Some things I learned from being seriously ill

About three months ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. One month ago, I had surgery. Three weeks ago, I heard that the lymph nodes had been free and that my prognosis is now good.

For a few weeks, dying young became a very tangible possibility. In this very scary time, I realized a few things, that I hope I won’t forget.

I realized that time is the most precious thing that we have. Time to make mistakes, to try out things.  To live somewhere for a long time. I realized how stupid I had been to be afraid of getting older, of making final decisions, of getting wrinkles and getting fat. This is life: To get older, to make decisions, even maybe blantantly wrong decisions, is all that we can hope for, and it is a luxury. I understand better now, I hope, how important it is to make those decisions, to have a one real life, instead of keeping open options. Options are not worth much in the end.

What also vexed me that I had lived with very frequent migraines last years, and being pretty unhappy about really unimportant and mostly fixable things, like not getting along with some totally unimportant people. Such a horrible waste of time! I promise myself to do anything to fight for my quality of life from now on, no matter what. I will not care if that involves letting people down, annoying people, saying no, taking pills, spending more money on therapy and making more experiments. I need to make sure I am happy because life is truly short.

I also realized that in the case I would die soon, I would not be proud of my academic achievements. Yes, I have been more successful than some other people around me in the last years, but I felt like I had left absolutely nothing of real value, and that a large portion of research carried out in my field (maybe all) was quite possibly totally meaningless to me. I have suffered quite a bit for my work, and I regretted the suffering very much.

What I wanted, however, was that some more people would have known me, liked me, would miss me and would remember me. I was desperately sorry for not having had better close relationships, having spent more time with the friends that I had. So I promise myself to try to develop better friendships and value the people I care about more. It is not easy for a somewhat closed-up person like me to do that, but I understand that this is what really counts: the relationships we have with other people.

And finally, I think I figured out what the meaning of life is for me.  I think the meaning of life is enjoying a summer evening, when the ground is still warm from the sun, idly chatting with someone I like.

Now that I know this I swear I’ll never again construct myself a life that involves not being able to do just that.

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12 Responses to Some things I learned from being seriously ill

  1. Thanks so much for writing this. I always enjoy reading your thoughts, and am very glad that we are not going to lose you.

  2. Good luck – for your health and your new resolutions. Your blogs are a delight and inspiration; I do hope you’ll still find time to write them.

  3. Dee says:

    I am very happy to know that you are well. All the best for your recovery.

  4. Wow. First of all, let me say how glad I am that you appear to be coming into good health once again. Secondly, I should thank you: this is exactly what I needed to read right now. Especially this:
    ” I understand better now, I hope, how important it is to make those decisions, to have a one real life, instead of keeping open options. Options are not worth much in the end. “

  5. I am so glad that you will be okay – I definitely would have missed hearing all of your intelligent and insightful “random” thoughts! Take good care of yourself!

  6. Another Dee says:

    I would miss you for your writing, which really touches me sometimes. Take care now.

  7. GMP says:

    Wishing you the best of luck and the best of health.

  8. Wow Z. I’m so sorry I’m several months late on this news. I have a heart defect (several surgeries and a medical device) and two years ago I went through a similar realization. I did seek therapy, for a year. It was the best gift I could give myself. Therapy helped me to forgive myself. For a while I was in beat up mode, thinking I was so stupid the majority of my life and that I had wasted my life. But that’s not true. At all.

    It’s funny I think your blog was the first blog I liked because I feel like you speak the words in my brain. I had written a post a few months ago that was a reminder to myself to live the life I want, not the life I was given. I hope you find some connection in it the same way I found connection in this post.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you. Your post is so beautiful and I empathize very much.
      I always have this urge to prove my worth to God-knows-whom, and this has made me super-ambitious and led me into a life that actually was not good for me. It is a huge achievement to move away from this instinctive urge and do the healthy thing, and very difficult. I have given up my academic career a few weeks ago, and this was very hard for me, but also a big relief.

      And yes, I find it very hard to forgive myself too. My therapist always urges me to have compassion with myself. It is a kind of megalomania to believe that I have to apply higher standards to myself that I would to others…. as you say, we overachievers are just human too. 🙂

      • I often think of my medical condition as a blessing, not a curse. Knowing that death is a reality for me keeps me focused on my REAL priorities. My mind might be willing, but my body is not. Also, I have always had amazing friends. Because the fake ones can’t handle the pressure and the real ones always have my back.

        Cancer sucks. Being sick sucks. But it could be a gift to you so that you can really connect to what’s important to you. And once the dust settles, you might find your way back to academia…or not. But giving yourself the space to connect with YOU is a smart decision.

        Keep us posted on your new journey! It sounds like you’re gearing up for a wonderful adventure.

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