In the Fall of 2001, I was days into the first semester of my 3rd year of graduate school and I was tired. Sure, graduate students get by on very little sleep – even more so if you’re a design student. However, we had not been assigned any research papers or a big studio project – we were still collecting our syllabi. Yet, I was so tired. Even when I tried to keep up with friends, it felt as if I was walking through water, or better yet, pushing through water. My back and joints ached and I had a quiet, dry cough at the end of long sentences. One evening on the phone, I mentioned my ailments to my mother, a registered nurse, and she immediately made appointments for me to be seen by the doctors she knew and respected.
On September 11, 2001, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma – cancer of the lymph nodes. The tiredness was due to a low hemoglobin count and the aches and pains were due to my blood cells not receiving the proper oxygen. Within days of this news, I withdrew from school, packed up my apartment and moved back home with my parents to begin six months of chemotherapy and four months of radiation.
At the beginning of my chemotherapy (one treatment round every other week), I didn’t know what to expect. I prepared myself for the hair loss, the nausea and the tiredness. My hair thinned, but I never went completely bald. Nausea was a close friend the first two days after a round of treatment, then it would subside and little by little my strength returned. That year turned out to be a blessing in disguise: I got to know my parents again (I had not lived at home since highschool) and I gained an honest and deep appreciation for the love they had for their sick child. Most of all, I understood firsthand that tomorrow is not promised to any of us. When you don’t have your health, you realize how precious life really is.
I returned to my graduate studies cancer free in the Fall of 2002. Upon completing my degree in the Spring of 2004, I had an opportunity to travel abroad for the first time. For three and a half weeks, I backpacked alone through France (Paris) and Italy (Florence, Venice and Rome, see slideshow). Finally being able to see and experience the spaces I had studied for years was amazing! While I probably wouldn’t want to travel alone again, it was the right thing for me at the time. Being alone in Europe further inspired me and gave me time to reflect on the type of life and work I was interested in and passionate about. Having a scare like that so young gave me a boldness I believe I would not have otherwise had. From my diagnosis onward, I knew that I couldn’t be afraid to live the life I wanted. It takes incredible courage to be bold and to chase a dream and even more courage to slowly shape it into a reality. When I am not as confident or consider giving up, I remember where I’ve been and begin anew the next day. In the spirit of Frank Scully, I continue to climb out on that limb…