Full transcript of Sara Khatib’s TEDx Talk: 4 Lessons I Learned While Battling Cancer at TEDxLAU conference.
[Sara Khatib — 4th year pharmacy student at LAU — had experienced a lot of hardships for her young age. Battling cancer, living with an amputation, and enduring the accompanying pain left her with the capacity for so much wisdom, happiness, and humanity. Giving this TEDx talk was on her bucket list as she wanted to share her message with the world! Exactly two weeks after standing on the TEDxLAU stage, Sara passed away on September 5, 2014, leaving behind her a huge following that continues to live by her inspirational message]
I have four objects in front of me: a floater, a children’s handwriting book, a wig and a dog’s leash. As random as this combination might seem to you, each of these objects symbolizes an important lesson I have learned this year.
My name is Sara Khatib. I am a fourth year pharmacy student and I am here to share my story with you and the important lessons it taught me.
Lesson 1: Sometimes giving up is the way to survive.
When I was young, my parents used to rent a chalet by the sea. They trusted me to go swimming by myself, but they always told me that if I was ever caught in a waterspout or a turbio, then I should not fight it. They told me to take a deep breath and let it drag me all the way to the bottom where its current is less powerful and then use every energy I have to exit it and swim back to the surface.
I was recently caught in a waterspout. It all started in 2008 when I was diagnosed with a benign tumor in my right elbow, which I had to remove surgically. In 2012, the tumor recurred and I had to remove it again. Then again this year, I randomly discovered my second recurrence when a simple act of throwing a paper in the garbage can had led to multiple bone fractures in my right elbow. I was accustomed to this tune. I thought that it was as usual, that with a surgical removal, some pain killers and a pep talk, and I’d be back on my feet. But this time, that wasn’t the case.
The doctors said that this time, the tumor was aggressive, and surgery was urgent. It seemed very similar to the two previous surgeries, until two weeks later on Christmas Eve I was admitted to the hospital for a wound infection at the surgery site. They told me I’d be out in time for New Year’s. Well, that wasn’t the case either. Instead of champagne and a sparkly dress, I had IV fluid and a hospital robe.
Six long weeks later, I was still at the hospital, the doctors still trying to find the source of my infection. I lost track of time. I don’t remember at which point, they realized that it wasn’t an infection that they were looking for. That’s when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had to start chemotherapy. I lost my hair, I lost my appetite. I lost weight, and I lost hope. Suddenly, they told me I had to get an emergency amputation.
One week later, I was back home without my right arm. You could say I was having a bad couple of days. When it all started, I was in a state of rebellion. “Why me?” I was angry, I wanted an answer, an explanation. It did not take me long though to realize, that asking why is useless. Bad things just happen. So I decided to stop thinking, and let myself be taken by this waterspout. I was dragged through needles, procedures, complications, surgeries, medications, and to top it all off, an amputation. I was sucked violently, all the way to the bottom, but when it was time, when I felt a window of weakness in the current, I found my way back to the surface.
Lesson 2: Do not let your obstacles define you.
Early into my treatment, doctors were talking about scheduling chemo sessions during the week and I realized they were expecting me to quit school to concentrate on my treatment. This was out of question for me as it would make cancer the center of my life. It would let it define me. So I went against medical advice and stayed in school.
For weeks, I would go down from Jbeil on the weekend, go straight to the hospital for my chemo sessions, leave on Sunday and go back to the dorms. I barely ever went home. I used to wear a mask to class to avoid catching any infections. If you think you have a hard time staying awake in class, well, try doing it while wearing a mask covering half your face. I decided I simply did not want to wait to get my life back on track. I did not want to live despite cancer, I wanted to live with it. So I started to learn how to do things myself.
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.
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.
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.
I realized the importance of having a living example in Lebanon to assure Lebanese amputees that their lives don’t have to change; and their dreams don’t have to end. Another thing I found lacking was support groups for amputees to meet and talk with other amputees. This is especially important because it will provide them with the reinforcement that there are other people who are sharing the same physical and mental hardships. For these reasons, I decided to start a support group for amputees in Lebanon. I am currently still taking treatment and using the little time I spend awake to brainstorm what such a support group would look like.
I would also like to use this talk as a call of action for anyone, especially amputees who would like to join me on this venture. I have four objects in front of me: the floater to remind you to let go and save your energy once caught in a waterspout; the children’s handwriting book to remind you not to let your obstacles define who you are; the wig to remind you that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional, and finally the dog leash to encourage you not to postpone your dreams.
Today’s event is called a time capsule. A time capsule is a way to store objects as a means of communication with future civilizations. I have four objects in front of me, each symbolizing one of my lessons. And in a way, these objects are my time capsule to all of you.