v4n2 - Regaining Control

CURE, Summer 2005, Volume 4, Issue 2

So, getting cancer was a gift? Your life is better because of it? People ask me these questions all the time, and they’re not easy to answer.

So, getting cancer was a gift? Your life is better because of it? People ask me these questions all the time, and they’re not easy to answer. The day I was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia—on a sunny Tuesday after a routine annual check-up—I thought the idea that a disease could improve your life was just a ridiculous cancer cliché. I was 23. I had a dream job at Glamour magazine, an awesome boyfriend and a great apartment in New York City. If anything, CML would spoil my big plans, right? Wrong.

As a perfectionist and to-do list addict, one of the scariest things about cancer for me was the loss of control, not knowing what to expect day to day. Of course, in the beginning there was a whirlwind of what-ifs, worst-case scenarios and tears. And that was OK. But once I learned about Gleevec, once I knew I was in good hands, I was able to regain control. For me, being diagnosed presented an opportunity. Sure, I could go back to work, quietly take my pills and try to forget what I was dealing with. But I didn’t want cancer to be a P.S. in my otherwise normal life; I wanted to turn a bad situation into something good.

A few weeks after I was diagnosed I started documenting my experiences for Glamour. At first, sharing my story was just part of my coping—the column gave me an outlet for both my fears and my admittedly silly thoughts (“can I still get manicures?” I wondered)—but it evolved into so much more. Letters started pouring in connecting me with CML patients and their families. I began speaking publicly about my experience and together with my family and friends raised tens of thousands of dollars for various cancer organizations. Suddenly, I was no longer the victim. I wasn’t letting the CML call the shots. I was out there helping others and by doing so, helping myself. Taking action on any level—whether it’s talking to your coworkers or to Oprah, whether it’s raising $5 or $5,000—puts you in control. And that’s a good place to be.

Gleevec, of course, deserves a lot of the credit for making my life livable. I’ve never had any side effects to speak of and after about nine months on the drug, I was in complete remission. I’m lucky and I know it, which only pushes me harder. I’m living proof that with the right treatment, it’s possible to have cancer and have a life at the same time. There are definitely more drugs like Gleevec out there; we just have to find them.

I never would have imagined that cancer would become such a huge focus of my life, but I’m truly glad it is. I have an absolute mission, a passion. Three and half years later, I can honestly say my life is better now than it was before I was diagnosed. But it was a process, a journey—and sometimes a struggle. In the beginning, I felt like I was failing the disease, failing to have that newfound perspective on life that I thought came automatically with every diagnosis. Instead of stopping to smell the roses, I’d find myself stressing about the small stuff, like work deadlines and gaining two pounds. But the thing no one tells you is that you can have cancer and still be yourself—for better and worse.

Don’t get me wrong, if I could go back to that Tuesday afternoon, I certainly would have preferred not to be diagnosed with cancer. And I still worry about what the future may bring, but the truth is, bad things happen to good people and sometimes you just have to accept that and move on, adjust your plan a little, because if you let it, life with cancer really can be a gift.