If you are in college or are about to graduate college you always hear the phrase “What are you up to this summer” a lot. Mothers ask kids over the weekly Sunday phone call home. Your grandparents ask at family gatherings. Your professors ask when they run into you in the student union. Your friends ask at a crowded party. You are asked during job interviews. It can become a dreaded question!
I dread that question perhaps more than most, because my answer is always long winded. I hate being a “downer”. But I always take a deep breath and share. I have to share. My story, my plans are important. This summer, I will be enrolling in a clinical trial. I am 26 years old, but I am enrolling in a clinical trial.
Five years ago, on June 3, 2005, I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. I was 21 years old. It was two weeks after my college graduation. I had no family history of breast cancer. Two weeks after my Boston University commencement, I met up with a girlfriend at Starbucks. We had both just finished our first week at work and we were excited to commiserate. My phone rang while I was in line for my caramel macchiato. It was my mother calling to tell me I had breast cancer.
The fabulous post college summer plans I had made quickly changed and, instead of living with my four best friends, I moved home with my parents. I am going to be honest, I was more upset about moving in with my parents than I was about a cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t until the doctors found a tumor in my liver. It wasn’t until the doctors told me I was a Stage 4 cancer patient. It wasn’t before one doctor told me I had a 16% chance of seeing my 30th birthday that I stopped worrying about living the life I had planned and started wanting to fight for the life I still had.
So this summer, like almost every summer since my graduation five years ago, I will be spending this summer at the hospital.
This summer, I will be at the hospital for 4-10 hours each day, three days a week. I am enrolling in a Phase 1 clinical trial that looks at the toxicity of two chemotherapy drugs. The doctors are going to give me as much drug as I can physically handle before I beg for a break. I am enrolling in a clinical trial this summer that is designed to make me sick.
I take a deep breath and always share my story even though I hate sharing it because you all need to know that the life you have planned and set up for June may not turn out the way you expect. Life is hard and crazy and never ever goes the way you have planned.
But remember, no matter what life throws at you, you will be just fine. No matter what happens after you put on that black gown and goofy hat, stay true to yourself and you will be a fabulous success.
My life with cancer is really hard. I have lost a lot of friends because our lives are just so different. I am often too sick to go out on Friday nights. I have missed big birthday parties and events because I’ve had doctors’ appointments. I have had to change my personal and career goals. But I also love my life more than I ever would have without cancer. The friends I still have are the best friends a girl could ask for, and the times I am feeling well, when I do go out, I go out and I truly appreciate it.
The greatest lessons I’ve ever learned weren’t in the classroom, they were in the hospital room. So here is what I have learned:
Your parents: those parents whose blood, sweat, tears and $40 + thousand dollars brought you to this moment. Those parents you don’t want to move in with next month. They are your best friends. Contrary to what you may think now, they will not be here forever. They know you better than you know yourselves and they can help.
The best thing that ever happened me was moving in with my parents after graduation. I did not just live upstairs. I cooked dinner with them every night, my dad and I went on dates, I got to know my mom as a friend and not a mother. I learned about their first jobs and their graduate school experiences. I learned to turn to them for good and sound advice. In college, I spoke to my parents once a week. After college, I speak to my parents several times a day.
I’ve also learned to stop worrying about your answer to the question “what are you doing this summer?” or “what are you doing with your life?” Stop planning your whole life and setting certain goals to attain. Do not measure yourself based on the accomplishments of your peers. Life is too short to wish it away. Let go and enjoy where you are in this very special moment. Reflect on all that you have accomplished as opposed to planning for the next accomplishment. When I visited a doctor and he ran his hands through his hair and said, “I just don’t know what to do with you.” At that moment, I was forced to take stock of my life.
At that time, I had never been employed. I had never saved much money or even paid my own bills. I most certainly had never achieved all of the goals I set out for myself post college. I wanted to graduate and work for the CIA. That never happened and never will happen, but I am still a success.
I task all of you to spend some time today taking stock of your lives. Don’t take stock of your career goals or material possessions. Take a look at your character and at your relationships. Take a look at the friends around you, because at the end of your lives, your relationships are what endure even after you are gone. Your relationships and your character are what matter and they are all that matter.