Survivor Stories Life Interrupted

My journey back from cancer wasn’t a recovery; it was a resurrection.

Shaun WillsonMy wife, Deborah, and I created an extraordinary life. I traded my ambitions for my passions and turned my profession into a mission. I made my life my life’s work. Leaving behind a conventional lifestyle, we explored the world any way possible. We built an off-grid home in the woods. We traveled the U.S. in our solar-powered Airstream. We were wanderers. Our goal was to redefine living, and we did it. 

As a college-level environmental educator, I used modern technology to share with my students our explorations from anywhere on the planet. Absent of a television or a watch, I enhanced my work by doing the most naturally human recreation possible: playing outdoors. Hiking, bicycling, trail running. I was a mediocre athlete with no history of competition. I just went out and did it. Eventually, those hours on the trails became my sanctuary, as if I had found my religion. I thought I was ready for anything.

Then, on November 11, 2015, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. It wasn’t just any version, but the one with the worst mutations and the worst prognosis. My heart was involved, and my aortic valve had failed. Death was close and real. Tethered to brutal chemotherapy and still healing from open-heart surgery, I had to abruptly end my work. Every single personal goal, along with the decades of effort to create a beautiful life, was swept away as if it never existed. 
How does one carry on in the face of utter despair, legitimate hopelessness, and such comprehensive and entire loss?Health, money, profession, lifestyle – gone. The future held nothing but misery, including months of confinement in a hospital. There I would receive grueling chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant, and I would still probably die. If I did survive, the long-term side effects would inhibit me from doing the exact things I loved. 

How do you prepare for that? How does one carry on in the face of utter despair, legitimate hopelessness, and such comprehensive and entire loss – not just a loss of life, but a loss of living? I didn’t know.

Shaun WillsonI read the books, I listened to the talks, but realized that this wasn’t suffering that could be healed through a mantra or a mindfulness workshop. This was suffering real and big and immediate. So, even though I ached to just end things, I changed my paradigm. I didn’t give up; I gave in. If I was going to die today or tomorrow or next month, I would do it my way and, until then, try to live in grace, love, beauty, and truth.

So, what does that mean? It means that, simultaneously plugged into chemo-poison and life-preserving drugs, I rode an exercise bike pointed at the UCSF hospital window overlooking San Francisco. I always wore my own clothes and refused to wear a hospital gown. I ate everything I could tolerate, including pizza nearly every day. I walked a marathon around the leukemia ward, dragging my IV pole. I stayed out of the bed except to sleep and rest. I made small preparations for how and where I would end things. And most importantly, I kept not dying.

After spending weeks confined to the sterile and soulless halls of a hospital, I decided that if I could feel the wind on my skin and die at once it would be a celebration. I directed my anger at my situation to this: Forty-six days after my bone marrow transplant, drugged and incoherent, with my patched heart flopping inside my chest, I completed the Eroica California vintage bicycle ride through the hills of central California on a fifty-dollar 1965 Austrian-made Puch. My point? I could be miserably sick in bed, or I could be miserably sick doing something I loved. Besides, I was sure it would be an epic failure … except … it wasn’t.

I latched onto that. In a way, it was a relief having nothing to lose. So, in between weekly medical appointments and bouts of mind-bending sickness, Deborah and I would escape to the mountains, strap my IV tubes under my shirt, and hit the trails. 

It’s like this: Our medical establishment is good at keeping people from being dead, but it is terrible at saving lives. Saving my life was entirely up to me, whether it was a life of one day or a decade.

Today, I consider myself a citizen of the planet, affecting change, I hope, and inspiring others. I’m running through endangered landscapes, sharing what I’ve learned, and proving that we – all of us – can be more than a set of daunting circumstances. I figured that if I somehow survived this nightmare, this would be my new profession, to share this life of love and resurrection. 


Shaun Willson is an accomplished speaker, college lecturer, marathon trail runner, microadventurer, and radical survivor. He hopes to inspire a social movement of people living their own authentic epic stories and making the world more civil and beautiful along the way.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2018.