The cancer survivor, arriving with a clean bill of health after many months of chemo, radiation or surgery, may reach for various images and metaphors to try to make sense of the experience. When I emerged from six-months of chemo—limping, punch-drunk and bewildered—I felt like I had survived a train wreck. Surveying the chaos and disruption of my post-cancer life, the idea that everything had gone off the rails certainly seemed appropriate. It also included an implicit suggestion on how to move life forward: having been forcibly de-railed, the obvious thing to do now was to “get back on track.”
In my case, it was clear what that meant. When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in February 2011, I had just completed the last of a flurry of graduate school applications. I was actually scheduled to finish chemo before classes were due to begin, so assuming all went according to plan I could conceivably have started classes in the fall. I held on to this hope for about a month into treatment, before finally facing the reality of what chemo was doing to my body and mind. It was clear that I would need time to recover, and that school was out of the question for that year.
An eventual return to school then seemed like the obvious way to re-board real life. Still, it is often only after we are thrown from the tracks that we stop to consider just where that train was taking us. Many cancer-friends of mine had their lives totally transformed post-diagnosis, and began to question their direction, or even the very idea of following a pre-built track. Indeed, the image of life as a journey on fixed-line transit is about as uninspiring as they come, a reflection well captured in this limerick:
There was a young man who said, ‘Damn!
It is borne in upon me I am
But a creature who moves
In predestinate grooves.
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram!’
And yet, after spending two post-chemo years working, I have found my way back on that original rail-line. At the beginning of this month I finally started graduate school at the University of Toronto. A tram, indeed.
Yet I know this also sounds so much cleaner and neater in retrospect. At the time I was diagnosed I was in the throes of a quarter-life crisis, and originally applied to grad-school as much out of a lack of alternatives as a burning desire to hit the books. I didn’t return to school to fulfill some ‘life-plan’, or to check a box; I’m here because I’ll enjoy myself more than anywhere else, because it allows me to follow my passions. It’s only incidental that I’m realizing a design I made before cancer intervened.
If you’ve suffered from derailment, crossed tracks or collision, you don’t have to hurry back to the accustomed track to feel normal again. Just keep your ear tuned for the sweetest whistle, grab your hobo-sack and ride the rails for awhile. I lost count of the number of times I was asked, in my first week back in school, what exactly I would do after I got me degree. Having just made it back on the train, I was already being pressed on where my next trip would take me. I have been too busy admiring the countryside to give it much thought. Much better, after my train pulls in, to leave the tracks behind for good and find a way to take the wheel. Forget the train, I’ll say: this dune-buggy is bound for glory.
Click here to read Duncan’s Survivor Profile!