Olya Pleshakova
30 NOVEMBER 2017

If I can overcome cancer, then I can climb any mountain

In the ten years since she fell ill, 17-year-old Olga Pleshakova has transformed from a little girl into a beautiful, charming young woman. She casually tells us about her life today, and does not shy away from remembering the events of ten years ago.

What are you doing these days?

I spend nearly all my time studying; this year, I’ve entered medical school, where I’ve just started getting my head around the job of a professional nurse. If I happen to get a day off, I happily meet up with my friends or read.

Why did you decide to commit your life to medicine? Is this somehow related to your treatment and your illness?

Yes, the connection there is as direct and obvious as it gets. I decided to become a nurse because I really want to help people the same way that doctors and nurses once helped me face my illness.

What do you remember about that time? You were very little, after all, just a seven-year-old girl…

It’s true, I only remember fragments of that part of my life. I remember, for example, that I ended up in Ryazan Hospital right after the start of my first year at school. At first, I didn’t think it was anything serious. After all, I’d been sick before, I’d had colds and fevers. Then I had my first chemotherapy and my hair fell out all at once. That moment has stuck with me. A doctor came up to me and said that I’d have to be shaved bald. At first, I resisted, but the illness and the treatment broke my spirit. I became so weak that I stopped caring. When they were shaving me, I didn’t struggle and didn’t even cry. Then they sent me to Moscow.

What did you do during your spare time in hospital?

I played with toys! Except instead of dolls, construction sets or plush toys, I had syringes, wool and catheters. I loved collecting them. And then we had our own gang of kids. We would play together, run around and have fun. But more than anything, we enjoyed going toe-to-toe in video games.

How did you find the hospital diet? I know you craved salted onions…

It’s hard to explain to a young child why they suddenly can’t eat their favourite foods. I loathed potatoes fried in water, and this bizarre salted porridge. I badly wanted something with actual flavour, but it was all forbidden. I put up with it—what else could I do? As it happens, back in Ryazan I’d still acted spoiled, probably because I didn’t understand what was going on. But by the time I got to Moscow, I was a steadfast tin soldier. The doctor in charge of me really helped me as well—he filled me with optimism.

Did you deliberately set your heart on victory?

Yes, of course. I think in general it’s very important to believe in your success. Otherwise it’s very difficult, in fact impossible, to beat cancer. While I was undergoing treatment, I didn’t think about anything bad, just lived “in the here and now”, as they say, and celebrated or lamented whatever was happening to me at the time without holding back. But sometimes I think that if I’d fallen ill at 17, I wouldn’t have survived it.

You mean children are more emotionally resilient than teenagers?

Honestly, I don’t know. Everyone is unique, and we all have our different perspectives on the same situations. Maybe I was the only child who didn’t understand half of what was going on in hospital, and didn’t take the other half too seriously or with too much drama. But I think that teenagers generally react to everything more intensely. An illness as serious as cancer will have a stronger impact on their personality and outlook.

And how did it impact on you? What kind of person did you become after triumphing over leukaemia?

I think I became more serious and rational. More obedient, too—when people forbade me to do something, I easily went along with it. These days, I also don’t run or hide from life problems; rather, I meet them head-on. I draw confidence from my conviction that if I can overcome cancer, then I can climb any mountain.

Was it easy to return to your old life after treatment?

No, I can’t say it was. And the reason for that isn’t because I got some sharp burst of maturity. It’s because my life was full of various restrictions. For over a year, I studied at home, didn’t go to school and didn’t go out with friends. But I really wanted to spend time with my peers. As a result, when I finally went to school, I quickly found a place for myself. But I’ve never forgotten being ill. It was an important point in my life. Of course, people who have never had to go through anything like this are lucky; they haven’t had this harrowing experience. But on the other hand, I’ve learned that there are such things as altruistic help and boundless kindness in the world.

Are you referring to the Podari Zhizn Foundation?

Yes, both them and the doctors. I’m awed by their openness. They not only help children like me but also our families, asking nothing in return. Thanks to their support, we find new strength, and most importantly, hope of victory. I want express my deep gratitude for their work and the effort they put in every day.

What can you say to the children bravely struggling with disease right now?

Don’t lose hope, and find the good in everything. Settle in for the long haul and clench your fists tight, because the fight is going to be long and unrelenting.

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