What I Learned from Cancer

You know that saying that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans? Well, while I was carefully planning my 2014, life happened to me. I was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in early February and the year dramatically shifted around all my carefully laid plans. Today, I want to share with you the top 6 things I learned through my cancer journey.

1. Get Ready For Radical Change. I started 2014 not only with a list of goals, but I had created a set of guides, schedules and deadlines for the entire year to keep myself on track to achieve as many of them as possible. And I had a lot of goals and projects I wanted to get off the ground! Cancer changed my goals radically.  Not only did I have to make room for numerous medical appointments, surgeries and their respective recovery times, but my focus shifted completely as my energy realigned to this new paradigm of staying as healthy, informed and motivated as possible in regards to my health. Being flexible was my greatest asset to surviving all the change that led to my guides and deadlines being scrapped almost entirely.

2. Your Time Is Precious.  Cancer brought that into sharp focus for me. I let go of a lot of things I had wanted to get done (good-bye kitchen remodel!) in order to do the things that I really wanted to have in my life (hello family pool day!). Looking at the immediate value of an experience was very new for me – I’m a planner and very practiced in the art of delayed gratification. But having an uncertain future gave me a new understanding of mindfulness; asking myself where I was getting value blessed me with the freedom to make choices that had a positive impact on my life today and to prioritize joy.

3. You Don’t Have To Make Excuses For You. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt a wide range of emotions. And I decided they were all fair game and I was going to just accept them all as part of my experience. This also meant that I had to give in to them and then move on from them if I wanted to continue my forward momentum and come out the other side. As such, I learned that “No.” is a complete sentence, that it was ok to get angry as long as I also got over it, and that I had to let go of my ideas about beauty.  I gave myself permission to leave the house and simply be who I was, where I was, rather than try to push against the reality of my life in ways that were in-authentic. Allowing myself to unapologetically be ME reduced a huge amount of stress in my life.

4. Gratitude Is An Impactful Practice. Just like people who practice yoga each morning talk about the positive impact it has on their lives, I found that going to sleep each day with thoughts about what I was grateful for had an impact on me. I always kept my gratitude focused on what happened that day rather than global things and I found enjoyment in looking for the positive aspects of annoyances. So, instead of dwelling on the inconvenience of a business trip in the midst of cancer treatment, I focused on how it gave me the opportunity to take my family with me to visit relatives and friends we don’t get to see as often as we would like.

5. You Have More Support Than You Know. Cancer can feel like a lonely place. You are learning new terms, statistics, and treatment options and having to make choices that few people around you can know with the intricacy and intimacy that you do. How many people really know the difference between Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s or the various stages of cancer? But that doesn’t mean that you are alone, and if you can ask for help, you may be surprised at how much and how widely it is offered. I know that I was humbled and honored by the people in my life and those connected with my care more often than I can count. But first, I had to be ok with talking about how hard things were and what sort of help I could use.

6. Don’t Be Afraid To Laugh First Or Loudest. Cancer is scary. But fear doesn’t have to overtake your life. While I don’t consider myself a comedian by any standards, I decided that if I couldn’t find things to laugh about, I simply wasn’t looking hard enough. So, when I went to a karaoke night to celebrate a friend’s upcoming wedding with nearly half of my face covered in gauze and medical tape, I decided to sing the song “Bandages” by Hot Hot Heat. The whole bar laughed and applauded and I felt like a rock star! When people asked about my surgery, I joked about the ”free facelift” that came with the procedure. Allowing myself to laugh through my fear made me feel more in control of my life and that was worth the risk of no one else laughing with me. I still got the joy of laughing (and everyone always laughed, even if it was just in relief).


thanks to Anurag Agnihotri for the image

About Jessica S. Campbell, LCSW

Jessica S. Campbell, LCSW is a licensed and trained psychotherapist who helps overwhelmed women, frustrated parents, and anyone who has experienced trauma, to find a more balanced lifestyle, move on from troubling events and form meaningful relationships with reawakened creativity for happier and healthier lives.

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