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The Scent of an Orange
Jane Townsend

I think all of us are born with a significant will to live that is very powerful. It's not easy to snuff out a life. Death usually comes after many years of living or at the hand of a powerful adversity of some kind. Over time and with experience, each will gets individualized and personalized, customized to who we are. We each have a strong willingness to either live or to die.

When I was twenty-four years old, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and was treated with radiation therapy. Fifteen years later, I developed another disease, non-Hodgkin's-lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy treatments. That was ten years ago.

At the time, I was depressed and in pain. I felt that I really wasn't getting any better. The doctors couldn't tell me why I was so lethargic and fatigued, and I was getting more and more depressed about it. I just couldn't get my old energy back. Even though my motto at the time was one day at a time, at one low point I don't think I wanted to live anymore.

Then one day in the lunch room, a friend came in and started to peel an orange. The scent of the orange wafted towards me and, as I smelled it, I felt a thrill, a joyful feeling. I suddenly thought, "I really don't want to die now. I want to smell things like this again." It was in that instant that I began to live with a renewed eagerness, anxious to experience the small joys of life more fully. This orange incident put me back in touch with my will to live. I sat there in pain, smelling the orange, and I was so happy to be alive. I learned in that moment to look beyond the pain to see what else there is in life. I found out then, and since then, that there's always something else. As long as I can find something positive in my life, I'll be okay. I'm pretty good now at finding something joyful just about anywhere, however small it might be.

I'd say that my will to live is based on an openness and on a recognition of what I can add to others' lives. I look outside of myself to find more inside. I become bigger and greater if I am an active, positive part of someone else's life.

Staying in touch with my doctors is also essential. I tend to worry, but if I see value in myself and get good news occasionally from a doctor's visit, a positive reinforcement takes place, shoring up my reserves. In this way, I can manage my fears more effectively and stay positive in outlook.

We can teach ourselves to do everything we can to recognize and support the notion that we are still alive for some reason or purpose, maybe yet to be discovered, even though we may be suffering. Doing this may seem mechanical at first, but it can work. Soon, we can be joyful in life and cope with the challenges of disease at the same time.

As I've said, openness is my approach. You must be receptive and willing to be open to the truth. This is the key to my resiliency.

Openness is being receptive to all the events of life, even disease. There is a peace of mind that comes when, after being told you have a disease, you realize that only you can control the way you live your life. Openness is the acknowledgment that your future will be different from the one you had dreamed.

I accept what comes my way. I don't complain much. Each complaint takes power from me, power that I need to move forward through doubt, frustration, fear, and pain. Complaining diminishes my will to live, and distracts me from my focus on living my life freely and fully.

I seek and dream far beyond the reality of my disease and look to others for friendship, humor, encouragement, and, especially, perspective. Somebody else always has more troubles, more pain. On the other hand, I can always enjoy someone else's pleasures vicariously. I enjoy my personal pleasures, such as growing flowers on my deck, watching children play, listening to music, and reading with eyes that only need glasses. To these enjoyments I add the vicarious joys of Olympic competitors, kids riding skateboards, and expert skiers, human abilities that I as a human can share the happiness and thrill of, even if I am unable to engage in them myself. In a nutshell, I have trained myself to integrate bits and pieces of what is a blast in life, in anybody's life.

I am doing well today. Medicine is an evolving and imperfect science. Doctors don't know as much as we would like them to, or as much as they'd like, either. As we care for ourselves, we must be patient patients.

I strive for peace of mind, and I'm enjoying a full life. As perennial student of my own training, I've discovered that I'm far more than simply my body's weaknesses.

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First appeared May 5, 2008; updated June 12, 2009