By Alex Mandarino
About a year ago, I blogged about my newfound love for New Year’s resolutions. Over the past few years I’ve slowly developed a kinship with the concept of pausing for reflection, and simply choosing one, or several aspects of your life that you might like to improve. It’s exciting, it’s liberating, the rush of “I’m going to attempt to better myself in some major way!” Even if you set a modest goal to smile more, be more financially sound, or crawl into bed at a reasonable time each night, something about the shift to a new calendar year really brings out the theme of rebirth and starting fresh.
As someone newly diagnosed with cancer a month prior to January 1, this was once a difficult mindset to grasp.
I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on November 24, 2014. While all my friends were Christmas shopping and planning holiday parties, while my extended family was baking and picking up groceries, I was being injected with chemotherapy, downing steroids, and counting the tiles on the ceiling above my hospital bed. A New Year’s Eve celebration for an upcoming 2015 was not even a blip on my radar.
By the grace of some holy being, coupled with the ingenuity and patience of my nurses and oncology staff, I made it back home for the holidays on Christmas Eve. Now that I was in the home I grew up in, and bathed in the comfort of being able to rest in familiar territory, the idea that my 2015 year was most likely going to be the most difficult and treacherous year of my life began to sink in.
Most people think of the new year as a chance to make up for previous mistakes, maybe start the diet they’ve always boasted about starting, apply for that dream job, or maybe take a new romantic step with their partner. What I thought about was the weekly treatment, the missed opportunities, the miserable cycle of chemotherapy and mental trauma I would endure for the entirety of the year. It was truly demoralizing to consider that one entire year of my life would be essentially stripped away from me.
If I could go back in time and give myself one piece of advice as a 20-year-old cancer patient about to embark on the most challenging year of his life — up to and including this day — it would be this: live your life one day at a time.
To take one year, 365 days of experiences and memories, and classify it as one, gigantic dark cloud of pain and suffering, would be an insult to every spontaneous spurt of joy, every late night of fun I didn’t plan, every holiday I’d spent with my extended family, and every moment of pure happiness that I had ever experienced before.
Although 2015 was going to include 30 cycles of intensification treatment with oral chemo, IV sessions, injections and spinal taps, it also would include poker nights with my best friends that would induce tears of laughter, a discovery of the Harry Potter book series that would lead to sleepless nights of reading, a Sons of Anarchy binge that made me rethink my top five series shows out there. What’s more, 2015 brought with it a return to school and a semi-regular life, a passion for writing, and a bond with my parents that to this day has held firmer than the thickness of my curly brown hair (which coincidentally enough, began to sprout on my head in the late stages of the same year).
By about cycles four and five of a total 30 involved on the intensification stage of the Dana Farber Protocol, I began to grasp the concept of taking each day of the new year for what it was, rather than looking at in under a negative vacuum. I slowly counted down each cycle until early September when I resumed my undergraduate degree at McMaster University, and suddenly I was excited for Thanksgiving, Christmas, the next year; concepts totally foreign to me when initially picturing what I thought 2015 would be like.
I look at each new year as a collection of 365 new stories. Opportunities for growth, learning, love and joy. I also understand that there will be moments of loss, anger, sadness, and challenges the will define who I am. Cancer gifted me both of the sides of this spectrum.
January 1 for a newly diagnosed individual can be a really rough day, because you associate a new experience with one that seems dreadful, therefore the whole year might take on that connotation. Focus on the next day only, December 31st is so many little, important, defining moments away.