I’ve known AW since our first year of university. AW has always been the picture of health and vitality: she enjoys being active, she maintains a healthy body weight, and she is a happy, vibrant, and fun person to be around. She is always up for an adventure and trying something new (and she will push you to try it too). If ever there was a person who loves life, it is AW. She exudes energy and positivity.
When she let me know that she was in the hospital having a mass in her chest diagnosed, we both assumed it would be a cyst. When she found out it was cancer that would require both chemo and radiation as treatment, everyone in her life was shocked. When she got fired from her job the same day, it added unnecessary insult to injury. Talk about a bad day!
The person who took all of this terrible news the best? AW herself. Throughout the course of her treatment, AW has taught me a few things I thought that I would share with all of you:
Make the conscious choice to be a positive person. AW always tells me that life is what you make it. If you’re a negative person, then you will see the world and other people in a negative light. Sometime it’s hard to stay upbeat and she does acknowledge that she feels bad sometimes. However, she says the key is not to dwell on it and to approach negative situations in a positive and productive way. The Mayo Clinic agrees and cites many health benefits from maintaining a positive outlook on life, including:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
Plan things to look forward to. Daily life can get monotonous and repetitive when you’re an adult. Gone are the days of having few real responsibilities, seeing your friends whenever you want, and being free from financial obligations. When someone is going through the cancer experience, they also spend a lot of time waiting. There are so many tests and procedures and every single one has a waiting period. On top of that, you also wait for test results.
AW likes to plan fun things to break up her week, take her mind off of her illness, and give herself something to look forward to. This could be a weekend away with her closest friends, which she is doing right before she starts radiation. It could also be “date night” with her boyfriend, which they plan regularly. This advice doesn’t only apply to people who are sick though. Having a calendar filled with fun things to do will brighten anyone’s day!
Make the most of every moment. No one knows how long they have to live or what their experience is going to be like. You know what they say about the best laid plans, right? What you do know is that you have right now and you need to enjoy it as much as possible. Take pictures, make time to do the things that you love, and simply stop to enjoy the moment rather than being distracted by thinking about your to-do list. No one wants to have regrets, so make sure that you aren’t checking out of your own life because you only care about what (might) be happening next.
Look for reasons to be happy and you will find them. On the other hand, if you look for reasons to complain and be miserable, you will find those too. Your homework? Laugh, smile, and find reasons to be happy and grateful. When I think I’m having a bad day, I remember what AW is going through and how, despite all of her health challenges, she always lists off the things she does have versus the things she’s lacking. She will often say how grateful she is for the support she’s received throughout her illness and that despite having cancer, she has a lot of things to be thankful for in her life too.
Don’t take your health for granted. AW never thought that she would get sick. She was young, fit, and always made her health a priority. Her first biopsy came back with inconclusive results. Due to her age and overall good heath, she didn’t push back when she was told that her next biopsy wouldn’t be for a month. In that short amount of time, her tumor almost doubled in size. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t discriminate when it comes to ruining lives and good habits aren’t a guarantee that you will stay well.
However, her healthy starting point has made her treatment and recovery easier on her than it would be on an unhealthy person. AW went to the gym consistently throughout her chemo treatments. She has already found a trainer to work with after she’s done radiation to start rebuilding her strength. One of the side effects of her radiation treatment is that she will lose an artery in her heart, so her diet will become very important to maintaining overall good health. She’s already started sourcing recipes.
What can you and I take away from all of this? We can make careful choices when deciding what food to eat and find a workout program to stick with for the long haul. People need to do everything in their power to maintain their good health and reverse any of the damage poor habits have already caused (which is possible in many cases! Don’t wait until it isn’t). You can’t always prevent cancer, but a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent other illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes.
Always find the silver lining. When you’re sick, there really isn’t much to be happy, grateful, or excited about. However, AW makes a point to find something positive to take out of every test result that she gets. I mentioned above that she will lose an artery in her heart, which made me so scared for her. AW reminded me that eating healthy food without much fat is better for her anyway, so it’s going to be okay.
Radiation has many possible side effects, including different types of cancer. AW chooses to focus on the fact that it increases the likelihood of her tumor being gone for good. There are no absolutes or guarantees with cancer, but she’s doing everything that she can to prevent this particular tumor from recurring. As she likes to say, she is kicking cancer’s ass. If she can find positives in a life threatening situation, so can we.
Don’t wait to enjoy life. Is there a trip that you’ve always wanted to take, or a goal that you are saving for retirement? Don’t wait! You don’t know that you will get to enjoy a healthy retirement, let alone with the person you want to spend it with. I’m not saying this to be a downer; I’m saying it because it’s true. Trust me, it happened to Grams.
JP and I were originally planning to buy a cottage and retire there, but we’ve decided there is no time like the present. We are young, healthy, and in love, so why not have a private getaway now? Hopefully we will be able to enjoy it together for years to come. However, if we don’t get that opportunity, at least we will get to experience our dream together.
Seize the moment!
Celebrate whenever you can for any reason that you can. AW celebrated completing her first and last chemo sessions and every positive bit of information that she received. She also intends to have an “end of cancer party” and make 2016 her best year ever. Celebrating lets you spend time with the people you love, boosts your spirits, and acknowledges the positives in your life. Who doesn’t want that?
I hope that you don’t have any health milestone like AW’s to celebrate, but you can celebrate reaching a new fitness goal, a promotion at work, or even the start of a new season. I’m not saying that you need to have a big party every month, but you can go out for dinner (or cook a nice one at home!), get outside and explore, or go on a weekend adventure. There is so much in life that deserves celebration.
Illnesses can really change your perspective and priorities, but it’s unfortunate that many people wait until they’re ill to learn important life lessons. I watched my dad battle cancer and learned so much from him, which I am always going to carry with me. His experience has forever changed the trajectory of my life. Now I am witnessing AW, someone very close in age to me, go through the same thing. It’s terrifying and makes you question your own mortality, but it also causes you to examine how you’re living your life and what you could (and possibly should) be doing differently.
I’ve learned that money is important, but it’s not the be all and end all of life. You can’t take it with you when you go, so why not use it to have amazing experiences with the people you love? Your happiness and success is not measured by your bank balance. Too many people get caught up in working their lives away that they don’t realize they missed out until it’s too late. Don’t let this happen to you because, trust me, it can. I hope that cancer hasn’t touched your life in any way and that it never does. But remember, illness isn’t just something “that happens to other people.” There are a lot of things in life that we simply can’t control. I think it’s time to start taking control of the things that we can!
Thank you for reading. Please share your life lessons with me in the comments below.