How cancer changed me into a bucketlist backpacker
At the moment of writing this, I am not sure weather to publish it, or if I should keep it to myself. It is very personal, and I don’t like to talk about it. So why are you? Well, it made me who I am today. And after the worst years of my life luckily ended, I can say it changed me for the better. I didn’t even come close to dying, thank God, they found it in an early stage. I don’t want to get a pity, nor a “you’re just doing it for the attention” or some other kind of attack. Please, be gentle. I want to explain my new way of thinking and of living. And hopefully inspire you, to live the life of your dreams and to get outside of your comfortable bubble. Don’t wait until the moment it might be too late.
I always had a thing for traveling, but until 2016, all I did were just one-week summer holidays in Turkey or Greece. I always wanted to explore more of the world than just Rhodes or Alanya, I just didn’t had the balls to do so. Going outside of Europe was just was a big dream, and I kept saying to myself; “one day I’ll travel the world”. I always played it save, didn’t really had the guts to properly speak up for myself and was just doing whatever society expected me to do. I lived a pretty normal and social live like 95% of the people in the Netherlands do, until then.
The moment my life changed, for ever
Back in 2014, after constantly having a weird kind of stomach pain (Google and I thought it could be appendicitis) I decided it was time to visit a doctor. After a lot of different tests in the hospital it turned out it was pre-stage cervical cancer. Even tho it LUCKILY still wasn’t cancer, I felt my whole world crumbling away under my feet. Just hearing that word was enough to make me freak out. I never thought something like that could happen to ME. Within 2 weeks I had a minor surgery where they cut out 7 areas where the cells were abnormal. They didn’t use any sedation, and shit was so painful, I seriously got traumatized because of it. Luckily after another test a little later, it turned out everything was gone and back to normal. Well, everything, apart from things in my head. I still was very nervous and I just didn’t trust my body anymore. I still felt like I was a ticking time bomb.
I remember thinking during that time; What if it comes back? What if I need chemo? What if.. I just didn’t trust my body anymore. And later on December 31st, Happy new year, it turned out my guts were right. I got the test results back from the annual check-up, and it was not good. This time it was dead serious, and I needed surgery. As you probably can imagine, I started my 2015 crying. It was the worst new years eve ever.
I saw my life flash before my eyes. Shit, no! Am I going to die? Will I ever be able to have children? Will I go bold? Life hit me super hard in the face at that time. If this was the end.. was I happy with the way I lived my life? Did I do all the things I wanted to do before I die? The answer was a HUGE no for me. No, I never had the balls to live the life of my dreams, and to do everything I wanted to do.
I was still traumatized from the pain I had last time (I had no sedation), but ‘luckily’ this was a bigger surgery and I had to go under full anesthesia. I was terrified. They removed a large part of my cervix, and I needed to stay in bed/couch for the 2 weeks after the surgery. After 1,5 week I got the best phone call I could ever get: the cutting edges were clean and they had removed everything!!
Now, it was time a for change! To start doing more things I was dreaming of doing. I always wanted to go to Russia with my dad, and visit as many new cultures and new, foreign countries as possible. I found an awesome organized tour to go to Russia by bus from The Netherlands. Yes that is a long drive. We visited a lot of places in Poland, the Baltic States, St. Petersburg, Finland and Sweden. It was the best time I ever had and; a new addiction was born. Until..
The lowest point of my life
Halfway through 2016 it was time for another annual checkup. With everything that happened in 2015, I was still nervous and crying often. Really, why am I telling this? And that, together with a new test result that showed new abnormal cells, resulted in me having the worst breakdown you can imagine. I had a burn-out.
I didn’t leave the house anymore, I wasn’t able to do anything. Even doing a simple task like vacuuming was to too much for me. Even watching TV was impossible. All I could do was cry, and feel extremely nervous. Day and night. I stopped going to work and was living in my own head. If I did try to go out, it resulted in me – 500 m from my house – crying in my car on the verge of a road.
After weeks and weeks of this, I slowly began to feel like myself again. Not the old me, a new me. Once again, life slapped me in the face. I still wasn’t living live to the fullest like I should have done. And all of a sudden; it was like someone turned on a switch in my head. It’s hard to explain, and even to understand maybe, but I was mentally getting stronger. A lot stronger. This time it was for real. Change.
