There are some moments in life that both divide and define it. For our nation, the great wars we fought, as well as September 11, 2001, were such moments. In my life, it was February 23, 2004. For me, life will always now be divided between before and after cancer.
I got the call about 2:30 in the afternoon. It was from my surgeon. I'd been expecting it. I told Karl if the diagnosis wasn't cancer, I was gonna do a rebel yell and we were gonna go to Red Lobster for a party. When I hung up, Karl said, "I didn't hear you yell, and you're not askin' for a party." I just nodded. He cried. I let him–but only for a little while–and then I set him straight.
"Your problem," I told him, "is that, in your line of work, you get to see pretty much only those who don't survive. Well, let me make this clear–I aint gonna be 1 of 'em." He wiped his eyes and nose and resolutely joined me for 1 of the most harrowing rollercoaster rides of our lives.
so, with 8 years behind me, what have I learned? In case you're interested, a few of the things follow.
1) I am not a victim. Cancer is widely regarded as a disease about which very little can be done, or at least about which the patient can do very little. Nothing could be further from the truth. the truth is that those who have received a cancer diagnosis have the responsibility to educate themselves regarding their options, as well as to find a medical team that will support the options they've chosen. It took me a couple of years, but I finally assembled such a team. Thanks, Dr. Wendt–you've been wonderful. I know when I first saw you, you thought I'd be nothin' but trouble.
But it's not just the medical team. Doctors should be the first to admit they can't make anyone well. They can provide the medicines, but the body has to do the rest. Here again, the patient him/herself is responsible for providing fertile physical, emotional, and spiritual soil for healing. That includes good nutrition, exercise as permitted, fresh air when possible, hydration, reading/watching/listening to uplifting materials, belief in one's ability to cope, gratitude, and service. The person who believes their life has purpose is the one most likely to survive, I think. The person who doesn't feel hopeless about their situation is also the one who's most apt to do the things necessary to regain their health.
2) Whether I lived through the cancer or I didn't, my life was gonna end someday. None of us likes to think about death, especially our own. The spectre of cancer, however, brings it very much to the forefront. Stephen Covey, in his book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said it thus: "begin with the end in mind." it's a book I read annually, whether I need to or not.
So, what does it mean to "begin with the end in mind?" It means visualize the accomplishment first, then plan how you intend to get there. It also means thinking about what it is you want to have accomplished at the end of your life. Cancer definitively brings that question front and center, forces you to look at what you've accomplished to date, and determine what it is you wish to do with whatever time you might have left. The good thing is–you don't need cancer to do that sort of self-examination–it's available anytime. For me, I certainly ask myself a lot more often now, how I might leave this world a better place than what I found it. Few of us will be recognized in history for our accomplishments. I'm convinced, however, that somehow the love we give, the kindnesses we bestow, whatever material/spiritual things we share, take on an energy all their own, often beyond what we ever imagined when we gave them. Truthfully, most of the time we remain unaware of the good our kindnesses may have done. Sometimes, we do get a glimpse, and it can be incredibly rewarding. I had someone years later share a memory of something I'd done for him which I personally had not only long since forgotten, but had not attributed any significance to in the first place. What may seem insignificant to 1 may be absolutely life-affirming to the person you gave it to. Keep spreading those love seeds! You'll never know the beautiful flowers and trees they might grow into.
3) Prioritize. This actually is an outgrowth of #2. Decide your priorities, and dedicate yourself, as much as possible, to them. Align your time commitments with those priorities. and make certain those priorities matter, e.g., if it's more important for you to have a clean house than for your family to feel at home there, you might really wanna reexamine that priority. I also think many of us are guilty of putting insufficient priority on ourselves. In order to be our best, we need to care for our health–physical, mental, and spiritual. Putting ourselves low on the priority list is a disservice, not only to us, but also to those we love.
4) Love others as you love yourself. There are 2 components here–loving others and loving oneself, and they're inextricably intertwined. If you don't like yourself, if you don't respect yourself, you can't really love and respect others. On the other hand, if you feel you're a good and worthwhile human being, you're more likely to feel similarly toward those around you. Loving oneself is not demanding one's way, or pushing others about so you can get what you want. It's more about feeling your life has purpose, you belong here, you're a worthwhile and contributing member to the human race, etc.
