This month is the ten year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. Ten years to be NED (No Evidence of Disease in cancer speak) is a long time. I don’t really think about breast cancer as much anymore. Instead I think of what I’ve learned and what I’ve realized from my breast cancer experience. Life events like breast cancer can teach us lessons if we’re able to open our minds to them. Breast cancer isn’t the most pleasant way to learn a lesson, but there’s always a lesson in there, nonetheless.
The obvious, and probably strongest lesson I learned was the fragility of life and the importance of living into the moment. To be honest, that specific lesson is one I wish I had learned prior to 2010, when I was first diagnosed. I wish I’d learned it before my diagnosis because it’s a lesson I wish I’d had when my children were younger.
I so wish I had realized when they were infants and toddlers how important it would have been for me to spend more time just playing with them and enjoying each moment with them, instead of worrying. Instead of racing through life, trying to get everything done, working 50+ hour work weeks, raising the kids, cleaning the house, cooking meals, getting laundry done, making sure everything was orderly, stashing money away for college. If I’d learned the lesson of living in the moment when the kids were infants I think my life would have been a lot calmer back then.
I’m always going to be a Type A compulsive person who can hardly sit still and is always thinking about what’s next. What’s my next big project; where should I go next; what will I accomplish next; read next; see next; do next? But after cancer, I literally trained my mind to focus on the moment. I found simple and obvious tactics to incorporate more ways to be in the moment like walking, meditating, deep breathing and taking mindfulness breaks.
Another lesson I learned was how to focus more on what fed my soul, versus my pocketbook. This was a big thing for me. I’ve been on my own since I was nineteen when my parents disowned me, and money, or the lack of it, has since always driven a lot of my decisions. But after breast cancer, while I still worked, I learned how to let go of the never-ending rat race and endless suck of work so that I could replace it with activities that fed my soul like travel, day trips, walks and spending more time with family and friends. I cut my work schedule down to three days a week and use the additional time to volunteer, plan day trips and take mini-weekend-vacations. I find that I am just as happy with the reduced finances as I was with the money I made in a five day work week and I have found more peace of mind.
Before cancer, my experience of being a parent was one of responsibility and worry that I wasn’t doing it right, or that I needed to do more. After cancer I realized that all I really needed to do was love my children unconditionally, and importantly to let them know that I loved them unconditionally. Because they were both heading into their teen years, this was one of the best things I learned from my experience with cancer as we went through their teen years with very little drama and very few of the typical teenage rebelliousness.
I had very few rules or requirements of them, other than to tell them to keep themselves safe and make good choices. I didn’t really get all hung up on the rebellion or the drinking or the stuff that kids do at that age. Honestly, none of it seemed all that important. The only thing that truly seemed important to me after breast cancer was that they were happy, that they were safe, that they were healthy and that they had good souls. I figured the rest of it would all resolve itself. I decided that if I had this second chance at life, I certainly wasn’t going to spend this borrowed time fighting with my kids and so we had very few arguments or fights throughout their teenage years, something I’ll always be grateful for.
This May both of them will graduate college. One will go on for her Master’s, the other has a job lined up at a wonderful company. They’re both good people: smart, interesting, self-aware. They seem to like to spend time with me, they tell me things, they share their hearts and souls with me. I think the lessons I learned from breast cancer helped create these relationships and developed the depth of our connections.
Before I had breast cancer, I spent a good bit of time in my life angry. Angry at other people, angry at things that happened to me, angry at my parent’s, angry at lots of random occurrences. I have my own theory about anger and its impact on my health and my body. I know that anger saps my energy, creates toxins in my body, clouds my mind and never results in action, but instead creates a sense of discontent and physical discomfort in my body.
During my breast cancer treatments, I was stripped down to my core and I decided that anger couldn’t be present in my life, as I had to be solely focused on getting better and spending each day trying to just get through chemotherapy, or the next test, or the next surgery. I didn’t have time or energy to put into anything else, and especially not into anger. If I were given even another day of life, I most certainly wasn’t going to spend it on the emotion of anger.
The side benefit is that because I spent so much time during that year and a half dispensing with anger in my life, it became a habit. It stayed with me afterwards. I very rarely get angry and if I feel it coming up in my soul, I stop what I’m doing and do something different. If I’m home, I get up and go for a walk. If I’m out with friends, I stop and switch it off in my head through self-reflection or deep breathing.
If I’m arguing with my husband, I stop and breathe and realize that he was the man who sat next to me during chemotherapy, who was the steady soul who sat at my side and took notes while my breast surgeon told me how long my chemotherapy regimen would be, who sat next to me while the plastic surgeon explained the awful details of what a mastectomy entails, who slept overnight with me on an uncomfortable hospital recliner the night after my mastectomy, who never showed any fear on his face (perhaps fear was in his heart, but he never showed it to me on his face) and who stayed steady and calm throughout the entire year and a half while his usually very active wife laid in bed sleeping through heavy, muzzy, endless naps, without any complaints.
So, the ten years post breast cancer have been good ones. Is my life richer for it? Yes. It is. I have gained ten years and learned transformative life lessons. Perhaps some of these lessons would have come with time, but what I learned was quickly accelerated due to the immediacy of a cancer diagnosis. Who knows who I would have been without this experience?