Cancer Nearly Killed me, but COVID is Forcing me To Change

by Rabeh Ghadban

It’s scary how quickly life can be upended. How quickly the fog can dissipate and we can be sprung back into existence – only because the prospect of death is perceived to be closer.

In these moments, there is undoubtedly fear.  Fear of the unknown and the fading illusion of control. Fear of loneliness and livelihood. Fear for loved ones and for ourselves.

I swing back and forth between the spectrum of calm and fear from one minute to the next. I am immuno-compromised and will be sitting alone in my house for the foreseeable future.  I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which has left a benign tumor conveniently placed on my lung the size of a baseball.  Despite my state of denial, I feel a tightness in my chest – one I can’t tell if it’s of my own making or real. The question of whether I have been infected by COVID-19 permeates my thoughts. I think about it with every door I turn, every grocery store I enter, and every deep breath I take.  I am in week five of social distancing and this fear has swelled. My thoughts disorganized, my future uncertain, my community separated, the person I love a continent away, my health at risk.

I haven’t felt this choice so intimately in over 15 years, a time when my cancer had relapsed.  Seemingly overnight, my chances of survival went from 90 percent to less than 50. A finality was within reach. My treatment regimen would last another 3-6 months. According to doctors, it would either work or it wouldn’t. No one talked much about what would happen if it didn’t work, but in doctor-speak, it was clear – this was the end of the road.

Upon learning this news, I went into a deep depression. I was here physically, but during that time, my mind zeroed out and I was numb to my surroundings. I was absent. Death felt certain and my life was no longer worth living.

One night when making a routine trip to the bathroom after my second round of treatment I flicked on the light above the sink. As I prepared to brush my teeth, my eyes incidentally captured their reflection in the mirror. I paused. My face was unrecognizable. I had no hair, no eyebrows, and I looked paler than a ghost. My eyes had deep black circles around them and I noticed my cheekbones protruding from my face – a feature that became possible as a result of the 50 lbs. I had unknowingly lost.

Standing in my bathroom, looking into my eyes, I decided to submit. I decided to accept that my cancer had returned. To accept that I had very limited control as to whether I would be alive or dead in six months. To accept the pain I was feeling due to a collapsed lung and depleted body.  To accept that I was now living with a new normal. This moment stirs within me even today. It taught me life’s most important lesson.

We don’t know how long this virus will continue attacking our bodies.   We don’t know if our government will act in our best interest or how long many of us will be trying to feed families without paychecks.   And we don’t know how long we will live with the loneliness that accompanies social distancing or how many people we will lose along the way.

These questions cannot be answered. But by accepting that, it opens up the opportunity to work on the answers we do already have.

We know that this time will require patience and sacrifice.  It will require community, guided by compassion and mercy.  And it will require us to act as one – no longer subscribing to the myth of division designed by our politics, but instead incorporating in our daily lives the truth that we are equal and must cooperate if we are to thrive.

Submitting to the virus, under this frame of mind gives us back our agency.  While we continue to have our moments of doubt, this state of presence can do exactly what it did for me when I was consumed by the panic and fear of the prospect of losing my life to cancer: it can help us to survive.

This is a time in which the amount we suffer will be directly related to the amount we choose to love. Crisis can clarify. I choose to use this time to remind me of what’s important. To be present. To invest in community. To love. Love myself on the days I feel low. And love you as we stumble along this road together.  I hope you will join me.

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