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From cancer patient to oncologist

  • Rebecca Johnson was a medical resident when she was diagnosed with cancer
  • She was grateful for the opportunity to focus on her patients
  • Johnson learned to live with uncertainty and find the beauty in life

Editor’s note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle — injury, illness or other hardship — they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta has the story of a doctor who became a patient, which was an experience that changed her life and career. Dr. Rebecca Johnson was only 27 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the very hospital where she was training to be a physician.

(CNN) — When I was diagnosed with cancer, my doctor told me I had “a 60% chance of survival, or maybe a little less than that.”

Young women with breast cancer do worse than older women, he said, but no one knows exactly why.

During my cancer therapy, I felt well enough to keep working almost full time in my job as a resident physician in internal medicine and pediatrics.

Being at the hospital every day, working with my friends and colleagues, felt comfortable and normal to me. Almost everywhere I looked, I could see patients worse off than I was, and I counted my blessings. I was grateful for the opportunity to focus on someone other than myself by serving my patients.

In those days, I had no idea how much longer I would live. I had a friend who was a four-year cancer survivor, and that seemed like an eternity to me.

My plan for my life constricted. I focused my attention on appreciating every moment and making the most out of each day. Every summer sunrise or shared laugh with a friend was a unique instant in time that I savored.

Lessons learned from surviving cancer 5 times

A special clarity accompanies this type of focus. People with illnesses that might be fatal have an advantage over people who die suddenly. Sick people can learn to appreciate the time they have left and to recognize the splendor of each minute in which they can be happy.

Most importantly, they can tell the people in their lives how much they love them. They can cultivate a state of grace, if they choose to.

As I got further out from my cancer diagnosis, and survived, my focus shifted a bit. I could look ahead. I cherished beautiful moments, but didn’t hang on to them so desperately. Cautiously, I began to plan for my future while still appreciating my present.

Now, 17 years have passed. I have been so lucky. I maintain the focused intention of living each day to its fullest. I see my life as an opportunity. A chance to love, to grow, to do good work and to help people in need. To find joy within myself and share it with others. My life goals are simple, sustainable, and within easy reach — yet challenging enough to last a lifetime.

If there is a trick to thriving in the face of the inherent uncertainty in life, including a serious illness, I would say it is to strive toward achievements that work well in any time frame and enhance your experience in each passing instant — whether you have a century more, or just a few more minutes, left to live on this planet.

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