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Cancer Is...

Article

Cancer brought me a forced transformation and gave me better a perspective on life.

Cancer is many things. It is sneaky. Relentless. Devastating. Heartbreaking. Painful. Terrifying. Traumatic. Frustrating. Exhausting. Destructive. Utterly unfair.

But cancer is also surprising. And above all, cancer is…clarifying.

After experiencing such a life-altering diagnosis and going through treatment, cancer shows us what is important. Frequently, cancer survivors will take the time to evaluate their lives and decide to make some changes. Maybe these changes are designed to benefit their physical well-being: committing to a healthier lifestyle, better diet and increasing physical activity might become a priority. Even something very simple such as drinking more water or getting better sleep can be a small change designed to make a big impact on their physical health.

Taking steps to reduce stress and improve emotional well-being is a common theme among cancer survivors. For some people, this might involve turning a critical eye on just about everything in their lives. Are they happy in their job? If not, are there steps that can be taken to improve satisfaction? Reducing hours, more flexibility, remote/hybrid work? Or is it time for something altogether different?

I have a friend who decided to use her experience with cancer to take a risk and try something that she had never done before, and now, she is a published author of several children’s books as well as a cancer memoir. Like so many of us, she learned that life is too short, and she never wanted to regret not doing something while she could. Taking this risk resulted in a very unexpected and welcome reward for her as she embarks on a new career, one she never envisioned prior to cancer.

Using time wisely and gaining more enjoyment out of life is a nearly universal goal among cancer survivors (well really, everyone). People want to devote more energy to doing what is most important to them — spending time with family and friends, or perhaps focusing on activities they enjoy or those that fill them with purpose. It is no accident that so many cancer support organizations are made up of cancer survivors themselves, or family members of those with cancer. Their shared experience provides an ocean of commonalities and understanding for those who find themselves seeking support during a very tumultuous period of their lives.

After experiencing the emotional, physical and sometimes existential or spiritual hurricane that is cancer, it is quite satisfying for people to discover the clarity and serenity that comes from a great deal of self-reflection and development of a laser focus on what is now important. Some people call this the gift of cancer. Others who refuse to believe that anything good comes of cancer still typically acknowledge that this newly discovered sense of purpose or what is worthy of their effort is, indeed, a positive development.

Cancer is a teacher. It shows us what we can do, and what we are capable of, sometimes despite seemingly insurmountable odds. It puts on display, right in front of everyone, how we must adapt and grow and better ourselves. Although the journey of self-discovery that is forced upon us by cancer has some common themes, each person’s path is unique. The amount of personal growth that occurs while working to heal from the trauma and widespread destruction of cancer is truly astounding.

All too often people talk about cancer’s side effects with a negative connotation, mostly deservedly so. But certainly in my own case, there is a forced transformation that is the result of cancer — a transformation that comes from grief, anger, despair, self-reflection, growth and ultimately evolution into a whole new person who has a very important and initially under-appreciated quality that my pre-cancer self did not have: perspective.

This summer, I will surpass my five-year cancer-free mark. I think back to the days of initial diagnosis and treatment, when I was so overwhelmed that I wasn’t even sure how I was going to make it to tomorrow, much less a five-year mark. Even after treatment was complete, the sometimes-all-consuming fear of recurrence blunted my appreciation for little milestones along the way.

Eventually, it dawned on me that fear was accomplishing nothing good, and serving to ruin the joys I did have, or should have had as my life went on. Because it DID go on, whether I was recognizing this or not. Maybe different than before, but it did keep ticking along.

I came to the conclusion that cancer had taken enough from me, and I wasn’t going to allow it to rob me of anything else, including my enjoyment of the present, and eager anticipation for what is yet to come.

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