I am definitely not someone who ever said cancer was a gift. Far from it. The shockwaves that it has created in my life for almost 15 years have been jarring. And literally scarring.
And yet, I have to be honest and acknowledge that there have been new opportunities and yes, beautiful moments, that would not exist without this illness living with me, side-by-side. It’s chronic, so I can’t shake it. I need to watch for signs of recurrence, which I know are likely to happen, so I can’t ignore it.
I don’t want to just “come to terms with it”, because resigning myself to this illness still feels like it has the upper hand. Instead, I want to use it as a springboard to live the hell out of my life. To give me access to a new mindset and way of thinking that would not be possible without this disease.
That way, I win. Alyssa – 1, cancer – minus 4 million. (Oh it feels good to write it that way!)
How can we begin to embrace the changes that this shift in our life has brought? It’s not easy. This has been a tremendous struggle for me.
It has taken me more than a couple of years to reconcile my heart and mind with this new normal reality. Quite frankly, I’m not there yet. But over the years, I’ve found a few things have helped lift the weight in my heart and embrace this new life situation of living with a chronic illness.
Write it down
Writing has been my salvation. Writing things down, whether journal entries, blog posts or even emails to friends, has always helped clear the cobwebs out of my brain.
There has been an abundance of research on the longer term benefits of expressive writing on individual health, including improved immune system functioning, reduced blood pressure and improved mood. In one study, researchers found that journaling improved t-lymphocyte functioning and improved symptoms from arthritis and asthma.
As I worked through coming to terms with the 10 year anniversary of my diagnosis, which ended up being surprisingly one of the more painful times while living with this disease, I wrote a series of guest posts for Lymphoma Canada which helped alleviate the stress I was feeling. Just sharing my thoughts seemed to lift their weight, and somehow seem less scary.
Make wellness an equal priority to work and family
I have learned that when I’m feeling well – mentally and physically – everything else in my life just works better. I’ve tried everything, from macrobiotic diets to paleo to mega supplements. There’s no magic formula, but my latest combination includes walking, yoga, less sugar, more water, and a set of supplements from my naturopath. When I follow this combination, I sleep better, I am less anxious and I get more accomplished.
Finding your formula for wellness is like a superpower boost towards getting more out of life.
Stay close to the community
I spent years on the board of Lymphoma Canada, and continue to volunteer as a peer mentor. I developed the SurvivorLife program as a way to reconnect with the community and help others work through the challenges of rebuilding your life after cancer. Being part of this community and walk as an insider with intimate knowledge of the challenges of this disease is not something I take lightly. I benefit too from hearing the stories that other survivors share, and their strength has been an enormous support to me over the years.
I know some people prefer to move as far away from the cancer world once they are well, and I appreciate that detachment is a coping mechanism for some who don’t want to ever think about the word cancer again. For others though, cancer is a badge of honour, and staying close to the community is a reminder of the strength and determination they can leverage again for creating a life that matters to them.
Be mindful of the opportunities this new reality has created
Ok, this isn’t the “remember to always be positive” platitude. But from time to time, I remind myself that I am grateful for the things I am able to do by been part of the inner circle of the cancer patient world. My role as a peer mentor to lymphoma patients means I can help the cancer world be a little less scary for others, and selfishly, every time I tell my story is a reminder to me that I have come a long way on this path.
Being intentional about the new opportunities ahead that you want to create as a result of (or perhaps in spite of) this illness. Some people start a bucket list, whether for tracking ideas for future travel, or new foods, or family adventures. Others use a gratitude journal to track life’s blessings. Again, I’m not talking about cancer as a gift, but to leverage the heck out of whatever fresh thinking or expanded mindset that living with a chronic illness can bring.
Align your life to your values
One of the reasons I started my own business was that I needed to do things on my own terms. There was a dissonance in my heart every time I was asked to do something that ignored what I knew to be important and true.
This alignment comes from first, being really clear about your values and what matters to you. The limits that I may have in my life have brought a number of factors into sharp focus for me, and I am no longer willing to put up with bullies or stress levels that overwhelm my ability to enjoy my life outside of work. I’ve said no to projects if it meant working in a way that prevents me from balancing health and sleep, and I’ve avoided work that doesn’t contribute to the mark I’m trying to make in this world.
Live your legacy now
For cancer survivors, we know too well that living well has to start today. Figuring out the purpose for your life, doing the work to understand your legacy and beginning to do the work needed to fulfill those dreams are things that everyone should tackle, but having a life-threatening illness adds a new sense of urgency and awareness that like it or not, none of us will live forever.
I know that I am braver in my choices as a result of my illness. No doubt in my mind. Recent decisions to launch new programs in my business, step out more boldly with my ideas and points of view, even writing about my illness in a very personal way have all come as a result of realizing that I’ve already faced the toughest of battles, and I should not let anything hold me back.
I will never be “at peace” with this illness. I’m using it to fuel the fight for a life of significance.
I have had to work hard to come to terms with the chronic nature of the illness I have, and I can tell you it’s been a struggle many times. I have put a stake in the ground though that I will never let it get the upperhand.
There’s no going back. The changes in your life as a result of whatever shift has occurred are permanently etched in your history. What you choose to do with the wisdom that come from it are entirely up to you.