When I woke up this morning the sun had just started peeking out above the horizon.

I don’t usually get up so early, but I had left a curtain open and the first rays of the day gently poured into my room and surrounded me. My eyes couldn’t help but flutter open when I felt the warmth on my lids. The light awoke me.

A few weeks ago I moved from my parents’ house in the Bay Area back to Los Angeles. Soon I’ll be restarting my residency in psychiatry at UCLA.

In the last month, something has transformed inside me. For most of this past year I lamented that my chemotherapy regimen was so long. If I had been diagnosed with a more common subtype of lymphoma, like B-Cell or Hodgkin’s, my treatment course would have been only six months instead of three years (“only”).

While the first six months were rough, I was strong; I was holding on. Last summer, I got through the worst round (which was eight weeks of hell culminating in a hospitalization for neutropenic fever) with my mental and emotional stamina intact. I thought I just had to get through that round and then everything would be okay.

But the day after it ended, sometime in August, my oncologist informed me the next round would not be not much different, and would certainly not be the relief I had been holding on for. I don’t think he had finished speaking that sentence when my soul crushed under his words. I had been swimming to the surface of the ocean, about to take a breath, when I was pulled back under.

Over those following months, what remained of my spirit was so badly broken I thought I would never get it back. After an episode of dystonia sent me to the emergency room, I was plagued with almost constant panic attacks. I had planned for months to go to a conference in San Diego on Integrative Medicine, and obtained a waiver to let me sit for the Integrative Medicine Board Exam even though I had a few months left of residency. I had studied for the exam for months, and I know I would have passed, but I didn’t make it that far. My first night in the hotel by myself was so terrifying I hopped on a plane the next day to go back home, missing the conference and the exam.

Since then I’ve thought, “If only.” If only I had a different kind of cancer (or perhaps, no cancer at all?). If only the intensive part of my chemo had been a few months shorter. If only I had been a little bit stronger.

But now, for the first time, I don’t wish things had been different. If I could take it all back (as if that’s something I could do), I’m not sure I would. It was so hard that I had to let go; I had to open myself up to all of it—the pain, the lack of control, the growth. If I hadn’t been broken, I couldn’t have been reborn.

Now, I have a sensitivity toward others I didn’t have before. I have an intuitive connection with the universe that will make me a better doctor and help me lead a more joyous life. I feel a power inside me; it holds like a mountain even when the pains of life rush against it.

It’s interesting to notice the way others now react to me. In the same way some people had trouble with my fall, they have trouble with my rebirth. When I was the most sick and complained about how bad I was feeling, I was told, “Stay positive,” “God only gives us what we can carry,” or the true, yet not particularly sensitive, “It could be worse.”

Now, when I talk about how happy I am, how excited I am about the future, how the world feels full of endless possibilities—some people express their discomfort by trying to bring me down a notch. The comments are subtle, but not mistakable: “Well don’t go believing your own press releases,” or “Maybe you feel good now, but there will probably be downs, too,” or the true, yet not particularly sensitive, “You could still relapse, right?”

When I first heard these comments, before I understood what was happening, each one dimmed a little bit of my fire. Why would anyone want to bring me down after I’ve been through so much? But now, I understand that people may be more comfortable with someone who’s in a box they can understand, and when you’re under the box they want to bring you up, and when you’re above it they want to pull you down. It’s not that people are bad—if anything, cancer has opened my eyes to a whole new level of generosity and compassion and love. People are just people; sometimes their own meshugas gets in the way.

The studio where I sleep has windows that face North; in the evening the sun filters through the trees until the light dims and dissolves. Another sun will rise tomorrow.

By Elana Miller
July 1, 2015

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