Living LifeWise: How Cancer Helped Me Find Myself

Living Lifewise Sunday, December 22, 2013 Written by

Living LifeWise is a regular column provided by LifeWise Ambassadors – LifeWise employees whose healthy choices are helping them live better lives. Today’s column is provided by LifeWise Ambassador Johanna Dokken.

In the beginning, I thought losing my hair would be the biggest adjustment. Shortly after I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 15, I knew I wouldn’t have it long so I dyed it black and had a friend’s mom cut it short. We sat in her kitchen while my friends huddled around, all of us giggling at my new look. Looking back, I was trying to make sense of what the next six months of treatment would be like and wanted to control what I could, as long as I could. I didn’t know then that cancer would lead me to find a lifelong source of health and personal strength.

I recall treatment as a wrenching blur of spinal taps and infusions, fading in and out of consciousness, and fuzzy television screens playing cartoons I was too old to care about. The chemo became more and more difficult to stomach. As six months stretched to eight, it took Valium and a wheelchair to even be able to get to the oncologist’s office without getting sick – a feeling that has stuck with me into adulthood. Even today, I’ll sometimes taste the metallic sweetness I associate with chemo, and my stomach will turn.

Up until my diagnosis, I had a rebellious streak in me. I spent most of my free time sneaking out of the house and hanging out with friends, leaving behind my childhood activities of ballet and gymnastics. But as my health improved, I began to see the opportunities available to me through an entirely new lens. I began to sense that if I could make it through cancer, I was tougher than I had thought. I could do the things that had scared me in the past. In a strange way, my experience inspired confidence and showed me that I had an inner strength I could draw from.

I had long admired competitive swimming. I had found my talent for swimming in swim lessons and junior lifeguarding, but was completely intimidated by the hours and discipline that it took to be on a team. When I was healthy enough for a full-time school schedule, I cautiously walked onto the junior varsity swim team, nervous and unsure I’d be able to keep up.

A few months later, I joined the varsity team when my coach incredulously asked me, “Where’d you learn to swim like that?”

Swimming just clicked for me. I built endurance, honed my technique, tuned into training, added a season of cross-country running to the mix (another activity I never I thought I’d be able to do), and was able to test myself again and again. It lit a spark within me that propelled me into Division II swimming in college. Through swimming, I felt like I had found myself.

Today, swimming remains a source of empowerment for me. When I’m feeling overwhelmed with the swirl of work, motherhood and the endless tasks of my day-to-day life, I know where I can find a sense of peace and control. It’s in the pool, lap after lap, with measured strokes and a steady pace. In a small way, these sessions reconnect me to that 15-year-old going through chemo. It connects to a time when I was finding my stride, taking back control and discovering that I was a natural.


Johanna_DokkenJohanna Dokken is a former college swimmer and mom of two, looking to make health and fitness a higher priority. Her inspiration to lead a more active and healthy life comes from her family’s history of diabetes and heart issues, as well as a personal brush with cancer as a teenager. She loves the personal empowerment, stress relief and community of training and pursuing outdoor activities.