Olson: Survivors don’t have to let past suffering define them

Posted 3/1/21

I was diagnosed with T-cell leukemia a month before my 7th birthday.

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Olson: Survivors don’t have to let past suffering define them

Ryan Patrick Olson poses with Webber, a stuffed platypus that played an integral role in his fantasy memoir, “Carnival of Heaven.”
Ryan Patrick Olson poses with Webber, a stuffed platypus that played an integral role in his fantasy memoir, “Carnival of Heaven.”
[Photo courtesy Ryan Patrick Olson]

I was diagnosed with T-cell leukemia a month before my 7th birthday. The two years that followed saw me fighting for my life against not only cancer, but a fungal infection of my liver, more than 30 reoccurring episodes of chicken pox thanks to an eradicated immune system, and general atrophy that lost me the ability to walk.

I also lost the ability to swallow, and had to be dilated monthly to ensure my esophagus didn’t close off altogether.

Because of my ordeal, life had always been a cosmic joke to me. For decades, I’d convinced myself that all was chaos, and my surviving hell was only to live a fate worse than death when I got to the other side.

But that version of reality was self-serving, self-defeating and missing the point entirely. I was alive. No one ever knows for how long, but I was alive.

If I wanted to wallow in the injustices the universe bestowed upon me, I could. That was my choice. But there was power in knowing that. After all, it was a choice. A choice that I — and only I — had the ability to make.

I chose to write. When I finished writing my novel, “Carnival of Heaven,” I realized the goal I’d been searching for all along.

READ: Goodyear man blends fantasy, reality in book about childhood cancer battle

Perceptions are reality, and we each choose the world we live in. The strength in knowing that was unlike anything I’d ever known. I immediately went back, rewriting and editing the book I’d created, all the while dissecting the truth I’d conjured up for myself in the past.

The suffering I’d let define me, my life and my outlook on the world around me, had taken it’s toll. But I could change.

I could learn from it. I could shine the spotlight on other sides of the life I’d lived and see a side I’d been blind to for far too long. And it worked.

There was so much beauty in what I found hiding in the darkness. Things I had taken for granted, even back when I was a sick child, became filtered through a new lens.

From the time I was admitted to the hospital, and all through the worst of it, our family’s pastor gave up time with his family, even on Christmas, to make time for a scared little boy. The family that gave up everything to make me feel alive, even when death stalked the hallway of my isolation room.

I’d been blind to it in the past, but I couldn’t live with myself if I let that define my future.

Sure, darkness exists in all of us. And it’s best that we come to terms with that. But darkness cannot exist without light. There is always another perspective, another way to look at things.

Writing my novel taught me that. And bizarre as it might seem, I had no aspirations for some sort of epiphany when I sat down to write.

I wanted to write a novel to show my mom how much I appreciated the sacrifices she endured to make sure I was never alone, but it ended up being so much more than that. And I hope it can be for so many more.

The power of hope I experienced when it was done changed me profoundly. I reached out to my treating physician who, thank God, was still with us. I got to meet the man who saved my life in person, introduce him to my wife, and tell him how much I appreciated what he did for me. My pastor, too. And as for my family, I was able to give them the love letter they so dearly deserved.

You can find your light, too. It might not seem like it right now, but things will get better. They have to.

The ending is where serenity begins. If your life is in flux, chaotic or riddled with pain, try to realize it is not the end of your story — no matter how much it might seem like it.

We never know how much time we have left. It might be days, weeks, months, or even years — but we decide how we get to live it. And we can do that by being hateful and resentful of the life we’ve lived, one another and the world — or we can choose to be better and make this existence mean something.

I’ve been haunted by anger and fear for well over 25 years. That’s long enough.

I’m ready to move on and to find a new path forward. I hope you are, too, and that you find happiness in the way you choose to live.

Editor’s note: “Carnival of Heaven” author Ryan Patrick Olson and his wife, Christine Kimball, recently moved to Goodyear to be near his parents, Bob and Cathy Olson, who live in Surprise.