5 Positive Things a Cancer Survivor Learns

This week I received some sad news that a friend was just diagnosed with lymphoma.   Fortunately, they’ve caught it in the early stages and the prognosis is very positive. However, this news naturally has me revisiting some tough memories.

There’s no denying that cancer has forever changed me. Of course it has. But, upon further reflection, it’s not all for the worse as some might imagine.

I will never argue that cancer doesn’t bring you to your knees and shake you down to your core, but today I can honestly and truly appreciate some of the positive things that resulted from my battle and win over the Big “C.”

I thought I’d share them:

  1. I can do it. I’m equipped with a new mantra. Hurdles that tripped me up before seem more easily surmountable now. If I managed to get through the physical and emotional turmoil of battling cancer, I figure that I can easily get through that big presentation, new business pitch or job interview.
  2. Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Look, I’m still going to be marginally annoyed if the driver in front of me doesn’t use the turning lane or they forget the fried rice in my takeout order, but most of the things that seemed really important before just aren’t so now. Honestly.
  3. Know who you can count on. When the going gets tough, you can really see who you can lean on in bad times. I remember every card, word of encouragement, potluck, nice deed and supportive conversation that was bestowed upon me. It makes me feel good that I have a network I can fall back on and I treasure that.
  4. A greater empathy. I have always considered myself a sensitive person but going through an illness can really illuminate the pain and suffering of other people and how you react to them. I’m more thoughtful and less quick to judge when I see a person in a bad situation. I fully believe it’s true that you cannot understand someone’s burden unless you’ve walked in their shoes, or have come close.
  5. Appreciate what you have. This is not always easy when you are back in the full swing of life – morning commutes, useless meetings, kids’ tantrums, etc.  – but I am often able to acknowledge my gratitude and cherish the simplest moments as some of the most joyful ones. The cliché that “it could be worse” never holds more true than now.

Sending good vibes to my friend and to all of those brave souls battling life-threatening illnesses.

A Tribute to the Heroes of D-Day and Their Profound Effect on My Life

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  My own photo.

My own photo of the American Cemetery in Normandy, France

I stood behind the entanglement of rusted barbed wire as my hair whipped furiously in the strong wind. It was a chilly but sunny day in March 2000. I was at the top of the Pointe du Hoc, the cliff in Normandy, France that made history on D-Day during World War II.

I had always wanted to visit the Normandy beaches on so many of my past trips to France. As a history lover and a proud patriot, I needed to see for myself this hallowed ground where the Allies helped turn the tide of the war. I looked down on this cheery day, amazed at the sheer steepness of the cliff I was on, 100 feet straight down.

On June 6, 1944, the Pointe du Hoc was a German stronghold that was fortified with blockhouses and gun pits which spewed bullets and hellfire, picking off soldier upon soldier as the American troops tried desperately to make their way onto the beachhead that morning. Taking out this battery would prove to be significant to the outcome of the battle that day, and in turn, the entire war.

This was a cliff I wouldn’t want to be forced to scale even on this peaceful day where calmness prevailed and the only sounds I could hear were those of hungry seagulls and the howling sea winds. So, to imagine what it was like to climb on June 6 was almost incomprehensible to me. But, I closed my eyes and envisioned courageous men using all of the limited tools they had with them to scale the jagged rocks as they were continuously pummeled by machine guns and grenades. Their physical and mental faculties were put even further to the test under the sheer chaos and the cacophony of war: the clattering noise of machineguns, exploding mines and missiles, and the helpless screams of the wounded.

I opened my eyes and focused below on one triangular rock formation. I didn’t have a clear view of it because of the barbed wire between the blockhouse and the edge of the cliff. It was then when I had an epiphany in which I realized what real challenges and sacrifice is about. I thought about how once the US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion did the impossible by bravely and doggedly scaling the cliff and reaching the top, they couldn’t even rest. Now they were faced with yet another formidable task: breaking through the entangled barbed wire, past the gunfire and enemy defense lines, in order to clear the gun pits and blockhouses so that the rest of the allied troops could safely set foot on the beach.

At this moment, I felt rather insignificant. What I thought were challenges in my life were really just personal and work trials and tribulations, stupid things like getting angry over slow morning commute, a difficult co-worker or a friend cancelling weekend plans at the last minute. Compared to what these men – and all of the brave men fighting that day – had faced, I felt ashamed of the things that I typically complained about. How trivial these things seemed to me as I gazed out at the English Channel, picturing the largest armada in history.

I told myself that in the future, whenever anything got tough for me – under any circumstance and however often – that I would draw strength knowing that greater and more significant challenges were met here on June 6, 1944 – 70 years ago. If those WWII veterans faced their fears here on this ground, there wasn’t anything I too couldn’t contend with in my own life.

Unfortunately, I had to put that mantra to the test in 2007 when, at the age of 40, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Though weary from the fear of the unknown and dying as well as the unbelievable pain of bone marrow biopsies, a blood clot and 6 months of chemo and radiation, I was determined to fight my own battle as best I could.

