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  • It was the spring of 2011,

  • and as they like to say in commencement speeches,

  • I was getting ready to enter the real world.

  • I had recently graduated from college

  • and moved to Paris to start my first job.

  • My dream was to become a war correspondent,

  • but the real world that I found

  • took me into a really different kind of conflict zone.

  • At 22 years old,

  • I was diagnosed with leukemia.

  • The doctors told me and my parents, point-blank,

  • that I had about a 35 percent chance of long-term survival.

  • I couldn't wrap my head around what that prognosis meant.

  • But I understood that the reality and the life I'd imagined for myself

  • had shattered.

  • Overnight, I lost my job, my apartment, my independence,

  • and I became patient number 5624.

  • Over the next four years of chemo, a clinical trial

  • and a bone marrow transplant,

  • the hospital became my home,

  • my bed, the place I lived 24/7.

  • Since it was unlikely that I'd ever get better,

  • I had to accept my new reality.

  • And I adapted.

  • I became fluent in medicalese,

  • made friends with a group of other young cancer patients,

  • built a vast collection of neon wigs

  • and learned to use my rolling IV pole as a skateboard.

  • I even achieved my dream of becoming a war correspondent,

  • although not in the way I'd expected.

  • It started with a blog,

  • reporting from the front lines of my hospital bed,

  • and it morphed into a column I wrote for the New York Times,

  • called "Life, Interrupted."

  • But -- (Applause)

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • But above all else,

  • my focus was on surviving.

  • And -- spoiler alert --

  • (Laughter)

  • I did survive, yeah.

  • (Applause)

  • Thanks to an army of supportive humans,

  • I'm not just still here, I am cured of my cancer.

  • (Applause)

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • So, when you go through a traumatic experience like this,

  • people treat you differently.

  • They start telling you how much of an inspiration you are.

  • They say you're a warrior.

  • They call you a hero,

  • someone who's lived the mythical hero's journey,

  • who's endured impossible trials

  • and, against the odds, lived to tell the tale,

  • returning better and braver for what you're been through.

  • And this definitely lines up with my experience.

  • Cancer totally transformed my life.

  • I left the hospital knowing exactly who I was

  • and what I wanted to do in the world.

  • And now, every day as the sun rises,

  • I drink a big glass of celery juice,

  • and I follow this up with 90 minutes of yoga.

  • Then, I write down 50 things I'm grateful for onto a scroll of paper

  • that I fold into an origami crane and send sailing out my window.

  • (Laughter)

  • Are you seriously believing any of this?

  • (Laughter)

  • I don't do any of these things.

  • (Laughter)

  • I hate yoga, and I have no idea how to fold an origami crane.

  • The truth is that for me,

  • the hardest part of my cancer experience began once the cancer was gone.

  • That heroic journey of the survivor we see in movies

  • and watch play out on Instagram --

  • it's a myth.

  • It isn't just untrue, it's dangerous,

  • because it erases the very real challenges of recovery.

  • Now, don't get me wrong -- I am incredibly grateful to be alive,

  • and I am painfully aware that this struggle is a privilege

  • that many don't get to experience.

  • But it's important that I tell you

  • what this projection of heroism and expectation of constant gratitude

  • does to people who are trying to recover.

  • Because being cured is not where the work of healing ends.

  • It's where it begins.

  • I'll never forget the day I was discharged from the hospital,

  • finally done with treatment.

  • Those four years of chemo had taken a toll on my relationship

  • with my longtime boyfriend,

  • and he'd recently moved out.

  • And when I walked into my apartment, it was quiet.

  • Eerily so.

  • The person I wanted to call in this moment,

  • the person who I knew would understand everything,

  • was my friend Melissa.

  • She was a fellow cancer patient,

  • but she had died three weeks earlier.

  • As I stood there in the doorway of my apartment,

  • I wanted to cry.

  • But I was too tired to cry.

  • The adrenaline was gone.

  • I had felt as if the inner scaffolding

  • that had held me together since my diagnosis

  • had suddenly crumbled.

  • I had spent the past 1,500 days working tirelessly to achieve one goal:

  • to survive.

  • And now that I'd done so,

  • I realized I had absolutely no idea how to live.

  • On paper, of course, I was better:

  • I didn't have leukemia,

  • my blood counts were back to normal,

  • and the disability checks soon stopped coming.

  • To the outside world,

  • I clearly didn't belong in the kingdom of the sick anymore.

  • But in reality, I never felt further from being well.

  • All that chemo had taken a permanent physical toll on my body.

  • I wondered, "What kind of job can I hold

  • when I need to nap for four hours in the middle of the day?

  • When my misfiring immune system

  • still sends me to the ER on a regular basis?"

  • And then there were the invisible, psychological imprints

  • my illness had left behind:

  • the fears of relapse,

  • the unprocessed grief,

  • the demons of PTSD that descended upon me for days, sometimes weeks.

  • See, we talk about reentry

  • in the context of war and incarceration.

  • But we don't talk about it as much

  • in the context of other kinds of traumatic experiences, like an illness.

  • Because no one had warned me of the challenges of reentry,

  • I thought something must be wrong with me.

