Now that I’ve been a breast cancer survivor for almost eighteen years, I think back on the three things I learned from going through treatment. It occurs to me that what I learned from cancer can be applied to other areas of life—even to becoming a parent, like my son and daughter-in-law did just one week ago. While these are very different in some ways, the things I learned from cancer can be generalized. I’m not an expert, I’m just sharing my perspective from my personal experience.
When you hear the oncologist say, “You have cancer,” it’s shocking and you’re paralyzed with fear. The immediate question is, “Am I going to live?” After you hear about the type of cancer you have (mine was triple negative) the team maps out your options. For me, it was eight months of treatment including surgery, chemo, and radiation. While it’s helpful to get the big picture when you’re starting out, I found it overwhelming to look too far ahead. So the first thing cancer taught me was
#1– DON’T LOOK TOO FAR AHEAD
Just focus on the next few steps along the path. For me, I relied on prayer, asking God to help me with the present moment, giving me the courage for whatever I was going through in that phase of treatment. When you’re a new parent, it helps to do the same thing. Sometimes you need strength to get through another night of broken sleep, another fussy evening with colic. You’d be overwhelmed if you looked ahead and thought about how many nights or evenings you could have like that.
When I heard I had cancer, my immediate response was to assume the outcome for me would be like one of my high school classmates who’d been diagnosed a few years before. Even though I’m a nurse, I didn’t work in oncology and I had very little knowledge of breast cancer, so I latched on to the most recent example I had from another woman. But I didn’t know anything about her subtype of breast cancer, her specific biochemistry, family history, her body’s unique response to treatment. My outcome was very different from hers. So, the second thing cancer taught me was
#2 DON’T ASSUME YOUR EXPERIENCE WILL BE THE SAME AS ANOTHER PERSON’S
That’s also true for parenting. Just because your friends had a difficult time during a phase of raising their child, doesn’t mean it’ll be the same for you. Another phase will challenge you more because of your child’s unique personality, your perspective as a parent, other things going on in your family life at the time. When we focus on the moment and don’t compare our experience, whether it’s with an illness or the challenges of parenting, we have what we need to make it through.
Sometimes it’s tempting for me to make broad assumptions, probably to make things seem more simple than they are in life. With cancer treatment, I knew I had six rounds of chemo and to make that process seem more familiar, I assumed each treatment would affect me the same: the level of nausea, discomfort with the transfusion, feeling foggy afterward. But the days were varied and sometimes there were unexpected blessings dropped into my life that distracted me from whatever I was experiencing and provided beauty and relief. So the third thing cancer taught me was
#3 DON’T ASSUME EVERY DAY WILL BE THE SAME
As a parent, the same kinds of mercies show up: extra help when you don’t think you have the energy you need, your child moving forward to that next developmental step when you thought you were stuck, that first intentional smile when you’re at a point of exhaustion. The days change, each with its own up and down pattern that forms a beautiful whole.
Whatever your challenge, I hope you’ll find some encouragement in these words and you’ll discover what your current phase of life has to teach you.
How about You?
What are the lessons you learned going through a big change in your life?
How can you share your experience with others?