Friday, April 13, 2007


Nine months after diagnosis I was done with my first round of chemotherapy and preparing for a big experimental surgery at the National Institutes of Health. A week before I checked in I was due to give a talk on my research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. There would be a small audience of around fifteen other scientists. And they were very, very smart people including members of the National Academy of Science. They would catch any faults in my work and not be afraid to ask tough questions, so it was a daunting task.

But as I prepared my slides I realized that I was about to check into a hospital where I would undergo very serious medical treatment and face a significant risk of death. Whatever discomfort my audience could inflict on me was nothing compared to what I was dealing with already. A normally stressful event became relaxed when put into a broader prospective.

The talk went well — although the audience members did give me a hard time on parts of my research they were impressed overall. And by being relaxed I was in a much calmer frame of mind and less concerned about protecting myself from possible embarrassment.

I have applied the same attitude to many other tasks in life. I'm less shy about asking for what I want, whether from the service workers at a grocery store or restaurant or from a personal acquaintance. Knowing that my life expectancy is shorter, I put up with less bureaucracy and will take action more readily without regard to social norms.

Being a cancer patient has also changed my relationship with family and friends. They are often much more accommodating and will defer to my desires on matters like what to eat for dinner or how to spend a holiday. This has put me into the awkward position of being a leader out of proportion to my previous social status. I grew up with three older sisters and was used to following their lead. But now I find myself often having to act as an elder toward them. Likewise, more senior coworkers leave me with more power than would be expected for a young postdoc.

Freedom and power can be frightening. I'm sometimes surprised at the courage I can now muster. Was it there all along, or has the battle with cancer changed my personality? I have always been a calm person. Fear is a rare emotion for me, although I do tend to get anxious over minor events. I think that cancer has freed me from lesser worries and forced me to mature faster than I ever would have otherwise.

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