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.

Steph’s Cancer Tips – Part II

Time for some more tips! To read the first installment, click here.

Entertaining Yourself

If your cancer treatment drags on for awhile, as mine did, you will find you have a considerable amount of downtime. You will likely think to yourself, “Great, this will be the perfect time to read those huge novels I haven’t had time for and finally watch the entire box set of The Wire.” WRONG! So very wrong. Here’s the thing: your “downtime” during cancer treatment is not fun. It’s not relaxing. In my case, most of the time I felt like absolute crap. There is no way I could have focused on a book. Even reading a tabloid was challenging for me at times. And stimulating television or cinema? Don’t even think about it. When you are in pain and can barely lift your head up, you don’t want to watch anything thought-provoking, intelligent, or heavy. There is a reason that I watched two entire seasons of The Real Housewives franchise while I was doing chemo — the show is complete garbage and requires a very low level of mental acuity to follow.

Good chemo movie
Good chemo movie
Bad chemo movie
Bad chemo movie

There were many films I thought I would watch while I was sick. Classics, documentaries, award-winners. WRONG AGAIN! I found the only DVD’s I wanted to watch were those I had seen a thousand times and provided comfort. Back to the Future, Edward Scissorhands, Big, Pretty Woman, Hook, every Disney movie ever. It didn’t matter if I passed out in the middle of the movie or just closed my eyes while I listened to the buzz of the TV.  I didn’t need to focus and pay attention to what was going on. The purpose of TV and movies was 100% distraction. A way to pass the hours, in hopes that the days would go a little bit faster. A small respite from reality.

So in conclusion: Honey Boo Boo = Good. Six Feet Under = Bad (although it is my favourite show of all time, but it’s about the last thing I’d recommend you watch while doing chemotherapy). Dumb and Dumber = Good.  Memento = Bad. Got it? Good.

Dealing with stupidity

If you have cancer, chances are, people are going to say some pretty dumb things to you.

People will ask you details about your prognosis, or say thing like “You’re going to be fine, right?” They will compare you to their 95 year-old great grandmother who had a small non-invasive cancer that was 100% different from the cancer you have. They will tell you stories of someone they knew who had cancer, that end with the person dying. They will make awkward comments about boob jobs, insinuating that a regular boob job is in any way similar to having your cancerous breast surgically removed. They will try to show you they know “exactly how you feel” by comparing your cancer to a very temporary, highly non-threatening malady they suffered from 5 years ago. They will say, “I know you are going to survive this” even though you are painfully aware that you might not survive this and that it has nothing to do with your positive attitude, or lack thereof.

I’m betting this lady has said some dumb things in her time.

Yes, people say some dumb things. This is because most people have no idea what to say or what to ask when someone has cancer. There is no guidebook. It’s understandable that people will say the wrong thing and mess up from time to time, as I’m sure I have many times in the past, pre-cancer. You have to give people a break. 99% of them have good intentions and have no idea that what they’ve said might be hurtful/anxiety-provoking/insensitive/ignorant.

Of course, if someone says something extremely stupid or blatantly offensive, you can always kick them, or take the high road and explain to them why what they’ve said has upset you. But all of that will get exhausting, fast. I just choose to smile and nod. That is usually the answer to dealing with most things: Smile and nod.

Using the Internet as a resource

Ooooh this is a tricky one. I love the internet. I love having information at my fingertips. But as anyone who has ever Googled a health issue knows, the world wide web can be a very dangerous place. So here is my advice to you: TREAD LIGHTLY. Seriously.

There are some great things you can get from the internet if you have been diagnosed with cancer. Friendly people on message boards sharing the tricks of the trade for dealing with treatment side effects. Reputable websites that can allow you to better understand your disease and your treatment options.  (Note: there are also lots of bogus, scammy sites out there, so you will need a basic level of media literacy to navigate online resources. Your hospital should also be able to provide you with a long list of reputable websites.)

However, you need to be careful with how you use this information and how far down the rabbit hole you wish to go. Just a few evenings ago, I was reading some article, that led me to search for more information, and eventually I ended up stumbling on some studies that provided some very upsetting stats on survival rates for young women with breast cancer. As I read more and more, I became more anxious and riddled with fear. I burst into tears and sobbed to my husband, “I’m… gonna… dieeeeee… it’s… not… faaaaaairrrr waaaaah bleerghhhh.” Something along those lines. And I had been feeling fine just moments earlier. But a simple click of the mouse here, and another one there, and I had stumbled upon some really depressing information, that was not helpful to me in the least.

