I used to think of illness as a disruption at best, a major calamity at worst. But I’ve changed my mind. Inconvenient and uncomfortable though it is, illness is also a great blessing. I believe that illness can change our lives for the better.
When I was 24, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, a cancer of the lymph system. At the time, I was barely aware that I had a lymph system and I’d never heard of Hodgkins. A year later, after surgery to remove my spleen, followed by radiation, chemotherapy, and more hospital stays than I can count, I was intimately familiar with this cancer and the effect it had on my life.
At the time, Hodgkins seemed like a major disaster. I was too sick to continue living on my own, so I moved back in with my parents. My new career as a high school teacher was put on hold. I lost my hair, a good deal of weight, and my social life. To cap it all, my fiancé left me. That year of illness, diagnosis and treatment seemed like chaos and loss at the time.
I gradually emerged from the experience, regrew my hair, and regained my strength. I found a new teaching job and started dating again, I began to realize that Hodgkins was a firm invitation to take a look at the direction my life was going, and reassess what really matters to me. I understood, in a visceral way, that death is inevitable, life is precious, and the future is unpredictable.
I learned that instead of deferring my dreams, I should embrace them fiercely. Right now. So I moved from my native England to the U.S., and then went back to school to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English. For the last 18 years, I’ve taught at Weber State University, work that fills me with joy. None of this would have happened without the Hodgkins.
I also learned to practice living in the present. At first, I practiced this mind set out of necessity because there were days when I couldn’t imagine beyond the next hour, and sometimes the next minute. A whole week was inconceivable. I began to realize that life was more enjoyable if I didn’t project into an uncertain future.
I came to a deep and abiding appreciation for this fragile and amazing gift of life. Like everyone else, I have good days and bad days. My car breaks down, my roof leaks; a friend criticizes me, but my year with cancer puts everyday concerns into perspective, and for that, I am very grateful. I’m 56 now, and 32 years after the Hodgkins, I can still say that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.