Lessons From Cancer: 5 Things I Learned Along the Way

Surviving cancer was tougher than my hardest days in the military. Here are some things I learned along the way.

Enduring two Navy boot camps where I questioned why I put myself in those hells, spending countless months overseas on back-to-back deployments to godforsaken places, working 20-plus-hour days at sea with only a nap within a nap, devoting hours in the gym to drop a few pounds before a grueling physical readiness test seems like a Sunday cakewalk compared to somersaulting through the flaming hoops of cancer.

I suppose the difference is those things had a seeable end, mostly good or at least OK, whereas our cancer’s end is a muddy mystery. Will we survive to fight another day or become a line on the obit page of our local paper right across from the car ads? A pitiful bookend for so many.

Ten years ago, on getting the news I had pancreatic cancer, so vile few survive it, I figured I was done. I updated my will, put my affairs in order, made sure my wife knew where everything was filed away, and waited for what was sure to be a dreadful end.

Today, I still wonder how and why I survived. Nonetheless, the things I learned on this onerous journey remain truer than ever.

Here are five of them.

Keep at it.

I’ve always been a persistent person; some would say I’m stubborn as a rock, if not more. While persistence can’t cure cancer, it can help us get through it, the chemo, and radiation, with maybe a surgery thrown in to excise a tumor to kick us when we’re down for sport. I spent so many weeks in the hospital I began to hope for a stay-five-nights-and-get-one-night-free card.

To help me get through those days I watched the whirlwind of activities going on around me, chatted with my nurses about how their days were going or listened to the hushed voices outside my room. Sometimes I overheard a nurse talk about a much-needed few days away from the office (if you can call a hospital that) or so and so who wasn’t doing well. While it didn’t make the days upon days much easier, it helped me get through them. No matter how dire it looks for you keep at it.

Maintain your perspective.

Cancer is depressing. OK, it’s downright the pits. Having been there, I think it's all too easy to become our cancer. Or our cancer becomes us. We become disoriented. We lose perspective. Up becomes down and down becomes up. Things are out of focus, inside out.

To survive cancer, we need to stay centered. It's all about getting through our treatments as quickly as possible, to get to their end.

Do what your doctors say. Period.

To get to the end of our treatments, we must do what our doctors say. Period. One caveat though, is if you find yourself losing trust in your doctor or they have the attitude, “I’m the doctor. Obey me.” As scary as it might be, it may be time to consider finding a new one. After all, it is your life, not theirs, that’s on the line.

For the most part, I’ve been able to work things out, but on occasion when I’ve hit a roadblock, I found it helped to talk it over with my primary care doctor. Having seen me for a couple of decades he knows me perhaps better than my wife. He understands how I think and what’s important to me. Most of all, I trust him. He has an absolute command of my health history AtoZ. He knows what works for me from a medical perspective.

Live in the present.

At least for me, I fought back tidal waves of worry about dying at the hands of pancreatic cancer. All the stats said I was done. Being a numbers guy, I listened. Not being there for any of my three daughters’ big days broke my father’s heart. (Two are now married. I’m holding on for the third.) When I asked my medical oncologist about my chances, the best she could do was mutter, “No one knows.”

To beat back my waves of despair, I found taking one day at a time, and living in the present, helped immensely. Being a person of faith, believing there is more to life than what we see, helped too but it wasn’t enough. Today is a miracle. Tomorrow will be one too. Try living in the present.

Never let go of your hope.

Cancer often leads to despair, by which I mean gapping gasping hopelessness. For some, this means the cavernous blackness of depression where we see no way out. (If that’s you seek help. Please.) No one understands the role of hope, but most agree it is vital to getting through cancer. Perhaps there is something to that mind-over-body thing after all. I don’t know, but what I do know when someone loses the will to live things can and do turn ugly. Someday we may understand the science behind hoping when there is little reason to hope but until we do never let go of hope.

You too can get through your cancer by keeping at it, maintaining your perspective, doing what your doctors say, living in the present, and never letting go of your hope.