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Alexander has been contributing for THS for over a year! While he attained a major in communications at SFU, he also recieved a minor in Psychology. Despite those accomplishments, Alex has also never had a full cup of coffee (crazy right?!). Alex is a lifelong sports fan and will defend his Seattle Seahawks to the death, especially if faced against a 49er fan. While Alex's long-term goal is to become a marriage counsellor, he also has a strong passion towards writing that he looks forward to exploring.

What I Have Learned From Cancer

Image Credit: MichelleDoherty

Image Credit: MichelleDoherty

When I was undergoing my third year of university my entire world was altered. I was sitting in the Communications wing at Simon Fraser University and it was the 2nd month of the semester. The rain was falling outside as my phone rang and my Dad was on the other end. “They say it could have been there 10 years…size of a football” are a few of the words that stung home when I found out my Mom had stage 4 colon cancer and was given maybe a year to live. I am grateful to say that she is still with us today, 3 years later, and with that time together has come so much joy and taught so much. We grew together as a family, as the cancer started to shrink into remission. There truly is just nobody quite like your Mom and I may have the best one around, a fact that I was always aware of.

But on October 24th, 2014, another fact that many people may know also came hammering home. My Mom told me and my Dad that the cancer had in fact returned. The downfall of cancer is it is just so tough to get completely clear of it, but my Mom, a tough woman, started chemo this Halloween. In my toughest of days I am constantly reminded at my ability to look at life on the bright side, a perspective largely inspired by both of my parents. It is with that in mind that I want to talk about the lessons I have learned when I felt my life was spinning out of control and the strength that can be gained. The sad reality that cancer does not care and is out of our control, the knowledge that life is going to be okay, and that life is bigger than the problems put in front of us today so we better do our damn best to just focus on the now. In doing so I hope to shed light not only on how I handled the diagnosis, but also showing the silver linings that can be found in your everyday life, no matter the task put ahead of us.

My Dad looked at me bluntly one day and simply stated cancer doesn’t care. My Mom is a selfless woman who has spent her entire life trying to make the people around her better. Nobody may deserve this less. I thought about Steve Jobs, and how with all his power and cultural status, was still taken down by the darkness that is cancer. But I was left with a familiar feeling, that life sometimes is so out of your control. It is hard to process and much easier plead out why it happened to someone close to you. Though what I gain from this poison, is not to look at cancer as to why it happened, but what it might be possible to gain from it. I drew inspiration from Genny Ross-Barons, an author living in Honduras who talks about how when you feel like your life is out of control (be it cancer or otherwise) to focus on what opportunities or life lessons can come from this newest experience. It is in these moments of turmoil that doubt may creep in about your future but you must not let it. Our future is so undetermined that to spend time worrying about unforeseen problems is a tireless and frustrating process. You cannot solve the problems of one year from now, no matter how much you think about it. No matter how much I think about what it may be like without my Mom, it will never be the same as if it happens. Instead, I try and choose happiness because believe you me, it has to be an active choice. I take the opportunities to bond with those close to you, and get to help my friends through my own displays of inner strength.

Ross-Barons also talks about the importance of passions and the learning experiences that can occur when your life feels spiraling. Passions, my Mom said, help keep you still when the entire world seems to be whipping around you and it is important that people can help identify what theirs are when the world seems to be overwhelming. Fittingly I suppose, my passion is wanting to help people who are struggling with cancer (or know loved ones who are). It is hard, but my life has prepared me to take each day of pain as a day of inspiration for the future. And with that, comes strength, and with that comes the ability to do another day.  Now this is just me, this is how I handled the aspect that cancer does not care who it happens to. A hard grasp for many to tackle. For others they may not want to discuss a tragic incident or handle it in a different way and that’s okay too! No two cancers or life experiences are alike but as Genny Ross-Barons can point out there are some strengths to come with all the weaknesses and confusion.

With so much out of our control it feels like sometimes it is inevitable that cancer will be the thing that takes my Mom. Though as many with cancer say, at least in that instance the cancer dies as well. But cancer does not make you immortal to the thousands of things that could kill you every day. All it does is make you and your loved ones more aware of the finality of life, and that can be a wonderful thing.  I take every single day with my Mom as an incredible blessing because we know the value of time and that every single day is a gift, with or without cancer in your life. It is very weird to look at your Mom and try and have conversations that you may feel the need to get out of the way at age 24, because there might not be an age 40. And as tough as that is, it is an incredible blessing that I am able to be actively aware of the finality of life. It keeps me grounded, and it gives me strength that I am able to talk about damn near anything with her because you just never know what is going to happen next. So instead of looking at my Mom as an ‘end-game’ I look at it with the good fortune to know that the words of advice I get now, will echo throughout the rest of my life. I can’t take any second with her for granted, because you never know. But you shouldn’t take anybody for granted whether sick or not because you just really truly, never know.

