“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” ~Abraham Lincoln
Nothing can ever really prepare you for a cancer diagnosis, but it can quickly turn your life into an unplanned story.
Diagnosed at the age of twenty-eight with ocular melanoma, I was treated with surgery and proton beam therapy, and gratefully continued on with my life (though certainly a changed person).
But every year I went for a MRI of my liver/abdomen because if ocular melanoma spreads, it most likely goes to the liver. And every year when I got a clean bill of health, I felt grateful.
I didn’t live my life waiting for the other shoe to drop, though there had been other challenges along the way—being hit by a car and having shoulder surgery, struggling with infertility for years, and finally becoming pregnant only to have a miscarriage.
For each of these challenging situations, I would cry and experience the heartbreak, but then ultimately dust myself off and get back into being an active participant in my own life.
On August 27th 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage IV liver melanoma. After a misdiagnosis at one hospital I had switched care, and essentially spent almost two months in limbo about the state of my health.
Now, being treated at one of the best facilities in the world and going through two rounds of treatment in the past year for an incurable cancer, I have quickly learned a thing or two about life, and how I want to live it.
My hope is that by sharing how I approach a life-changing situation, it may empower you to think about your own health and happiness.
Follow your heart and your gut.
When you face a cancer diagnosis—or any life-altering crisis—it can seem like your internal GPS is off-kilter, or sometimes even broken altogether.
What I’ve learned is to throw that map out the window: forget about where you think you’re “supposed” to go and listen to your heart (and your gut).
You have the answers inside of yourself; you just need to find a quiet place where you can sit with your thoughts and breathe, gently blocking out the commotion of the outside world.
Meditation can greatly help with this. All the direction that you really need is already within you, it’s just a matter of tuning into it and really paying attention. When you listen to your heart, you can never really be lost.
Advocate for yourself.
Listening to your gut comes especially in handy when dealing with a medical diagnosis or some other kind of life quandary. It’s important to gather all of the information, bring somebody with you, and get second and even third opinions.
The first hospital that found lesions on my liver through a MRI dragged out the process of having it biopsied, telling me along the way that if it came back as cancer it would be Stage IV and “very hard to treat.” I was given few treatment options and even less information, which all led to a very scary few weeks.
When the biopsy results finally came back, they were negative, but my gut was telling me that it would be still be smart to find out what these lesions could be. So, despite the fact that both my oncologist and my primary care doctor at the time said that I didn’t need to see a liver specialist, I decided to see one anyway.
It’s because I advocated for myself and listened to my internal GPS that I was able to put together an amazing team and start treatment at a different hospital. My gut told me this was the place to be, and I’m glad that I listened.
It is more than okay to want to be happy and healthy; it is your birthright. Gratitude swells for my doctors, who are amazing, and we need these medical professionals greatly to heal. However, it is still so incredibly important to get multiple opinions, ask questions, and speak up if something doesn’t feel right.
Your health is in your hands, and nobody else’s. You’re not being difficult, you’re being smart.
Make friends with your inner ally.
I’ve also learned to listen to my gut much more when it comes to what is best for me. In the past I felt sucked in by what I thought I “should” be doing. A people-pleaser by nature, it was often very difficult for me to say “no” to things that I didn’t really want to be doing (and truth be told, it still can be).
It took a cancer diagnosis for me to admit that what my life coach calls my “inner ally” had been right all along: it is more than okay to often times say “no,” create boundaries, and take better care of myself by reducing as much stress in my life as possible.
Though there are still plenty of times when I have to do things that I don’t want to do, just like everybody, or I give of myself because I want to (and because there are so many in my life who deserve that), being “selfish” sometimes just feels like putting my health as a priority, and my gut (and heart) is a lot happier for it.
I’ve also learned that, most of the time, people get over your “no” a lot faster than you would suspect, and you wind up feeling grateful that, instead of doing something that you didn’t really want to be doing, you took that time and devoted it to yourself.
Tapping into your “inner ally” can be a powerful way to figure out what will truly make you happy and healthy.
Pay attention to the dark days.
There will be some, especially if you are being told that you’re facing a challenge like cancer.
There are some days when I feel so angry and resentful of those around me who don’t have to worry about the things that those with cancer do: dying at a young age, leaving a spouse, and perhaps never being able to have children.
These are real fears for me, and if I ignored them, I wouldn’t be giving myself permission to grieve for the life that I had before I was diagnosed.
I try to allow myself to cry or feel angry when I need to, which then enables me to be able to move forward with my life with more authenticity.
My positive outlook on life and on the situation is because I listen to what that inner voice is telling me, which is not to ignore the pain. It’s through the processing of this anguish that I can then recharge my batteries and gather the strength to do what needs to be done: continue on with my KBCP (Kick-Butt Cancer Plan).
Tap into whatever is going on for you, and while it can be scary, you may actually feel lighter afterward.
Journal, meditate, cry, get in touch with that anger in a way that feels like afterward, you can then release it and move forward. But don’t go it alone; see a therapist or lean on anybody in your life who you feel truly understands you, and will listen.
Believe in yourself.
When I was about sixteen years old I was diagnosed with a learning disability.
I was attending a private school, and my parents were told by my math teacher at the time that I would never be able to pass her class, and therefore would never graduate from high school. So did I want to try and re-take the class with a different teacher, or did I want to transfer to the public high school and take an easier math class?
I couldn’t stand the thought of somebody telling me that I couldn’t do something. So, when doctors insinuate that people with melanoma may not live past a certain age, I take it with a grain of salt and listen to my own inner strength, which tells me that they don’t really know what I’m capable of.
And that math class? I re-took it, got a B, and not only graduated from high school, but from college and graduate school as well.
Finding quiet times to tap into what direction my gut is guiding me toward has served me well, and what I love the most about my internal GPS is that it’s mine. Wherever I go, whatever happens, nobody can take that away from me.
It is because of these life experiences that I now know that deep down inside of myself I have the strength and the wisdom to thrive. And you do too.
Strong woman on mountain image via Shutterstock