6 tips for living the good life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of the lessons I’ve learned and wisdom gained as a result of having had a life-threatening disease at a young age. I received a lot of positive feedback from my recent column for ELLE where I wrote about the effect my cancer had on my career, and how it made me unable to work in any type of environment where I didn’t feel happy and fulfilled. Some people seem to think leaving my job was revolutionary, but to me, it was just a natural consequence of my post-cancer no-bullshit attitude.

But I’ve realized that not everyone has gone through a terrifying health scare (you lucky dogs, you!) and that what now seems obvious to me might not be so obvious to the average Joe or Jane. So being the generous soul that I am, I’m going to share some of my bits of wisdom with you that I’ve picked up along the way.

Spend your money

I have always been really good with money. I’ve saved since I was a wee child, always cautious with my spending. While most Jewish kids take their bar/bat mitzvah money and immediately spend it on something awesome, mine went straight into the bank. I wanted to keep building my savings, for my future house/kids/retirement/life.

And then cancer came onto the scene, I thought I was at death’s door, and I stopped planning and caring so much about the future, because I wasn’t sure it was going to come. It seemed silly to spend time calculating how much I needed to retire if I were going to be dead long before then anyway.

I’m pretty much like Kanye now

As time goes on, my senses have somewhat returned and I realize there is a chance I could live until retirement and it’s still a good idea to plan for the future (luckily I have my very intelligent, finance-minded husband who locks up money in secret places I can’t find it so that I will not find myself on the streets come age 65). But even though I’m still saving and planning, I’m also not stressing about it anymore. If throwing a bit of money at a problem makes my life easier, whether it’s taking a cab home because it’s freezing out, or ordering takeout because I’m too lazy to cook, I’ll do it, without giving it a thought. Obviously I’m not walking around every day sipping Dom Pérignon and eating caviar (although there’s a fun image for you), but I’m caring a lot less and enjoying a lot more. Which leads me to my next point…

Go on vacation

This involves spending money too, and potentially a fair amount of it if you go somewhere super awesome, so I feel like I should put in some sort of disclaimer that you’re not allowed to come back and yell at me after you’ve gone broke from following all my rules. Okay, glad we got that out of the way.

I was diagnosed with cancer a couple months before my husband and I were booked to go to Jamaica for a holiday. Cancelling that trip was such a bummer. Rebooking that trip and finally getting there after I finished chemo and radiation was pure bliss. And then we decided that that wasn’t enough, and went back again 6 months later.

Happy vacation times
Happy vacation times

We’ve travelled a bunch since cancer, little trips here and there, some bigger. After going through something like cancer where you’re not allowed to travel, and where you dream about someday getting on a plane and being anywhere but your couch or bathroom, you never take going on vacation for granted again. Although we still have all the same old work and financial constraints we always had, we’re now much more likely to just say “screw it” and book a ticket and go somewhere.

Enjoy your food

Okay, if you know me, you know this was never an issue for me pre-cancer. But if anything, I enjoy eating even more now than I did before. It is such an amazing pleasure that so many of us don’t take the time to appreciate. But let me tell you, losing your sense of taste and losing your ability to eat the foods you like because of the many gross side effects from cancer treatment, really makes you realize how amazing eating is.

Fruit plate with a side of bacon because YOLO

I try my best to eat healthy and balanced, but I also love my sweets, and my carbs… and bacon. And I don’t apologize for any of it. Because you know what? Life is short, and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, or die from cancer, or anything else, at least I’ll die knowing that I didn’t deprive myself of one of my greatest joys in life. Food is good. Make good choices, but don’t stress about it so much. Order the side of fries, or have the slice of cake. JUST EAT.

Don’t waste time doing something you hate

I referenced this earlier and have written about it already, but it’s amazing how many people fall into the trap of being comfortable in a situation that makes them unhappy – a job, a relationship, a mindset. Whatever it is, if it’s making you miserable, get the hell out. Seriously. Time is so bloody precious and you don’t want to waste a second of it.

Choose happiness. Choose you. Once you make that choice, good things will start to happen. (But if this leads to you quitting your job and not being able to pay your rent, please don’t show up at my house, seriously my husband will kill me.)

STOP stressing

Have you ever noticed how much people are stressed out on a daily basis? Take a look around you. It sometimes seems like everyone is stressed, anxious, uptight. If this is you, stop it. Stop it right now. Sure there is “productive” stress. A little bit here and there can do some good and help get things done. But for the most part, all it does is yucky things to your body and mind.

Even though I still find myself getting worked up in stressful situations, I’m much better now at not letting anyone else’s bullshit get to me. I just don’t have the time or patience for it. If I do notice my stress levels start to rise, I think to myself, Is this really that important? Is this life or death? And the answer is almost always no. And then I snap out of it, eat a cookie, and move on.

