Time to Jump into the Great Unknown
Two years ago, if someone warned me, “Be careful when you swim with the great white sharks,” I would have stared at them blankly.
Because, two years ago, all I could think of were the three, chalky white spots lighting up on my bone scan, and grieving for the life I had imagined for myself. These three white spots represented a new, truncated life where all I could foresee was continually feeling nauseous, the stab of the port in my arm, and all of the beiges and whites of the interior of a hospital. The world was filled with endless possibilities to learn, feel, and explore, and it wasn’t fair that it was now out of my reach.
In 2013, I was an analyst at a consulting firm, and I typically spent fourteen-hour days staring at the glow of my computer, pretending I knew how to write code (when all I really was doing was copying and pasting commands from the internet). Occasionally, I’d look up to see the four photos I’d printed and taped to the wall around my monitor. A sandy beach with swaying palms in Thailand, the azure seascape contrasted against the whitewashed buildings of Santorini, the colorful profile of the Amalfi Coast, and a natural pool formed at the edge of Victoria Falls, where the current would carry you to the edge of the falls but a thick rock wall prevented you from falling 300 feet into the thundering falls below.
I would wake up and drive to work in the dark of the early morning hours, rub my eyes in between scanning Excel sheets, and drive home in the dark where I’d eat a late dinner, and do it all over again. I began to feel life like was as automated as the coding I was attempting to (poorly) run. I worked holidays, I worked weekends. One week I billed 96 hours to a client.
I looked up at the colored photos. I needed to live in full color again.
Without even requesting the time off (as I knew I had 40 days of paid time off banked), I said yes to a fellowship in India, booked a 9-country trip to Europe, quit my job within the year, and committed to a lifelong relationship where full-time work demanded balance with international solo trips. I started working at a solar company which aligned with my values. I was working hard, but living harder.
I left work in early 2019 when I received a call about a malignant bone scan, which was quickly confirmed as metastatic breast cancer. I canceled my upcoming trip to Vietnam. I started taking a CDK 4/6 inhibitor that made me so dizzy and tired, I lost 20 pounds within a couple of months. With this new vacuum of time, I spent countless hours on the internet, scrolling through Phase I trials, taking notes on obscure herbs and supplements. When I showed my oncologist my self-prescribed spreadsheet of complementary and alternative therapies, she looked me in the eye and made me promise her I would close my laptop. We agreed I would reduce my dosage of my daily medication and see if that would help boost my quality of life.
The symptoms lessened, but since being re-diagnosed with a later stage breast cancer, I had started getting severe panic attacks once more. On a flight back from Belize, I started having trouble catching my breath and the plane felt increasingly claustrophobic. When the plane landed, an ambulance took me to the hospital and I was sedated.
There were so many fears now. What if I got sick and was away from home? What if I was by myself and had a panic attack? How was it even possible to have a fear of fear?
I met with my oncologist again and she prescribed a medication to prevent the panic attacks and provided a prescription for a sedative in case panic struck.
One month later, I was gripping onto the handrails of a boat off a remote island in Sicily, my long wet hair whipping in the breeze. I had packed my pills, made lodging accommodations which were easily accessible from transportation hubs, turned on my data and phone plan abroad, packed light to prevent fatigue, and mapped out the nearest hospitals and the method to get there for each destination in Portugal, Sicily, and Southern France. Having a plan eased my worries about feeling ill or fending off a panic attack. On my third night in Portugal, I started feeling the familiar shakiness of my fingers and shortness of breath. I paid for my meal, booked an Uber back to my AirBnB, and swallowed a sedative as I tucked myself into the fluffy white comforter, knowing I’d sleep off the panic and wake up feeling new again.
Metastatic breast cancer made traveling much more difficult, but traveling was still possible. I was on medications designed to keep me alive, but I had more control than I knew was possible to live and explore. I took my CDK 4/6 inhibitor with breakfast, but then I would feed my soul with bike rides to the beach, diving into turquoise waters, and twirling strands of handmade pasta around my fork.
When I returned to the States, filled with a newfound confidence, I thought of those photos surrounding my old work monitor. Over the years, I’d crossed one destination off at a time, but there was one that still remained: Victoria Falls.
A few months later, I had gone on safari in Botswana, cage-dived with Great White Sharks in South Africa, but now the most terrifying part of the trip: the swim to the edge of Victoria Falls. A speedboat took us to Livingstone Island, a rocky piece of land wedged in the spray atop the falls. I studied the pool below and the rock wall that would stop me from going over the edge.
“Who’s going first?” The guide asked.
I raised my hand, my limbs jittery with nerves. It was time to jump into the great unknown. – Christina Zajicek
Click here to read, Living a Fulfilling Life Despite Metastatic Breast Cancer.