No one wants to be told they have the big “C.” It’s scary. I get it. Over 2.5 years ago, at age 42, I heard those words. For me, my diagnosis came in the form of breast cancer, in the middle of raising my kids and enjoying life: it was an unwelcome guest whose appearance disrupted everything.
Luckily, I found it early, went through rounds of treatment and am blessed to have a very positive prognosis. But the experience changed me in ways I could never have imagined and I learned a lot on my journey. Lessons I want to share with you.
I want to offer hope.
When it comes to hearing about cancer, there are many painful and heart-wrenching stories. When I was first diagnosed, I spent a lot of time on the internet reading stories about moms who lost their battle and left young children behind. These stores broke my heart and made me an anxious mess. I initially focused too much on the sad stories, and it took me some time to understand that there are plenty of good happy endings. Positive results. I could never have known the strong person I would become because of my journey.
I want to show you there’s life on the other side.
You can get a cancer diagnosis, and you can survive. While none of us wants to get the “C” diagnosis, thanks to modern medicine and research, there are more options available today than ever before. Sometimes, we have to go through hard times to grow and learn. My life will never be the same after my experience, and truth be told, I don’t want it to be. The fears I faced, the growth I had and the gratitude I learned from my experience is something I never want to forget. It’s the something good that came out of the something bad. The important things in life become crystal clear when you hear the “C” word. When you’re forced to look into the eyes of your kids and tell them you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, life gets pretty real. But with this realness comes a deep sense of clarity that I hope will travel with me throughout the rest of my life.
Here’s what I learned from cancer:
1. Life will pass you by if you aren’t careful.
No one’s going to stand over you and watch your every move, letting you know when you’re wasting time or focusing your energy on insignificant things. It’s easy to get side tracked and derailed, forgetting what’s really important. But you owe it to yourself to remember what really matters. Every day. Identify what your priorities are, and then focus your energy on them. It’s really that simple. Before my cancer experience, I used to run around, doing everything for everybody. While I searched for balance in my life, I never seemed to find it. That was then, this is now. I know how I want to spend my time and who I want to spend it with. Gone are the days when I feel I need to please other people or do things out of guilt. I’ve gotten really good at saying “NO,” and I encourage you to do the same.
2. It’s hard to let go of what you can’t control.
Life is uncertain. I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t know what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, or the next day. No one does. We can enjoy our present moment, making the most of our lives, or we can worry about what might or might not happen.
While there are a lot of things I can’t influence, I can actively control my attitude and how I react to any given situation. It takes a lot to rattle me now and I don’t get easily worked up about things that are beyond my control.
I made changes... I quit my job, decided to focus on my writing, and launched Crazy Perfect Life, a blog about inspiration, finding meaning each day, and taking time to connect with the people you love. My heart feels full every time I hear from a reader about how my writing has changed their outlook, and I’m so close to finishing my first book I get giddy thinking about it.
Life is uncertain. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that. Just turn on the evening news and you’ll hear shocking stories of innocent and unlucky people. I choose to enjoy each moment of my life, connecting with the people I love and finding joy every day. Figure out how you can let go of worry and do it. It’s easy to become consumed with “what if” thinking, especially given our world environment. But you can’t live that way. When you spend your time worrying about the future, you aren’t doing anything but taking away the joy you could be experiencing now. Do what you can, have faith that things will work out and let go of useless worry. Just let go.
3. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself.
No one needs to be around anyone who is negative. Figure out who in your life is supportive and positive and let them into your world. Ditch anyone who sucks the joy out of your day. Period. Happy people make those around them happy. Unhappy people bring those around them down. You do the math. Don’t be afraid to take an honest look at who you’re spending your time with.There are some friendships we outgrow as we get older and change, and that’s OK. When you’re around people who are positive and make you feel good about yourself, you’ll know it. Just like I tell my kids, “you are who you associate with.” Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with like minded people who bring you up, not tear your down.
