Finding out at eleven that you have blood cancer… it’s a blow.
Alina Bolotina, cancer survivor and a former patient of Podari Zhizn, is 23. She is in her last year of university and doesn’t regret not becoming an actress. She remembers what it was like to undergo treatment even though it was many, many years ago. She is level-headed and beautiful, with a radiant smile and a very positive outlook. She also has many insights which she is happy to share.
How are things? What are you doing these days?
I’d say you’ve asked the most difficult question up front. Right now I’m—how best to put it—trying to find myself, trying to understand where I belong. I’m in my final year of university, consumed by my studies and trying to sit myself down to work on my diploma. But if I’m honest, thinking about it really gets me down. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I never became an actress like I dreamed. I’m a culturologist, but I think God works in mysterious ways, so if acting is for me, it will happen. I genuinely believe that one should be happy that not all dreams come true. Sometimes it’s for the best.
What do you do in your spare time?
I like seeing my friends or just going for walks around Moscow. This city grants me new experiences every day, revealing new and unexpected sides of itself.
But the way you came to Moscow involved fairly tragic circumstances.
At the point when we found out about my illness, it had been left to develop far too long. In late 2005 my bones started aching badly. I couldn’t even walk. In December, I ended up in hospital, and the doctors decided I had nephritis. They treated me accordingly, but the pain wouldn’t go away; instead, it only grew. I was sent to a haematologist, given a blood test and diagnosed with blood cancer. The doctors immediately began very harsh treatment because it turned out that I didn’t just have leukaemia, but the acute lymphoblastic kind, and with the Philadelphia chromosome on top. I wasn’t remotely surprised—I always loved to stand out from the crowd, and this was no exception!
I spent over a month being treated in my home town of Tomsk. I felt like not only my classmates, but the entire town was trying to help me. It’s thanks to everyone’s help that I found myself in Moscow. This was a really remarkable series of events: some acquaintances saw a TV programme featuring Fyodor Bondarchuk and Chulpan Khamatova, where among other things they talked about aid for children with oncological conditions. Then they wrote to Bondarchuk via his website. He responded, and thanks to his efforts I ended up in the Russian Children’s Clinical Hospital.
How did you take the news about your illness?
Finding out at eleven that you have blood cancer… it’s a blow, and you have to roll with it. You can’t sit back, start sulking and give up. Quite the opposite—you have to get yourself ready as if there’s something heavy incoming. You mustn’t panic. Because of my age, I probably didn’t fully understand how serious my illness was. But when my friends in the ward started to disappear before my very eyes, I realised what I was dealing with.
How did you cope with losing them?
I have a special attitude to death now. I’m not afraid of it. I understand that each of us has our allotted span and we mustn’t waste it. You have to squeeze every last drop from yourself and your life. It’s important to understand that you’re full of kindness, love and affection. What you have and what you can give to others. I suppose it wasn’t for nothing that I saw death so close up. My friends’ journeys weren’t so long or so very complicated, but I believe that it is they who made me and my loved ones stronger and kinder.
What comes to mind when you think of the hospital?
The Tomsk one was a grey, gloomy place. It didn’t have a children’s oncology ward, and I was lying there together with adults. It was a very painful experience. But when I found myself in Moscow, everything changed radically. I don’t even know how to explain it. I have the warmest and most uplifting memories of the doctors, my fellow sufferers and the volunteers. Sometimes I even feel a wave of nostalgia.
How did you encounter the Podari Zhizn Foundation?
As it happens, through that very same programme with Fyodor Bondarchuk and Chulpan Khamatova. I want you to know that everyone who works for this charity is exceptional. They’re open to the entire world. It’s as if each of them has a whole universe inside; it’s something I can’t put into words. I’m so glad we crossed paths.
When I look at your photographs from the time of your treatment, I’m struck by your positive outlook. In each picture, you’re laughing or smiling. Were you not scared? Or did you just never show your fear to the people around you?
Of course, I felt fear, and melancholy, and anxiety. But I tried not to show any of it. I was surrounded by friends and loved ones, and I knew I was very important to them. I knew that their emotional state depended entirely on me. So if I showed them that I was suffering, they’d suffer too. They united around me and didn’t let me lose heart. Yes, it was hard for me, both emotionally and physically, but I only thought about that when I was alone. What good would it do anyone else? I knew that this dark time in my life would end someday, and that there would be light beyond it. Beating cancer is a very high hurdle to overcome, but I knew I’d been set it for a reason. And I should be happy that I was given these kinds of challenges. They let one rise much higher and see much further.
What kind of person did you become after overcoming your illness?
Afterwards, I came home as a completely different person. I think I left my childhood behind forever the moment I stepped across the threshold of the hospital. And though it sounds cynical, I didn’t have much fun with my peers. I kept thinking of deeper questions: “Why are we alive? For what purpose? How do we live and can we make anything better?” But these aren’t questions you usually ask as a 12-year-old. You still want to stay a child. I became a precociously wise and level-headed person.
You didn’t want to go back to your childhood?
There was nobody waiting to welcome me there! My peers didn’t accept me. I was bald and I took hormones that made the doctors call us little spiders—hormonal medicines bloat the stomach and the cheeks while the arms and legs stay thin. My classmates looked at me with bemusement, even with aggression which probably stemmed from lack of understanding. They simply didn’t know how to interact with me. But all that disappeared when I started to look human again. They probably expected me to be offended, but I understood what was behind their behaviour, and didn’t hold any grudges.
Also, I was comfortable on my own. It was in hospital that I learned to listen to my inner voice, to hear it and, most importantly, to understand it. Many people fear being alone; they can’t stand being on their own. So they drown out their thoughts with music, films or hanging out with friends. Whereas I think it’s very important to learn to listen to yourself, to truly understand yourself and your desires.
How does your life experience help you in daily life?
I simply keep in mind that things could be far worse. I remember it when I find myself faced with injustice, with things that aren’t right. I try to help and I tell everyone that there will always be plenty of good people who will definitely help them get back on their feet. After all, that’s what happened to me.
What would you like to say to the children fighting their illnesses right now?
Find strength and patience within yourself. You always have to have hope; that goes without saying. It’s patience specifically that I wish you. In order to overcome what’s happened to you, you have to discover your inner boundless wellspring of love and goodness.
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