We haven’t been seeing Yana Zaimenko who is now 29 years old for more than 6 years, i.e. her recovery from Burkitt lymphoma. It’s hard to recognize the Yana from 2009 in this serious and stern woman. Yana doesn’t look and doesn’t consider herself as a cancer survivor, she enjoins herself and her life, and we asked her how she’d learned that during and after her treatment.
What are you doing these days? You look very serious!
You’re spot-on about the seriousness! I work at the Istrinsky District administration, Land Use Department. I have a important and smart job for a real grown-up and a stern business person.
In 2009, you weren’t a “grown-up and a stern person” yet. You were a third-year ecological engineering student and then your life was disrupted by illness.
That’s right. I was a young and pretty, a student full of life. I loved to follow fashion, dress up, going to theater and concerts, hanging out with friends and of course dating. Then all of a sudden everything had changed. I started to get tired very quickly. I’d come home from school and wouldn’t go out; I’d just pick a book or go to bed. Then my teeth started aching. So I went to see dentist after dentist, physician after physician… It was deeply draining both mentally and physically. Finally, I’d gotten a diagnosis at the Botkin Hospital: “Burkitt lymphoma”. It was horrifying!
The doctor in charge Alexei Pshokin, told me up front what I would have to go through. I remember vividly I felt how strongly I wanted to live. I didn’t think about what I’d have to do in order to achieve that, or how. I’d just have to reach my goal. I wanted to stay with my family.
How did they react to your illness?
My sudden illness was shocking for both my parents and my brother. Everyone wept. My mother fell into this strange state where she stopped feeling any emotions. She recalls that she was able to focus only on one thing— her child’s health. She threw everything else aside. I remember how she offered me some very insightful words then about how our soul knows what would happen to it in advance, and was prepared for the blows fate deals. My relatives and loved ones supported me greatly in my struggle with the disease, and I did my best to support them.
You were 22 at the time, so you were in the “young adult” category—it wasn’t your parents next to you but other young patients like you. What did you do with your spare time?
I was lucky; I was surrounded by young people. We developed our own vibrant little life, our own story, and it was no less active than that of normal kids. We’d go for walks around the hospital, play cards, argue, laugh and even fight. Of course, the pace of your life is completely different in hospital. Instead of ordinary activities and concerns you have none-too-pleasant treatments and an exact timetable. But life always finds its way. No matter what people want to live, feel emotions, and be happy. Even while fighting cancer.
How did you encounter the Podari Zhizn Foundation?
We’d been getting visits from the Foundation pretty often, but I’d felt rather hostile towards them. For the first month I didn’t need anyone but my loved ones. But bit-by-bit, the volunteers became an important part of my life. And, you know, that life had started to gain new colors with their arrival! It was because they didn’t come to feel sorry for me, they came to chat and to have a good time. The Podari Zhizn Foundation itself did a great job for me. It didn’t just heal my body but my soul. In my phonebook I still have the numbers of everyone who was there with me. Sometimes we write to each other, send good wishes on special occasions, and keep an eye on people’s personal lives through social network VKontakte.
What role does charity work play in your life?
I do want to help people. Everyone in our little town knows what happened to me, and often I get requests from acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, who are facing difficulties and need to know where to start, what to do, and where to go. Everyone is afraid of being left alone with its disease. I share my experience, give suggestions, and, of course, contact my dear doctor in charge. I think even during the first year after my treatment I spent less time thinking and talking about what had happened than I do now. Sometimes I wonder whether I should start organizing something helpful here in Istra. I wonder if I could find some accomplices. Obviously, it would be quite a challenge to do it on my own.
How long did it take you to return to your previous life after the hospital?
The way it played out is that I was released from hospital in winter, but I had to go back to school only in fall. That half-year was my real rehabilitation process: I was able to pull myself together, forget about medication and treatments, build strength and dive into my studies with new energy. But to be honest, it was also my hardest time. First of all, I was paranoid—every type of sore made me think my life was over. It took me a long time to get my head around the fact that normal people could fall down or get injured too, and that it’s not a big deal for anyone including myself. Secondly, I was very anxious and impatient. I wanted everything, and as soon as possible. I felt like after I’d gone through all that my life should sort itself out without any effort. I’d immediately get my degree, marry a millionaire, and get all the other joys of life handed to me on a plate. But it turned out that I had to keep living and fighting for what I wanted: gradually recover, study, and passing exams. It turned out to be long-term and demanding work. And for some reason I didn’t even find love straight away, isn’t is weird?
But did you find your prince in the end?
Fortunately, yes! I’m married and I have a wonderful husband! He knows about my past, but doesn’t give me a free pass. You know, sometimes you want to exploit your past for your own benefit. But ever since we met, my husband’s treated me like as an able-bodied person because I’m healthy. Meaning I have to live up to the standards of an able-bodied person. And my parents, incidentally, have also always followed that policy. And I’m very grateful to them for it.
Do you ever give yourself a break in certain situations?
No, I don’t give myself breaks either. I can’t say that my illness interferes with my life today, or the reverse, that it’s given me something special, something supernatural. But it did, of course, help me become the person I am today. I’ve always been a goal-oriented person in principle, but after everything I’ve been through, I’ve started to value life more. I still have a feeling deep down I can’t get enough of this life. Right now, I have no limits at all. I’ve stopped setting them for myself. If I’ve beaten cancer, then I can overcome any challenge, conquer any height and succeed at anything I do. No barriers exist for me anymore.
Do you have a hobby, something you’re really into?
I enjoy sports. I go to the gym three times a week, set myself goals and gradually work towards them. I’ve also learned to snowboard and I strive to go to the mountains every winter.
What would you wish kids who are fighting for their lives right now?
You have to want to live. Don’t abandon that desire no matter what. As long as you want to live, you’ll find the strength for everything you need.