Every cancer patient has something inspiring that helps them focus on getting through it – something that makes them strong. For me, it was remembering and honoring all of the brave men of D-Day: young men in the prime of their youth facing the unimaginable. I thought of the fear and anxiety they must have felt every single minute, never knowing when they awakened if that day would be their last.

For some it was. For others, they trudged on reluctantly and saw the end of the war. They came home and got married, started families and new jobs. They contributed to society and made something of their lives. Moreover, they did it without complaining or carrying a chip on their shoulders for their lost youth, pain and suffering. It was their duty, they believed which further demonstrated their great character and subsequently earned them the fitting moniker of “The Greatest Generation.”

Pointe du Hoc

Another of my photos, this view from the top of the Pointe du Hoc

Each year we lose more and more of our World War II veterans and it makes me very, very sad. In fact, most of you who know me aren’t at all surprised when I run up to any older gentleman I see with a WWII Veteran hat or jacket.

I did this just a few weeks ago when I was having dinner with friends. During our meal, I had caught a glimpse of a man at another table wearing a ‘WWII Veteran’ hat. He was old and frail now, a shadow of himself during his prime, during the war. As we ate, I monitored his activity and watched as he got up to leave, grabbing his cane. I politely excused myself and went to him as he slowly moved passed our table.

“Hello Sir,” I said, touching him on the sleeve. He stopped and stared at me, and he seemed confused. I continued, “I see that you are a WWII veteran and I just want to thank you for your service. Thank you so very much.”

He didn’t smile as he looked me squarely in the eye, but simply responded, “You’re Welcome.”  The greatest generation indeed.

So on this commemorative anniversary of D-Day, please remember those brave men and all of our servicemen and women who have protected and served our country through the years, and especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

God Bless America.

Stressed out? Then Keep a Journal.

Journaling Offers Proven Cognitive AND Physical Benefits in Managing Stress

I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember. My journals are usually written in a rambling stream of consciousness that would make even Walter Mitty say “WTF?” But more often, I write about what’s on my mind at the time, whether it’s a challenge I’m facing or a decision that I must make. JOurnal

Keeping a journal is therapeutic to me, not only because I can be candid, but also because it allows me to really see situations more clearly so I can take the right course of action for myself.  It was especially cathartic for me to keep a journal during my 2007 battle with cancer as it allowed me to more clearly recognize and manage my emotions and express myself.  It also served to document the entire ordeal for me since I knew that I would never be able to recount everything after treatment, due to some serious “chemo-brain.”  I recently found that journal from six years ago and while it was bittersweet re-reading it, I was glad to discover things that I didn’t remember about events, my treatment, and most importantly, about myself.

The kind of journaling I’m referring to isn’t the commonly perceived “log” of the days’ events.  It’s the kind that can work as a self-improvement tool; one that can ultimately lead to a clearer understanding of events and situations that yield more effective problem-solving skills.  Moreover, writing regularly in a journal positively affects not only emotional well-being, but physical well-being too (I’ll get to that in a moment).

Anne Frank is one of the most well-known journaler.  Her writing not only recorded unimaginable historical events, but just as importantly gives us access into the mind of a human being whose resilience and optimism prevailed in the midst of palpable fear and distress.  Anne never thought anyone would ever read her diary.  She wrote as a way to cope with her emotions and relieve stress during the direst of circumstances. 

How Journaling Affects Our Physical Well-being
Scientific evidence supports the assertion by many that journaling on a regular basis can truly help one de-stress.  Studies have shown that the very act of writing can calm nerves, diminish stress and bolster healing.

A clinical study by the Department of Psychiatry, State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine, sought to determine if writing about stressful life experiences affects disease status in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis.  The study concluded that “Patients with mild to moderately severe asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about stressful life experiences had clinically relevant changes in health status at 4 months compared with those in the control group.”  (See study at:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10208146).

More compelling is the conclusion from a University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher, James Pennebaker, who contends that regular journaling strengthens immune cells, called T-lymphocytes (see article at http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-health-benefits-of-journaling/000721).  Journaling is also frequently recommended in therapy for victims who were harmed from a traumatic event.   Writing about the event helps them more effectively process the event and in turn, let go of emotions that can hinder the healing process.

Dr. Pennebaker has written a book specifically dedicated helping these individuals.  The book is called: “Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma & emotional upheaval” (New Harbinger Publications, 2004).

There are also cognitive benefits to journaling that include sharper problem-solving skills.  Journaling engages both hemispheres of the brain which helps us sort our experiences more clearly, providing us with a better understanding of the situation and how to find the most appropriate solutions to our challenge.

I suppose journaling isn’t for everyone, but if there’s another way to help keep your stress-levels in check and at the same time improve your clarity and problem-solving skills, why not give it a try? You might finally be able to come up with that “Aha” solution to cope with any challenges you are having, whether they be work-related or personal.

Do you keep a journal?  If so, what do you think is the greatest benefit to journaling? I’d love to hear your thoughts.