Creativity Was My Way of Taking Back Control
Cancer taught me the most valuable thing you have is time.
Just as I Was Starting Chemo, a News Story Came on About an Earthquake in Pakistan
They were interviewing a man who was in shock. He couldn’t find his parents’ house, didn’t recognize any of the streets, and his house had just collapsed, killing his entire family. I thought, “Well, all I have is leukemia.” He lost his whole world, and here I am sitting in a warm room, surrounded by people working to make me healthy. I still have my wife and my children. I’m never going to feel sorry for myself again.
And that moment became the first story I wrote for Visible Ink — MSK’s therapeutic and transformative patient writing program. It taught me that perspective can take you a long way, something I try to share in my work as a patient-to-patient volunteer.
I’m Karl, and I Happen to Have Cancer
What happens when you get diagnosed is your old reality sort of dies, and you go through a grieving process. But then the good news is you get to reinvent yourself. Many people who knew me when I was first diagnosed with leukemia — they still have the mind-set that I'm a cancer patient. I think cancer patients resent that a little bit. Instead of being Karl, the cancer patient, I’m Karl, who happens to have cancer. I'm more than just a person who has to go through this or who is sick.
When You Get Cancer, You Lose a Lot of Control Over Your Own Life
This is the thing that is most upsetting. People have to do things for you. So I tell patients to look for little ways to get some of that control back. It can be as small as getting crayons and coloring on a piece of paper, to prove to yourself that you can still be a kid and do that. And MSK really understands this loss of control. One of the first things they said was, “We’re going to put a chart on the wall so you can follow your white blood cell count.” And I thought, “Wow, I actually get to track my own condition.” Empowering.
When You’re Even Halfway Healthy, You Realize Time Is Limited
There are no guarantees. You don’t know how long you’re going to be here. And you want to shout out, “Hey, I’m here. I’m alive.” And when I write these stories, I’m affirming the fact that I am a survivor and this is my voice.
This Is What Cancer Has Given Me
It has made me more empathetic toward anyone who's gone through a trauma. When I think of the word survivor, I think of people who have found a way to deal with their new realities and redefine themselves — really decide who they are going to be and what they are going to do with the time they have.
Karl’s story “News from Pakistan” was published in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Visible Ink Anthology. Visible Ink is a one-on-one writing program for patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. It offers opportunities for self-expression, stress reduction, personal growth, and individual success at a time when many participants face the considerable challenge of a serious illness. Visible Ink has served more than 2,300 patients over the last 12 years.