On Saturday, February 14th, 2015, Valentine's Day of all the days, I'll mark four years as a cancer survivor. It was around 4am on this day four years ago that the intermittent aching and tenderness in my right testicle that I had noticed off and on for the past few months, had progressed to steady pain that was bad enough that I couldn't even sleep anymore. It was only at that point that I finally did a full and proper testicular self-examination, where I noticed a rock solid hard mass at the upper rear portion of my right testicle, right where it was so easily missed before. I'm glad I caught it when I did, but had the opportunity to catch it earlier and missed it. Monthly testicular self-exams, done properly, are so important!
In that heartbeat skipping moment, only a week from my little baby boy's 2nd birthday at the time, my life changed forever and it's never been the same since. I've learned much about how to truly "survive" cancer in these past few years, and I think just a little about life too, and wanted to mark this occasion by passing along my top four lessons learned in four years of cancer survivorship.
1. The End of Your Fight is only the Beginning of Your Journey.
As terrifying and as difficult as being diagnosed with and fighting cancer was, the years after my cancer fight ended up being even more difficult. When you're diagnosed with cancer, you become a fighter and always have a lengthy to-do list of appointments to keep you occupied. You go in for consultations to make a plan for your cancer, and then for surgeries, for chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and scans and blood tests, or whatever it is that you need to do to fight the cancer and win. But afterwards, when your body is acting strangely and you don't know why, what then? If you're dealing with scanxiety, a recurrence scare, or depression or post-traumatic stress, what do you do? Even health experts today don't have the answer to that! The answer is that we all have to find our own answers. That "new normal" after cancer that everybody talks about took years for me to find and settle into. It didn't happen overnight, and also took a whole lot of trial and error (read "failure"), and love, support, nurturing, and guidance from a lot of wonderful friends to finally make it happen.
2. Never Stop Believing in Yourself
No matter what you're facing, and whether it's during your cancer fight or beyond, you have to believe in yourself. Don't ever stop believing in you, and you also need to surround yourself with people who believe in you too. Not once did I ever give up on myself, but there were times when I just had nothing left to give, and needed every bit of the love and support that surrounded me to help lift me up again. Even in the darkest throes of depression and post-traumatic stress over a year after my cancer fight, and finding myself huddled up in quiet corners for days on end, I never stopped believing. I knew that I had to find a new attitude, new outlets, and new friends who knew how to support me either through experience, or through natural ability. I needed an entirely new approach to life and a new philosophy by which to live, and had to completely abandon my old one. And find that approach I did, because I never stopped believing in myself, nor did those who loved and cared about me. Not ever. The power is within you to make the changes you need in your life to not just survive in the aftermath of cancer, but to thrive! Never stop believing in YOU!
3. The Power of the Right People and Friendships
I grew up very independent minded and never placed enough value on friendships, but cancer changed all of that. Time and time again, the power of connecting with the right people and having the right friendships is what's made the biggest difference for me throughout this cancer journey of mine. Whatever I've needed, I've managed to find through the power of friendships, whether it's been cancer mentoring, spiritual guidance, someone to laugh with, someone to cry with, someone that could help me sort through my very worst fears and sources of pain, and so much more. Some of the people that have managed to make the most profound difference in my life, I'd only met under the most coincidental of circumstances, and whose presence in my life I only have God to thank for. When I could only feel darkness and despair, these friends helped me to see light and hope. And when I was terrified of being alone, these friends filled my day with joy and laughter. The true power of a friendship is the right person, the right soul in your life, who can connect with you in a way that you need, and enrich your life in a way that it hadn't been. And the power of faith and God, is when your paths manage to cross at the time you're in the most need. These friends have become like family to me, and I love them all dearly as such. I couldn't have made it through all that I have without them. My friends mean the world to me.
4. Never Stop Living and Enjoying Life
I had made it through my entire cancer fight, and a year and a half on surveillance with another six months to go, when I finally lost it and came completely off the tracks. A friend had just died, and it seemed like other cancer warrior brothers of mine were having recurrences left and right. I felt like I might be next, and that if something was going to happen to me, it would happen sooner rather than later. For six agonizing weeks, my post-traumatic stress had exploded so badly that I could barely even leave my house to go to work, but I refused to allow cancer and my fears to rule me as they had been. I forced myself to get out, to go places, to do things, and to spend time with my family, and with friends that I trusted and felt safe around. I made it a priority to live the best possible life that I could, because if my time was really coming, I wanted to enjoy each and every day that I had left. The reality is that we never know when our last good day is going to be. We should be appreciating every day that we have as it is, as each is truly a gift. No matter how afraid you are, force yourself to get out there, and never stop living, loving, laughing, or chasing your dreams. Live Life, Make It Happen.
Cross-posted at StevePake.com