What? I’m Mortal?

We begin the early years of childhood learning our colors, the alphabet, how to count, our directions, and our shapes. As we grow bigger our learning shifts to more abstract things and we learn how to share, how to be kind to one another, where we are from, who our parents are, and
how to tell time. But at some point, things shift again and we realize we have feelings and emotions about these things in life we’ve learned about…especially time.

We eventually learn how to feel from our hearts and how to manage those emotions when they come, but time is something you don’t knowingly develop an emotional relationship with.

I have such a vivid memory of the exact moment I heard the words “the cancer is confirmed.” I was sitting on my side of our bed with my knees hugged into my chest and I was hanging on every syllable Dr. Carroll spoke over the phone. What I remember most about the following hours and days, is trying to come to grips with the fact that my life might not extend into the geriatric years like I had always envisioned.

Life might not equal rocking our sweet baby to sleep in the upstairs bedroom of our house. It might not equal a 20+ year career I can look back on and be proud of. It might not equal living life through the legacy our parents left on this earth.

Mortality for me wasn’t about what I might go through or feel like along the way…it was about how long I would have to go through and feel those things.

Mortality is HARD to grasp. The realization that I wasn’t actually going to live forever was a tough hurdle to clear (although it’s somewhat innately understood). It was a realization for me that, for a while, took the joy from my eyes and the genuineness from my smile, not to mention, the peace from my days.

But at some point I realized I was too busy mourning the life I was still living rather than enjoying and appreciating it, and besides, no one gets out of here alive. Of course, it was a gut punch to hear my body had grown cancer cells, but it also (eventually) gave me a healthier set of expectations about time.

Culture teaches us that we deserve to live long, enjoyable lives, but reality (and scripture) shows us that the Lord can take us home at any point. Cancer may or may not be what ends my earthly existence but understanding that it could (along with a long list of other things) has allowed me to not just appreciate each day but look for the value in each and every day.

But it’s not always that easy…

I am not oblivious to the fact that many people diagnosed with cancer fall into depression filled with self-deprecation or crippling anxiety. My mom and I, for example, have dealt with life after cancer VERY differently. She’s a worrier and I’m more of a “whatever’s going to happen is going to happen” kind of girl. (But disclaimer, because my mother will come after me for this if I don’t say it: I wasn’t that way from the beginning of all this). Regardless, cancer has been one of my biggest blessings while she’s still a bit angry that she ever had any kind of cancer to begin with.

Everyone is different, but I believe we can learn to enjoy life with a little expectation management and a shift in perspective.

Don’t expect to feel like you did pre-treatment

The medicines and methods currently used to treat cancer cells are intended to disrupt parts your body, specifically to kill the bad cells. But those innocent bystander cells are going to get messed with just a little bit too. Your stamina and strength will likely be different. And you might have feelings of “I’m just not what I used to be,” or feel like “cancer ruined you.”

You will be different after treatment, but if you leave your expectations of what everyday life looks like at the standard that it was at before any of this ever happened, then you will surely be disappointed each and every day. It’s just not realistic.

Train your brain

I have this saying that my mother absolutely despises (so I say it a lot)…

“Where the mind goes, the man follows.”

Essentially your thoughts are the rudder to your life. Positive thinking tends to lead to success and happiness. Negativity and complaining lands you in a rut of “woe is me.” So, despite your circumstances (which will never be exactly what you want), you can still enjoy life and find joy by just changing your thinking a bit.

Remove temptations

Temptations? Yes, temptations. As you begin to heal from the emotional and physical trauma of treatment, you will find particular patterns and triggers that heighten your anxiety and/or negative thoughts or feelings. Whether it’s Google (can I get an amen?) or social media or certain people and places, it’s important to recognize those things and keep a reasonable distance from them.

Now this takes a bit of self-control and discipline but it’s been a valuable tool for me. Particularly this week as Gabriele Grunewald passed and many others with ACC (Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma) have struggled, I’ve had to limit my time on Facebook and Instagram, where updates from cancer support groups and such are peppered throughout. And my tolerance fluctuates. Sometimes I’m fine reading all the things, and other times it makes my mind spiral and I start noticing the physical manifestations of stress and fear show up.

There’s never going to be a perfect formula for living life after cancer. People and diagnoses are far too different across the spectrum. But it’s time and how we spend it that is the steering component for the health of our relationship with our mortality. Take the time to access where that stands for you. It’s worth it.

Onward and upward.

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