I came down with a nasty stomach bug the other night, and spent half the night doing unspeakable things around the commode. Acute, infectious illnesses, it turns out, are the perfect intersectional analogy for chronic, genetic illnesses (yes, cancer is genetic — you get a few wrong genes turned on, you get a few others turned off permanently, you have a single rogue cell that can “recruit” others).

So, you spend eight hours pouring fluids from all ends of your body; you crawl into bed begging for death, and you wake up eight hours later. You aren’t sick, but you’re definitely not healthy, either. This is also where you, a healthy person, can experience “chemo brain” — it’s not some bizarre, magical, unquantifiable thing; it’s just jet lag from hell. This is Year One, post-cancer. It works much better than trying to describe what recovering from chemo is actually like, because you can tell, 10 hours after being brought down by an intestinal flu, that you probably should crawl into bed and focus on not moving, because you can feel how woozy, tired, and queasy you are. You’re aware that, even though you’re not dying, maybe not going in to work is a good move. Cancer patients don’t have that physical luxury. The treatments for cancer (and the symptoms from the disease) are so horrendous that simply not being in excruciating pain seems so close to health that you feel okay returning to your previously-scheduled life.

I certainly tried, at age 17. I have made many mistakes over my relatively short period on this planet, but not taking six months off to just sleep after that one will go down as the single worst decision I’ve ever made. When you get a life-threatening illness, you’ll get ten minutes after your first clear scan/exam for applause, then it’s “back to work.” In this analogy, this is like going to work the morning after you spent a night gripped by nausea and fever dreams — it’s not going to be a productive morning, at best, at worst, you’ll make a fatal error. Even though I’m still alive, starting a life with most of your neurocognitive processes (especially intuition) seriously damaged has some lasting repercussions. I could write an entire book on that aspect alone, but let’s just say, in this analogy, I went back to work the next day, put in an 11-hour day, and wound up far sicker and worse-off than when I started the morning.

I was once asked by a yoga instructor if my background in biomedical sciences helped me survive. Again, I could write an entire book on that one; but, yeah, it did help to have a basic understanding of how diseases and the human body work, how to read statistics, and how to interpret certain medical studies. But, more importantly, I’d been in a class that taught us the importance of seeing health as a spectrum, instead of some binary, “sick/healthy” view, and that we are rarely static on that spectrum. Flu yesterday, no flu today; push yourself too hard, flu tomorrow. That’s a surprisingly helpful view to take into cancer treatment and recovery; I may not have cancer at the moment, but that’s not the same thing as “healthy.” And “recovering from cancer” (or, “climbing back into bed after some toast and green tea and sleeping for a day or two,” in the flu analogy) is just as important — and productive — as getting chemo and radiation, and you cheat yourself out of critical steps in recovery if you try to skip that part and just rush off to the office for a full work week.

I am now, let me check — almost 48 hours post-flu, and 10 months post-cancer-treatment. I still feel sick and tired. I still need a nap and to avoid heavy foods. And that’s okay, because, despite it all, I’m feeling better than this same time yesterday. In any health-related venture; that’s the ultimate goal. To get better. Yeah, I didn’t do much that was productive, I haven’t bought anything today, but I’m not feeling worse. It’s not a major victory, but there are no major, permanent victories in life. And that’s okay.

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Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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