A sentence has been on my mind lately. Most of the time I merely think it, but every once in a while I feel compelled to speak it. It’s straightforward, nothing that immediately conveys gravity or loftiness or wisdom. I don’t bow my head or pause before or after saying it. It’s really a quick mental remembrance before I carry on with my business. That sentence is, quite simply, “Look at where you are.”
Six years ago, my body was being ravaged by chemotherapy treatment for Type B acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Nausea, shots, vomiting, radiation, aches, sleepless nights, pills on top of pills—these are just some of the physical hallmarks of the period. But fighting cancer is not simply a matter of physical struggle. At its heart, fighting cancer involves a battle not only of the body but also of the soul. It is an emotional battle, one that tests your will and spirit. It plays itself out as much in your ability to maintain hope as it does in the 30 chemotherapy pills you might take in a day.
In a way, I wish fighting cancer had just been a simple, yet certainly utterly gruesome, physical battle. That would make the obligations of survival simpler. I was physically sick, now praise God I am physically well. Time to move on. But since the battle was waged not only in my blood cells but also in my spirit, it had all the more significant lessons for me to learn. They are the stuff of cliché postcards: Live every day to the fullest. Cherish health because it is a gift you cannot overvalue. Don’t forget to live in the moment. A cancer survivor, however, doesn’t just read these lessons or hear them; he or she knows them down to his or her core because the core is how deep the fight goes.
I have a confession to make, though, and it pains me to make it. I fail to embrace these lessons all the time. It’s hard not to. Duke is a busy and challenging place. People have goals here, and they constantly chase them. We’re all caught up in the exams and the internships, the academic achieving and the professional striving. Years ago when chemotherapy was coursing through my veins, I thought that I of all people would never forget to live every day to its fullest again. But it’s a lot harder than I ever could have realized. It’s hard for any of us to do in the daily throes of life.
And though part of me is pained about this, the other part is happy. Indeed, I am also extremely proud. This is a mark that I have moved on. That I am living. That I have forgotten cancer. That I am pushing onward. Except for two Chronicle columns, I have hardly even broached the subject and its lessons. Maybe the very act of living life entails taking it for granted every once in a while. One cannot be forever ensconced with the burden of living in the moment, living life to the fullest. Such pressure would paradoxically defeat the very purpose of what you were seeking to do.
But that does not take away from the ideal, nor does it mean I can forget the lessons learned. And this is not a burdensome obligation of remembrance, but rather one of the happiest I bear. It is with joy and humility and thankfulness that I must remind myself of the privilege of life and the gift that is health. It is with heartfelt gratitude that I seek to remember. By doing so I am not loading myself up with a grave and solemn burden. No, I am celebrating. Celebrating survivorship. Celebrating life.
And so I return to the sentence I speak aloud every once in a while. A sentence I think maybe we can all say every so often. While rushing between classes, hastening between essays, chitchatting between a life filled with friends and joy and privilege, let’s take a moment, however scarce, to remind ourselves of lessons learned. “Look at where you are, Danny,” I say. Six years ago you were fighting for your life. Six years ago, in the depths of struggle and pain, you never imagined you’d be in such a place. But now look. Look at the health you have. Look at the friends you have. Look at the magnificent school you call your home. What a gift. What a privilege. Look at where you are. Don’t ever forget how lucky and blessed the present moment is. Don’t ever forget the lessons learned.
Let’s all take a moment, let’s look at where we are. And let’s give thanks.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Daniel on Twitter @danielfstrunk.