Reflections on a Cancerversary


A cancerversary is a great time to review priorities — am I doing what's important to me?

Today is my fourth cancerversary. Four years ago — May 10, 2011 — I first heard a confirmed diagnosis of lung cancer.

On cancerversaries I review events of the past year and assess how I’ve spent my time. I’m not looking to pat myself on the back for my accomplishments, or check locations off a travel list. I’m looking to see if I stayed focused on what means the most to me, and whether I need to adjust my priorities. My time is too precious to waste.

When I became a metastatic lung cancer patient, my view of life changed. I no longer had unlimited time to consider my options and wait to see what might happen. My available time was compressed, foreshortened. If I wanted people to know how I felt about them, I had to tell them — NOW. If I saw something I wanted to accomplish, I had to do it — NOW. I was more willing to takes risks, without concern for personal failure, because I wanted to experience life in the time I had left. Once I was dead (which was coming all too soon), whether I failed at something wasn’t going to matter.

I began to think in terms of trade-offs: If I chose to spend my time on activity A, that means I wouldn’t have time or opportunity to do B, C, D or E. If I could only choose one, which was most important to me? Might I have the chance to do it at some other time? If it remained undone when I died, would anyone care?

My tolerance for small talk and indirect answers (which wasn’t too great to begin with) shrank even further. When having a conversation, I thought about what I was accomplishing by this communication. Was I communicating just because I was enjoying it? Was I helping someone else? Was I learning something?

Intense, huh?

In my cancerversary reflections, I asked myself questions. Did I stay focused on what meant the most to me? Did I show my family how I feel about them? Did I make a difference in the lives of others? Did I accomplish my most important goal? Did I behave in a way that reflects who I want to be?

My top priority is my health. I must take care of myself so I will have more time to tackle my other priorities. This means I need to get enough sleep, eat properly, exercise and take time to relax. I freely admit I’m not so good at this.

My next priority is family and friends. My bucket list really consists of two items: (1) help my autistic son become able to live a fulfilling, happy life without me, and (2) make good memories.

My third priority is to use my gifts and resources to make a positive difference for others, while enjoying what I do. I’ve chosen to focus on improving outcomes for lung cancer patients through writing, public speaking and social media. Unfortunately, there is no handbook that explains how decide which activity will have the most impact. This means my advocacy work can easily snowball — the need, as well as the number of opportunities, are great. I’ve turned down some opportunities because they won’t make as much of a difference in outcomes, some because I can’t be two places at once … and some because my own health or a family activity took precedence.

My challenge, as always, lies in maintaining a balance. So this day, for my cancerversary, I reflected on the past year and ran a perspective check. And then I watched “The History of Science Fiction” on TV — because it’s fun.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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