You Don’t Have to Face Cancer to Learn to Live Better

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A pancreatic cancer survivor explains what your priorities in life should truly be.

I once had a good friend I’ll call Judy, who put off retiring thinking she had years yet to live. Worth a million or more, she had put her money in the right places to make sure she would have enough to retire in comfort in a few years. A heavy smoker, she should have quit when she had a chance. But like many, it was easier for her to continue. At 59, Judy was stricken with lung cancer. Within months, less than a year later, she was dead.

Over 100 friends attended Judy’s service. People talked about what a good friend she had been, about her volunteer work at Habitat for Humanity and all she had accomplished in her life. People talked about how she used to show up for her team meetings with a dozen or so fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. It was at her service that I met her son and daughter. Over the years I had known her, she’d never once mentioned any family to speak of let alone kids.

Much like Judy, I too became enamored with the bustle and prestige of the office. Getting stuff done and being showered with accolades is addictive, not to mention the adrenaline rush of beating a deadline. Thus, getting hit with pancreatic cancer at 59, a type of cancer where only five out of 100 people see five years, slammed me in the dirt and caused me to rearrange my life, to figure out how to live better. I started focusing on the “important” things.

In our busyness, it is all too easy to focus on the urgent but “unimportant” aspects of life. Getting the kids off to school, getting to work early to make those final preps for the big meeting, jumping on an important call with a key client and so much more. It’s not that these things don’t need to be done, it is that we allow them to run our lives.

We need to step back from this cacophony, the buzz of busyness. We should ask ourselves is this what our lives are about or is there something more? I would portend there is much more. How many of our friends at work will remember us for more than five minutes after we are gone? Sadly, Judy, a wonderful woman, is long forgotten. For most of us, our “Employee of the Year” award will go into a cardboard box, along with all our other awards and trophies, pens and pencils, scribbled-on notepads and leftover napkins from the company cafeteria. Not to mention the half-dead office plants that will be thrown into the dumpster out back. But the time we spend with our close family and friends will live on for years after we’re gone. This is our legacy.

So, do you have to face cancer to learn this? Thankfully, no.

Starting today, each time someone asks you do to something, ask yourself, “What am I going to give up?” We each have 168 hours, 10,080 minutes or 604,800 seconds per week, no more. Tic-tic-tic, our life marches by. We all face this deal with the devil. Some of us will sell our soul for our career or our job, but we all will sell something. We will sell our kid's game or concert, a quiet evening with our spouse, laughter around the dinner table or something else by saying, “Next time I’ll do this different.” For everything we say “Yes” to, we must say “No” to something else. The trick is to learn to say “Yes” to the right things.

Of course, part of life is having to say “Yes” to things we would rather not, but there are ways to lessen these tough choices.

By learning to say “No” we signal to others not to ask. I know this sounds a bit harsh, but people know who’s a light touch. They always ask those first because they want to get a “Yes.” No one likes to be told “No.” Thus, saying “No” signals “Don’t ask.”

Use your gifts.

Each of us has unique gifts or things we do much better than others. Using our gifts allows us to help others in ways we can’t imagine. Figure out what your gifts are and use them. For me, it’s my organizational skills. As a project manager I love bringing order to chaos. Use your gifts.

Do a few things well rather than a lot of things badly.

One of the reasons many of us get overextended is we take on too much. The result is sleepless nights, unending frustration, tension with others and things left undone or done poorly. Rather than take on too much, try to do a few things well rather than a lot of things badly.

Don’t wait for that phone call from your doctor saying, “We’ve found something suspicious in your lab results and we want to run some additional tests just to be safe,” to force you to live better. Start now by learning to say “No”, using your gifts and doing a few things well rather than a lot of things badly. Live better.

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