Don’t take your health for granted

Yep, this is the big one. I don’t think it’s possible to go through something like cancer without having a newfound appreciation for how amazing your body is when it’s working properly. Since having cancer, every day that I’m able to lift my arms, have control of my bowels, have hair growing from my scalp, can hold food down, can sit upright, can move without excruciating pain, can walk down the stairs without passing out IS A FREAKING AMAZING DAY. It’s like the wise John Mayer once said – your body is a wonderland. If yours is functioning properly without trying to kill you, then you’re extremely lucky.

Really, what it all boils down to, is we’ve all only got one life to live. So live it, and live it well. And most importantly, remember these six words to guide you through: There is always room for dessert.

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A note on perspective

This is by far the longest I have gone without writing a blog post since I first started blogging. I re-watched Julie & Julia on Netflix yesterday, and after watching Amy Adams update her blog daily, it made me think I should maybe get back to mine. (It also made me crave all of the meals presented in the film and wish I had even the tiniest bit of desire to attempt to cook lavish French meals… which I do not.)

As per the last update, my life has mainly been filled with trying to secure employment, which so far has been unsuccessful, although I suppose I haven’t really been at it that long. I keep reading stories of people who have been out of work for over a year. Oh Lord, please don’t let that be me. It’s only been a bit over a month that I haven’t received a paycheque and I’m already starting to feel anxiety when I fork over my loose change to buy a fro-yo. But on the other hand, I don’t think I’m nearly as stressed as pre-cancer Steph would have been. When I was stuck at home last year with the cancer blues, I remember hearing about everyone’s daily stresses, like trying to find a job, and thinking, I would way rather be in your shoes than mine, you lucky bastards. I was wishing deeply that I could get back to a state where I would be worrying about the same things that everyone else was worrying about at my age, rather than cancer. And here I am – wish, granted! So I really can’t complain. (Although, ask me how I feel a couple months from now, and I might be singing a different tune…)

I also had another dose of perspective and reminder that life is pretty great last week when I celebrated Passover with my family. Passover is my favourite Jewish holiday, and last year, I had to miss out on the celebration. Reading that blog entry is actually quite painful, as I can so clearly remember exactly how miserable I felt on that day, knowing my family was together, while I was lying on my couch, feeling like I wanted to die. But that dark memory managed to make this year’s holiday hold extra significance for me, on a personal level. I was so grateful to be surrounded by my family and once again enjoying a tradition that has become a meaningful anchor for me each and every year.

I now always have this nagging worry of, What if this is my last <insert special occasion/milestone/holiday here> ever? And as much as it can be troubling to have those types of thoughts swarming through your head, it sure does manage to make every moment that much sweeter.

Happy Passover/Easter/holidays to all my lovely readers. Remember to enjoy your family, your friends, and all the little things that make it all worth it.

The bumpy road to recovery

Want some updates? Here they are:

I am taking a hiatus from work… again. The reasons are complicated so I will not go into the finer details. But essentially, I wasn’t feeling great, and it looks like my return to work may have been a bit premature. I felt very conflicted about this at first. I felt like a failure, like I had let myself down. And then I decided that I might be being a bit hard on myself and that my health is numero uno in terms of my priorities right now. So I am taking a bit of extra time to recover, continue my treatments, and figure my life out. All that fun stuff.

I had a late-night MRI a couple nights ago to follow up on some pain I’ve been experiencing. Obviously, we hope for nothing out of the ordinary. Because something out of the ordinary would be very unfortunate in this case. Sometimes it feels as though my whole life is just waiting for results. Waiting for life, or waiting for death. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. I really want to move past this phase, as it is getting exhausting.

Speaking of exhausting, my nightly hot flashes/sweats are back with a vengeance. I got all cocky when they went away, thinking, this hormone stuff is no big deal, I can do this, no problem. But for whatever reason, my body is having a very strong reaction to the tiny little pill I am swallowing every night, causing my face to feel as though it is melting off my body. Unfortunately, it tends to be worse at night, which means I am not sleeping very much. There is also construction going on outside my house that starts early every morning, right as I am trying to get some extra hours of zzz’s in. I fantasize about going over to the construction site in my pajamas, with my hair a big frazzled mess, and yelling at the workers, “HELLO I HAVE CANCER AND I’VE HAD A REALLY CRAP YEAR AND I NEED TO SLEEP SO CAN YOU ALL PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I WILL PUNCH YOU ALL IN YOUR UGLY FACES.” But I just really don’t want to be that person. Not yet.

Last week, I spoke at the University of Toronto to the second year medical students. They were studying oncology that week, and yet there wasn’t any plan to actually speak to a patient living with cancer. Enter your favourite, friendly cancer gal to save the day. I prepared a quick little powerpoint entitled “My Cancer Story” where I attempted to go from the beginning to the current stage of my cancer experience. When creating the powerpoint, I realized how long and complicated my story really is. I only had time to really touch upon the basics. At first I was worried I wouldn’t have enough to say. But as it turns out… I have a lot to say. A lot.

