Appreciating Life More Than a Career After Cancer

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When life hands you cancer lemons, what flavored lemonade do you make?

Illustration of a man with dark hair and a dark beard with glasses.

Look, let’s be honest. No one wakes up and thinks, “Boy, I wish I had cancer,” but here we are. For me (and I am just me, we are all individuals) I chose to learn from the experience and change my life. What used to matter to me no longer does, and what didn’t matter to me might matter more.

Image of two perspectives of life before and after having cancer.

Click to see how different my perspectives are before and after cancer.

Since I am a visual thinker, one day I decided to diagram out what my life looked like before hearing the “he knows he has cancer, right?” and after. This is what I came up with.

You can see some of the biggest shifts for me. I was on the career treadmill before being diagnosed with kidney cancer and a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. Chasing promotions, more money, more responsibility, more people reporting to me, etc. I like to think I wasn’t too cutthroat, but I definitely had career ambition.

Now? Life takes center stage. Living every day, one day at a time, appreciating every day, and being thankful for all of the experiences and all of the little things in the world around me are what matter. When I look for a job now, the title doesn’t matter as much. What matters is that I find a role where I feel valued, I work with great people and I learn a ton. Being more and more senior doesn’t even enter my thought process.

Family is even bigger than it used to be. I spend a lot of my time figuring out how to make my diagnosis easier for my family. One of the things I’ve realized is that seeing them experience and enjoy life makes me feel better. Nothing makes me feel better than when my wife or kids (I have two) are experiencing new things and enjoying their lives. This sounds selfish and a little bit “all about me” but it makes me feel better. My family is made up of the most important people in my life.

Friends have become much more important to me. I am not a guy with a ton of close friends. I used to stress about that until my therapist once said to me “It sounds like you have some good friends, why not focus on deepening those relationships and stop worrying about quantity?” He was very wise. That’s been a focus for me. I feel like my better friends are even better, and any newer relationships are even deeper.

Friendship is an interesting topic. I no longer care whether everyone likes me. If I matter to you, and you matter to me, we have a real relationship. If it's only one of those two pieces, I don’t plan on investing too much time.

The other major difference is self-care, one of the overused terms of our time. For me, self-care has become self-learning and self-listening. I have learned a ton about myself, and I ask and listen to myself all of the time. I ask myself everything. What should I eat?When should I sleep?What treatments are right for me?I’ll never forget having a doctor tell me that I needed an upper endoscopy. Old Burt would have said fine and done it. New Burt said ‘No, I don’t feel as if my body can take it and it will do more harm than good.’Later, I had another doctor agree with my instincts.

So, I guess all of this is to say, ask yourself, “Self, how have I changed? What used to be important to me that isn’t anymore, and what wasn’t that is now?” You might be surprised at some of the answers or it might confirm what you already know. Either way, you will understand yourself a lot better!

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