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.

My second cancerversary

Today marks my second cancerversary. Two years have gone by since the day I was diagnosed with cancer.

I wish I could say it’s all behind me, that I’ve moved on and thoughts of cancer never even cross my mind, but that would be a big fat lie. I probably worry about it all a bit less than I did one year ago, but the fear and anxiety is still there. Every time I read or hear of another young woman whose cancer has returned, or who has passed away, I remember, oh yah, that could be me. I’ve had sporadic rib pain for months. No one is particularly concerned about it just yet, so I try not to be concerned. But in the back of my mind, it’s always there: Maybe it’s cancer. Maybe this is it. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

I know that many people ignore their diagnosis dates, since it usually brings up really traumatic memories and dark thoughts. They don’t see it as anything worth “celebrating.” I can understand that. But I choose to remember it and acknowledge it. I don’t celebrate getting cancer. I celebrate that I am still here, two years later, living my life. Not everyone makes it to two years. I know I am lucky. I am so lucky that I’m not sitting in a doctor’s office right now, terrified, waiting to get a cancer diagnosis. I am so lucky that I can relax, enjoy my day, and go out with my husband for a special cancerversary dinner. Why be all glum and depressed about a date, when you can turn it into an excuse to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant on a weeknight? When life gives you lemons…

I also want to post something my sister wrote and sent to me (with her permission) about how she feels on this day, and the significance it holds for her. I don’t know how I would have made it through the past two years without her by my side. She may be my “little” sister, but she sure is wise:

Two years ago today Steph was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember it like it was yesterday. Hanging up the phone with my mom and rushing through the halls of the Medical Sciences Building – tears streaming, heart racing. Running blurry-eyed down to the lab and seeing my classmates’ heads turn, asking if I was okay. I didn’t answer. I continued running down the halls to find our anatomy professor, wanting the comfort of a doctor – of someone with past knowledge that could tell me everything was going to be okay. And although he tried, it wasn’t enough – it didn’t make the fears go away; it didn’t make me think that there wasn’t some slight chance I would lose my sister, my best friend, my confidant, my biggest cheerleader, my number 1. Soon I would learn that from this point forward, these fears would never completely go away.

I remember roaming out to the trees of King’s College Circle, seeking comfort from my classmates, answering my concerned friends’ texts, calling my parents, but all the while, being afraid to talk to my sister. Would I start crying? Would I break down and make her believe she had reason to be afraid? How would I act? Was I going to be the best sister I could be or would I shrivel away, afraid to look at her and be by her side through everything? I didn’t know, but what I did know is that I had to take each challenge as it came – each day something new, trying hard not to look behind and not anticipate the future more than we could. Not an easy task, that’s forsure. The nights spent bawling my eyes out, pacing around, the depression. But what wasn’t present during these times was my anxiety that I’m so used to. I snapped out of flight mode, and into fight mode. I recognized what was important in life, and what wasn’t. Those little things, those stupid little concerns, conflicts, worries – a waste of time. Sitting next to Steph, holding her hand and knowing I wouldn’t let go unless she wanted me to – that’s all that mattered then and all that ever will matter. That’s the only thing I want to hold onto from this whole stupid horrible experience – remembering what’s important and what isn’t. September 11th, for so many reasons, is a day to remember just how lucky we are. We are here and for that, we are lucky. We will continue to complain tomorrow of the streetcar being stuck, of the rain, of the million tasks to do and the short hours in which to do them, but under it all, is a reminder of just how lucky we are to complain of such things. How lucky we were to get to be born. And how lucky we are to continue being alive.

Today is a day that I wish never happened, but because it did, it deserves recognition, it deserves to be remembered as the day my nightmare came true; as the day when I realized just how fragile life is and how important my sister is to me. I’ve never taken her for granted, but on this day, two years ago, the rare incredible connection we have came to light: the moment I felt like she could be taken from me by some stupid rapidly proliferating disease – something she never deserved and should never have had to go through. But she did, with the bravest face in the world – brave doesn’t mean not crying or putting on a fake smile. It means showing your emotion, showing fear. Being brave means being human and she couldn’t have been better at doing just that. There are images I choose not to remember, but images I will never, ever, forget. Times of fragility, of sadness, of honesty and of total vulnerability. There were times we just had to laugh at the whole thing – is this really happening? Really? This is fucked. It was. It is. Sometimes we don’t know how to deal with certain situations, but you learn about yourself when you’re thrown into something you could never have imagined. And that’s what these past two years have been – years of learning that I can be afraid, that I can be sad, but that I can be brave and be strong and that I have the best role model in the world to look up to – the bravest, strongest, inspiration there is.

My sister.

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…