You learn who your true friends are when you go through a difficult time. The support system that I had made all the difference in the world to me, and I cherish my friends and family more now than ever before. They are my people, my purpose, my guiding light.
4. The thoughts we have directly affect how we feel.
The good news is that we can control our thoughts. Pay attention to what you’re telling yourself. If you don’t like it, shut it down. Start being your greatest cheerleader. Build yourself up. You can fill your head with negative, painful words or shower yourself with thoughts that make you stronger and happier. Actively decide to fill your mind with positive thoughts and you’ll be amazed at how much better you can feel. Often, if you’re feeling anxious, it’s probably because of what you’re telling yourself. Instead of saying things that make your nervous or stressed out, start telling yourself that things will work out well. Tell yourself that you’re strong and can handle whatever comes your way. I’ve told myself some pretty scary things over the years. Learning to feed myself positive words has made a huge impact on how I feel, my stress level and my ability to get through any type of difficult situation.
5. Look for the beauty.
You wouldn’t think there would be a lot of beauty inside an oncology ward, but I’m here to tell you, there’s more beauty inside those walls than I’ve ever seen. You see it in the kindness of the staff and the compassion that the patients have towards each other. There’s hope, strength, bravery and love. People are looking for the good. I’ve seen a stage-four cancer patient who has lost so much weight that his pants are falling down, sitting in the waiting room with a smile on his face. This person didn’t seemingly have many reasons to be smiling, but his attitude was, “I might as well be positive and look for the good because why shouldn’t I?”
Look for the beauty that’s in your life, each and every day. All you have to do is open your eyes and start truly seeing what’s right in front of you. When you stop taking the blessings in your life for granted and really start appreciating what you have, it’s amazing how much joy you’ll start to feel. Slow down when you move through your day. Take the time to chat with the nice cashier, taste the produce of the season or see the beautiful sunset. There’s beauty everywhere, you just have to be willing to look for it. It’s taking the time each day to find and appreciate the beauty in “normal, everyday life” that’s the key to happiness.
6. Connect with the people you love.
The people in our lives and the relationships we have is what truly matters. Take the time to connect to the people who mean the most to you. Unplug, turn off your phone and talk with the people sitting in front of you. They’re what it’s all about. Have you ever gone to a restaurant and seen people at another table eating without talking to one another? I find this sad. Especially when it’s a family and the parents aren’t engaging with their kids. Cherish the time you have with your family. Talk about your day. Share what’s going on in your life. Make time for one another. You get out of something what you put into it, and relationship aren’t any different. Don’t take the people in your life for granted, and don’t assume they know how you feel about them. Be giving with your love and tell the people you care about how much they mean to you. Don’t wait. Tell the people you love how much they mean to you. Now. Today.
The bottom line: I’ll never understand why I got breast cancer, and I’ve given up trying.
It’s wasted energy, and it doesn’t matter. It happened. I remember sitting at the cancer center, waiting for my turn to see the doctor. I looked around the room and I remember saying to myself, “How did I get here?” But that’s the thing. How did any of the other people get there?
Live your life, each and every day, with gratitude and appreciation. Don’t stifle your emotions, hold a grudge or drown yourself in guilt. Live fully and with purpose and intention. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, but what we can do is live well. Each and every day.
I’m blessed to be on this side of things, two and a half years out, and grateful for everyday. It was a hard journey, but my family is closer and stronger because of what we went through. I’m happier today than I’ve ever been. Am I glad I got the big “C”? No, I’m not crazy. At the same time, I recognize my life is more joyful because of it. I hope you never hear the words, “You have cancer,” but if you do, it isn’t a death sentence. You can get through it. Believe you can and you’re more likely to have the positive outcome you desire.
Life isn’t perfect, but it’s worth fighting for, even when it gets hard.
Don’t spend your time worrying about the future or feeling badly about the past. Try to enjoy the right here, right now, and strengthen your resolve to make the most of every moment. And in the end, isn’t that all any of us can do?
To read more from Dara, check out her blog at Crazy Perfect Life.