Inside: The unexpected ways breast cancer taught me how live a better life.
The day before my 41st birthday, the doctor confirmed the spot on the mammogram was, in fact, cancer. Happy birthday to me.
Now five years later, I’m in remission with No Evidence of Disease (NED.) July 1 marks my 5th Cancerversary – my diagnosis day.
Since July denotes both my birthday AND my Cancerversary, it’s a time of year when I reflect on the lessons I learned from breast cancer and how to live a better life.
You see, breast cancer taught me to live intentionally. Eventually.
Initially, I felt numb. I didn’t process the news well. Not at all.
After receiving the news, I called work, said I would be out the rest of the day, and then I went day drinking.
It’s true. I hit the sangria swirls like there was no tomorrow. Because at that point, I had no idea what my tomorrows had in store for me.
Not My Finest Moment
So no, I didn’t handle the initial news with grace. But by mid-morning the next day, I got over the initial shock, and my hangover, and resolved to win.
My oncologist said my attitude mattered more than anything. So I focused on beating breast cancer and getting through my treatment with determination.
I buckled down and barreled through my commitments with a matter-of-fact approach.
I went to work each day. Took care of my family. Kept doing all the things.
I juggled appointments, tests and treatments along with a growing pile of work at the office.
Externally, it seemed I was doing great. Internally, I was numb. That is, until three weeks into my radiation treatment.
At my 16th radiation appointment, I smiled brightly while walking into the cold dressing room and changing into a crisp, cool hospital gown.
Suddenly, a hollow, sorrowful feeling swelled up in my chest. I started at my frazzled reflection in the mirror and started to cry.
And I couldn’t stop.
I cried as they led me to the radiation table.
Tears ran down my face during the treatment.
I cried while the radiation oncologist examined me.
A dam had burst, and I didn’t really know why. I thought I had it all together. But I didn’t.
They set me up for counseling with the cancer center’s Chaplain. I gladly went.
Turns out, breast cancer had some life lessons for me.
Breast Cancer Opened My Eyes
I didn’t cry because of cancer. I cried because my life felt empty. For the first time, it hit me that I could be living a better life.
Sure, cancer scared me. But more than that, cancer put a mirror in my face and made me examine everything in my life.
Finally, I had to face my struggles with the comparison game, fighting to balance career and family, and questioning most of my life choices.
Cancer made me think about how I wanted to start living. I knew I wanted to live a better life, which meant doing more of what I enjoyed. Traveling. Exploring. Growing. Having fun.
But I couldn’t live a better life if I didn’t start living intentionally.
I began to recognize something powerful.
I Lived a Good Life, But I Wasn’t Living
My diagnosis and treatment caused me to reframe how I looked at life.
And I mean everything: relationships, parenting, family, friends, career, home, and spirituality.
You name it. I questioned it.
Was I living with purpose?
Was I a good wife and mother?
Should I pursue different work?
Should I even work?
Or should I be a stay-at-home mom?
How could I even make that happen?
How could I find more balance?
Why did I sweat the small stuff?
Why did I care so much about other people’s opinions?
I spent a lot of time reflecting on these questions.
And I can’t say I have all the answers. But I have grown, and I have gained valuable insights.
These are my lessons from cancer that taught me how to live a better life.
Stop Comparing Myself to Others
The comparison game can consume us. Especially when, like me, you’ve been doing it your entire life.
I remember sitting in the Chaplain’s office, in tears. I explained to him how just the night before, I sat watching another stay-at-home neighborhood mom walking her baby in a stroller.
I’m embarrassed to admit this: but I was jealous. Jealousy is ugly. But that’s what I felt.
I described my envy. Envy that she could spend all day with her baby. Imagining how incredible her life must be without the stress of juggling work deadlines, family, home, and feeling like she was dropping balls at any given time.
What he said shocked me:
“How do you know she’s not jealous of your life?”
I looked at him like he was crazy.
“Think about it,” he said. “There are probably moms out there who wish they could work outside the home and make money.”
I never thought about it like that.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt
Sure, it seems hard when you’re dealing with your own struggles and it looks like people around you have it made.
