"It's stage-four cancer." Those were the words my oncologist shared with me on February 16, 2011.
Learning you have cancer is a life-altering experience. Hearing your cancer has returned is unimaginably disheartening. But when you find out your cancer has returned for a third time with a stage-four diagnosis, it is devastating ... especially if you're going to propose the next week.
Ironically cancer brought us together in the first place. Shari and I knew each other casually, but when my Merkel cell cancer returned for a second time she was one of the first people to reach out to me. As a breast cancer survivor she knew all too well the road I traveled and suggested we get together when I was feeling up to it. So while recovering from surgery and between radiation treatments, we found time to meet for coffee a few times then eventually dinner. We quickly discovered we had a lot more in common than cancer, and before long our romance blossomed into love and we were talking about a future together.
I was sure the plans we had for our future ended with the news of my stage-four diagnosis. In my mind, we would slowly drift apart as my schedule became more complicated with work, more radiation, and now chemotherapy. I wouldn't or couldn't blame her. After all, what woman would want to invest in a relationship which medical statistics said would likely end within a few years? Fortunately for me, my wife doesn't think like most women. Instead of drifting apart, we were married 29 days later.
In the days leading up to our wedding, Shari and I met with our pastor and he offered me some advice. Mike said,
"Tom, I don't know if you have four months, four years, or 40 years, but I do know God has a plan for your life regardless of the number of days remaining. You can let cancer rob you of the joy found in those days, or you can choose to find the gift of joy in each day."
Having fought cancer on two other occasions, I knew first-hand the wisdom Mike Teston shared, as cancer is a thief which subtlety tries to make you believe you have no power over it.
When you choose to fight and live life on your terms, you have power over cancer. When you choose to lean into your faith by looking for the lessons God is trying to teach you rather than spending time questioning why all this is happening to you, you have power over cancer. When you choose to rise above your circumstances and lead a life filled with passion and purpose, you have power over cancer.
We may never know when we will cross our finish line but we can choose how we run the race and make sure we finish well.
In the days and weeks of chemotherapy and radiation which followed an amazing wedding day, I chose to respect my treatment but not the disease. Cancer would not control my life. As I look back over this season, there are three choices I made which still play out in my life today as a survivor.
Choose to find the joy!
When someone finds themselves in survival mode, the vision for their life is put on hold. Lack of vision for a future on the other side of cancer or any life-altering event can lead to depression and despair. Choosing to find the joy in each new day allows you to see a joy-filled future. It's this vision that keeps you moving forward.
Choose to make memories!
There is a tendency to postpone special events and alter plans until you are on the other side of a life crisis. Why? If you seek to find the joy in each new day, you will be on a journey filled with memories. Capture these memories. Share them with those you know and love. Think about the story your life will tell to those who see the abundant life you are leading in spite of the circumstances you face.
Choose to leverage the lessons!
Share your story and the lessons you have learned in your journey. As a fighter and as a survivor, you are learning some of life's most meaningful lessons. There is someone out there who needs you to share these lessons. In sharing them and seeing the impact they have on others, you may find the purpose of the challenges you face.
Please know there will be good days and bad days in the days which lie ahead. But if you choose to make joy-filled memories and leverage the lessons learned, you will thrive as you survive life's greatest challenges!