61: I Don’t Quit

61: I Don’t Quit

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

I Don’t Quit

Find a need and fill it.

~Ruth Stafford Peale

I had a special childhood fascination with high school reunions, idealizing what seemed a journey of transformation. Yet back at that tender age, I never imagined my ten-year high school reunion the way it actually played out.

“So what do you do, Leah?”

The question was asked hesitantly. You see, I spent my reunion sitting at a table, thin and pale, with a colorful bandana covering my bald head.

I’d spent most of high school struggling with chronic illness. An athlete and honors student, I caught a mysterious virus at fourteen, and my life changed forever. For almost three years I bounced between home tutoring and short-lived returns to school in an agonizing roller coaster fashion. It tested the patience of many fair-weather friends, it befuddled the doctors caring for me, and my so-called “wonder years” were spent incredibly lonely and heartbroken.

During the darkest of times my salvation came from the love of my family, my dog and my horse, who I sometimes only saw through a window. No doubt, my illness took a toll on each member of my family. Mom struggled to balance my needs with the needs of her husband and my younger sister, Mary. Mary struggled to identify with me as my life shrunk to the boundaries of a couch and a bed. And the burden of holding finances together while making sense of an emotionally charged house weighed heavy on Dad. Money for specialists and alternative treatments came from my parents’ own pocket. Some things insurance just didn’t cover.

“I don’t want to be in this body anymore,” I had told my mom.

One night Mom came home with a yellow journal and placed it in my hands. On the front was a poem entitled “Don’t Quit.”

“I want you to read this because I think it will mean something to you,” urged Mom. The poem was filled with inspirational words about overcoming challenges and it was perfect for me. After each and every stanza the refrain almost sang to me, “Don’t Quit.” I read it… and through tears understood.

Slowly over the next few days I began to write inside that journal. Writing had been my passion and somehow Mom knew the solace I’d find through my own scribbled words. In the passing weeks poems began to form between the lined pages and I began to make sense of the pain.

In the days before the Internet, support came in the form of pen pals, namely other teenagers suffering from chronic illness. Before I knew it, I had a slew of friends who understood me. I began compiling the poems we traded. Before I knew what I was doing, it became a literary newsletter. By year’s end it was being sent out quarterly to a dozen kids just like me across the country… and by the second year it was being sent to England and Australia.

That newsletter became my salvation.

“Thank you Leah for making me see I’m not alone,” wrote one of my pen pals.

Words like those made me realize I had the power to make a difference. I was not a victim of my circumstance. It may have not restored the loss of my high school social life, but it gave me a sense of purpose.

Miraculously, my health stabilized enough for college, where I enjoyed four years of a somewhat normal life. I had carefully hidden the “sick Leah” image. I didn’t want to talk about being ill. Campus night movies, Division I basketball games and even research papers made me feel normal again. But I wasn’t.

My entire college experience was punctuated by emergency room visits. Sometimes a weekend home turned into extended recuperation, and I had to hustle to catch up on my classes. “Not quitting” had become more than a mantra. It was the only way. Despite everything, I graduated on time with a degree in journalism.

Yet, just a few months after graduating, I was sitting across from my primary care doctor as he laid it on the line. My crushing fatigue, rapid weight loss and heart fluttering had returned. I’d lost my job as a reporter because of this. Now he had doubts about the true nature of my illness. This man had likely seen me more often than any other patient in his practice.

“I am going to refer you to my colleague who I deeply respect.”

His colleague ended up being a psychiatrist, one brought in, I suppose, to verify I was suffering from some form of depression. I spent ten minutes on the couch of her in-home office, patting her two Newfoundlands, before she realized the battle I was waging was not with my mind. I should have felt vindicated, but there was still no resolution.

It was the word “cancer” at twenty-six that seemingly answered everything. It now seemed that the insidiously slow-growing and well-hidden monkey on my back was actually in my thyroid.

I barely had time to think before the radical surgery. I awoke from the lengthy operation surrounded by my family. I couldn’t move my hands to dry the tears spilling out.

How does one even deal with the word cancer?

“Don’t talk,” my dad whispered. “They got it all. It’s over.”

But it wasn’t. Sixteen months later it was beginning again — this time with a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I went home. I watched my hair fall out from chemotherapy. And then I went to that reunion. Friends had to reintroduce me to other classmates. Surely this wasn’t the movie-of-the-week version of my high school reunion. It was the lowest I’d ever felt.

One night, particularly sleepless, I looked up at my old bookshelf. There in its yellow vinyl glory was the Don’t Quit journal. As I leafed through it and re-read the inscribed poem I felt the inspiration come back to me.

From a long ago echo — a forgotten purpose. Again, I was not the only one. This time, with help from the Internet, it was easier to find those like me. Young adults with cancer are by no means a rare group. Rarer still is a person under thirty diagnosed in a timely manner.

It got me mad enough to do something about it. In sharing my story I found freedom. Today I fight on behalf of young people with cancer. I’ve been in remission for more than five years. I now help teenagers and young adults navigate illness. It feels right somehow.

I don’t know that everything happens for a reason. However, I know at my next reunion when I am asked, “What do you do?” I’ll say what I don’t do.

I don’t quit.

~Leah Shearer

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