Lessons on Living With Illness From a Young Woman With Cancer

Suleika Jaouad, a 23-year-old writer who was diagnosed with leukemia last year, has been sharing her experiences on Life, Interrupted, a New York Times blog. Though cancer is dramatically different from migraine, many of Jaouad’s candid, insightful reflections contain lessons that can be applied to any illness. Fighting Cancer, and Myself, is particularly poignant through the lens of chronic illness.

I’ve decided that the real battle I need to fight is against this win-lose mentality. During the past few months, I’ve been fighting myself in many ways, succumbing to fear and anger about not being able to do what I once could.

But today I’ve decided that my challenge will be to develop a new brand of acceptance. Cancer has taught me that you can’t fight your way out of every problem. The solution is not to charge full speed ahead. It’s counterintuitive, but I try to remind myself that chemotherapy, too, is illogical on its face; you are poisoned in order to be cured.

I realize now that the experience of having cancer is more of a tricky balancing act: being proactive about your medical condition, while simultaneously accepting and surrendering to the fact that, at least for the time being, you can’t change your reality as quickly as you’d like to.

Acceptance is not giving up — far from it. But like a prisoner in handcuffs, you only waste precious energy by trying to wriggle your way free. With cancer, the best way out may just be patience.

Like cancer, migraine is often framed as war. Constantly fighting a force within oneself can lead to animosity and self-hatred, as well as blaming oneself (trust me, I know). Without compassion for yourself, illness provokes a constant internal battle that is unwinnable. I fought it for years and am still trying to emerge from the rubble.