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Cancer Hits the “Reset” Button

By Heather Millar

Chemo Holiday

The New Year is when people, especially journalists, love to take stock: The last week of the old year, and the first weeks of the new are filled with “round-up” stories, “best of” stories, “what’s coming” stories. This is true if you’re talking about celebrities, or food, or cancer. However, I would suggest that for cancer patients, the “New Year” is a rolling date.

The Cancer New Year comes when you’re diagnosed. Nothing focuses the mind like the threat of death. So the day of diagnosis is the day that everything changes, the day that you suddenly see yourself and the world differently, the day that divides you “pre-cancer” period and your “post-cancer” period. For me, that day was July 15, 2010. For you, it will be a different day, but a day no less momentous.

Last week, the Scottish government announced that a survey of cancer survivors revealed that being diagnosed with cancer “changes outlook on life” and inspires nearly two-thirds to do something they’ve never done before. Most survivors surveyed said they felt a renewed sense of the importance of friends and family.

This may strike you as one of those meaningless scientific studies that “proves” something that’s clearly obvious. My husband and I call these “Hey, the sky is blue!” studies.

But I think this Scottish survey reminds us of an important truth: Really, really understanding that you’re mortal can make life that much sweeter.

As the BBC story about the survey says, “Almost two-thirds spent quality time with their family following diagnosis and 35% told people that they loved them. Survivors also treated themselves to one-off experiences, with 39% going on a dream holiday and 43% visiting a major tourist attraction they had always wanted to see. Other things people did following diagnosis include ending an unhappy marriage, starting a business and learning to play the piano.”

For me, the experience of having cancer has, strangely, given me more peace. I used to be a world-champion worrier. I had a Dad who was the kind of guy who always worried. As you probably know, water is a big, big deal in California where I live. If we had a rainy winter, my Dad would worry about landslides and flooding. If we had a dry winter, he’d obsess about drought. My husband used to say I was just like my Dad. Once a problem was solved, my husband said, I’d find something new to worry about.

I’m not going to lie and say that I never worry these days, but I worry less. After cancer, most problems seem pretty minor.

Last weekend, my family went skiing with the family of one of my daughter’s classmates. The other Mom twisted her knee on her first big run. We’d spent the first day on the bunny slopes with the younger kids.

A couple hours later, we commiserated in the lodge as she iced her knee. She’s my age and an urgent care physician. She tried to palpate the tendons in her knee, but then sighed, “It’s impossible to really analyze your own knee.” My friend hasn’t had cancer, but she’s had her own nights of darkness: She has had three heart attacks in the last decade, side effects from a migraine medication. As she tried to feel the tendons in her swelling knee, she sighed, “Well, what can I do? At least it’s not a heart attack!”

“Yes,” I said. “If it’s not a cancer recurrence or another heart attack, we can deal with it. What’s the point in worrying about it? We can deal with anything else that life throws at us, right?” We laughed, and resolved not to worry too much about her knee. We could spin out all sorts of terrible scenarios, knee surgery, crutches for months. But why do that?

A few years ago, I would have marinated in guilt (I encouraged her to go down that challenging slope) and worried all the way home. But I didn’t.

We drove home from from the mountains that night. The next morning, she texted me. She’d seen a doctor. “My knee is stable. Likely just a sprain.”

So if I’d worried all night, it would all have been for naught. That’s one of cancer’s gifts to me. I’d rather not have experienced cancer’s other “gifts” — surgery, chemo and all that — but I’m glad that at least something good came out of all that bad.

Happy New Year, whatever that date may be for you. Has the experience of having cancer inspired you to make positive changes in your life? If so, tell us about it!

Photo: iStockphoto
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