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A Radically Human Experience
LEA GUCCIONE
Diagnosed with lymphoma like her father, Lea Guccione turned her cancer diagnosis into a powerful opportunity to find joy in the strangest moments.

It’s the “C” word that most of us would probably prefer not to hear, the reason we order personalized vitamins online and pour glasses of celery juice.

Understandably, there is fear surrounding a diagnosis of cancer. Yet I—and many survivors like me—have experienced this phenomenon from a wholly different perspective. We’ve chosen to dust off the outer, messy façade and uncover the gratitude in battling something as remarkably human as cancer. Again and again, this outlook pays off.

After landing in the ER in the fall of 2017, I was politely informed by a physician that I had something called Hodgkin lymphoma. I was 21 years old and a senior in college. Lymphomas are a cancer characterized by abnormal lymphocytes, the white blood cells our bodies need.

In many ways, I had every reason to fear this disease. It took everything from me once before—it took my best friend: my Dad. At only 42, my father passed away from his battle with lymphoma. How odd that at 21, halfway to my father’s last year, I faced a similar fate. Immediately, I felt small pings of sadness and shock. Then, a strange thing happened—they disappeared.

At only 42, my father passed away from his battle with lymphoma. How odd that at 21, halfway to my father’s last year, I faced a similar fate.

Within minutes of absorbing this information, I quickly realized I couldn’t spend my time ruminating in sadness over a diagnosis I had no control over. Don’t be mistaken. I knew I had everything in me to break down, to let the unknown keep me up at night. I had done it before. Who hasn’t spiraled over things they couldn’t change? But something told me that outlook wouldn’t serve me here. Not this time.

Instead, I made a bold decision at the moment of my diagnosis: I am healthy. Of course I was. I had my arms and legs. I could breathe and walk and speak and process information. And if any of those failed, I had laughter to step in.

It was still me. Nothing had changed. I was still the same human I was before, with everything that comes with being human. We as a species have historically conquered many trials. I would simply do the same.

What further comforted me, oddly enough, was the knowledge that my dad had been here once before. Though he had lost his battle, it reappeared in my family’s lives again as a second chance at victory. I had an opportunity to win it for the both of us. What an honor, to dedicate this battle to my Dad. That was reason enough for me. In that ambulance ride from the emergency room to the hospital, I felt peace, then laughed with the very friendly EMTs cracking jokes. I moved with the cancer.

Don’t be mistaken. I knew I had everything in me to break down, to let the unknown keep me up at night. I had done it before. Who hasn’t spiraled over things they couldn’t change? But something told me that outlook wouldn't serve me here. Not this time.

After a biopsy, the official diagnosis was Stage II Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma. How perfect. What a complicated name for a pesky setback. Then came the prescribed remedy: six rounds of “intensive” in-patient chemotherapy. Not ideal, but I was ready. It would last four months. As life would have it, four months is exactly the time I needed to read the stack of books accumulating on my desk and re-learn how to paint.

A recurring phrase my oncologist used in my case was “fast-growing cells.” My little cells. For one reason or another, growing and dividing in peculiar ways. Strange of them to do such a thing but, they were mine.

In my initial research, I discovered that cancer-cell growth is nothing more than a natural, human occurrence. As any cell grows and divides to create something extraordinary, cancer cells are equally a part of the mystery that is nature. Thinking long and hard, I could not hate nor be angry with them. In fact, I had to admire my cells—they were on a mission, for whatever reason, to send me a message. To hate my cancer cells would mean to hate a piece of myself, and I knew I didn’t have any room for hating anything. That outlook has a track record of not lifting my spirits. I held on to a promise that I would love this mind—this body—regardless of what’s happening. They’re the only ones I have.

One day, two rounds into chemotherapy, I was on a walk with a friend and as the wind blew, chunks of my hair simply swept away into the breeze with it. Although I spent my whole life protecting my long, wavy locks, I was shocked at how I easily accepted and welcomed this side effect. I looked up, hands out, and said, “Well.” The next day, I walked into a Hair Cuttery.

I had to admire my cells—they were on a mission, for whatever reason, to send me a message. To hate my cancer cells would mean to hate a piece of myself, and I knew I didn’t have any room for hating anything.

An indispensable book that helped me embrace my take on cancer was Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life.” A cancer survivor herself who ultimately lived until 91, Hay eloquently details our ability to trust in our own health, then witness as trust pays off. I always recommend her writing to any and all facing a troubling illness. The more I explored this perspective, stumbling into a wealth of resources, the more I accepted that my peculiar cancer cells were here to show and tell me something that I didn’t see on the surface. Perhaps I hadn’t been loving my body as thoroughly as I thought. As a college student, I certainly wasn’t nourishing it or giving it what it required. Rather than argue, I stopped to listen.

With a greater awareness and understanding for my disease, I loved my body more and more. With each fluid ounce of chemotherapy dropped into my veins (and there was plenty), I reminded myself that I was healthy. Not able to leave my hospital floor for my five-day-long stays, I strapped a Fitbit to my arm and walked in circles around the wing to hit my 10,000 a day step goal.

Every morning where I could open my eyes and feel no pain was a great morning. I was giddy with excitement to see the sun out my window. Every morning that I could feel my hands and my toes and breath in the air was a miracle. I am healthy.

Lea with Good Morning America host Robin Roberts

Before I knew it, round six was over. I think about spending those four months any other way and I wouldn’t trade them. Cancer granted me a complete paradigm shift, offering me that radical new perspective shared by so many fighters and survivors and the perspective of the most courageous man I knew: my father. Even in death, he became my pioneer.

To this day, there is no data, no spreadsheet, no numbers to detail whether it was a combination of luck and positivity that helped me win this battle, or just a stubborn belief in my health. But I find reason to believe in it all. Two whole years have passed since being delivered my cancer-free scan results, and now that I’ve simmered on this experience, the gratitude grows. Test after test, I am still free. It is certainty (in this uncertain world) that we possess everything we need to overcome the most troubling conditions – even cancer.

This note rings paradoxically true to our present health crisis, as we battle an uncertain virus. It’s a grounding reminder that any disease, any diagnosis, is simply a characteristic of being human. Though not immune to natural catastrophe, our ability to live courageously can’t be shaken. It’s a challenge to view it this way, but doing so can provide vital solace in an uneasy time.

It is certainty (in this uncertain world) that we possess everything we need to overcome the most troubling conditions – even cancer.

My greatest lesson from this journey was that cancer is a tremendous human experience. Yes, I said it. Neither good nor bad. Just extraordinary in a way only experience can reveal. Battling cancer was an opportunity for me to challenge myself. An opportunity to see life through my father’s lens. I feel lucky to have realized early in the game that I didn’t have to succumb to sadness but could dive headfirst into uncertainty. I held on tight to all those aspects I could control: my own thoughts and outlook.

Today, it has become a life-long commitment to highlight this perspective for others. We do have the power to choose health and choose happiness. This message has carried me to survivors and cancer communities around the country, seeking evidence to support whether or not this perspective has similarly worked for others. (Hint: it has!)

If you happen to encounter this curious disease, know this: yes, a universal cure for cancer is not yet tangible, but your decision to smile in the face of adversity is more powerful than any drug. And if nothing more, disease serves as an unmistakable reminder that, as humans, we are more resilient than we know.

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