'Keren': The warrior

The blog on Hebrew web site Tapuz 'was an outlet for me to write down whatever I feel without fear.'

Keren tried hard to ignore the persistent ache in her legs. Too much horseback riding or martial arts, she thought, as she downed painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs, refusing to slow down her lifestyle of hard work and hard play. But on New Year's Day 2007, she awoke after partying to find "my legs wouldn't carry me, quite literally... And that's when I realized that there was something quite serious going on I had been avoiding for a few weeks," she recalled in a recent phone interview. Based on her symptoms - losing weight without dieting, losing hair and a weakening immune system - her doctor advised a biopsy to check her lymph nodes. She balked at demands for a more serious biopsy involving a hospital stay, "mainly because I was in denial." Then one of the senior doctors put his foot down, telling her point-blank: "Well, miss, do you want to die now, or in two months?" Overnight, her world changed forever. The results showed her lymph glands six times their normal size, and she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. "It sounded like a death sentence. I had no idea," says Keren. "I just started reading about this condition, which I knew nothing about, on the Internet. I came across a blog by a person who had been sick with this illness, and he had this 'to do' list for patients diagnosed with Hodgkin's, and the first item on the list was 'Write down everything.' "Up until that moment I was really confused, I didn't know what was going on, but that seemed to me like very good advice - just write down everything I'm going through to help me cope... I would be able to maybe find an outlet for my feelings which I couldn't find at that moment in other places." And so, in August 2007, the warrior was born. "I didn't know what chemotherapy was like, what my chances were... It was very important for me to be this brave warrior who is not afraid of anything and who is going to take whatever steps need by taken and move on - antibiotics, chemo or whatever." The blog on Hebrew web site Tapuz - which she at first did not share with her family or friends - "was an outlet for me to write down whatever I feel without fear of being judged for showing weakness, which was my big thing - not wanting to show weakness, even though I was sick." So she put on a brave front for those around her, but shared her emotions and experiences in the blog, a process she terms "cathartic." "I had terrible insomnia because of fears and the medicine. I remember waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning and just finding myself writing. And when it was all done, I looked at it and it was just, wow. It didn't even happen intentionally, but once the first post was there, I got into writing and I wrote another one. And I gave people the address to get responses." Initially, the blog focused on medicines, National Insurance coverage and the like, but then it became more personal. In a post from September 21 describing her chemo treatment, she wrote: "I admit that in the middle of the day of treatment, I lost it a little. I started to cry (in front of strangers - something I don't usually do). I yelled at my mother and one of the nurses, which they didn't deserve. It just hurt me and I felt awful, and I didn't understand why if there is no more sign of the disease in the Pet CT, I still need to go through another eight treatments, that is, four months of getting this crap in my vein, losing hair and all the complications..." Losing her hair was "one of my soft spots," and she wrote about it extensively in a post. Still, in between treatments, she wrote determinedly about life outside the hospital, about triumphs at work - being a keynote speaker at a conference in Hungary without letting on she was ill, to which she flew wearing a mask - or play, including getting the autograph of the leader of Nine Inch Nails or sharing a guest house up North with her family. "It was primarily to show myself and others that it was not the end of the world," she says of those posts, which also included an eclectic to-do list that underscored her looking ahead, "that being diagnosed with such an illness does not mean a death sentence... to show the truth to the world, that this illness is nothing that can hinder me, it can't stop me. I won't stop. I'll be the warrior and fight it out with everything I can." She also used a wide variety of approaches, particularly nutrition, to fight back. Her lone blog graphic shows some wheat grass growing at the top of a page headed: "My Personal Path Fighting Hodgkins Lymphoma," reflecting the large amounts of the stuff she consumed. And she got invaluable emotional help from readers. Even when she was discovered to be in remission - outlined in a hysterical post describing how she got the news via SMS from her mother - the supportive dynamic between blogger and reader continued. In an entry from December 11, 2007, entitled "Fears," she wrote: "As much as I try to act like a healthy person, plan my return to work, school... the fears keep pounding in my head. At night, before bed, in the morning, every little cough, every little bump or pimple immediately worries me. Will this stay with me in the (many) decades I still have to live?... It's as if my body 'betrayed' me and now I am reluctant to trust it that this will not happen again. Is there a solution? What do we do with these fears?" Recalling the feedback, she remembers: "I was writing about some fears and feelings of frustration that I had, and I got this talkback that said: 'If you want a green light to just spill out here what you feel, you've got it.' From a person I didn't know... the talkback was really exactly what I needed, and that person really knew what I needed to hear at that moment." While the 26-year-old is convinced her combination of alternative and traditional medicine helped her heal, she's equally certain of the contribution the blog made. "They say that paper can take anything, and in this case it's the keyboard; that you can write down anything, even when you're in tears, or when it's hard." More importantly, it remains invaluable even afterward, "a record and a perspective of what I had undergone in the weeks or months before. And I still find myself opening it and reading my posts, and it's a very unique experience to have this perspective on how I was feeling at the time." Today, she talks about the "freedom I got from being sick" which allowed her to explore new ideas, some reflecting that to-do list. She's thinking of writing a book and thanks the Web site she first encountered when she got sick for such good advice she believes others should follow. "The act of writing stuff down really helps you deal with it," says Keren. "I think that's a great tool for recovery from any difficult situation in life... your words and your feelings will remain, and that's important." As she received the joyful news she was in remission, she gradually stopped writing, but not fighting, particularly against smoking in public places, another blog topic. Reducing and finally stopping the entries was simply "a case of 'been there, done that.' I'm not a cancer patient anymore," she explains. "For me, writing more would have been to go back, and all I wanted was to go forward." But agreeing to be interviewed here was part of her commitment to being "a role model for other people dealing with illness... I started being much more open about my illness in my real life, speaking to my friends, to my colleagues. Right now I don't have a problem talking about it to people I don't even know, or people I do know, telling them: 'Look, I was sick; I got better.'" http://warrior.blogli.co.il