It was time for our annual 4th of July family gathering to celebrate the 17th birthday of my nephew, Tyler. His father, my former brother-in-law, is a 35 year survivor of Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve written about Trent before as his life is inspiring. He was not expected to live, and when he did live, he was told he would never have any children because of the strong chemo drugs he went through in the late 1970s. The drugs Trent had to endure are no longer used. These drugs were used for torture during World War I. Plus, Trent had no anti-nausea drugs like we are so fortunate enough to receive now.
As Trent and I stood talking, my nephew who resembles his dad in so many ways, walks up and immediately with a smile says, “cancer talk” as he could tell by our demeanor what Trent and I were discussing. It is a secret language when cancer survivors get together. Last time Trent and I had a deep discussion, I was still in patient status. Now I graduated to his level and better understand his cancer survivorship talk. If you are a cancer patient, be encouraged about the lessons you are learning through the great suffering. If you are a cancer survivor, you will understand. If, thankfully, you have not had to endure cancer, life can teach you these lessons in a myriad of ways. But try to go the easy route and learn them on your own so some severe disease doesn’t have to be the teacher.
Trent says that quite frequently people ask him why he is always so happy. He then shares with them that he has won the lottery twice in his life – being a cancer survivor and having the son he was told he would never have. Immediately, Trent launches into how you hear some people saying things like “the worst day on the golf course is better than the best day at work” and complaining about every little thing in their lives. Trent and I then discussed how we try not to judge others, but feel like we have discovered the secret to living knowing that we were so close to death. “It is all about your attitude,” Trent shares, “and don’t get caught up in the little things that don’t matter.”
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I recently read this article by Dr. Lissa Rankin entitled “10 things I learned from people who survived cancer.” There are many truths to her writings. However, we all know cancer patients who really wanted to live, but didn’t –my own father being one of them. My dad died only 3 months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. God only knows the answer to that much bigger mystery. But I share Dr. Rankin’s article, because Trent and I determined there is so much truth in all of the things she writes in this article
As a physician who interviewed women who had survived breast cancer. . . and who studied patients who experienced spontaneous remissions from cancer as part of the research for my book. . .I discovered that those who had overcome cancer shared one remarkable thing in common. They had all faced death and made a conscious decision to live every day like it might be their last.
The more interviews I did, the more I noticed that these people were living differently than most of the people I knew who had not been diagnosed with cancer. Curious what I learned?
Here’s what these courageous people taught me about how to live.
1. Be unapologetically YOU.
People who survive cancer tend to get feisty. They walk around bald in shopping malls and roll their eyes if people look at them funny. They say what they think. They laugh often. They don’t make excuses. They wear purple muumuus when they want to.
2. Don’t take crap from people.
People who survive cancer stop trying to please everybody. They give up caring what everybody else thinks. If you might die in a year anyway (and every single one of us could), who gives a flip if your Great Aunt Gertrude is going to cut you out of her will unless you sell out your authenticity to stay in her good graces?
3. Learn to say no.
People with cancer say no when they don’t feel like going to the gala. They avoid gatherings when they’d prefer to be alone. They don’t let themselves get pressured into doing things they really don’t want to do.
4. Get angry. Then get over it.
People who survive cancer get in your face. They question you. They feel their anger. They refuse to be doormats. They demand respect. They feel it. Then they forgive. They let go. They surrender. They don’t stay upset. They release resentment. But they don’t stuff their feelings.
5. Don’t obsess about beauty.
People who survive cancer no longer worry about whether they have perfect hair, whether their makeup looks spotless, or whether their boobs are perky enough. They’re happy just to have boobs (if they still do). They’re happy to be alive in their skin, even if it’s wrinkled.
6. Do it now.
Stop deferring happiness. People who survive cancer realize that you can’t wait until you kick the bucket to do what you’re dying to do. Quit that soul-sucking job now. . . Prioritize joy. Live like you mean it—NOW.
7. Say “I love you” often.
People who survive cancer leave no words left unspoken. You never know when your time is up. Don’t risk having someone you love not know it.
8. Take care of your body.
People who survive cancer have a whole new appreciation for health. Those who haven’t been there may take it for granted. So stop smoking. Eat healthy. Drink in moderation. Maintain a healthy weight. Avoid toxic poisons. Get enough sleep. Above all else, prioritize self care.
9. Prioritize freedom and live like you mean it.
People who survive cancer know that being a workaholic isn’t the answer. Money can’t buy health. Security doesn’t matter if you’re six feet under. Sixteen hours a day of being a stress monster is only going to make you sick. . .
10. Take risks.
People who survive cancer have faced their fears and gotten to the other side. They know life is for living because they almost lost it. True aliveness and in taking risks. So go sky diving if you want. Bungee jump. Hang glide. Spend your savings. Live like you might die tomorrow.
Are you doing these things? Or are you waiting for a life threatening diagnosis to test out how much you want to live?