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I Have Plans

Setting goals and recognizing milestones matters in a life with cancer.
PUBLISHED August 26, 2019
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.

Cancer is better for me when I find the moments of meaning and presence, but it simultaneously demands continuing with what can be two of life's most stressful attributes: setting goals and achieving milestones.

I remember, straight out of college long ago, being chided by one of my best friends that though I wanted something for my career, I'd actually not put in the work for that particular job. Thirty years later, I still keep that truth in mind when thinking about my life and those of the people I love.

The dual focus of setting goals and achieving milestones has been on my mind lately with the new school year. All three of my children (and my husband) remind me through their actions that what I do today matters. Each of them is moving toward a future they can envision and almost grasp. It is gratifying as a parent and wife to see this this happening, but it also forces me to think about what I see in my own life and ask myself what I want to achieve.

As a friend of mine recently said, "I have plans, people!". So do I, and I hope you do too. Here are some tips for how to work toward making them a reality.

Setting Goals
My kids are extreme examples of the need to have goals that are short-term (getting a good grade on a test) and long-term (finding a college that speaks to one's heart and future). Watching them single-mindedly set unspoken goals and go for them urges me to remember that just because I have stage IV cancer, my life doesn't have to be goal-free.

Setting goals has always been a little hard for me because I can fear both failure and achievement. I was once asked why I was working at a particular job, which was fun but not leading anywhere I really wanted to go. That question encouraged me to try to see myself how others do. I may have felt like I had little to offer, but someone with much more experience in my field saw my potential and was kind enough to point out what I had been ignoring. Sometimes I need a nudge to set goals. Taking the lead from my family, I've settled into some short-term and longer-term goal-setting. We'll see where it leads.

Meeting Milestones
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my milestones became very small and close: eating, getting myself to chemotherapy. These milestones grew over time, but remained cancer-focused: making sure I exercised, eating more vegetables, having stable scans every three months. Some of the milestones I could control, while others - such as those stable scans - were largely out of my control. Today, I watched as my oldest daughter reached a milestone I wasn't sure I'd be alive to see, as she began both her first post-college job and a Master's degree program. It's been a whirlwind of excitement for her and a vivid reminder to celebrate the milestones reached. Meaningful milestones don't have to revolve around illness. In fact, they shouldn't.

Celebrating Success
I've learned that it makes for a much better life when I point out to myself that I've taken a step toward my goals or met a milestone of any size. We need to celebrate both the big and the small by living a life where exclamations of "Well done!" are a regular feature. And those failures? Those need recognition as well. Experiencing disappointment, having to change course, and sometimes even giving up for the moment are all part of living fully.

The world is big, I tell myself, and my goals, milestones, successes and failures deserve to be a part of it.

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