We’ll be seeing many pieces today hailing the beginning of a new decade, new year, new… just newness, I guess. It’s not like 2020 is going to roll in with that “new decade smell.” For all that humans like to celebrate arbitrary dates and beginnings, it seems only to add; to me, anyway, the terrifying concept that we are trapped by our past. That our lives are like fossils in amber. That we have no real free will and can’t really choose our paths.

As a 17-year cancer survivor who will be 35 in less than 24 hours, I’ve puzzled over my decades-long health crisis for the better part of a night. I had maybe four years since 2010 that were brain tumor-free, and I haven’t had a day since March 31, 2002 without clinically-detectable brain damage (admittedly, sometimes that can only show up in very specific, limited environments, such as multitasking in the kitchen, or during the GREs). My tumor was discovered after I rolled my car and had to get a CT scan. Why did I roll my car? Because I only got six hours of sleep the previous night, and had to be at Mock Trial that morning. Why was I out at six am getting to an extracurricular activity that, ultimately, had virtually no bearing on my life, apart from giving me a distaste for the legal profession? I was trying to burnish my resume for college admissions in an increasingly competitive atmosphere (I grew up in an era when a college degree was a ticket to a solid middle-class existence, not an introduction to the concept of debt slavery), and I wanted to stand out from the pack.

Why did I think this would be an issue? Because 15 years prior, my mother left the Bay Area to settle in a geographically disparate, sparsely-habited part of California. We can’t change the past, certainly, but if the past is immutable and inaccessible apart from our memory; why is the future any different? In short, my medical history — and adulthood, have been a long-lasting reaction to Mom’s decision to move. My medical history is largely due to some genetic defects that make me predisposed to cancer. Our past informs the present, which dictates the future.

I swear I haven’t been taking acid this morning. It’s just that, in the wake of a decade ending — an extremely long, decade, by most accounts (somehow, this ten years feels longer than any previous one, even though the years should be flying by) — I started thinking about the million little tiny decisions and ways I screwed up that could’ve gone the other way. This is what happens when everyone else starts noting how great the decade’s been for them, and you’re still trapped in a failing lump of meat… which, upon reflection, has been steadily but slowly betraying one for 17 and a half years. On the other hand, no chemo this year (yet), so that’s a good thing.

In short, you start thinking about not only how many ways your current situation might have gone a little differently, and then you realize how much of your existence is beyond your control. And how much of your existence is a reaction to other people’s decisions.

I realize that’s a fairly stark contrast to the average boisterous American view that we shape our own destiny, we earn everything we get, power for its own sake is a valid ambition, etc. I can not recall where I read or heard it; but I do recall someone saying something along the lines of, “Because of the constraints of human mortality and time and space, we often don’t see the full impact we have on the world.” Again, if my extracurricular classes had been after school instead of before, my life would look dramatically different. You tend to go down the rabbit hole of “what-ifs” if you start looking critically at your existence for even ten seconds. Did Christ foresee all the genocides, atrocities, and wars that would happen in his name as he told his congregation of outcasts that, maybe, if they were kind to each other, things might get better? Did Stalin’s parents know what they were unleashing into the world when they decided to procreate?

One of the benefits of social media is that you do get to see a little more of how people view you, and you can connect with people who might not even know of your existence. And, thanks to that, I know there are at least a handful of brain cancer survivors hoping I don’t suddenly drop dead (I mean, I’m chief among them, but my vote counts for surprisingly little these days).

So, looking back on my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decade; I’d pass the following on to you:

  1. Do not make decisions during a crisis or in direct response to one. Best case scenario, you’re losing the initiative and letting circumstances determine the outcome. If there’s a good opportunity, take it. If you’re feeling a little hesitant about it, give it a little time and think about it. I felt ambivalent about some grad school offers, but took them out of desperation, which was exactly the wrong thing to do at the time (and, knowing what I now know, if I’d put it off for a little and done some research, I’d probably have been able to make a better decision in that particular regard). On the other hand, I did leap on the opportunity to get into a Phase 1 clinical trial when I heard the words “Stage 4,” and did enough research to make a more clearly-reasoned decision when I got the opportunity to continue that treatment. Initiative counts for a helluva lot when shaping a life.
  2. I hope that, no matter your condition or where you are, you know that your existence is fragile, temporary, precious, and someone is invested in that existence. Even if you aren’t, this is a case of “fake it ’til you make it.”

Happy New Year, folks.

Written by

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

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