A field of tulips

Welcome to Cancerland

Last updated: November 2022

When I was diagnosed with blood cancer, the life I knew ended abruptly. One day I was a high school math teacher, writing daily lesson plans. The next I was a student learning the language of multiple myeloma.

Three years later, while I’m grateful to be in remission, I still miss many parts of my former life as well as the hopes and plans I had for my future.

Welcome to Holland

I explained these feelings to a friend. She understood since we were both diagnosed with cancer in our 40’s. Then she told me about a poem she found helpful after her own diagnosis.

Welcome to Holland was written by Emily Perl Kingsley, who wrote the poem after having a child with a disability. She compared that experience to one of a rerouted trip. A flight to an exciting, well-planned excursion in Italy has landed in Holland, with no way to return home or get to Italy.

Although she was not writing about a cancer diagnosis, many of us can relate to the feeling of landing in Cancerland, a place we had never intended to go and would prefer to leave.

I never wanted to come here

After reading Welcome to Holland, I realized that I have spent the last several years subconsciously still waiting to arrive in Italy. Before cancer, I was excited about finding a life partner, exploring the country, and traveling the world. I dreamed of the romance, wine, and gondolas of Italy.

Yet I have also been hoping for a magical ticket home – back to familiar surroundings, my former career, old friends, and a healthier body.

So what happens now in the middle of a predictable past and the future I had longed for? How do I learn to love a place I never wanted to go to? Cancerland can be such a scary place with so many variables and even more unknowns. So many goblins lurk in those cold, sterile hallways. I don’t want to learn this new language of long, scary-sounding words and take medicines with even scarier-sounding names.

It is okay to grieve

Her poem helped me understand that it is okay to grieve not being in Italy. But it is also okay to fully embrace life in Holland. Why not enjoy the gorgeous tulips and take a gondola ride down one of the surprisingly many canals in Amsterdam?

I admit that I am often stuck somewhere in between. When I allow myself to grieve, I feel like I am conceding to being stuck here. And I don’t always fully embrace here because it is scary, unfamiliar terrain. People seem to suffer more here, and they leave before I am ready to say goodbye. I miss the comfort and familiarity of home.

Cancerland has its own beauty

But just as Holland has such gorgeous tulips, Cancerland has its own beauty. I have seen the kind of compassion and authenticity that have taken my breath away. I’ve witnessed ordinary people display extraordinary generosity, strength, and resilience. I have seen far more of that here than where I was from and where I was headed.

I would still jump at the chance for a ticket to Italy. The wine, the romance, the gondolas. Or even a ticket back to the place where I had never heard of multiple myeloma. After spending these past few years here, I imagine that both places would look so much more beautiful.

But if I hadn’t landed here, I would not have met any of you. I wouldn’t have learned that tulips only bloom for a handful of days in the spring. I wouldn’t have learned to make the very most of those days.

Ties to the blood cancer community

I reached out to Ms. Kingsley and asked her permission to share Welcome to Holland with all of you. She agreed and added that she has ties to the blood cancer community. Her nephew, Dr. Alexander Perl, is a blood cancer researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. Kingsley’s poem helped put words to my feelings of living in remission, a place with much to appreciate but certainly not the destination I was hoping for in this life. Wherever you are in your journey, I hope Welcome to Holland helps you too.

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