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One Big Lesson I've Learned as a Cancer Survivor


Don't sweat the small stuff, but don't miss those simple moments either.

I woke up this morning with a nagging discomfort in my chest, along the jagged scar-line, in the very place where my left breast used to be.

I walked to the kitchen to prepare a cup of good coffee while my cat (one of two in our home) began her morning ritual as she always does. She understands that as I make the final preparations for my coveted beverage, just as sure as the sun shines, she will receive a teaspoon of fresh cream in a tiny saucer placed in her own special spot on the kitchen counter.

I become aware of a new tightness in my chest as I reach for the refrigerator door, focused for the moment on a disturbing pain that seems to be welling up between my ribs on the mastectomy side of my body. My left lung seems a bit congested also. Did I lift something heavy to irritate those ribs? Or is it only my summer allergies causing that bit of raspy breathing on my left side? Don't sweat the small stuff, I say to myself. And I've said this before.

A tiny squeak of a voice brings my attention back to our kitten. She's waiting as she always does, her eager eyes searching my face for a flash of acknowledgment as she follows my hand to the refrigerator door, knowing full well that I'll deliver some sweet sips of fresh cream in a few seconds.

And in that fleeting moment through which our fragile experience as living beings finds a common bond, it becomes clear to me that we both share the very same importance, equivalence and inexplicable magic. And at the same time, we each feel the uncertainty and longing that life sometimes imparts.

She is but a cat. And I am just a man. And we live from moment to moment in our own ways, but with a shared ambition to keep on living.

As it is with so many survivors, the reality of my cancer is never too far away from my thoughts. But as I continue to be vigilant with the intention of keeping my cancer at bay, I've become increasingly aware of these simpler moments. These are the opportunities for me to measure with great precision, the value of life. And the remarkable thing about this is that this encounter with "cat" was only the beginning of my day. How many more chances would I have?

Make no mistake; I don't want this cancer. I want to kill it for the pain it causes; accept it for the strength it demands of me and even love it as part of the design of life it delivers, for reasons I may never understand. Cancer isn't my friend, but it's not my enemy either. How can any part of life be an enemy of life?

I wonder about that a lot.

And at the end of the day, as I add up the pluses and minuses of living with cancer, it's always and without exception the simple moments that give me the impetus to keep going. My experience with my cat is an example of life in its least eccentric but most glorious form. It's the effortless place with the easier pace, where MRIs, chemotherapies and possible relapses no longer steal my attention.

This is life. This is my life with cancer. This is what is important to me. I've learned to acknowledge my cancer each day as I take the time to cherish my cats. Or is it perhaps that I actually cherish the time with my cancer each day, as I acknowledge my cats? Interestingly, they become one and the same.


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