Imagine this. You’re young, gifted, black, beautiful and smack-dab in the middle of undergrad school and suddenly, disaster strikes your body. First, it begins with stomach pains and a trip to the emergency room. Then, before you know it, your doctor tells you he’s found cancerous cells in your blood and diagnoses you with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. Known to most as CML, this type of leukemia is a slowly progressing and uncommon type of blood cell cancer that begins in the bone marrow.
Yes, imaginations to most of us but a reality known all too well for Taja Shabazz who was diagnosed with the disease on February 11, 2015 at the tender age of 25. What once was a life consisting mostly of books, boyfriends and leisure time, was suddenly transformed to surgeries, chemo, nausea and dancing way too close to death. We sat down with the former med student as she discussed her lemons to lemonade moment and how she overcame the most traumatic period of her life.
We as women are trained to be independent but we also have to know it’s okay to admit we need help. A strong person will endure things alone but it takes an even stronger person to admit they don’t have to.”
1. When it comes to your health, trust your instinct (and get a second, third and sometimes fourth opinion).
“I first got sick in October of 2014,” Shabazz said. “I knew there was something wrong with me but I didn’t know what. Doctors kept saying ‘there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re young,’ but I knew there was more to the story. I went to work the next day and I began tripping over my feet and feeling dizzy. That’s when I knew it was more than a stomach bug.”
After initially being treated for stomach pains, a UTI and other infections, and after seeing a dozen specialists, doctors finally focused on Shabazz’s blood work, which contained unusually high hemoglobin levels. Shortly after they found cancer cells in her blood.
“I’m so glad I trusted my body and not the doctors,” she said. “We know our bodies better than anyone or any machine and when something feels off, nine times out of 10, it’s off. Don’t be afraid, embarrassed or intimated into thinking you should stop asking for answers when it comes to your health.”
2. It could always be worse. In fact, it likely has been worse for someone else.
“When all of this was going on I was completing my last year of college and had lost my grandmother the year prior to pancreatic cancer,” Shabazz said. “Once I got my diagnosis I thought, ‘okay this is it. It’s time to make my bucket list because I’m checking out.’
At the time I worked in a bone marrow center and so I began to think about the kids, kids who are 15 and 16 who’ve dealt with something as extreme and painful as a bone marrow transplant or who have gone through chemo. When you see children who have their entire lives ahead of them barely able to move, having bowel movements of blood, or literally green from the chemo treatment, you began to be thankful for your situation. I started to appreciate the things I didn’t have to go through.”
3. Save some of yourself for yourself.
“I’m very a selfless person. Not being able to volunteer or help out a friend was very hard. I give so much of myself to other people, so when I had to stop doing for others and focus on me, it was very difficult. To know that I had to preserve myself was probably the hardest thing to do. I had to sit down.”
4. It’s okay and perfectly normal to admit you need help.
The epitome of an I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T woman, like many of us, Shabazz prided herself on accomplishing most things in life alone — that is until she physically could not. Things came to a head when her doctors staged an intervention of sorts and told her they’d no longer allow her to leave her chemo treatments alone.
“My doctor told me, ‘I understand how strong you want to be and how strong you want to perceive yourself to be, but this isn’t a battle you have to fight by yourself. You’re weak,’” she said. “And I was. I was at a point in my treatment where I was not fine. I was vomiting profusely, everything tasted like metal and I couldn’t keep anything down.
“Physically, my lowest moment was when I was at home by myself one night and I couldn’t stop vomiting. My stomach, chest; everything hurt. I was so weak I couldn’t even pick up the phone to call anyone. I was pretty much at my breaking point and I realized I couldn’t do it alone. We as women are trained to be independent but we also have to know it’s okay to admit we need help. A strong person will endure things alone but it takes an even stronger person to admit they don’t have to.”
5. When it comes to friends, don’t always believe the hype.
My mother and father were definitely my biggest supporters however my friends eventually drifted off,” Shabazz said. “Everyone would say ‘hey I’ll come to treatment with you’ but when those treatment days came, it’d just be me. I had [chemo] treatments four to five times a week and most times I would go alone.
It got to a point where I thought ‘this is crazy. I’m here by myself with this toxic — this poison going through my veins and no one is here with me.’ Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the Facebook statuses and texts but every part of my body was in pain and I was alone. As sad as those moments were, I also thank God for those moments because that’s when my survival skills kicked in.
6. Stand firm on your faith. It will never let you down.
“Prior to me getting sick, I had a somewhat strained relationship with God,” Shabazz said. “As women we get busy and so caught up in the grind that we forget how precious life is. When I got diagnosed I sat down with myself and realized I couldn’t come out of this process not having a better relationship with God. I started reading things that had a spiritual meaning and getting a better understanding of what it meant to submit to a higher power.
I hate that it took something like this for me to have that ‘AHA’ moment but I’m glad I know what I know now. Life is short and you have to take inventory of what’s important because in the blink of an eye it could all be gone. Know who you are and what is controlling your life.”