Late last week it dawned on me that I'd managed to forget a rather big medical milestone. That being that it was officially five years since my breast cancer diagnosis (in fact a little over by the time I realized). Cancer and five year statistics often times go together. It's an official milestone for most that signifies a change in statistics for the better. All up, survival rates improve for those that make it past the five-year mark. So it is a cause for celebration.
For me, I still have the voice of my oncologist in my head, which goes something like this. Your survival statistics are very optimistic, but the risk of recurrence will not decrease over time - you will always need to be watched. Bah humbug!
That said, after five years I feel like I am on safer footing, regardless of my ‘official prognosis’. I'm not throwing a party but on the inside I'm dancing. I'm grateful for the past five years - much more so than I would have been without a cancer diagnosis. Which led me to pondering the most important life lessons since the day I found out. Here's my five for five:
1. Worrying is interest paid on trouble before it falls due. Think about it. How much of your life have you wasted on unfounded worry? For most people the answer is a lot. I realized early on after my cancer diagnosis that worrying about my mortality wasn't productive. That in fact it would only serve to impede the quality of the life I do have (no matter how long or short). So I got very good at shutting these types of thoughts (and web pages) down. I must admit that I sometimes wish I could apply this type of behavior and thinking to other parts of my life!
2. Amassing “things” in life does not lead to happiness. Quality relationships and experiences are much more potent. I still have to remind myself of this when I'm coveting one bauble or another (like the Cartier Love bangle = want!). Ultimately the lesson is to recognize the faulty belief that a material position will provide genuine happiness. Sure there's a fleeting moment of joy in having 'made it'. But after that, more often than not we're on to the next coveted item, or worse suffering buyers remorse. Happiness guaranteed #not. Suffice to say, happiness can not be bought.
3. There's more to life than a successful career or respect from colleagues. This has been huge for me. I was enormously ambitious up until my diagnosis, always hustling for the next big gig. A cancer diagnosis changed all that. Essentially I realized that there are many more important things in life than being respected or even rewarded for career success. In fact career success doesn’t come close to quality time with family and friends. I'm sure you've seen lists of the biggest regrets from terminally ill patients. Working too hard is typically at number one. I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more.
4. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Yes you may think this is a cliché but I think there's a lot of truth in this. There is so much more to me now than prior this whole health challenge. Strength comes in many forms. The type I'm referring to here is the inner confidence that I can survive anything. Yes there's still pain and frustration. But even when those feelings are at an all time high, I know I can deal with them. I know no matter how challenging, I have the coping skills to move forward.
5. Life is unpredictable. Like Forrest Gump said, ‘you just never know what you’re going to get’. All you can count on is the now. Time and time again I find myself obsessing over the past or fearing for the future. Neither is productive when it comes to the quality of my life or my happiness. But I do have thorough awareness of and power over the present moment. I continually get to choose how I turn up in the world every day. Learning to appreciate this is a gift of sorts. Possibly the most important of my five for five.
I will never be grateful for my breast cancer diagnosis. NEVER. I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on my worst enemy. But, that doesn’t mean I am filled with remorse or regret. In fact, I know that my life is richer in many aspects as a result. So there’s no regret for the past and there’s no fear for the future. What there is, is an appreciation for and a complete embracing of the here and now. If I could grant you one wish in the form of a lesson this would be it. Live your life like there’s no yesterday and no tomorrow. Today is all you have. Every. Single. Day.