Breast cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me – and I never want it again. Now I am cancer-free and living a more fulfilling life than before the illness. Here are 10 insights and experiences from my cancer journey that continue to sustain me professionally and personally.
Breast cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And I never want it again. Let's start with that.
As I approach the three-year anniversary of my final chemotherapy session, I've been reflecting on some of the insights and experiences from my breast cancer journey that continue to sustain me professionally and personally:
- You see the best of humanity from total strangers. I thought being bald from chemotherapy would make me feel vulnerable because everyone would know I was sick. Instead, I found it gave people permission to be their best selves. The day my dry cleaner offered to carry my clothes to my car, I almost cried from the kindness.
- You have an excuse for being sentimental. I had several friends in my life to whom I never said, "I love you." It just wasn't something I regularly said to friends, especially those who were former colleagues. Cancer pushed me tell my friends just how important they were to me and to keep reminding them to this day. (And now you have a good opportunity too, because you can say you read a story about how we rarely tell our friends that we love them...)
- You learn the impact of small acts of kindness. I had been raised to say "please" and "thank you" and thought of myself as someone who generally tried to be polite and thoughtful of others. Until I was ill, I never realized how much of an impact genuine, simple kindness can have: the grocery store clerk who opened an aisle just for me so I could check-out quickly; another store clerk who shared his own battles with cancer and told me some equivalent of "You've got this!" every time he saw me in the store; the pet sitter I hired to clean my cat's litter box because of my compromised immune system who voluntarily cleaned my kitchen every time she visited – she even brought her own cleaning supplies when I ran out and was too tired to notice.
- You can choose to find a silver lining in just about every situation. "Everything happens for a reason" is something most people do not want to hear when they are critically ill, including me. However, I do believe that it's possible to create meaning from life's most challenging times. We see it when a grieving parent chooses to start a charity in honor of a child they lost, or when a celebrity shares their history with addiction in hopes of helping others. This list is an example of finding a silver lining.
- Practicing gratitude breeds more gratitude. With the help of some guided meditations, I made it a habit to try to recognize the small victories and pleasures in my life. A wonderful cup of coffee at my favorite coffee shop or a warm nap in the sun began to fill me with joy. The more that I recognized the little things, the more I saw them everywhere.
- Most things you worry about will never happen. I've always been a worrier. It's part of what makes me a good consultant. It helps me think about my work from a 360-degree perspective. However, it is not useful when you are seriously ill, especially for someone who researches everything.
Early in my diagnosis, I spoke with a breast cancer survivor who told me,"Step away from Google." There was a fine line between useful and too-much research. As the saying goes, "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened." Never has this been truer for me than during the diagnosis phase of my illness. Now, when I find myself going down the rabbit hole of worry, I catch myself by remembering those early days of diagnosis and comparing them to where I am now... cancer-free and living a more fulfilling life than before the illness.
- My work is not who I am. I love what I do for a living. If I won $20 million in the lottery, I'd offer philanthropic consulting for free. When I was in in the midst of numerous tests to ensure that my breast cancer hadn't metastasized, I looked back on the previous decade of 60-plus hour work weeks with deep sadness. I was not/am not irreplaceable for any job. I am irreplaceable to the people who love me.
- Life is too short to dwell on regret. (See #7) I vowed to spend more time with my loved ones if I were lucky enough to have more time. I'm grateful that I do. Full stop.
- Life is too short not to go for it. Whatever "it" is. For me, "it" meant moving back to the east coast to be closer to my family and starting my own philanthropic consulting practice. (Yes, "it" also meant re-learning how to drive in the snow after 15 years in Southern California. I'm still shaky.)
- Success is often in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, social media can encourage us to measure success in comparison to one another and in vanity metrics. It's easy to be sucked in by stats. I'd be kidding myself if I didn't admit that I'll check to see how many people read, like or comment on this post. And then I hope I have the good sense to take a deep breath and remember the one reader I had in mind while I was writing this: me.
As memories of my daily life with breast cancer fade and my professional life gets busier, this post will serve as a reminder to me that it's not about whether the glass is half full or half empty, it's about appreciating the beautiful glass. Cheers!
Stephanie Sandler is the Founder and Principal of Full Circle Philanthropy. Stephanie has nearly two decades of nonprofit management and consulting experience, specializing in working with emerging donors and nonprofit organizations in transition. She is a three-year survivor of early-stage ER positive breast cancer with a strong family history of breast cancer unassociated with any known genetic markers.