There were several times over the past few months when I thought about posting something here. The first time that I walked out of my apartment building and into the sun without a hat on, hair sprouting slowly but surely; after seeing my doctor in Chicago, and being told that there was no longer any sign of any cancer any more; the first perfect spring day in Washington when the whole city turns pink and white with cherry blossoms.
But this seems to be the right moment: an important milestone with several significant markings. Last wednesday was exactly six months since my stem cell transplant. The calendar of check-ups adheres closely to a prescribed 3-month cycle, that is always filled with seemingly strange coincidences. Major events always seem to occur on October, January, April and July 16th. My initial diagnosis, my final round of chemo the first time around, my re-diagnosis, my first chemo treatment, the transplant itself - scans and appointments also occur in these three month intervals, so that I somehow always end up getting a scan or having an appointment on or near these three month marks. Beyond treatment, other milestones seem to occur in coincidence with these dates as well. And so on July 16th, I found myself at such an interval – three months to the day before I turn 26, six months to the day after my transplant.
This occasion felt special in that in most ways, it was a typical day for me: going to work, conference calls and meetings, momentum as a bill I work on moves through the Senate. In other ways, the occasion was marked by timely coincidences: an opportunity the help someone else as they begin their experience with a stem cell transplant, the chance to help organize my office’s blood drive to help balance a national blood supply I needed to draw from recently (though the timing was a complete coincidence, scheduled months ago in honor of my boss’s nephew), and the amazing experience of attending my first Supreme Court nomination hearing the previous day.
In these past six months, much has gone back to normal, which in and of itself, feels miraculous. And in these past six month I have worked to redefine and shape what my new normal means, which has also been a incredible journey. When I first returned to DC over four months ago, my oncologist at Georgetown burst my bubble of euphoria by sharing some sobering statistics. He explained that because of the toxicity of the chemotherapy, and the dangers of radiation, I would always be at risk for a huge range of future medical problems. He told me that the likelihood of a secondary cancer, lung and heart disease, thyroid dysfunction, etc would always be higher for me. He gave me one more reminder that this experience has assured that my life will never be the same, and put in perspective a reality always simmering under the surface even in the best hypotheticals throughout my journey with cancer: my life is unlikely to be as long as I wish it would be. No matter how positive an angle I view the situation from, no matter how good I feel now that I am recovering and recovered, there is no going back to life before this experience.
In other words, while it is true that no one knows how much time they have on this earth, I have less than. What my doctor said were statistics and warnings, and a 5-year plan for tests and observation. What I heard was simply, “make it count.”
With deference to my continued recooperation, I can proudly say that I have spent these past months making it count. I have been diligent about taking care of my body – being active, eating more nourishing and natural foods, and trying to get ample rest. I have been trying to create: painting and writing. I have focused on my future, and tried to throw myself into my work, my volunteer commitments and projects in my job and beyond that improve my community and country. I have strived to be generous to the people I care about, and make my interactions with them meaningful and make our time, quality. I’m trying to make it count.
A half a year has flown by in some ways, and felt like an eternity in others, and perhaps that is just how it should feel. I haven’t made every moment count. I have let opportunities to enhance my life and the lives of the people around me, slip by. I’ve opted to watch the extra episode of the West Wing instead of going to the gym, and to leave work to go get a drink with friends, instead of answering that last email. But at least once a day, I am filled with gratitude for this time, and seized by an energy that is born of the ticking clock that looms over all of our heads, whether we hear it or not.
Six months out, this is my new normal.