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Obsessed with Life

by Rachel Lozano

Inspiration image

At age 21, I found out I had weeks to live.

This wasn’t my first introduction to cancer. The infamously opportunistic disease made a dramatic entrance into my life at age 15, when doctors discovered a cancerous tumor known as Askin tumor pressing on the top of my spinal cord and shutting down my body by the hour. Following an emer­gency surgery, intensive chemotherapy and radiation became my new normal.

After a year of remission, the cancer reemerged in my bone marrow. This time was even worse. Worn completely down, I could barely walk at my high school graduation. Two days later, I was ad­mitted for a stem cell transplant, which gave me a brand-new immune system. Due to severe adverse effects from the transplant, the skin over my entire body peeled, I developed serious infections, and even went into septic shock. Never­theless, I again surpassed all odds and made it through. While my friends went off to their first year of college, I was relearning how to walk and eat.

Another year and a half passed, and I seemed to be doing much better. In fact, I even headed off to college. Yet my body was once again screaming that some­thing was wrong. I soon learned there was a new tumor between my heart, lung, and spine. I was told I had a zero-percent chance of survival and was given only weeks to live.

Three months went by. I was still alive. I realized that perhaps I wasn’t dying just yet, so I took a job at an art materi­als store and moved on with my life.

Plan for a long future, but live for the moment.

My doctors scoured the globe for options, but the experts still concluded I was incurable. By May 2004 – a year and a half later – an amazing thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon relocated to my hospital, and he believed the tumor was stable enough to operate. Surgery went smoothly, and the entire tumor – which was the size of a small Nerf football – was successfully removed. The biopsy results showed the tumor had completely died while inside me, despite very little treatment. It was an inexplicable medical miracle.

The lessons I learned through my cancer experience have caused me to be obsessed with life. Here’s what I’ve learned:

♦ Plan for a long future, but live for the moment.
This may mean something completely different to everyone. For me, it means spending time with family and friends, using my talents, and stay­ing open to new opportunities.

♦ Practice (and receive) empathy.
Everyone will have burdens in their lives. These things are often out of our control. The only part we can con­trol is how we choose to handle the hard times and whom we choose to help us along the way. Because of the empathy of others, my three bouts with cancer were bearable, and some­times even enjoyable. Help others when you can, and accept a helping hand when you need it.

♦ As my grandma always told me, “Do what makes you happy.”
It’s be­come a cliché, but there really is a lot of truth to it. In my own life, I’ve found that what makes me happy is using my experiences to help others.

♦ Be open to change, because life is a series of endless changes.
If your carefully mapped out plan for the fu­ture changes – by choice or by force – it’s OK. Because of cancer, I had to give up some of my own ambitions. Comparing myself to others never helped me. I had to become comfort­able with making my own way. Today I am blessed with the opportunity to speak around the country; I have pub­lished writing, done advocacy work on Capitol Hill, provided charities with donated artwork, and have even trav­eled abroad to spread cancer awareness. I never realized how much my life could affect others.

My hope for you is simple: Become obsessed with living your own life. You will be amazed at what awaits.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Rachel Lozano is an inspirational speaker, artist, writer, Glamour magazine’s 2008 Woman of Your Year, and an Askin tumor sur­vivor. She is working toward a Master’s degree to become an art therapist and licensed coun­selor. Visit her at ObsessedWithLife.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2012.

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