the hard times when all you see is four white walls trapped in a room you aren’t allowed to leave. The value of truly incredible friendship is forged in the deep bonds that form with the people you let in at your most vulnerable. You realize the importance of family, and how so many of the things you were once preoccupied with don’t even really matter. How you want to be remembered is what matters. What you want your legacy to be matters. What you want people to think about you when you cross their minds matters.

You showed me that I have impacted so many, and that more people love and support me than I will ever know or realize. Cancer has taught me how to live life authentically. The true value lies in fully existing—making memories and taking a chance. But most of all, you taught me to always take a moment to just appreciate and bask in the feeling of what a beautiful time it is to be alive.

This article was in the 2022 Dear Cancer issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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