I booked another (organized) tour to Sri Lanka, because I still was too much of a chicken to do it myself. You could say this was a “test trip” for me. This country was on top of my bucketlist. Yes you hear me, bucketlist. At this moment of time, my bucketlist was born. However, I kept thinking.. hmm, why am I on an organized tour? I can do this myself! No I don’t want to visit this damn tourist trap with fake herbs that make you look like Doutzen Kroes when you smudge it on your ankles. I wanna go and do what I want! I can do this myself, I WILL do this myself next time!
A friend I went to school with went on a solo backpacking trip to South East Asia. I followed her every move on Facebook and I was feeling so jealous. That’s the thing I always wanted to do, but I never had the courage to do so.
“Nikita, fucking hell, if this cancer comes back -maybe even worse next time- you are still only dreaming and not actual DOING the things you wan to do.” So in late 2017, I quit my job and I booked a one-way ticket to Beijing. My parents hated me, my friends thought is was a bad idea, and all I got were negative responses. Nevertheless, I was going to do it, if my friends and family supported me or not.
It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I had a rough start, since this was the first time ever I was traveling alone and with no tour bus waiting for me to bring me to I hotel. This time, it was independent, just me and my backpack in hostels, not hotels.
Fast-forward a couple of months; I got stronger and better each week of traveling. The more adventurous, the better. I avoided all kinds of tours and preferred taking 6 different local buses than one easy and quick tourist bus. I learned to speak up for myself, improved my English and I got super independent. I had no-one to fall back on here if things went south, I was the only one who could get me out of unfortunate situations. I changed from a shy girl, who never really gave her opinion, into a strong and very opinionated woman ready to change her life forever.
After I came home halfway 2018 because my grandma was really sick, I didn’t felt like working for a company anymore where I had to apply for a few days off 2 months in advance with limited holiday-days. I took a lot of different courses, watched tons of YouTube video’s and started learning new skills like webdesign, graphic design and marketing. In the meantime I’ve found a job meant for short-term while I was studying and working on building my own business. I was determent to become a full-time traveler, a digital nomad. I traveled a lot in the meantime because my hours were super flexible. I could get days off whenever I wanted to and that was the reason for me taking the job. I wanted to make the life I always dreamed about come true.
After 3 months of launching my first online store, I was able to quit my job in early 2019. I made in one month what I used to earn in five months and I felt on top of the world. Ever since, I’ve been traveling the world as often as possible. Unfortunately not full-time, because of health issues with my grandparents and mum (also cancer). I love my family to death, and I don’t want to regret later in life that I didn’t spend enough time with them while I still was able to. I am trying to find the right balance between my family and traveling.
Because of this, I have mainly been traveling around closer to home. After my big Asia trip, my backpack and I traveled around in 21 countries in Europe, Northern Africa and the Caucasus. It’s save to say the travel bugs bite me hard.
Today the day
It has been a bumpy ride, but I am happy it happened. If I didn’t get that terrible news, I would still be stuck in a job I didn’t love without any ambition and living in a comfort zone. I would still let people walk over me and I probably still would be traveling to a all-inclusive holiday in Turkey once a year.
I changed mentally and fisically. I train like one of the guys in the gym and I am more happy and open than ever before. My ambition is going through the roof and I am always learning and working, 7 days a week. I am not shy anymore, far from actually. I can have full-blown conversations with random people I meet on the street (something I would never do before) and I became way more impulsive dong last minute things. I became strong in every aspect. I started living my motto: “you won’t know unless you try”, which even resulted in me eating intestines in Scotland. Actually tasted better than it sounds. I love pushing my boundaries and I don’t let anyone or anything take away my happiness or goals.
Health issues with my family are going better now, and I am planning on visiting more off the beaten track countries soon. All my trips have been canceled due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, but if the world makes it out you can expect to find my guides and experiences to the places on top of my current bucketlist on my website. These include countries like; Iran, Iraq, Saudi-Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Oman, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
A learning lesson
I want you all to realize life is short, as cliche as it might sound. And it CAN be over before you know it. You never hear people say; I regret doing what I love. Only that they didn’t do it. Don’t wait until you receive terrible news to trough yourself into the deep. Don’t live your life saying: “One day I’ll do that” or “I love traveling, but I will do that when I’m retired”. YOU DON’T KNOW IF YOU EVER MAKE IT TILL YOUR RETIREMENT. So, I said it. You could be death tomorrow.
Sounds drastic and hard to you? It is the reality. Take risks, do what you love and don’t think about what other people might say. It is your life. Stop dreaming and start doing! Money returns, time doesn’t.