5 Ways I’ve Lived Life More Fully Since My Cancer Scare

Couple on a mountain

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ~Albert Einstein

A few months ago, I had my first mammogram. I have two first cousins who died of breast cancer very young, as well as an aunt that recently passed away from the disease, so I started my mammograms a bit earlier than most.

This mammogram was quite routine, except that a few days later they asked me to come back for another one, as well as an ultrasound. This second visit was more like those shows or movies when you feel someone is about to get very bad news.

People kept staring at the screen with very serious looks but ignoring me. They called in more people, who also stared at the screen and scrunched their foreheads. Then the doctor came, and stayed for about an hour, looking at the screen and not telling me anything. After about three hours, I was told to come back for a biopsy.

The biopsy went quite smoothly, and I was told that the results would be ready in about ten days.

For these ten days, I was mostly sure that it would all be fine, but a part of me felt that perhaps the long life I always assumed I would have could be cut short. Rather than stressing about it, I began to live as if I could die, very very soon.

Here are the things I started doing. Now that I gratefully found out that I am cancer-free, I continue to live this way and it has greatly enhanced my quality of life:

1. Each morning in bed when I first wake up, I take a moment to notice I’m alive.

I take a breath in and feel what is true for me in that moment. Even if I feel heavy, dark, tired, or afraid, I let myself feel that. Then I bring some love and compassion to whatever state I’m in. I feel my body, my breath, and feel a sense of gratitude for just being here, awake, alive.

Next, I envision the day ahead. From the outset, I acknowledge that all the things I wish to do may not get done. I allow room for imperfection.

Lastly, I bring to mind my highest aspiration, to be a calm and peaceful presence, to be of service to others as best I can, to live as best as I am able. Then I get out of bed.

The lesson: Remember that many people went to sleep last night and did not wake up this morning. Today is a gift. Recognizing that each morning gives you a powerful start to the day.

2. I prepare myself for the day as if it was a special occasion.

Before my cancer scare, I used to save my best dresses for parties or holidays. I wore makeup only once in a while. My regular workdays were a matter of pulling on my most comfortable sweater, putting my hair up, and getting out the door.

These days, I wear my best outfits all the time. I invested in some makeup that makes me feel beautiful, and I take the extra five minutes each morning to put it on.

By the time I walk out the door, I feel as if I’m ready to take the world on by storm, welcoming and honoring the day as the profound miracle that it truly is, and each task as an opportunity to bring my best self forward.

The lesson: Imagine you were going to star in a movie today. How would you get ready for the day? Don’t forget that each day, you star in the movie of your life. Make it count!

3. I fully embody today instead of living as if there is some better place ahead I have to get to.

I used to think that what I was doing in any given moment was okay, but there would be a time when it would be just a bit better. Eventually, I’d take on some promotion at work, get in a groove with my business, and really feel that I had made it and my life had some sort of order and permanence to it.

My cancer scare showed me that this time never comes. We have this fantasy of thinking life is about to get started, and then it ends, just like that. The only time we can get started living is in this moment.

I no longer wait for a better time to become more engaged in my work, more loving to my family and friends, more committed to my mindfulness practice. I do it all now, as best I can.

It will never feel orderly or permanent, and I will make many mistakes along the way. But I no longer hold back. A better time will never come, so I choose to jump in 100% today.

The lesson: Are you waiting to reach a particular goal or milestone in order to really start living? What would happen if today, you started living as if you had already gotten there? Ultimately, what we are searching for is the feeling of living our purpose, and we can choose to do this every single day.

4. I think of what I would like people to say about me when I am gone, and live this way.

Sometimes, I look at people who have something “more” than me and wish I had it—a higher position, a better yoga practice, more friends, a relaxed way about them.

While very easily noticing someone who has more than us can make us feel inadequate, in other ways, it can help us define who we want to be today.

Each day, when I contemplate my highest aspiration, I ask myself, what qualities do I want people to remember me by? I think of the people I admire most, and notice that it is not necessarily the highest ranked or the most flexible.

It’s the openness, the kindness, the presence, the joy in being together that I remember. So I find these qualities in myself, and let them shine. As best as I am able.

The lesson: Think about the qualities that you most admire in your best friend, a mentor, guide, or teacher. Can you allow these same qualities to shine within you? We all have within ourselves the potential for greatness. Don’t be afraid to let your own light shine.

5. I take opportunities to notice nature throughout the day.

My highly active mind often leads to me getting somewhere without actually knowing how I got there. I get stuck in planning, organizing, analyzing in my head, and miss the beauty that is present along the way.

My yoga teacher Felicia recently challenged me to notice nature each time it is available. It may be only a small tree in a busy city corner, or a flower in the middle of a row of cubicles. Nature reminds us of the wonder of just being alive, without needing anything else at all.

Now, I take more time to notice the buds in the trees, the squirrels running around, and the dogs that are so happy not to be freezing anymore. They bring a smile to my face and reconnect me with my inherent sense of aliveness and wellbeing.

The lesson: Today, on your walk home from work, take a moment to notice nature. Even if it’s a small tree or the clouds in the sky, focus on this. When your mind wanders to something that happened earlier, or what you will do next, kindly but firmly bring it back to nature. Can you feel how you too are part of this miracle of life?

My short encounter with my own mortality reminded me that there is beauty in the ordinary. A life well lived is not necessarily full of glory and admiration, but one of clear intention and authenticity.

Being true to myself and bringing kindness to each moment as best I can empowers me to know that when my last day does come, I will have truly lived.

About Paula Vital

Paula Vital’s passion for mindful living is expressed in her varied roles as senior government advisor, yoga teacher, mindfulness coach, wife, and mom of two. Paula speaks regularly at corporate events and has been featured at TEDx “ideas worth spreading.” Sign up for Paula’s free course of 3 Minute Meditations: 3 Minutes to Your Greatest Self on her website, www.livethepresent.ca.

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