Home » Sara Khatib: 4 Lessons I Learned While Battling Cancer at TEDxLAU (Full Transcript)

Sara Khatib: 4 Lessons I Learned While Battling Cancer at TEDxLAU (Full Transcript)

One of my really good friends got me this children’s handwriting book to train my left arm. You know these books for kids where you first learn to write a letter, then it’s a word, then it’s a sentence. Shortly after, I was able to write in classes and during exams. You know it’s funny we are born with predetermined expectations on what our members are used for: our legs are for walking, our mouth for eating, and our hands for picking things up. Well, guess what, that’s not entirely true.

It’s only when you are forced to think outside the box that you start coming up with very inventive uses for your members. I pick up things with my toes, I tie my shoelaces with my feet, I hold things with my neck and walk around like this. And I use my knees to hold bottles while I am opening them with my left hand. Usually I end up spilling half of the content of the bottle on myself, but that’s OK. It’s quite refreshing in this heat. I chose to face the amputation. I chose to live with cancer, I chose not to let them define me. I chose not to hide. I choose not to be Sara Khatib, the cancer patient and amputee, but continue being Sara Khatib, the 4th year pharmacy student, who is clumsy, loves Nutella, and just happens to have cancer and a missing arm. I’m not done. I still have some more lessons.

Lesson 3: Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.

My doctors told my parents that I was going to need anti-depressants after they cut off my arm. They told them that I might not want to see anyone, that I might not want to get out of bed, and that weeks could pass before I would want to eat.

I woke up after my amputation and felt hungry. We ordered Zaatar w Zeit and had lunch with more than 10 people in my room. I did feel pain in my missing arm; I felt tingles in my fingers, I felt my elbow tingling, I felt pain in an arm that I could not see, an arm that just wasn’t there. So I was told to keep busy. My Dad got us a 250 piece puzzle, then it was a 500, then a thousand. We spent a whole week at the hospital, ordering food, watching series, and putting together puzzles. People came in and out of my room in disbelief. I was hungry, I was laughing, I was dancing. I was actually happy.

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One of my nurses showed me a quote, that she thought exemplified my attitude. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. This quote summarizes my past 8 months. Pain really is inevitable. I am in pain all day every day. I am taking Morphine, Solpadeine, Neurontin Triptizol, Fentanyl — all of these on a daily basis, to control my pain. Despite all these medications that could literally put down a horse, nothing can stop the pain once it onsets.

I realized that pain was going to be acute and frequent so I might as well make it worth it. I went on a family cruise, I went to barbecues, I went to a BO80’s night and just decided to have fun. What’s the point of missing out if you’re going to be in pain anyway? Suffering, however, suffering is a human state of mind. It’s what you decide to do about your pain. I decided I had suffered enough. So I gave my stump a name, Agnes, and I made her the center of attention. I even made jokes about swimming in circles because of my missing arm. But it’s actually not true. Don’t worry, I can still swim straight, I tried it. I am in pain every day, everyone is. Everyone has a problem or an obstacle that causes them pain. This is a fact of life that we cannot change. Suffering, however, is something you can control. You always have the option to smile despite your pain and enjoy every second you can of your life.

Lesson 4: Do not postpone your dreams.

With a show of hands, how many of you checked items off their bucket lists this summer? Not quite much. I, like all of you, had a number of things that I always wanted to do, and always assumed that I will have time to do them later. It wasn’t until I was stuck in a hospital bed for a cumulative of over 3 months that I started wondering what has kept me from doing them.

So I decided that as soon as I am back on my feet I would start checking items off my list. My parents got the list going, by checking off the first item, buying a dog. After 22 years of convincing, little Stewie finally joined the family. I went to see my favorite band Coldplay, live in concert in London. I waited for 54 minutes in the cold in Paris just to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at midnight. I went to the beautiful Greece, and I woke up at 3 am, took Tramal, went clubbing just to experience the famous lifestyle and nightlife of Mykonos.

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I went to see the highlands in Scotland and went on a whiskey tour despite all my medications. Please don’t tell my doctors. I am trying to check off as many things as possible, including signing up for this talk. I hate the ‘Carpe diem’ or seize the day cliché. I found it so ridiculous how people use it so often with so little meaning. But when you are stuck in a hospital bed wondering if you will ever have the chance to achieve your dreams, then you start valuing this cliché. Do not wait until you are in the hospital bed to follow your dreams. The future is not as granted as you think. Trust me.

I would not have been able to appreciate or apply all of these lessons if it wasn’t for the support of everyone around me. One thing I found missing in the system though was role models. Everywhere I looked I could not find other amputees, I could not get inspired, I could not find anyone whose example to follow.

So, I decided to start searching for other amputees and I found Bethany Hamilton. She is a surfer and a shark attack survivor who lost her left arm. You’ve probably heard of the movie about her life called ‘Soul Surfer’. I was inspired by how she faced her amputation and went back on her surfboard and participated in international competitions. Seeing how she turned her amputation into a success story not only inspired me to do the same but also gave me the conviction that I will be OK. As much as other people tried to tell me so, it wasn’t until I saw it happen to someone else that I actually believed it. I will be OK.

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