  • I felt ashamed,

  • and with great guilt, I kept reminding myself

  • of how lucky I was to be alive at all,

  • when so many people like my friend Melissa were not.

  • But on most days, I woke up feeling so sad and lost,

  • I could barely breathe.

  • Sometimes, I even fantasized about getting sick again.

  • And let me tell you,

  • there are so many better things to fantasize about

  • when you're in your twenties and recently single.

  • (Laughter)

  • But I missed the hospital's ecosystem.

  • Like me, everyone in there was broken.

  • But out here, among the living, I felt like an impostor,

  • overwhelmed and unable to function.

  • I also missed the sense of clarity I'd felt at my sickest.

  • Staring your mortality straight in the eye has a way of simplifying things,

  • of rerouting your focus to what really matters.

  • And when I was sick, I vowed that if I survived,

  • it had to be for something.

  • It had to be to live a good life, an adventurous life,

  • a meaningful one.

  • But the question, once I was cured,

  • became: How?

  • I was 27 years old with no job, no partner, no structure.

  • And this time, I didn't have treatment protocols or discharge instructions

  • to help guide my way forward.

  • But what I did have was an in-box full of internet messages

  • from strangers.

  • Over the years,

  • people from all over the world had read my column,

  • and they'd responded with letters, comments and emails.

  • It was a mix, as is often the case, for writers.

  • I got a lot of unsolicited advice

  • about how to cure my cancer with things like essential oils.

  • I got some questions about my bra size.

  • But mostly --

  • (Laughter)

  • mostly, I heard from people who, in their own different way,

  • understood what it was that I was going through.

  • I heard from a teenage girl in Florida

  • who, like me, was coming out of chemo

  • and wrote me a message composed largely of emojis.

  • I heard from a retired art history professor in Ohio named Howard,

  • who'd spent most of his life

  • struggling with a mysterious, debilitating health condition

  • that he'd had from the time he was a young man.

  • I heard from an inmate on death row in Texas

  • by the name of Little GQ --

  • short for "Gangster Quinn."

  • He'd never been sick a day in his life.

  • He does 1,000 push-ups to start off each morning.

  • But he related to what I described in one column

  • as my "incanceration,"

  • and to the experience of being confined to a tiny fluorescent room.

  • "I know that our situations are different," he wrote to me,

  • "But the threat of death lurks in both of our shadows."

  • In those lonely first weeks and months of my recovery,

  • these strangers and their words became lifelines,

  • dispatches from people of so many different backgrounds,

  • with so many different experiences,

  • all showing me the same thing:

  • you can be held hostage

  • by the worst thing that's ever happened to you

  • and allow it to hijack your remaining days,

  • or you can find a way forward.

  • I knew I needed to make some kind of change.

  • I wanted to be in motion again

  • to figure out how to unstuck myself and to get back out into the world.

  • And so I decided to go on a real journey --

  • not the bullshit cancer one

  • or the mythical hero's journey that everyone thought I should be on,

  • but a real, pack-your-bags kind of journey.

  • I put everything I owned into storage,

  • rented out my apartment, borrowed a car

  • and talked a very a dear but somewhat smelly friend

  • into joining me.

  • (Laughter)

  • Together, my dog Oscar and I embarked on a 15,000-mile road trip

  • around the United States.

  • Along the way, we visited some of those strangers who'd written to me.

  • I needed their advice,

  • also to say to them, thank you.

  • I went to Ohio and stayed with Howard, the retired professor.

  • When you've suffered a loss or a trauma,

  • the impulse can be to guard your heart.

  • But Howard urged me to open myself up to uncertainty,

  • to the possibilities of new love, new loss.

  • Howard will never be cured of illness.

  • And as a young man, he had no way of predicting how long he'd live.

  • But that didn't stop him from getting married.

  • Howard has grandkids now,

  • and takes weekly ballroom dancing lessons with his wife.

  • When I visited them,

  • they'd recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.

  • In his letter to me, he'd written,

  • "Meaning is not found in the material realm;

  • it's not in dinner, jazz, cocktails or conversation.

  • Meaning is what's left when everything else is stripped away."

  • I went to Texas, and I visited Little GQ on death row.

  • He asked me what I did to pass all that time

  • I'd spent in a hospital room.

  • When I told him that I got really, really good at Scrabble,

  • he said, "Me, too!" and explained how,

  • even though he spends most of his days in solitary confinement,

  • he and his neighboring prisoners make board games out of paper

  • and call out their plays through their meal slots --

  • a testament to the incredible tenacity of the human spirit

  • and our ability to adapt with creativity.

  • And my last stop was in Florida,

  • to see that teenage girl who'd sent me all those emojis.

  • Her name is Unique, which is perfect,

  • because she's the most luminous, curious person I've ever met.

  • I asked her what she wants to do next and she said,

  • "I want to go to college and travel

  • and eat weird foods like octopus that I've never tasted before

  • and come visit you in New York

  • and go camping, but I'm scared of bugs,

  • but I still want to go camping."

  • I was in awe of her,

  • that she could be so optimistic and so full of plans for the future,

  • given everything she'd been through.

  • But as Unique showed me,

  • it is far more