Last week, I spend four dream filled days in the Bay Area, just across the bay from San Francisco – in the small town of Corte Madera – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers conference. While my head is swimming with reflection and inspiration, I decided to share an essay that I wrote for my Personal Essay workshop. Our assignment was to explore our memory and craft a piece based on a long, lost thought. As it turned out, the trigger for my memory happened as I was taking off for San Francisco earlier that week and opened my very own Pandora’s Box. But more than the memory itself, the piece reminds me of why I believe in the power of travel to transform and as a vehicle to find everyday wellness. This isn’t one of my usual stories – but I wanted to share this brief moment in time as a reminder of why I see wellness and travel as two sides of the same coin.

Ready to take off from Cancer | LiveDoGrow

iPad, kindle and journal tucked away in the seat pocket in front of me, my hips wiggled in my seat, legs outstretched. Thankful for a few extra inches of room, I was grateful for my “never hurts to ask” tradition of inquiring whether an exit row might be open before a long flight. Sitting back, I was aware of the other passengers making their way through the narrow aisle. My gaze landed on one woman whose face I knew but couldn’t place. I dismissed the flash of recognition for a brief moment, until behind her the figure of a tall man burst in front of my consciousness, a familiar sense of warmth squeezing my heart.

My voice called out – not loud enough to offset the low hum of the plane’s systems working in the background – but loud enough for my seat mates to glance worriedly in my direction. What were the chances that these two people – the first couple that welcomed me into what would become my spiritual home and sanctuary so many years ago – who I had not seen in over six years, would be seated across the aisle from me…in the exit row that I had only just secured. Eventually, the man placed his carry on bag in the overhead bin and his own eyes scanned the scene, landing on my hopeful face. All at once, recognition turned to a smile and with that, the years gone by were no more.

I was in the bedroom of my 876 square foot apartment. A space that had transformed into a mini mission control in a singular split second.

A telephone squealed and my fiancee appeared at the door, mysteriously early from work. Instinctively I knew that sound of my oncologist’s voice and the appearance of the man I loved – in the same moment – could not be a coincidence.

The words were not important really. With the windows open, the roaring engines of planes making their last approach over the curving Potomac River boomed, droning out the familiar voice on the handset.

I had known it on the driver over the Key Bridge on my way to the hospital earlier that day. The sun shone brightly against the pale blue sky. Open lanes replaced the typical standstill traffic where I would usually try to distract myself with NPR on in the background. But instead of feeling optimistic that my CT scan would be the first of many routine checkups, my heartbeat had been quick and my nerves anxious. I even whispered a prayer as I walked into the sterile, cold room in my hospital gown. Something I had never done.

But feeling it in my gut and hearing the news were two different things. From slow-motion to lightening speed, emotions unraveled like a ball of yarn. Tears. Disbelief. Even shouting.

Remission was a thing of the past according to the new CT scan. Apparently my lymph nodes did not care that my wedding was only four months away and that our bags were packed, cluttering up a corner, ready to leave for our engagement party in Michigan.

I couldn’t move. The mattress had become my cradle – the down comforter swaddling me. Unlike the first diagnosis, this seemed like a slap on the wrist. I was mad. Pissed off.

Seriously? Had I not already demonstrated courage, optimism and resilience? I stopped listening to the details, wanting to escape to one of the planes that I knew was loading new passengers. I’d go anywhere as long as I could be far away from this. I longed to be soaring through the sky, through seas of puffy white cotton balls. And yet, here I was. Preparing to go to war with my body once again.

But now? Back in my window seat in the exit row? Here I was. Having won the war 17 years ago, just a few seats away from a couple that had seen me through the battle scars. I was finally ready to take off.



If you are new here and want to read a bit more about my cancer story…this of the day I found out that my Hodgkin’s Disease was back took place many years ago (17!). I am thankful toLarry Habegger  – our personal essay workshop instructor, writer and editor – for fostering a setting where I felt safe enough to think about this memory and then share it with our class. Curious to read more? I am working on writing more memories of cancer – trying to describe the incomplete fragments of those days on paper – and hope to share them in some way, shape or form some day. For now, here are a few pieces to get you started.

Finding the silver lining in cancer

Living as a cancer survivor



Written by Elena Sonnino

Elena Sonnino

Chaser of Dreams. Life coach, wellness and travel writer, yogini, former teacher, adventure seeker, hiker, foodie …and oh right, cancer survivor. Elena writes about finding everyday wellness in far-flung lands and in her own backyard in the Washington D.C. suburbs.


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