You won't take care of yourself adequately if you don't have a healthy self-respect–and taking care of oneself is absolutely necessary for a successful cancer outcome. So is a purpose for living. Read Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning", if you have any doubts regarding that.
5) Enjoy the ride. Everyone's heard the saying "life is short". It's true. So–find those things in it that are life-affirming, and enjoy them. God could have put us on an earth that had no wildlife, no plants, no mountains or canyons, or deserts, or glaciers. He could have given us a vanilla drink that contained all the nutrients we needed. All people could have been robots and clones. Instead, there are hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species, beautiful sights to see and sounds to hear, great coffees, teas, beers, and wines, wonderful people to meet and get to know who are all very different–there are so many things to enjoy none of us will ever get to see or hear or do or know them all. Do something you enjoy daily.
6) Be grateful. Mark Twain once said, "the world doesn't owe anyone anything–it was here first." So many people seem to feel entitled–e.g., it's not fair if I don't have a new car, a boat, a house on the hill, etc. It's also not fair to have cancer. But why? If the argument is that so-and-so smokes, therefore s/he should have gotten cancer, and not me/you, the truth is that there's likely another person that puts you or me to shame that also has cancer. God causes the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous, and the rain to fall upon all. Life isn't, never has been, and likely never will be fair. Deal with it and move on. The truth is, the concept of "fairness" springs from the concept of entitlement. As I said earlier, Mark Twain pretty much put that one to bed.
Gratitude, on the other hand, springs from the concept of blessing. If we're given something nice we don't feel we deserve, or are entitled to, then we feel grateful. The next question that raises is, "well, cancer isn't very nice–should I feel grateful?" to which I'll answer–let's leave that post for another day. What I do think should suffice for now, though, is to be grateful for the good things around us, for those we love, the things we have, precious memories, etc. In other words, concentrate on and be grateful for the things you have, and work toward the things you want.
7) Especially for those now battling cancer–hear this! It was told to me by a man named Greg Anderson (www.cancerrecovery.org). He was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancerr and given 30 days to live–in 1984. Needless to say, when he spoke, I listened. About 6 months into my journey, he told me this during a teleseminar: "Understand that you're not engaged in a battle against cancer–you're engaged in a quest for wellness."
That was a *huge* epiphany! I mean–seriously–there's a whole lotta difference between a battle and a quest. Battles tend to be violent, exhausting affairs; quests, at least in theory, are voluntary and likely contain an element of joy. Secondly, it meant I had to look beyond the cancer and understand that disease-free does not necessarily mean healthy or well. The person who suffers the "widdow-maker" heart attack was disease free until the attack struck, but certainly not healthy, as plaque was clearly occluding the arteries well before the actual coronary event.
8) The present is all we have. There are no guarantees in life–none of us are even promised our next breath. So the question remains: "What are you gonna do with this 1 moment in time?" It's very easy to get caught up worrying about the future; Jesus told us otherwise. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Mt 6:26-27 NRSV)
There are very few things we humans have control over in this world. In fact, I posit that the only thing we as individuals have complete control over is our own thoughts. We can each make a choice to think or do something uplifting with the current moment, or we can choose to think or do something negative and hurtful, either to ourselves or others. We can choose to rejoice, find gratitude, blessing, or love in a moment–or we can choose to worry, be angry, or a whole host of other negative emotions. I'm not saying everyone can always be happy–that's not possible. There will always be times of sadness or anger or depression. The key, I think, is what Martin Luther once said–"you can't keep the birds from flying overhead, but you can certainly prevent them from building a nest in your hair."
The last point I'll make in this regard is that external circumstances do not make us unhappy–it's our thoughts regarding those circumstances that make us unhappy. Some people can have what seem to be the best of circumstances, and yet are miserable. Others can live under conditions we would view as abominable, and yet find joy. Again, I refer anyone interested in more information on that to "Man's Search for Meaning", by Frankl, especially the first half.
8 years–8 lessons. Not bad. Perhaps I'll write a similar post next year, with a 9th lesson added. By the way, I told Karl the day I was diagnosed that we were gonna have a 5-year cancer-free party at Red Lobster. We did.cancer and beyond