I loved speaking to this room full of students. I loved how engaged they were, and how much they wanted to learn, and how I actually had something to teach them, even though I have absolutely no medical background. All I have is my life experience, which, apparently, people seem to find a lot of value in. The students had the chance to ask me questions, and during that time they also revealed to me me that many of them have been reading the blog. They told me about how it has impacted them, in both their learning and their personal lives. I was really touched by how appreciative they were and it made me better understand the power of sharing my story. Some positives really are coming out of the negative (but note: this does NOT mean I am thankful for my cancer. I still hate cancer and think it’s terrible and do not recommend it as a method of creating social change. I repeat: CANCER IS BAD.).

The class presented me with THE BEST mini cupcakes and they all signed a card. There were so many notes that they wrote all over the back and had to add sticky notes on top of the other notes. I was blown away by how thoughtful they were.
The class presented me with THE BEST mini cupcakes and they all signed a card. There were so many notes that they wrote all over the back and had to add sticky notes on top of the other notes. I was blown away by how thoughtful they were.

And my last update for now: I have started to write. A book. There, I said it. So now I have to do it. It might take several years. I might never finish it. It might be a huge bore. It might never get published.

But, whatever. None of that is as bad as cancer. And if I’m doing the glass half full thing, then I should also entertain the other possibility: That I’ll write a book, someone will publish it, it will become a bestseller, a famous director will want to turn it into a movie and hire me to adapt it into a screenplay (um hi, I’m not letting some dummy screenwriter write my life story, thank you very much), I will be portrayed by some awesome young starlet and we will become great friends, and the movie will win all sorts of Oscars and I’ll be the next big thing in Hollywood and eventually everyone will forget I ever even had cancer.

Why not.

An update

Update on Steph for those who truly want to know the mundane details of my life right now. For those who prefer the happy dancing cool cancer chick moments, feel free to skip this one for now and I hope to provide some more of that soon enough.

-I’ve been ignoring most emails and phone calls. It’s nothing personal. I have very little energy and it’s been another rough week, probably the worst yet, and I’m finding it hard to talk to anyone right now. But as always, I appreciate the love so much and really really hope to have at least one or two friends after all of this.

-I have styes on my eyes. I’m sure Dr. Seuss would be able to make that into some sort of interesting storybook, but in reality, it’s not very exciting. Itchy. Red. Styes.

-My skin has turned grey. Not pale, but grey. I used to think being pale was kind of lame, but now grey takes the prize.

-I took a walk today. Spring has sprung. I’m still wearing a black hood with big sunglasses because I can’t really bear for anyone to see my face right now. I seem to get stares wherever I go. Sometimes I just want to shout at strangers on the street, I have cancer, it’s not contagious, get over it. I have come to realize how oblivious we all are to other people’s suffering. How we just walk by, stare, and ignore. I’m sure I have done it a hundred times. Now when I see someone who I think has cancer, I just want to hug them and cry and ask them to come to my home and build a fort with me and hide in it.

-I haven’t had a good sleep in a long time. Between my nightmares, body aches, hot flashes, and the raccoons that seem to enjoy scratching under the window, I can’t seem to make it through the night.

-I have collapsed into a puddle of tears on several occasions the past week. I’m not sure where it is all coming from, most likely exhaustion and the fact that I am almost completely cut off from the outside world and am in some form of pain most minutes of my day. In a moment of sobbing hysteria, I asked my husband if he could cover all the mirrors so I wouldn’t have to see myself anymore. It made me think of all the shiva houses I had been to when I was younger and how I would stare at the foggy mirrors. But I have no idea what people spray to fog the mirrors and am also far too vain to stop looking at myself, so my mirrors remain as they were.

-I watched The Princess Bride last night and it was the first thing in awhile that made me laugh, so thanks to Rob Reiner and all who were involved if you ever read my blog.

-I ate some beets today. Straight out of the jar. It’s a crazy, crazy life.

Things I’m grateful for today:

The sunshine
The comments people leave on this blog
Toast
Health insurance
The few eyebrow hairs I have left
Movies
My friend Rebecca who always says “that is so so shitty” whenever I describe the gross and weird things happening to me, instead of “it’s ok, you can do it!”
My friend Lily who buys way too many things for me
My good friends who check in on me constantly and stick around through the dark days
My husband who lets me soak through all his shirts with my tears and who tells me I’m pretty when I have styes on my eyes
My mother-in-law who sends me photos of rainbows
My parents who do everything
My siblings who are the only friends I see anymore
Everyone who sends me cards and nice things in the mail
The fact that I’m still here
Tomorrow