The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Embracing the Bittersweet

by Audrey ShimmelRegistered Nurse & Leukemia SurvivorAugust 16, 2022View more posts from Audrey Shimmel

Life consists of moments: moments of joy, pain, wonder, and suffering. Life consists of moments: moments of growth and change, followed by periods of stability and stagnation. As a culture, we set our course trajectory at a young age through careful planning of momentous milestones. We dream about turning 16 and getting our first car, we dream about high school graduations, college life, finding love, starting a career, and a family. And I was no different; I had set my course at a young age and was focused on my path.

Each milestone seemed surreal as it quickly passed me by, and college graduation was no exception. I graduated nursing school ready to save the world one patient at a time. Focusing my career in the mother and baby area, I quickly settled into the routine of being a nurse and worked hard to provide my patients the best possible care I could. I grew to understand and appreciate my role in each of my patients’ lives. Each shift provided me an opportunity to witness the miracle of bringing a baby into the world. After my patients had their babies, I guided and educated them in caring for the new life they were now responsible for. I spent the next decade of my life caring for moms and helping them transition into motherhood. I had settled into a career path of miraculous stability. I was right where I thought I was always meant to be. Until one February morning, an unexpected pivot occurred and forever changed my course.

The pivot was my diagnosis day, D-day as I call it. From that moment forward my life and career were diverted down a new path. The brightly lit walkway I had set out before me, once easy to follow, became dark with uncertainty and fear. The diagnosis was leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia to be specific, and the outlook was pretty grim. I spent the better part of my thirties trying to climb over one hurdle and then the next, on a loop that seemed to never end. Failed induction chemo, reinduction chemo, aspergillus infections in my brainstem, and finally a stem cell transplant were the highlights, or lowlights, of the first two years on my new pathway.

Then a small window of stability in my health allowed for some physical healing before I relapsed three and a half years post-transplant. Relapse took me down a lane of more treatment: induction chemo, total body radiation, conditioning chemo, bone marrow transplant, and just for fun I needed a boost of stem cells 6 weeks after my BMT because I wasn’t engrafting. On April Fools’ Day in 2017, I finally engrafted and became 100% donor cells; the treatment had again been successful. So, I began the transition from the race for survival to the life of a survivor.

Survivorship is like discovering a new lifeline on my palm. It brings unexpected moments of sorrow, mourning, guilt, appreciation, and a new sense of awareness that is accompanied by a deep sense of gratitude. It has forever changed my soul and my identity, recalibrating my course onto an unfamiliar and vulnerable pathway that no one walks down by choice. Time has slowed, allowing a space of quiet and stillness to occupy my mind. Within this space, I have been digging through the muddy mess of everything that happened during the seven years of treatments.

As the physical wounds began to heal, the emotional trauma boiled to the surface. Anger stemming from wondering why this happened to me. Anger slowly turned to anguish and sorrow for the designed life I’d lost, for the loss of self. And finally, an acceptance of who I’d now become. My new lifeline opened up possibilities I never even considered, and I found myself residing on a simple truth: my truth. My knowledge of divine purpose, a knowledge I emphatically trust for guidance in my life. I know everything happens as it’s supposed to. I rely on mindfulness practice to understand the emotions I am feeling in any situation, and why I am feeling them, and I allow myself to feel them and share them with others. By blending my knowledge gained as a nurse and my experiences as a patient, I will be able to reach many cancer patients by writing and sharing my story. This is my divine purpose. This is the reason I survived.

As a nurse, I shared many special moments in my patients’ lives. As a patient, I have seen moments of life through a new lens. Now, I want to reach further, expand the moments of impact, and be a positive influence to my fellow voyagers as they navigate new waters. Writing is my avenue to reach the individual and the masses. My educational background in medicine combined with my journey has allowed me a uniquely functional opportunity. I truly understand and empathize with a population of people who need understanding and empathy. With this perspective, I can be the guide I wish I had through those early uncertain years where my carefully laid plans were abruptly shattered. I can take their hand on their new path and help them through the physical obstacles, the boulders, rivers, and around the bushes that come with a diagnosis of cancer at a young age. I can help them realize they aren’t alone in their trek, and I can help carry their packs when they’re too heavy to hold.

I am here to share my story, to share my emotions openly and honestly, in hopes of helping someone who is just beginning the journey. I am here to be a lighthouse of stability and support for those who’ve just been thwarted on their journey, their D-day. If I can share my experiences and my knowledge, I am hopeful it will provide them a sense of peace in the knowledge that their current path, although it wasn’t planned, has been walked before, and all they have to do is follow the faded footprints in the sand.

I have so much gratitude in my heart for my diagnosis and the gifts it has given me. It has slowed time down for me, allowing me to reflect on my life to be aware of its fragility and possibilities. I recognize the moments, and I am taking inventory of my time. Time is the most precious commodity we have, and I want to honor it. I want to honor those that battled with me and are no longer here, and I want to honor those who have walked alongside me and before me. All life is composed of millions of bittersweet moments that either inspire us or cause us to retreat. My D-day was a pivotal and bittersweet moment that altered everything I expected my life to be. And from this shift, I have discovered more purpose and joy than I ever imagined. The bitter darkness of life allows me to savor the sweet, and through the darkness, the light shines.

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