Justin Ozuna lives in Dallas and was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in January 2006. He is a Texas state representative and Dallas/Fort Worth facilitator for the National CML Society and a patient at MD Anderson. His mission is to capture the ups and downs of a young adult living with cancer and to serve people through humor, encouragement, hope and adversity at his blog, theozunaverse.com.
I've fought leukemia in one way or another for the past six years. For the first four, I pushed my diagnosis aside in an effort to be carefree, and enjoy the freedoms available to those who don't have cancer. I walked away.
I made a mistake.
Back then, my diagnosis represented a dark place. It symbolized heartache, frustration and futility, emotions that don't constitute a life worth embracing. The thought of filtering out so many negative emotions was overwhelming. I tried to fix the uncontrollable instead of focusing on what I could control in my life.
That approach made me second-guess a lot of what I thought I should be. Why couldn't I be "normal"? Why couldn't I have it easy? Why didn't I know someone else who went through the same experiences?
My life changed when I was refused as a patient at a hospital in Dallas. That rejection initiated feelings I had never experienced, emotions that exposed my displaced attitude and the error of my approach. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. After sitting in a cold, lonely apartment that winter, I made the decision to embrace my illness. I wanted a new approach, to start from scratch. I made the commitment to understand complex emotions, grow as a human being, and push myself through the realities of cancer that I hadn't truly experienced.
A perspective of gratitude
I showed up to my first appointment at MD Anderson with an immeasurable depth of gratitude. I no longer saw myself as an outsider. I was an imperfect human being who was recommitted to the second chance I had been given.
I knew that through the filter of gratitude, I'd be given every opportunity to see life from perspectives I had never experienced. I couldn't have been more accurate.
I learned that in the core of our being, we have a heart designed to be grateful. When we ignore the structure of our design, we open ourselves up to bitterness, hopelessness and remorse. I'm thankful to be alive, I'm thankful to write this sentence. The rest of life begins here.
Growing in empathy
Through the lens of gratitude, I began to better understand empathy. A waiting room was no longer a necessary evil, it was an opportunity to appreciate my journey and how far I had come.
Being around others with similar illnesses is a unique opportunity to identify with patients who are fighting the same battles and share the same hope. We're all in it together, tied together by a common bond, asked to endure a diagnosis we would have otherwise said we couldn't handle.
It took four years for me to realize that my desire to emotionally separate from my journey was to isolate myself and to fail in using my gifts and abilities to encourage and inspire others.
My leukemia isn't merely about me, it's also about you or someone you love. Every appointment I attend, question I ask, heart-dropping experience I have resurfaces when I'm able to sever another's hopelessness at the root. Without empathy, none of this is possible.
Living a life of purpose
Embracing my leukemia also reminded me of my purpose. Life isn't about unending moments of fulfillment, it's about growing, learning, loving and appreciating the in-between.
To live with purpose means to ask the question "why" instead of "why not." It allowed me the rare opportunity to better understand complex emotions. I understand empathy, love, compassion and feelings of hopelessness a lot better. To have ignored the process would have been a fatal blow to the person I've always wanted to become.
In sports, the purpose of practice is to be ready and prepared to fulfill your role in the games. My purpose on earth is to be ready and prepared to fulfill my role in heaven. Without experiencing the lows, how can I ever genuinely appreciate the highs?
Growing in gratitude and empathy and living a life of purpose meant that, by default, I would also grow in joy. Nourishing proper perspectives gave light to an illness that once symbolized darkness.
Although my journey has had its ups and downs, my joy has remained. And why shouldn't it? I've been given endless reasons to celebrate milestones I might have previously viewed as mundane. I consider myself lucky.
Life is precious and grand. The past two years have been the most difficult, challenging, rewarding, most exciting years of my life. I used to ask why my circumstances weren't different. Today, in light of all the uncertainty, I've replaced questions with a deep appreciation. Gratitude, empathy, purpose, and joy -- there's no greater prognosis.