It is very easy to get stressed about the potential problems of the future but you need to remember that you do not currently have the tools equipped to succeed. The strengths and tools to help me through in life in 5 months may not be in my life today. The problems of 15 years ago (Blonde tips or full streaks…went tips, by the way) seem far gone and I know that with my future will come turmoil, but also strength. It is important to keep that faith strong because there is no way of knowing what the future is, so you may as well do your best to look at it with an optimistic glow.

Life is going to be okay, even if we don’t always know what that means. Even if the future is scary, even if it is unknown that things will be okay. Winston Churchill once said that attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. It is through changing how you view the world, that many problems, related to cancer or not, can be overcome. My attitude is my strength in my moments of weakness but it is also important to know that it is sometimes an active choice. To not get sad at a life event, but instead take it for what it is and look for the blessings that can come from it. Things will be okay with my Mom around, and they would be okay even if she was not. That is not to say the future is not scary, it may be scary for 100 different reasons. But there are so many different issues that will come up in the next 24 hours that require my focus that if I was always worrying about my Mom’s health then I would not be able to focus on what life has put right in front of me. If we focus so hard on the future or where we want to be, we may forget to live in the moment and take the beauty of every day in front of us.

How do you best handle stressful situations? If you are sitting there and you recently found out the news that you or a loved one is suffering from cancer, you may be feeling an incredible range of emotions that switch in and out within the hour. It is important to know that is okay, and you may want to do 50 different things or just sit inside and have a good cry. But if you do want to stay in know there is value being alone. The American Cancer society discusses the amount of inner strength and clarity that can come only after having the time to reflect on it.  How you do this may vary from person to person, some may like to go for a run, others rock out to Disney music (…*cough cough*).  For me, when not rocking out, a great sense of ‘relief’ or clarity came when I was taking an active moment to meditate, pray and reflect on the things going on around me. These tools work because they “require the supplicant to become quiet, release tension and let go of stress” and in that moment reflect on your life in positive and not so positive ways. For others, such as my Mom, it was important to try and keep her life as normal as she could and continued on with her Christmas crafts. So while it is very true that you are never alone, it was important for me to recognize the value of being alone when the time called for it and to make an active effort to recognize the inner strength that was gained (as Ross-Barons points out)

If you do not want to be alone there are fortunately no shortage of cancer support websites and areas where you can reach out for help. The online website, peer support center, focuses around the idea of providing a medium through which people suffering can express their grief. That is not to say that this website is a complete game changer but it does help shed a light on the importance of peer support. It is important to be able to distract yourself, as well as to try and keep your life back in an old sense of routine when going through something like this. Just because life may have handed you an awful card does not mean there is only awful in the world and your friends (or professionals) can be instrumental at seeing life on that other side.

How do you beat cancer? Such an ambitious phrase must be said with a sense of context. I was once told you beat the grim reaper not by living longer but by living well, and in that sense you beat cancer. By making the most of your days, spreading your gifts and sharing with people close to you, then in that way you can beat cancer. Cancer must just have pain and suffering baked right into the definition, but if you can stop (even once in a while) just to look at some positives then in that way too you are starting to beat cancer. Cancer gave me the ability to stop and think about the blessings that my life have given me because I know that everything in this world is temporary. But while you cannot change the cards you are dealt, you can always change how you choose to react to them. I am not saying this is the only way you can look at cancer. My reasons are my own and just because you may be taking a cancer diagnosis differently do not make you any weaker, nor stronger than my perspective. I take great solace in knowing that one day I am going to use these experiences to help others because it reminds me of my passions and that keeps me grounded. For others they may find other ways to cope and that’s okay too. I continually read ‘F*CK CANCER’ and with good reason. But that has never been my outlook, it is not how my Mom taught me to look at life and while cancer can go take a long walk off of a short pier, that is not my where my thought on it ends.

It is through taking the time to meditate and reflect on the blessings it has shown me, that help give me peace with my future. There are a lot of reasons for me to discuss about the negatives of cancer and there are things I will always hate about it. The pain it’s caused or will cause. For going after my Mom, and countless other loved ones.

But we only have today. And I only have one Mom, and these are not the days to be filled with hate. But to be filled with the knowledge that there are silver linings that can come from absolutely any situation in your life. So, for all the pain that I will turn to inspiration, for all the sleepless nights or conversations that I get to have that I will never forget, for all that. I’d like to say thank you.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Finding Meaning in Feeling Lost | The Hudsucker - January 5, 2015

    […] about a future that never arose. That’s my perspective on my Mom as well, who is currently battling Stage 4 colon cancer. Is there reason to be sad? Absolutely and you cannot be blind to that, but there is also a sense […]

  2. Strength Through Adversity: The Importance Of Resilience | The Hudsucker - March 19, 2015

    […] you’ve read my piece on cancer, you know that my mother is battling stage 4 colon cancer. While cancer is only one area that […]

  3. Coping With Loss and Dealing With Grief | The Hudsucker - October 20, 2016

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