Two weeks ago, I sat in a coffee shop and stared at a blinking cursor on a blank screen. The cafe was filled with noisy conversation, a non-ambient soundtrack and customers who yelled orders over obnoxious blenders.

I kept wishing things would be different, fantasizing about conversation levels dying down and hoping that people would finally get the memo that coffee is not meant to be mixed with ice. I sat feeling defeated and realizing that none of those things would ever come true.

Suddenly, I remembered that my backpack was at the foot of the table. As quickly as I could, I reached for my headphones and put them over my ears.

My own music

Ambient music flooded my senses and the world around me had become mute. The jackhammer that was apparently used to crush ice was extinguished and I no longer felt as if I was in a restless place with infinite drink combinations. I had finally found my comfort zone.

For a few moments, I sat and observed life through the ambiance of my own music. Although my environment had changed, the world around me didn’t. People still appeared rushed, the blenders still mixed drinks and every table remained occupied.

I wondered how the atmosphere in the coffee shop would have been different if everyone had on my headphones. Would things have slowed down? Would people have felt less rushed? Might the conversation levels have become a little more serene?

This is what it’s like to have cancer.

The moment you hang up the phone or walk out of the doctor’s office after receiving your diagnosis, it’s as if God reaches down and gives you a pair of headphones that radically changes the environment.

Cancer is the ambiance that initiates a new perception, one that nobody else will understand. The world should slow down, the lines should shorten and the mood should change, but they don’t.

Instead, the conversation remains loud, the environment is hectic and the world carries on, never noticing your small table in the corner of a busy coffee shop.

Music is your diagnosis

As a cancer patient, you don’t have the ability to take off your headphones. In most cases, you don’t even have the option to choose the music that you’re listening to.

The music is your diagnosis and your diagnosis chooses you. You exist in a world that is otherwise moving freely, conversing joyfully and choosing unbelievable combinations from the menu of life.

As much as I would have liked to have described the music to my fiancée, Katie, who was sitting across from me, she would have never fully understood. I could have tried to sing it to her, but I didn’t have the talent, band or musical instruments to accurately reflect my different environment.

I simply had to accept the fact that I was processing an entirely different atmosphere just a couple of feet away.

Acceptance became the only thing that I could control.

Six years after my diagnosis, I’m still learning how to communicate my song. I still have the headphones on and I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to reflect the beat in my own way, using my own lyrics.

As the world around me listens to an alternate soundtrack, I’ve discovered that there’s a unique ambiance that permeates the headphones of those living with cancer.

Thankfulness, appreciation, hope, character and perseverance create an environment that might have never been established otherwise. It turns an empty screen, with a blinking cursor, into a lifelong novel of inspiration.

Note: I originally wrote and published this blog for MD Anderson’s Cancerwise blog. You can view it here.

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