You’re going to find some info on the internet that you don’t like. I mean, hi, you have cancer. People die from cancer, and there are many things on the internet that wish to remind you of this fact, at every twist and turn you take. You must learn to shut out the noise. Remember that what you’re reading is some study of some group of people, and you are an individual. If the stats say that 99 out of 100 people died, that still means one lived, right? And that one person could be you, right? Definitely. At least, that’s what I tell myself. I also try to remember that even the best studies have their faults, and even the most thorough researchers cannot be 100% accurate all the time.

I could spend hours reading expert opinions and numbers that tell me the likelihood that I will or won’t be around five years from now. And sometimes I do, because I can’t help it. It’s like stumbling upon a horrific car accident and not being able to turn away. But you know what? You really should turn away. Keep on driving. Keep on moving. Because, for today, you are alive. You are not a statistic. And you really should be making better use of your time spent on the internet, like watching dumb clips on YouTube.

 

Steph’s cancer tips – Part I

I have always been hesitant to offer any advice to those dealing with cancer, as everyone’s experience is so individual and unique. But I do feel as though I have gained a heavy load of cancer wisdom and it might be my duty to share this with others. I often turned to the internet and stories of cancer survivors to help me navigate my treatment and everything that came before and after. So I do feel it’s important to dispense what knowledge I might have, with the chance it could help someone.

The Canadian Cancer Society reports that about 2 in 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetimes. That is an unsettling statistic, no doubt. And if you employ some basic logic, this means that you or someone close to you is likely to experience cancer at some point (sorry, I don’t make the rules). So here are some tips, in case you ever need them (and I hope you don’t):

Telling people you have cancer

This one is a toughie and one of the first real challenges you face after a cancer diagnosis. Suddenly it is not just about you, but it is about everyone else’s reactions to what you are going through. For me, it was important to have control over this aspect. I sent emails to my closest friends, so that they would hear it directly from me and there would be no false information. I also gave direct orders: Don’t freak out. Don’t ask me questions right now. Don’t call me because I’m not ready to talk about it. And they followed my instructions, each responding with their concern and love, but none asking questions or showing panic.

Telling people in person can be more difficult, as you have to watch their immediate reactions, and a role reversal immediately takes place, where you feel as though you need to console them and tell them everything will be okay. This can be a bit uncomfortable, which is why I tried avoiding telling people in person as much as possible. I hated watching people’s jaws drop. I hated all the questions that naturally followed. I hated seeing their fear that I would die written all across their face.

This is how people react when you tell them you have cancer.
This is how people react when you tell them you have cancer.

This was one of the reasons I chose to start a blog and be public about my cancer. To know that it was out there and that it wouldn’t come as a shock to every person I happened to bump into on the street. In this sense, the blog has been a tremendous help to me. It has given me a sense of control over who knows about me and what they know.

So really, it is up to you how you choose to inform people about a cancer diagnosis. If you want to keep it to yourself, or you want to send out an email blast, or you want to ask a family member to do it for you. It’s about you and what you need, in that moment. It’s not about other people and how they might feel. This will be your first lesson in how to be a selfish cancer patient. But don’t worry, you’ll find you’ll get pretty good at it.

Attending doctor’s appointments 

I am a pretty organized person, which often makes me wonder how the average patient deals with so many appointments and keeps track of so much information. When I first started with my cancer meetings, it was extremely overwhelming and felt endless. There were many specialists to meet and a ton of info was given in a condensed amount of time.

It is important to have some sort of system. For me, my iPad has been my savior and I love it dearly. (It has also become a running joke with my oncologist, who makes fun of its cracked and abused condition every time I see him, after I accidentally smashed it while waiting for my chemo one day.) Before each appointment, I organize all my questions via note-taking software, which I can easily access from the web, my iPad, or my desktop. I constantly add to my notes as thoughts pop up between appointments. When you are in an actual appointment, your time is short and your thoughts get muddled. This is why it is good to come prepared.

