Cancer Taught Me to Be OK With Things I Can No Longer Do

I’m surviving cancer while getting older, too — that means I can no longer do some of the things I did when I was younger.

One of the most impactful lessons for me as a cancer survivor has been coming to terms with the limitations that my disease has created in my life. In the early days of my recovery, after mastectomy surgery of my left breast, my biggest concern was both simple and urgent: stay alive. 

There was very little information about the male version of breast cancer at the time, though I’m happy to say that things have improved dramatically in the eight years since my original diagnosis. But my experience began in a cloud of isolation that required a good deal of patience and determination to navigate.

Once I had a clear picture of the path I would take regarding treatment and recovery, I was compelled to start thinking about the big and little changes that cancer would require of me, likely for the rest of my life.

Those changes ranged from the mundane (how was I going to cope with the odd looks at the pool when I appeared as a one-breasted man?) to the alarming (how long would my surgery site need to be drained from all that fluid building up in my chest?) and I began to experience not only the loss of a breast, but the ramifications of relinquishing parts of my life to aging at the same time.

Sleeping on my left side was impossible, and the jagged scar across my chest ached whenever I was tired or stressed. I occasionally experienced false alarms of the symptoms of cancer returning. But regardless of the outcome of my disease, I was determined to embrace all the lessons that having cancer had to offer, and as I look back on those first days, I think that this was where my healing began.

But the lessons I’ve learned as a survivor go far beyond the ramifications of cancer. I was 64 years old when I discovered that tiny bump that would alter my life for the years I had remaining. Like it or not, age can make a difference in our resilience, our stamina and our drive to survive.

Cancer didn’t have a direct impact on my working life, but the timing was bad because I had just unofficially retired from my 40-year career of working as performance artist, and the process of “winding down” from what had been a huge chunk of my time and passion was very much on my mind.

And then there was the realization that my life-long passion for competitive running was coming to a close. My knees had simply worn out.

Those are examples of some issues I experienced eight years back, just as cancer was appearing in my life. “Simultaneous challenges” is how I thought of them.

Today, there is a much longer list to draw from because I’m getting even older as I continue to survive. I’ve had to bid farewell to my dexterity on the piano keyboard, the ability to remember song lyrics that I’ve heard for decades, the energy to line-dance for extended hours, the enthusiasm for long phone calls to friends and even the ability to sleep soundly for a full eight hours. 

But despite the challenges that getting older with cancer has presented, I’ve gained a surprising ability to see all of this as part of life’s perfection. This is actually the way it is supposed to be, and I have finally learned how to be OK with the stuff that gets in the way of my formerly younger, healthier self. Admittedly, years of meditation and mindfulness practice has helped me immensely with this process. And these are tools that are available to everyone.

Today, as a guy with breast cancer who has been fortunate to live 72 years, I simply don’t have the stamina, the need and most importantly the interest in “sweating the small stuff.” As odd as it might sound, especially for someone new to living with a life-threatening disease, cancer is now part of my group of small stuff.

READ MORE: I Can’t Spend Every Day Fighting Cancer

Surviving cancer isn’t easy. But resisting the natural challenges of aging while simultaneously survivingis a lot of hard work. It’s much easier to embrace what I “can” rather than to be discouraged by what I “can’t.” So, while I can no longer do all those things that were available to me before breast cancer showed up, I’m OK with that.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.