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A Cancer Survivor Teaches Us to Be Fearless

Today, five years later, Mike Cohen is healthy and ambitious and living in San Diego. We can all learn a lesson from him and do our part to make the impossible possible.
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In my 15 years as a therapist, I have met some remarkable people. People who were on the brink of suicide, only to get better and go on to achieve a fulfilling life. People who were held hostage by their fears to the point that they couldn't function, then go on to be fearless. And countless other patients who achieved happiness and success in work, relationships, and more. In my book, BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days, I tell the extraordinary tales of many of these patients. Each one provides a valuable lesson in fearlessness.

Mike Cohen (who requested that his full name be used for the piece) is one of those former patients. When Mike was 18, he was diagnosed with leukemia and had gone through grueling treatments, which included daily doses of chemotherapy. Initially, his prognosis was grim. At one point his doctor had even said, "I'm not so sure you'll ever leave this hospital." But he didn't die. After months of excruciating treatment and dealing with congestive heart failure, a pulmonary embolism, and pneumonia along the way, Mike beat the cancer!

When he came to me for help, at the age of 23, he was living as if he were a fugitive, always looking back over his shoulder. He worried, "Will the cancer return? Will I get sick again? What if the cancer isn't really gone? What if the tests are wrong? What if I have cancer right now and I don't even know it? How much time do I really have? Will it all come to an end?"

He was taking classes at a junior college, but none that thrilled him. He worked at a restaurant, but he certainly wasn't passionate about the job. He was living at home, and his social and dating life were almost non-existent. Mike was depressed and aimless. His life was monotonous and routine. He was afraid to get too deeply interested in anything because he worried that he would lose it. He wasn't really living. He was simply getting by.

The goal of therapy was to help Mike to live life to the fullest every day. He wanted to do something he was passionate about and to look forward to his future with optimism and confidence. The payoff: Mike would get his life back, feel in control, and find happiness. In sessions, I helped Mike understand his thoughts and beliefs. When he felt weak, I had him write down his strengths. Anytime he thought negatively or had his doubts, I referred him back to the facts of his medical status and taught him how to gain control. Whenever he felt lost and aimless, I reminded him of what a remarkable young man he was and the great odds that he had already defied. I told him that anything was possible, even the impossible. He'd already proven this just by beating the cancer. Mike, after all, was no stranger to defying the odds.

After a few weeks of therapy, Mike's mood started to improve. He felt strong and was able to reflect on how far he'd come in life in only 23 years. Eventually, he saw that he had a gift. His story was one of hope and inspiration. Whenever he talked about his remarkable journey, his mood changed dramatically. His eyes opened wide and lit up. I really did believe he had a gift.

"You could probably help a lot of people," I told him.

He seemed excited by that prospect. Gone was the listless Mike I'd first encountered. In his place was a passionate young man who wanted to make a difference and who wanted to turn what had once been a limitation into strength. I challenged him to do just that.

Today, five years later, Mike is healthy and ambitious and living in San Diego. He's done media interviews to help raise awareness and support for cancer patients, and he is thinking big. In the summer of 2012, he rode his bike 3,000 miles from San Diego to Long Island, N.Y., where he began his cancer treatment 10 years ago. He also does motivational speeches for cancer patients and plans to continue helping those in need. I recently spoke to him and asked how everything was going.

"I've become a fearless, motivated, and a passionate advocate for cancer patients. Every single day when I wake, I try to figure out how to translate my success and experience to others around me. My intention is to motivate patients into living for their dreams and doing whatever it takes to survive," he told me.

We can all learn a lesson from Mike Cohen and do our part to make the impossible possible.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

For more by Jonathan Alpert, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.