When I was diagnosed with brain cancer as a young adult, I remember thinking, “What would I do if I could survive 10 more years? How would I change? Who would I become?” As my treatment progressed, I tried to answer these questions through journaling. Now 30 years after my diagnosis, I used the anniversary to look back at what I wrote.
One thing I found is that I wasn’t concerned with writing beautiful essays or eloquent entries filled with imagery. Instead I was a list-maker. My old notebooks are filled with my ideas about how I planned to create a better, healthier, version of myself. As it became clear that my treatment was working and that I really might have 10 more years, or 20, or even 30, I rebuilt my life with these bullet points in my journal as my guide—my insights and objectives; the words of inspiration I heard, read, or discovered within myself; the emotions I held in my heart that I poured out on the page; my limiting beliefs that I aimed to shed and those aspects of myself I wanted to change.
Here are some of the things I wrote:
- Believe there is enough time. After my diagnosis, I couldn’t shake the idea that I wouldn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted to do—whether in my whole life, or within each single day. I loved life (and still do!) and have so much to accomplish. It wasn’t until I began to realize that “not having enough time” was just a construct—just a belief that I could change—that I stopped rushing to to cram so much into every day and starting accepting my experiences and accomplishments for what they were. When I stopped rushing, I found that every experience had more meaning – that these things I could have rushed past held far more richness than the next hurried thing I had been rushing toward. By slowing down and sometimes doing less, I got more.
- Allow yourself to be selfish. Cancer allowed me, for the first time in my life, to focus on myself. Cancer gave me permission to say, “I’m important” and to say “no” when I needed. I let myself “eat dessert first” and not feel guilty about it. Now in my life after cancer, I try to realize that I still have the right to make myself a priority. It took being sick to let myself come first.
- Being positive is not being ‘up’ all the time. At first, I coped with my cancer diagnosis the same way I coped with other difficulties in my life: By not letting myself feel my emotions. I had to rally, be in charge, solve the problem, stay positive! Eventually, through my journey, I learned that being positive wasn’t just about being happy or strong. For me, being “positive” meant realizing that I could impact the course of my disease. When I finally let the tears come, that’s when my emotional healing started.
- Put yourself ‘out there.’ I know firsthand how isolating illness and the emotional recovery from illness can be. Without letting others know what you need or what you think or feel, all they can do is guess. And they usually guess wrong. Being yourself—being real—gives people something to relate to and draws them in. I desperately needed this connection during my cancer journey and putting myself out there as myself was the only way to find it.
- Define the meaning of illness. At some point most people facing health challenges, whether as a patient or as a support person, asks, “Why me?” I know I did. In fact, I love this question because it’s a doorway into exploring the things that illness can actually bring to your life. For me, my cancer gave me freedom. Freedom to choose the life I wanted to live. My mission became to know myself well enough to be who I am in the world. And from that day, I have sought to understand the complexity of who I am and what makes me, me so that I can be authentic in my relationships and my life. My answer to “why me?” is that I needed my cancer experience to discover what “me” meant in the first place.
It’s hard to believe that I began my fight against brain cancer 30 years ago. Now as I look back at what I wrote, I truly believe that the process of introspection I set down in my cancer journal has helped me both get healthy and stay healthy. Today, cancer remains a part of my identity and I am proud of it. While it forced me to change, it also provided the opportunity to rebuild myself with consciousness and intention – to free myself from who I had been so that I could become who I am.