Survivor * Speaker * Motivator
Everyday things I took for granted before my diagnosis, that were formerly performed with energy, enthusiasm and often with little effort, were now overwhelming. My road to recovery was not a straightforward path; in fact, there was nothing encouraging about it at all. My mood was gloomy, and it was difficult to fathom that every day was going to be like the last, an unending, painful mere existence. This was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I desperately missed the healthy, energized person that I had been. It was hard not to let thoughts about my inability to control anything consume me, and the bleakness of the long days was excruciating. I told my husband that I would not continue with treatments, and I would accept death as it came.
And yet, I gave the next hour, the next day another chance. I clung to my faith in God, family, friends, hope and myself. I told myself, I can do this! It might not end up as I envisioned but I would take baby steps and accept life as it came.
Because of the deadly nature of pancreatic cancer, my oncologist prescribed an aggressive protocol that was not followed by many doctors because of the toxic components that would address the cancer but also lead to side effects in other systems. I trusted my doctor and practiced what I call “healthy denial” to avoid all the negative chatter surrounding the disease and the grim odds of survival. This allowed me to proceed with as much courage and strength as I could summon, which didn’t feel like much at the time.
Overcoming adversity is a phenomenal struggle, but there are techniques that can help. Experts say that fantasizing, forward-thinking, and using one’s imagination are powerful tools for getting through difficult times. Maintaining a positive attitude or inserting a pause into a behavioral overload can help override emotional impulses or overreaction. There are many prayers and meditation practices that help with this. We can train the brain to observe rather than react to uncomfortable feelings.
I imagined my future self as someone I wanted to be, with a healthy, strong body. Research shows that both motivation and hope stem from the combination of a clear, desired outcome, the belief that you can succeed, and a path to get there. I continue this practice, but it was never more important than during the agonizing months and years of my recovery. We must allow nourishment of imagination and wonder to resonate.
We act because of the way we feel, but we also feel because of how we act. Changing how we feel can make a big difference. I had never kept a gratitude journal, but studies show writing down your feelings and expressing thoughts resulted in lower levels of stress, improved mood and reduced cancer symptoms in patients. Gratitude and hope are a choice, and I was willing to try to cultivate them.
I began jotting down three things daily. I say “jot” because this is exactly what it was, just random thoughts, not a paragraph or a long journal entry. I would include things that occurred daily that I might have taken for granted in my old life. An example of a day’s entry might be:
l was able to speak to a live person at the hospital and not an automated message. I was able to manage a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. I savored the view from my bedroom window.
As time progressed, I became more creative with my entries and felt the freedom to write whatever I was feeling, knowing this was not going to be judged or edited. My pen filled the page with positive events that filled me with gratitude.
Reading my entries at the end of the week empowered me, turning my bleak situation into something manageable and hopeful. I could never guess that such a simple, inexpensive activity could bring tears of joy and sorrow, gratitude, love, and appreciation for everything and everyone around me. Sorrow and suffering turned into rays of sunshine and a newfound appreciation for living in the moment.
Facing cancer twice (endometrial cancer in 2021) has taught me to embrace my ever-changing life status. I know, for many, this mindset might be difficult to embrace. Believe me, I had many dark days with very little light at the end of the tunnel. I hope you will make a choice to commit to the next hour. Give the next day another chance. There will be times when things feel impossible. But, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Only in the darkness can you see the stars,” which is a reminder to look for the light.
The truth is no one knows what the future will bring. Time is finite for everyone. Cancer patients are acutely aware of how precious time is, which gives us the unique ability to appreciate every moment.
When faced with adversity, remember the following:
These initial steps, then and now, allow me to manage my fears, emotions, and concerns.
I read and walked for miles at night along the beach,… searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person would be me.
—Anna Quindlen, Living Out Loud