Good Afternoon, You Have Cancer

"Acute Myeloid Leukemia," my doctor said last May. I was 22 years old. My friends were busy starting their lives, and I was worried that mine might end before it had really begun.
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One rainy spring morning in Paris, I woke up with flu-like symptoms and decided to take a "me" day from work. Little did I know, I would never return. Three months later -- exactly one year after graduating from college -- I found myself in the oncology ward of a New York City hospital, undergoing my first course of chemotherapy.

Back in France, my doctor had attributed my symptoms to burnout syndrome, an umbrella diagnosis that might well apply to any sleep-deprived college grad in her first year out in the "real world." He sent me home to the U.S. with orders to rest. But when I continued to feel unwell, I did the thing many doctors tell you not to do: I typed my symptoms into Google. There were hundreds of matching hits but the word cancer jumped off the screen. I can remember the momentary chill I felt in seeing that word. But I promptly dismissed it: life-threatening illnesses, after all, only happen to other people.

My Internet search proved ominous at my next doctor's visit: "Acute Myeloid Leukemia," my doctor said, his voice quavering. I could not stop crying. Most people, while peripherally aware of their mortality, are unprepared to receive direct word of it from a man in a white coat. In the time it took the doctor to utter those three words, my life felt like a house of cards, ready to collapse on my dreams for the future. I was 22 years old. My friends were busy starting their lives, and I was worried that mine might end before it had really begun.

Everyone told me how difficult chemotherapy would be. The doctors and nurses prepared me for what to expect, gave me pamphlets explaining the disease and its treatment, and guided me to websites and support groups. I learned to accept that when it comes to the medical treatment itself, the role of the patient is limited: you have no choice but to trust the wisdom and instruction of the doctors and hope for the best.

Today, as I prepare for a bone marrow transplant, I've learned that my biggest challenge might not be physical. It is enduring the boredom, despair, and isolation of being sick and confined to a bed for an indeterminate length of time.

There have been remarkable advances in cancer treatment over the past few decades, but there is no magic pill to cure the emotional distress of illness. In this regard, I have discovered that it is up to me to help myself.

Through much trial and error, I am creating a roadmap for emotional health and spiritual well-being. The way I spend these long hours in bed holds remarkable power over the way I feel, both physically and psychologically. In the hope of helping the many others who share the struggle of a long and uncertain convalescence, I've decided to share my experience -- the good and the bad, the deflating and the inspiring.

Suleika Jaouad writes a blog about her experience with cancer at Secrets of Cancerhood. You can follow her on Twitter at @suleikajaouad. Email questions and comments to her at and/or make a comment below!

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