Lessons Learned


Being a cancer survivor, I walk a fine line between feeling invincible because I kicked cancer’s butt…and knowing all too well just how fragile I really am, how life can change in an instant – for the good and for the bad.  Lately, I’ve heard from friends about people who had cancer and died.  I’ve heard stories about survivors who were living their lives, free from cancer and then boom…it comes back.  A dear childhood friend is currently watching her Mom fight cancer for the second time.  Surprised by the news, I mentioned to her that I thought she had been doing so well.  She simply said, “She was doing great…until she wasn’t”.  See, just as I didn’t get a warning that I would soon be diagnosed with cancer, I won’t get a warning if it ever came back. None of us do. So, I can sit and wait around for that to happen or I can live my life. I choose to do the latter.

I like to think that when the bad stuff happens in our lives, we come out of it with a few scars and a lot of lessons.  God gives us challenges in life because He is working on us. He is shaping and molding us and teaching us things we need to learn.  I think that every cancer survivor questions God’s motives at some point but in the end, we learn to accept the hardship and embrace the lessons. Everyone’s experience is different.  Everyone’s lessons are different.  We all change between the day we are diagnosed with cancer and the day we trade in the title of “patient” for “survivor”. We just need to remember what we learned along the way.

I learned many lessons but I highlighted some of the more important ones. I can’t speak for all survivors but I think that most people who have faced cancer head on and lived to tell about it probably feel the same way. I am writing them down both to share with others and to remind myself of what I have learned along the way. In the beginning, it was surreal stepping back into real life and then before you know it, you (almost) forget about all that you have gone through and start living life (almost) like before. That’s when I need a reality check. That’s when I have to remember the lessons God wanted me to learn so that I don’t forget.

I focus on the important people in my life.  Before cancer, I loved my family.  That is a given; however, I often spent way more hours at work than I should have.  That old saying about how you won’t wish you spent more time at work at the end of your days is so true. Many nights while I was going through treatment, unsure of the outcome, I cried at the edge of my children’s beds, watching them sleep and regretting every moment I spent away from them. I focus on my children, my husband, my Mom and my true friends. The important people in my life are my priority.

I’m selfish with my time.  I used to join committees and attend functions for which I didn’t have the time or a real interest. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity that might help me advance my business or open a new door. I used to accept invitations from acquaintances to home parties and silly outings. I don’t do that anymore. It takes a lot for me to give up a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon with my children.  I don’t mean to be rude. I just know that if I say ‘yes’ to something, it better be important enough to give up that amount of time with my children.

I’ve changed my priorities. Before cancer, I wanted a lot more professionally. I wanted more personally.  I wanted to get another degree. I wanted to grow my business much bigger. Now, I just don’t.  I am content with what I have, with what I am, right now.  I don’t need any more badges or notches on my belt. I’m doing just fine.  I am putting my efforts into enjoying my life and enjoying my family.

I appreciate the beautiful things. I am ashamed of all the beauty I missed before I got sick, the beauty I took for granted.  I notice everything now – the beautiful sunset, the fall leaves cascading down when the wind blows, the first daffodil popping up in spring. I see all those beautiful things. I take notice … and I take lots of pictures.

I look for the good.
I used to be easily annoyed with people. I used to pick out their flaws.  I don’t do that anymore. I look for the good in people, even when it is hard to find. If I don’t see it right away, then I really look for it. If I still don’t find it, I pray for them. Their lives must be very difficult if they make it so difficult for others.

I forgive more easily.  I used to hold grudges. I held on to grudges dating back to elementary school. I don’t do that anymore.  People have hurt me deeply.  I forgave them.  I did it because that is what God asks of me and because it brings peace to my soul.  Forgive…and move on.

I’ve made my circle smaller…and tighter. I used to have a lot of acquaintances and I considered them friends. I used to ‘collect’ contacts. I don’t do that anymore. I cling to the people I love the most.  I hold on tight to my family and am fiercely loyal to my friends. I am still an open person. I am just more selective of who I let into my circle and how far I let them in.

I have an intense need to give back. I was always doing charitable things. I always looked for ways to give.  Now, I need to give. I’ve heard that is part of ‘survivor’s guilt’, those thoughts about why I was spared when so many others weren’t so lucky. Maybe that is part of it but I like to think that God opened my heart up a little more.

Material things don’t matter. I don’t care about how big someone’s house is, how much money they make, what kind of car they drive. I don’t care about things. They may be beautiful but they have no relevance to the kind of person someone is.  I am more impressed by how people treat others.

Superficial has no place in my life. I don’t care about appearances. I know better now how little that has to do with the person you are.  I worried so much about losing my hair during chemotherapy. When I was bald, I wore a wig but I didn’t wear makeup.  Before cancer, I wouldn’t have left the house for work without makeup. I don’t worry about things like that any more. Don’t get me wrong. I am so happy to have hair that will go up into a ponytail again. I just don’t spend hours making sure every hair is in place. I have better things to do with my time. The people who matter don’t care whether my hair, clothes or outfit is perfect.

I have more compassion. I feel for people. I always have but now, I feel so much for people that it hurts sometimes. I want to help people. I want to make them feel better.

I’ve developed a strong aversion to negativity. I don’t like to hear negative things. People who are constantly complaining, constantly miserable turn me off right away. I avoid people like that. We should embrace the positive. If you can’t do that, I can’t embrace you…even if I want to.

I don’t care about your drama. I don’t have time to listen to it. I avoid that at all costs. I keep things simple. I say what I mean and mean what I say. I treat others the way I want to be treated. It takes too much precious energy to get involved in all that nonsense.

I am grateful.
I am thankful for every day that I wake up in the morning. I am thankful for the chaos that sometimes creeps into my life. As crazy as it sounds, I am even thankful for my cancer diagnosis. The road was difficult but I learned so much that I will carry with me through the rest of this life that I was blessed to live (and keep living).

I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth.  No one does.  When I found out I had cancer, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  When I beat cancer, I felt a responsibility to live the time I have left in a good way.  I will always remember the lessons that I learned as I went through my “journey” and will live this life the way God intended me to do so.

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