With Cancer, Survival Is Job One


Having cancer is like going to work every day, but without the commute.

So, we have cancer. Our immediate job is a simple one, really: survive and stay alive.

But that task, important as it is, is an oversimplification of our predicament. After all, everybody is trying to do just that, with or without a life-threatening disease. So perhaps our purpose as cancer fighters lies in finding a way to minimize our stress while maximizing our quality of life.

But wait, that's also what everybody does with their lives. So, what is it exactly that sets us apart from those who live without the burden of cancer?

The answer, as I see it, is just the degree to which we are willing to invest our energy in our own survival.

Before my male breast cancer appeared, I gave relatively little deep thought to my health. Like many of us, however, I was aware of my diet, my level of exercise and my stress-causing thoughts, but not every day, and certainly not with any sense of urgency.

Those of us who are suddenly thrust into the cancer arena must learn to experience life from a new perspective and with a new vitality. We may not think about our disease every day, but it's always hovering there in the background and always capable of prompting us to carefully consider the life choices we make.

It's not uncommon for people to see their cancer as a "wake-up call" and an opportunity for personal growth. While this approach to the disease is not unusual, it should be noted that a significant number of cancer survivors I've met see their relationship with cancer as a battle. They immerse themselves in a war-like frame of mind, fighting the enemy within.

On the other hand, those who decide to work with their disease as opposed to meeting it in combat appear to be finding some joy in the little things in life.

The National Cancer Institution has an informative booklet called "Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer" that looks at these and other issues in depth.

Here's what they suggest with regard to those who work alongside their cancer to add new meaning to their lives:

"It may be hard at first, but you can find joy in your life. Take note of what makes you smile. Pay attention to the things you do each day that you enjoy. They can be as simple as drinking your morning coffee, sitting with a pet, or talking to a friend. These small, day-to-day activities can give you comfort and pleasure.

You can also do things that are more meaningful to you. Everyone has special things, both large and small, that bring meaning to their life. For you, it may be visiting a garden in your city or town. It may be praying in a certain chapel. Or it could be playing golf or some other sport that you love. Whatever you choose, embrace the things that bring you joy and gratitude when you can.”

I have learned to include 20 minutes of meditation as a daily practice. And as I sit quietly, I discover another element of my life — this life with cancer – to be grateful for. And on those days when things just seem to be taking a downward spin, I choose something from a simple list of questions that I can focus on throughout the day.

Try asking yourself:

  • Who do I like to be with?
  • Who makes me laugh?
  • How do I want to spend my time?
  • What makes me feel happy?
  • What are my passions?
  • What types of things do I enjoy the most?
  • How can I help someone else with cancer today?
  • Is there something I want to do that I've never tried?

Sure, surviving cancer is a job. It's almost as though we have taken on a new vocation — one that requires us to show up each day, ready to solve problems, managing our work force (doctors and pharmacists and well-meaning families and friends) and setting a positive example for all those around us who feel our pain, but don't know how to help.

But at the end of the day, even those really hard days that may be peppered with tough decisions or bad news, it's good to look back over the progress we've made and the life we've created and think, "job well done.”


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