How I Found Acceptance and Strength After 38 Years of Self-Hate
I was 20 years old and reading a college textbook when, all of a sudden, I ran my hand along the right side of my neck and felt something hard and movable. I quickly checked the left side of my neck and felt nothing. I told my mother and before I knew what was happening, I was at some doctor’s office and then at local hospital, where I was sent for a chest x-ray.
It was obvious that I had a mass in the middle of my chest that didn’t belong there. I immediately felt different and scared as I awaited a diagnosis. The diagnosis was confirmed the following week. I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I was thrust onto this new path that was not the norm and felt stigmatized and very isolated.
This was not the first time in my life that I felt physically different from everyone else. I had to deal with severe strabismus (eye misalignment) practically from birth, which was socially and emotionally very painful. I was now being asked to take another sharp turn to my right. I felt more disconnected than ever from my family and peers, but mostly from myself. For the next 38 years following my diagnosis, I was a walking vessel of self-hate longing for acceptance and identity. I wondered if I’d ever find my way back to the main road.
I finally found strength from other longterm cancer survivors through online groups. We spoke to each other, traded stories and sent one another hugs and lots of smiles during stressful times. I was no longer the lone, odd man out; Hodgkin’s Lymphoma now gave me an identity in this world of survivorship. And no, I’m not saying that I would have actually preferred Hodgkin’s Lymphoma over just being healthy. I’m saying that it has made me who I am and given me a particularly deep insight into human nature and life in general. I was finally able to find meaning through uncovering and acquiring a new peer group where illness was the basis of membership.
Recently, I attended a reading and performance of stories written by cancer patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering. As I sat and listened to their stories of strength, love, humor and inspiration, I became more and more uplifted and totally connected with each survivor in some unique way. I never thought I’d experience this feeling of elation in my life and certainly not after 38 years. All their stories were creative without ever losing sight of the seriousness that is the survivor’s story. In addition, it is this driving creativity that allows us to bring out the best in ourselves or create a family where the odds are clearly stacked against you, but you succeed anyway.
That night at the Sloan Kettering was a turning point for me where all the familiar notes and songs that had formed the underpinnings of my desperate search for some kind of identity and self-acceptance, strangely disappeared and were no longer needed. The isolation lifted from all around me like a set of gates without sides or a door. I was free because I found a place of meaning and common identity where I could give strength and gain strength at the same time. I discovered for myself how the undaunted human mind is capable of creating order and beauty out of chaos.
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