13 Things I’ve Learned in 2 Years With 2 Cancer Types

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I was diagnosed with kidney cancer and pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors two years ago, but I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons since.

What have I learned after two years with a diagnosis of renal clear cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) and advanced stage 4 pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNET)? Here are 13 important things I’ve learned during these two years.

1. Cancer is a gift wrapped in barbed wire.

I am a lucky guy. My symptoms aren’t bad, and I get to do most things I want. But I have learned a ton and have grown a lot since my diagnosis. I am now a better person, I am happier, more appreciative of the world and hopefully a better father, husband and friend. I am more aware of others and what’s going on around me. And I appreciate everything!

2. I am not a cancer patient, I am Burt, who happens to have cancer.

The world likes to label people to make things simpler. But labels put people, who are unique and individualistic, into groups that get painted with broad strokes. If you call me a patient, that sets an expectation of who I am. That’s why I am so focused on these two words. I am an individual, treat me as one.

There are too many labels in the world right now, and no one is exactly as they are labeled. People are people and individuals, not labels. When I am in a medical setting I always say “I am Burt who happens to have cancer, just like I have allergies. Cancer is just a higher degree of difficulty.” I am not a cancer patient/survivor/etc. and I will never refer to myself as such.

3. Cancer is the worst way to meet the best people.

I have met some amazing people who are going through what I am. I go to support groups, listen to people who sound like me and reach out to them after. I have some great friends who I’ve met that way.

 4. Feel your feelings.

If you are sad, that’s OK. If you are down, that’s OK too. You have the right to feel how you feel. Don’t feel like you have to change your mood for someone else’s sake. You deserve the right to feel your feelings. You will work through it in a way and a time that works best for you.

5. Be real and focus on what matters.

Figure out what's important to you and hammer it. After I got diagnosed (and I review and update every September since) I developed my “strategic plan” or my “guiding principles” to help me focus on what matters to me.

  • Healing myself
  • Helping others heal
  • Helping others who help others heal
  • Better supporting my friends and family

These principles play into everything I do. I have left nonprofits because they don’t meet one of those four, I have looked for jobs that help me achieve them and I have stopped doing things because they don’t mesh with those four things that matter to me. Figure out what matters to you and go crazy. Don’t get distracted by things that don’t meet your goals.

6. Live your life to the fullest.

It’s your life, take control of it. My therapist said to me “we are all going to die at some point.” He is right. Yes, I have two cancers, but I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Since I have no idea how long I will be alive (nor does any doctor) I have decided to make the most of my time and do the things I want to do. It’s my life, if I don’t enjoy it, get fulfilled by it or live it on my terms what’s the point of even being here?

7. I Can Do It (ICDI): a mantra

Yes, there are things I don't do anymore (although I still think I can do more than I should). But that doesn't mean I still can't do stuff. My ICDI program is still in full force. I take long road trips, camp and hike, but I might not climb mountains anymore. Will I do it again? I hope so. But for now, every step I take proves to me I can do something. So, when something is too hard, take a few steps back and start there. So climbing mountains is too hard? Take a hike. A 10-mile hike is too hard? Take a five-mile hike. You can always do something, no matter how bad you are doing. If you love golf and can't play 18, play nine. Can't play nine? Play three. Can't play three? Go to the driving range. Can't go out? Set up a putting green in the living room.

Image of a man skydiving.

Burt recently went skydiving in honor of two years of having cancer.

And guess what I did recently in honor of my two years? Yup, I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane and took the PNET Plunge.

8. Perspective is everything.

You have cancer! Does an annoying email really matter? Does the person who cuts you off while driving deserve your anger? No! That stuff doesn’t matter. You matter. Your friends and family matter. The small stuff has just faded away for me (or at least I work on that all the time). I constantly ask myself, “does this really matter?” every time I get frustrated.

9. Love yourself — you are you and there is no one better than you.

I like who I am and even more, who I’ve become. If others don’t like me, that’s their problem, not mine. If you don’t like me, I don’t need you in my life. My people-pleasing days are over!

10. Those around you are different and look at your illness differently than you do.

This one took a bit for me to learn and accept. I don’t love hearing that my scans are stable because it means that I am not getting better and there is nothing different that I should be doing. But those around me are very happy when I am stable. They don’t have to worry about me for now. Two different views of the same news vary based on perspective.

11. Take one day at a time.

Stop stressing over tomorrow. Reduce the time horizon of your focus. If you focus on every day and achieve what you want to on that day, you will be much happier than worrying about what might happen three months from now. Again, it’s easier said than done but worrying about stuff that may or may not happen will just make you miserable.

12. Death doesn't matter to me.

But not living does. I love my life (I am not going anywhere, it's just something you think about).

13. You do you, but you don’t have to push it on me.

I want everyone to believe whatever they want. As they say, whatever gets you through the night. But because you believe it doesn’t mean I do. So, use what you need to help you, but don’t push your beliefs on me. It just makes me annoyed and doesn’t help.

That’s my two-year journey in words. It's so therapeutic for me to write this stuff down. And as much as cancer can suck, it's taught me a ton.

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