Many years ago, just after my diagnosis, I went through what was called a “patient empowerment program.” One of the key things I learned was that if I was going to have the best chance of getting well and staying well, I needed to structure my life to meet my needs. Wow, what a powerful idea. But how in the world do I do it?
Well, obviously I needed to know what I needed! I thought, “I’ve been so busy trying to help everyone else, to be honest, I have no idea what I need.”
I had always admired people who were adventurers—those who traveled the world, went to exotic places, or attempted to do things outside their comfort zone. So off to the travel agent I went, and there I found brochures on India. I had never known anyone who had gone to India, so I thought, “here’s my adventure.” As soon as my immune system was strong enough to take the vaccinations, I was off. That started a chain of travel adventures, so that I could become one of the interesting people that I had admired.
When I was younger, I had always enjoyed art and being creative. Let’s just say that college and my first job squelched every bit of creative expression from me. Again, I made a conscious decision to bring what I needed into my life. This time it was to tap into and express my creativity.
But how was I going to do that? One way was to create a very unique space to express both “the real me” and help bring fun, interesting, happy people into my life. “That’s it,” I thought. “That old dilapidated shed in the back of my yard could become a Caribbean Beach Party Shack!” I told one and only one friend. He said, “When (not if) you do, I will give you my Rasta man to hang right there.” For over twenty years, memories were made, friendships deepened, joys expressed, and yes, hula-hoop contests were among the amusements, in my shack in the back.
Why had I worked on Wall Street in hospital finance, when my real passion was working in hospitals? Why was I working in a start-up developing childcare centers when my real passion was working with kids? Why had I studied biology and neuroscience in school when my real passion was supporting people with health issues? Thanks to this self-questioning process that cancer provided me, I recognized that I would find my greatest fulfillment through volunteering with sick children and their families and through involvement in nonprofits that help children with illness, and inevitably through coauthoring Digging Deep and founding Resonance House. In a sense, I learned that my education and work experience laid the framework for what I was really meant to do, even though I hadn’t known it at the time.
Cancer allowed me to reinvent myself. It gave me the freedom to just be myself—the self I was uncovering and discovering. To stay focused, I developed a personal mission statement: To know myself well enough to be who I am in the world, and connect with others in a real way, by just being me.
What a blessing learning this at age 24 has been in my life. My life would not be the same today had I not had cancer. For those of us who have been touched by illness, each of us has a unique answer to the question, “Why me?” I needed to restructure my life to meet my needs and my life has been much richer because of it. Introspection, and journaling in particular, can help us reach inside to uncover the answers that lie within.