During my appointments, I go through all my questions. I also record the audio of these meetings, which is way easier than trying to frantically scribble every little thing your doctor says to you, which we attempted to do in those early appointments. These audio recordings have been lifesavers to me. They’ve helped me go back and listen very carefully to the opinions and advice of my healthcare team, which often helps me get a better grasp on my particular situation and the decisions I need to make. They also help me to face the awkward things I say and bad jokes I make while meeting with doctors.

Quick tip: Be careful not to delete the recording before it saves. I have done this. Do not recommend.

Dealing with unsolicited advice

Anyone who has had cancer has likely dealt with someone telling them what they should be doing to fight their disease. Many of these people have good intentions, and sincerely believe they are actually providing you with helpful information. Many may not realize that how you choose to treat (or not treat) your cancer is completely between you and your healthcare team. Maybe your partner, or your parents. Otherwise, no one else’s opinion really matters. But unfortunately, you will still get it. Again, and again. And again.

I think many people do not realize that offering unsolicited advice can actually cause more stress than good. It can make you wonder if you are following the right plan, or question your faith in your doctors and medicine. It can fill you with doubt and cause anxiety, as you wonder if it’s true that eating a cookie is going to make your cancer spread, or that modern medicine is just some big evil scam and you should just eat a pound of broccoli and you’ll be just fine.

For me, I had to learn to shut out the noise. To understand that although people had good intentions, their beliefs were not my own. To put my trust into my extremely accomplished and brilliant physicians, and to believe research and hard numbers, not speculation. Ultimately, you know what is best for you. No one else does. And I think this applies to many facets of life, not just to those with cancer.

Sometimes, we all just need to shut up, and let people do as they wish.

TO BE CONTINUED…

I may have cancer, but I saw Les Mis before you did

CHEEEEESE!

I snapped this photo last night as evidence that I am back to looking like an acceptable human being, and smiling once again. I did not post a photo last week because a) I couldn’t lift a camera and b) I looked like something you might scrape off your shoe. I have been to Hell and back, and will probably be taking the trip several more times, but am happy to report that as of this minute, I am feeling quite good. I do believe that my hair is starting to shed. My scalp is killing, and I am pulling out tiny hairs when I run my fingers through. That’s the thing with this cancer treatment business. Just as you are moving on from one unfortunate event, another one begins before there is much time to celebrate. But right now, I’m wearing actual clothes, I have some makeup on, I am eating lots, I have been out of the house, and I haven’t taken a single drug today. So I’m a pretty happy camper. Except for the hair thing. But beggars can’t be choosers.

Here are 10 key survival tips I have learned for getting through a very crappy time:

Ask for help. Last week I finally had to ask for help as I was not able to do much on my own. There are a few key people who completely saved my life and took care of me and I am so grateful to them.

Eat chicken soup and crackers when nothing else works. Although, as a warning, be prepared to forever associate chicken soup and crackers with bad times and bad feelings. I hope one day chicken soup reminds me again of holiday dinners rather than forcing myself to eat something while feeling ill.

Have a really good family and loving husband. Sorry, I realize you can’t really force those things, so it’s not a great tip. I just got pretty lucky in that area.

When your appetite comes back, ask my uncle to make food for you. I really attribute my small weight gain this week to large plates of mac ‘n cheese. The best.

Cry a lot. Life is poop sometimes. Can’t pretend it’s not. Sometimes a gal just needs a good sob. I probably could have filled a small kiddie pool with my tears last week.

Stop crying. Don’t be a baby. Eventually the tears must stop, mostly because you look like a snotty mess, and no one wants to look at that. Gross.

FaceTime/Skype with your parents. Laugh at them while they say weird old-people things and take many screengrabs while your mother makes crazy faces.

Watch the movie Pitch Perfect three times. I never would have thought this would be on the list, but I swear, that silly movie somehow brought me back to life. And yes, I watched it three times. Gotta stick with what works.

Listen to upbeat music and go for a walk. And dance while you’re walking like you’re in some kind of romantic comedy, and hope everyone else will be infected by your positive attitude and start dancing too. Except don’t be disappointed when that doesn’t happen and people just stare at you instead. Because truth is, most people are pretty lame and don’t dance in the street. Their loss.

Attend an advance screening of Les Miserables as your first outing in weeks. Ok again, I realize this wouldn’t be too easy to achieve. I mostly just want to make people jealous that I have seen this movie before the general public. There are not many reasons for anyone to be jealous of me right now. But this is one. So be jealous of me, please. I’ve earned it.