The detour: What leukemia taught me about crisis-driven change

As I lay in my hospital bed after my stem cell transplant, I thought back to that fateful appointment when Dr. Merker handed me a time bomb and told me I had cancer.

“You’ve got a journey ahead of you,” he had told me.

In the beginning, I kept telling myself that this journey was just a detour. It was going to suck, but I would get through it and be back on track in no time. Some of that was true. I did get through it. And yes, it did suck. But there was something I failed to realize at the time: this ain’t no detour.

A detour implies a temporary deviation from the road you’re on; a road you’ll eventually meet back up with. But this journey I found myself on wasn’t a detour.

Instead of returning to a pre-cancer “normal,” my life branched off in a new trajectory.

That’s because the experience changed me. For starters, I had a new blood type — after my bone marrow transplant, my blood type changed to that of my donor’s, shifting from A-negative to O-positive (weird, I know).

But more importantly, I had a new outlook on life and new ideas about what I wanted to do with it.

It’s natural to think of crises as detours and wish for things to go back to normal. But just because “normal” feels familiar and comfortable doesn’t mean it’s where we should aim.

And although it’s always preferable to prevent a crisis in the first place, those challenging times can be an opportunity to consider how you might build a better normal.

For example, COVID-19 has us all itching for the return of hugs and maskless meetups.

But it should also be the kick in the butt we need to reform a deeply flawed long-term care system, explore ideas like universal basic incomes and address other problems the pandemic has shone a spotlight on.

Meanwhile, we want to snuff out worsening wildfires each year so we can breathe easier again. But those plumes of smoke and ash should also move us down a path that tackles the climate crisis fuelling the flames.

And instead of just wishing for an end to the latest round of protests, we should be working to dismantle the systemic racism triggering them again and again.

Like a heart attack survivor returning to his daily diet of greasy hamburgers, getting back to “normal” or the “good old days” isn’t always the right direction.

So rather than seeing a crisis as simply a detour, try looking at it like a fork in the road — as an opportunity to let go of the things that don’t work and embark on a better way forward.