But remember, all you’re seeing is someone else’s highlight reel!
When you’re focusing on what others have and comparing that to what you have, you are missing out on the good things in YOUR life!
And honestly, chances are, if you really had a glimpse into their life, you wouldn’t want it anyway. Because everyone has problems. Everyone.
So do you. Your journey is your journey. So focus on your path and stop comparing your progress, your stuff, your looks, your life, to other people.
Keep Things in Perspective
Keep in mind what really matters in life.
I used to dread my cancer check-ups. Because of a possible recurrence? No. I dreaded them because each time, they make me get on the scale.
It’s brutal, what I put myself through mentally when they take my weight. As if my worth depends on the number on the scale. It doesn’t. But I struggle with that.
But over the past five years, I’ve come to see the craziness in that perspective.
Instead of focusing 100 percent on gratitude for my remission, I would fret about an extra 30 pounds.
I dreaded weighing in front of a nurse in a place where people are fighting for their lives every single day.
That’s messed up.
Eventually, I shifted my perspective. The truth is that despite my extra weight, I am quite healthy.
And I am grateful that I am here. I am alive. Which means I can change my situation. I can make better eating choices. I can get my butt to the gym and do better.
We get so wrapped up in things that don’t really matter when you consider the big picture.
It’s Important to Slow Down
At each cancer check-up, I pass a little coffee shop on the first floor of the cancer center. Every time, I stop to grab a latte. For those first few years, I longed to sit down with my coffee and just breathe.
I wanted to sit and write and reflect. Or just take time to sit in gratitude.
But no. I never had time.
Rush rush rush.
Rushing to appointments. Scrambling to meetings. Phone calls to make and sales quotas to hit. Taking quiet time in that space took a back seat to commissions and corporate goals.
The business didn’t have time for feelings…. reflections….cancer.
Then one day, I sat down anyway.
I decided work could wait. People could wait. Everything could just wait.
Guess what? No one missed me for the 30 minutes I sat alone in my thoughts. The world didn’t come to an end. I ignored emails and declined calls.
My coffee shop time felt fabulous. And therapeutic. Those 30 minutes gave me life.
When we are rushing through life all the time, we are missing the good stuff. We aren’t enjoying the beauty in the little things. We can’t even think straight!
If we don’t slow down, we suffer. Our mental and physical health suffers.
Slowing down helps you focus on what matters. It enables you to be present and less distracted. And allows you to give more to your loved ones instead of what is left.
Finding Purpose Is Important
Through my breast cancer journey, I learned I wasn’t living purposely. I going through the motions and checking the boxes. I let life sweep me along instead of actively creating the life I desired.
My day-to-day activities did not align with my core values. Nor did they align with my best strengths, talents and most of all, my heart.
When we aren’t living with purpose, life can feel empty and dull.
It took life showing me what I didn’t want, for me to figure out what I did want. And then I had to take steps to move in that direction.
I’ve discovered things I want to change about myself and my life.
I’ve finally embraced what I want to be doing. Like spending more time with my family…writing and creating and connecting…using my voice.
When you live with purpose you know who are and why you are doing what you do. You are intentional. Your actions have meaning. You feel alive, more authentic, and clear.
Thoughts Are Powerful
Through my process of questioning my life, I began seeking answers: Uncovering the importance and power of my mindset and my thoughts. Learning ways to be intentional and focus on what I wanted in life.
Once I started this, things began to change.
I began to learn the power of our thoughts, intentions, attitude, and faith. I can’t even scratch the surface of what I have experienced perspective in one post, but it has been phenomenal.
Thoughts lead to words which lead to action. Our thoughts also have energy. Yeah – that sounds woo-woo.
But once you dig into the science, you’ll learn that everything has energy, even our thoughts. Our thoughts have the power to energize us or deplete us.
They impact how the day goes, what happens, and how we react to things.
You Can Live a Better Life
We all can.
These are what I call my Big Breast Cancer Lessons. Being intentional about them helps me to live a better life. Life feels so much better when I am intentional.
You don’t need a cancer wake-up call to change your life. And you don’t have to live on autopilot.
You can start making changes today to live a better life when you change the way you look at life.