Surviving Cancer Is ‘Agonizingly Slow'


Spring has arrived, and along with it has come fresh challenges and new perspectives regarding my cancer survivorship.

We live in a linear world where many of us see life as a straight line: we are born, we live, we die. As human beings, we’ve learned to divide our minutes, days and seasons based, for the most part, on a giant star (our sun) moving across the horizon.

The phrase “the arrow of time” was coined in 1927 by Sir Arthur Eddington and popularized in his book “The Nature of the Physical World.” Basically, the arrow of time is the idea that time flows in only one direction.

Without getting too embroiled in science, and avoiding any religious connotations here, regardless of how we observe the physical universe, we can make better sense of things by creating some repetition and some perception of order in our lives. And then, this crazy disease called “cancer” shows up and knocks everything out of whack. Nothing, after all, is predictable after a cancer diagnosis.

And suddenly, the length of our lives seems a little less significant as our immediate attention is occupied by what is happening to us day by day. The time between our oncological checkups takes center stage as we wait for results. This watching-and-waiting routine can go on for many years.

As a cancer survivor, I’m very aware of my eight-year survival record with male breast cancer, otherwise known as my “cancerversary,” as an important milestone in my life. Spring often reminds me that I’ve made it through another year, alive and mostly well, but the fact is, surviving cancer is an agonizingly slow process. So slow in fact that it follows us for the rest of our lives ... if we let it.

That brings me to my point. How do we turn off the fear, the drudgery and the constant reminders that our disease is just around the corner and possibly waiting to throw our lives out of symmetry all over again?

In my case, the answer has been, in a word, “practice.” I’m always astonished by how resilient we are. And the more time we spend in our cancer routine, the better we become at it.

There are a couple of things I’ve learned in these last eight years that have been helpful to me.

Become an advocate for your disease.

In the early days after my diagnosis and mastectomy, I spent a lot of time researching and asking questions. Now, as a seasoned male breast cancer survivor, I can share some of what I’ve learned from others. To me, advocating can be a powerful medicine that is transferred from one person to another. If you know someone struggling with one of the many forms of our disease, (and these days it’s hard not to) share not just what you know about cancer from your own experience, but also support others in their choices.

Say hello to linear thinking.

Our way of thinking impacts how we perceive the world around us. It also decides our line of action. The linear thinker, as opposed to a fragmented thinker, looks forward to clearing the decks sufficiently to be able to see an unobstructed view of the horizon, while maintaining a well-developed sense of imagination. This is where cancer survivors begin to see connections and consequences that others may miss. I’ve looked for this quality in every doctor who has treated me, and found it.

Live beyond the checkups and scans.

Of course, they are the roadmaps to our recovery and an integral part of our survival strategy, but don’t forget to live in between the news. The way I see it, only these moments are life.

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