For many of us, being diagnosed with cancer means putting much of our lives on pause. Although some are able to continue studying or working throughout treatment, many of us choose to take a leave of absence, to focus solely on rest and a full recovery. Often doctors will even advise patients not to interact in public too often, especially in the midst of anyone who is sick, due to the danger of germs and a weakened immune system. This can all result in feelings of isolation and estrangement during recovery. We start to think that being “sick” means we must retreat into hibernation and give up the things we love to do, simply because we don’t have the same energy we used to. This is how, in many ways, we end up losing not only a part of our physical identity during cancer but also our mental identity. We lose a sense of who we are when we are deprived of doing the things we love.
It reminds me of a particular experience I had during treatment …
I was lucky enough to grow up beside the sea in South Africa. I remember falling asleep to the sound of distant waves crashing against the shore and the smell of seaweed in the wind. I loved those blue horizons that disappeared from my rearview mirror, as I wound my way around the mountain.
The ocean has always been my vice. It was there in South America, in 2012, when I spent two years roaming foreign lands. I watched the rippled reflections of light bounce off the sea in Valparaíso, a harbor city on the coast of Chile. Soon after, I lived in a town in northern Peru, where I finally learned to surf. The owner of the hostel I worked at had an old longboard (he’d been using it as an ironing board!) and naturally things fell into place.
I started taking the board out every day, fighting against the foamy white water. I fell in love with the feeling of sprinting toward the ocean, bare feet on hot cement, leashing up and diving into the sea. What I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm and this intense connection grew stronger.
When I was diagnosed with lymphoma in December 2015, my doctor told me that surfing would be extremely difficult due to my port-a-cath. A port is the small metal appliance they insert surgically under your skin through which they inject the chemo. The fluids go straight into a catheter, which is connected to one of your main veins so the chemicals can get into your bloodstream faster. The port stuck out under my chest and was kind of uncomfortable and so I didn’t surf. I gave up the one thing that brought me so much joy and release. It was never about catching the best wave or being the fittest person out there; it was just about being out in the open ocean, away from traffic and people and all the internal dialogue.
The day after my ninth chemotherapy, I woke to a stream of sunlight slipping through my bedroom window and a wave of energy undulating through my veins. I woke up alive. A friend had given me some advice. He said, “Shock yourself more often.” I questioned out loud, “What haven’t I done in ages? What would shock my system the most right now?”
So, that’s how I found myself driving toward the beach. It didn’t matter how weak I was or how long it had been since I’d been out there. What mattered was that I was showing up and giving life a chance to surprise me. I grabbed my stick, zipped up my suit, and sprinted into the sea, feeling courageous as the cold wind cut against my bare head. The last time I had surfed I’d been a different person. Now, despite my illness, I felt so much stronger, so much more present than before.
I thought that getting sick meant giving up who I was and what I loved because I had to focus on getting better. What I didn’t realize is that sometimes it’s the very thing we love doing that helps us to get better. By remembering our truth we gain the strength and desire to keep fighting and keep living!
During recovery, there are sure to be days when you can’t get out of bed. When you feel weak and sick and far removed from your former self. It’s OK to not be OK. Your body needs rest and you need to be gentle with yourself. But there will also be days of strength and those are the ones you need to pay attention to. That’s when you must do the very thing that brings you alive. Whether it’s painting or surfing or yoga or boxing. Whether it’s taking your dog for a walk, baking, dancing, singing, or making something with your hands. Whatever it is. Any of these activities has the power not only to make you feel vibrant, strong and healthy but also to help remind you of who you are and why you are here!
“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), it’s always our self we find in the sea.”- E.E.Cummings
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.