When I became ill with leukemia 15 years ago, I took it very personally. Why did this happen to me? I had other plans for my life. I wanted to continue what I was doing. I wanted to see how things in the world would turn out. I wanted to experience my children at later times in our life together.
I thought I had been doing most things right. I had a decent diet, got exercise, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke. I deserved more life. I wasn’t perfect, but who was? Why did others deserve more life than me?
Besides, I had my regular routines, which definitely didn’t include being in the hospital with pneumonia, seeing oncologists, getting second opinions, dealing with gout as a side effect of the chemotherapy. How would I teach my classes, since I was too ill to be on campus? Why was all of this happening to me?
I needed a reason. I wanted to shame myself with self-blame. Perhaps I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Fifteen years earlier, in my twenties, I laid down batts of fiberglass insulation in the attic without wearing protective clothing or a mask. How could anyone be that stupid? But wouldn’t that produce lung cancer rather than leukemia?
Then I started thinking about others who suffered severe medical problems: diabetes, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer. What right did I have to expect or deserve immunity? Wasn’t I part of the same pool of potential victims?
Today, I believe in the inevitability of illness, frailty, old age, and death—not very happy or optimistic thoughts. Of course, now I am 75 years old, not 60 as I was when the leukemia attacked me. I’ve had a pretty good life and still am in decent shape. So, I take things a lot less personally now.
I wrote this piece about four years ago, convinced that I was cured from the leukemia. At the beginning of last year, it came back. It was extremely shocking and upsetting. I needed a more extensive chemotherapy treatment lasting sixteen weeks. The earlier treatment was completed in only one week. I made it through again.
In pre-pandemic days, I was healthier than I am now. I was able to go to the gym regularly and participate in weekly dance events. I could walk and run long distances. I felt stronger and more robust.
My blood counts are back to normal now. If this remission is also good for twenty years, my next recurrence will be at age 98. But I am moving towards what I feared was inevitable four years ago: illness, frailty, old age, and eventually, death.
I no longer feel cheated by cancer. My anger now is focused on Covid, which continues to restrict my options to fully enjoy my remaining years. Since death is inevitable, perhaps I should go back out into the world and take more risks. What have I got to lose?
Al Konigsberg, retired professor at SUNY New Paltz, wrote this in response to a prompt I gave the memoir writers at the Oncology Support Program where we meet once a week to probe into our memories for stories to share. He expresses the unfairness of being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease—something many of us can relate to, especially when we’re sure we are not ready to die just yet. In this piece, he hints at the stage of acceptance that often comes with aging into the “wisdom years.”