I grew up in a family that strongly believes in the concept “be here now”. It’s a saying from spiritual teacher Ram Dass, and though my family isn’t a religious one, it still resonates greatly with us. We’ve all had our moments of anticipating the upcoming Hamptons getaway or looking back in nostalgia on last year’s amazing Jazzfest, but for the most part we try to live in the present instead of looking into the future or dwelling on the past. What a lesson that would become.
It was January 2012 and I had recently changed jobs. I had also developed a severe cough over the past three months—similar to what one gets after a life of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Walking the two flights of stairs up to my apartment became my own mini marathon (panting and collapsing in exhaustion in my doorway included). In those three months my general practitioner had diagnosed me with bronchitis and pneumonia and prescribed me with three medications and inhalers. None of which did anything for me. My mom, like any incredible Jewish mother kept mentioning that it was time to call the doctor for further review.
So there I was, 27 years young, unable to walk the standard 20-block Manhattan commute, much less my own apartment stairs. I called my doctor and was referred to a pulmonologist, with whom I scheduled an appointment. It was a Friday morning when I went to see her, and I thought for sure I’d be back to work after a couple hours and a few tests. Nearly half a day later, I was told I still had several more tests to go through. After a full day at NYU with my mother, we received the results of my x-ray and breathing test, both of which showed up fine. My mom started crying, a very rare thing for her, and I asked her what was going on. She made it clear that she had been terrified, that she had thought of the worst-case scenario and was sure her imagined scenario would be the reality. At that moment, she thought it was over, that nothing was really wrong. I, however, could feel that that wasn’t the case.
I woke up the next day to a phone call from my pulmonologist asking me if I was sitting down and if my parents were with me. (Insert huge gasps of breath here.) This isn’t a good sign, I thought. My parents were at the gym and I couldn’t reach them. I asked her to give me the news and the doctor said, “Harper, we found a very large cyst in your lung. It’s not cancerous but it’s really big and needs to be removed. You need to have surgery”. The moments after that were a blur, and I’m not really sure what happened. The next thing I remember is my parents coming over and us sitting around trying to comprehend the news we were just given. Our shock was palpable. Nobody thought this bad case of bronchitis could have actually been a cause for surgery.
Shock turned to focus and the phone calls began as we rushed to get a second opinion. After all, my doctor of 16 years was advising me against this surgery while at the same time a doctor I had known for 24 hours was advocating for it. It took several consultations, including a trip to the National Institute of Health in Maryland, to determine if this was the right move for me, my body, and my life. As it turned out I had aspergillus, a fungus in my lung, and the surgery would result in the removal of ¼ of my lung. I was in serious shock.
It is one year to the day that I went through with my surgery . I remember it so clearly: waking up at 5:00am after sleeping at my parents’ apartment, feeling like a zombie as I walked over to NYU. What’s going to happen today? What are they going to do? Am I going to make it out alive? Those questions feel like they were asked just yesterday. I was escorted into the operating room—freaking out in typical Harper fashion—and then waking up in the ICU with my family smiling over me thrilled that I had made it through the surgery successfully.
I spent a few days in recovery at the hospital before getting released and spent a week at my parents’ apartment. I convinced my parents I was okay to be home alone and work part-time shortly after, and thought for sure this was the best scenario for me. Four days later, cut to me having a breakdown while realizing I was still taking morphine and in massive pain, still in recovery mode and now stressing myself out over work. I took a much-needed medical leave from my job for two months and ended up needing far more support than I had anticipated. My helplessness during this all was one of the hardest things for me to accept.
The cards, cupcakes, flowers, teddy bears, emails, calls, texts, and more were pouring in. Overwhelming almost, but in the best way possible. I was fighting this newfound role as “the sick person”, but welcoming the outpouring of love and support that came with it. Several weeks after my surgery, the cards dwindled, the emails stopped overflowing my inbox, and my cell phone sat relatively silent. “The sick person” had gotten better, or at the very least, hadn’t gotten worse. I was still living this forced role but my audience had gotten up and left. It was strange, confusing, and lonely. I remember talking to one of my friends who told me that when her ex-boyfriend found out he was cancer-free he immediately felt abandoned. It’s nobody’s fault, but the large amount of support I experienced left as quickly as it came, and that was hard to process.
On top of everything, I didn’t even know what I wanted. Some days, solitude seemed like the only thing to keep me going. On others I would have given anything to spend time with a friend. At times I wanted the spotlight on myself, at times I wanted to hide in my apartment. Some people in my life understood these waves of emotions and fought alongside me knowing that I was going through something bigger than me, them, or us. Others didn’t fare as well, and sadly the differences in our relationship were revealed. I hold no hard feelings but I do have a greater sense of who will really be there for me. Unconditionally.
A year later and I’m almost fully recovered. I had an amazing team of health professionals helping me along the way, and while there have been numerous bumps in the road I’ve had an incredible network of family and friends behind me. I’ve also learned to listen to my body instead of dismissing its warnings. Several months prior to seeing my pulmonologist I rejected my body and its alerts. Today I stand proud, with an eight-inch scar down my back, confident that I’ll never write off my body again. At the first event at my current job, one of the speakers said, “Take care of your body, it’s the only place you have to live”. That has stuck with me. Sure, I’ll give in to that late night slice of pizza or extra glass of wine every now and then, but I know where my body’s boundaries are today, and I know how to make this home of mine the best environment possible for me.
I’ve also learned that my health isn’t just about my body, it’s also about my mind. Two of my best friends and I went away on a yoga retreat a few weeks ago and I was met with delicious healthy food, inspiring classes, and a deeper connection with myself. I was removed from my phone and nonstop thoughts and transplanted to the right here, right now. This presence is as crucial to my ongoing recovery and wellness as is that sensible food plan I’ve started.
I’ve spent so much of my life running around and running myself down, all to please others. I’ve gone to dinners I didn’t want to, parties I wished I hadn’t RSVPd to, and meetings I wish would’ve canceled last minute. Why? What’s the point? I understand “doing the right thing”, but is it wrong doing what I want? This life is all we have, and we have to live it the way each of us see fit. In this past year I’ve made the commitment to myself to be true to who I am, what I want, and what I stand for. I’ve made a commitment to myself to take the path that feels right and stop following along those that don’t. I’ve made the commitment to myself to take control, remain in control, and do only what fulfills me.
To those of you who offered your comfort, generosity, thoughts, prayers, and support, I thank you more times over than you’ll ever know. To my parents, the two people who continue to soften life’s bumpy roads for me, I couldn’t imagine a day without you. To my friends, I am grateful for everything you gave me—all that I needed and all that I didn’t even know I needed.
“Be here now” the words are. “Everything happens for a reason,” I can’t help but think. They both ring true, and they have both brought me to this place I write from today: one filled with happiness, health and optimism.