Friday, February 5, 2016

Breast Cancer Lessons

I can't believe it. Next month, I will celebrate eight years as a breast survivor. It seems like another lifetime because everything has been normal now for a long time. In fact, it's been so long, I sometimes forget that I ever had cancer at all.

Yet, as I skip along through life these days, there are things inside my inner psyche that have fundamentally changed. During my cancer fight, I had some huge aha moments that permanently changed my perspective and  influence the choices I make today. I like to call this personal evolution my Breast Cancer Lessons. Since this is a breast cancer blog, not a journal, (which I habitually forget) I thought I would share these lessons with you.

Lesson 1:  I no longer care what other people think about me and simply say no. 

Once you've walked around in public totally hairless and pale while getting looks of pity wherever you go, you become immune to what others think of you. You just don't give a shit. Your outer appearance becomes totally irrelevant because you are too focused on getting well.

From the moment I fell into that attitude, it stuck with me. Someone says bad things about me or doesn't like me? So what. Somebody wants me to do something that I don't want to do? Absolutely not!  Above all, my well-being comes first.That's what happens when you must strip down your daily routine to only what's essential in order to make it through the day. You get used to setting boundaries. You get used to saying no. And anyone that tries to manipulate me simply must go! That leads me to my next lesson.

Lesson 2: I surround myself only with people that are supportive of me and kick those who are not to the curb.

The moment you tell everyone you have cancer, you quickly learn who your true friends are and who are not. These people are divided into three groups: 1. Friends and relatives that show their true colors and do whatever they can to help you through a difficult time. 2. Friends and relatives that find it awkward to reach out to you and simply disappear while you're sick. 3. Acquaintances and people you hardly know that step forward and do amazing things to give you a much-needed lift.

It is a litmus test of sorts and adds to the emotional roller-coaster of battling cancer. I will always remember the friends that stepped up to the plate and took care of me and will cherish them forever. I will also never forget the friends that I expected to be there for me but turned their backs. They have been kicked out of my life a long time ago. Then there's people like one of my brother's high school buddies that mailed me a box of gifts and a heartfelt card wishing me a full recovery. As soon as I opened the box and read the card, I simply cried. Out of the woodwork, comes people that really care. That's why I make it a point to carry out similar acts of kindness.

Lesson 3: I spend less time acquiring things and more time creating memories.

Before I was forced to face cancer head-on, I was, in many ways, an empty vessel. I spent way too much time wandering stores buying stuff I didn't need simply out of boredom. Then came a day when I was really sick and an expensive ceramic bowl that I bought in Europe came crashing down on to the kitchen floor. It laid there in tiny, shattered pieces. I looked down at it totally numb and calmly brought out the broom to throw it into the trash. It's just an inanimate object, I thought to myself,  and wondered why I even bothered to buy it in the first place.

Before I had cancer, I would have probably cried over the broken object. In that moment, I realized what really mattered to me was living life joyously by creating wonderful memories. Things had nothing to do with making that happen. Once again, my perspective changed and I never went back to my old way of thinking. I no longer care about getting Christmas or birthday gifts. I would much rather create a wonderful experience on those special days. And that's what I've been doing ever since. To hell with presents.

Lesson 4: I stay in today.

I know this live-in-the-present moment concept has been heralded endlessly. But when you are sitting in a chemo room with walls that are painted with names of people that once sat in your lazy-boy chair and are no longer alive, you can't think ahead. It will scare the hell out of you if you do. I had stage-three, locally advanced breast cancer. My prognosis was shaky. I learned to cope with the fact that I may very well die by just taking life day by day. Now, I am very good and keeping worries of the future at bay by doing what I learned to do in the chemo room--staying in the moment.

Those are my four big takeaway lessons after battling breast cancer. But I also want to add that I got an unexpected perk  for getting cancer. Once my hair started growing back after chemo, it came back curly at first and ever since then it has gone from being straight to wavy. It also got thicker. My hairdresser says part of the reason it's thicker is because I am getting more gray hair. Nonetheless, I am thrilled that my hair has gone from flat, thin and limp, to full, bouncy and wavy--especially during the rain or in humidity.

So thanks cancer, for finally giving me great hair!

I love my low-maintenance hair, courtesy breast cancer.

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