5 lessons of life transformation that cancer taught me

A time of clarity

Foreword: “I wrote this post-chemotherapy, since then my cancer has returned and I am stage 4… But my journey continues. I think this post resonates still, if it does share the love” – Don. 

“You have cancer.” These are 3 words that you never want to hear. Unfortunately they are all too common and statistically there is a high probability that you or someone you love will have to deal with the reality of cancer at some point in your life.

For me it came in the form of oesophageal cancer and with a diagnosis also comes what is called staging. In layman’s terms it’s an indicator of how severe your cancer is, but on the unfortunate side staging is measured in the probability (%) of survival out to 5 years. Stage 1 is great odds (97%), while stage 4 (11%) means… well it’s not so hot.

I was diagnosed with stage 3 – 4(?) cancer and the question mark hung over spots that had been found on my liver. To be honest with you I had made the determination throughout this process to not presume the worst until all the tests had come in and the treatment plan had been sorted. I’ve made that mistake before of running ahead of the medical team when my daughter was born, and we received a preliminary diagnosis that she may have cystic fibrosis. The first thing we did was to race home and looked up a medical reference book that stated it like this: Cystic Fibrosis; (CF) ‘the child killer’. Not exactly the definition that as young parents you want to face with a new born, and one which caused a whole lot of unnecessary emotional pain as our pressum-a-meters kicked into high gear to paint a never ending stream of dark and scary pictures of what the future might be. None of which materialised I might add.
As it turned out our daughter did have CF and that is a whole different story, suffice to say she is a gorgeous adult woman at the writing of this and leading a fairly normal lifestyle.

So there we were in the surgeons consulting room, my partner and I on one side, Dr. Rogers and his team on the other. Up to this point I had not Googled cancer, nor had I allowed it to occupy my thoughts, I lived every day in a business as normal mindset. Dr Rogers started talking in doctor speak about the diagnosis, treatment and prognosis. I guess it wasn’t making much sense to me and then it hit me. A moment of absolute clarity where the fog of my mind and thoughts struggling to understand and emotions that weren’t sure what the hell they were doing, all gave way to one simple, pointed but very relevant question. So simple and clear to me was this question that I knew from my side of this coin it would determine the outcome. Not cancer, not treatment, not doctors but me. This had nothing to do with whether I would live or die as a result of cancer, but everything to do with how I would live or die as a result of cancer. Do you see the difference?

How did I know that this question would be the determining question? Simple, it came from the heart, that voice you try not to listen to because it confronts you, challenges your true lies and sees past the layers of masks, pretence and BS you’ve built into your life over the years and tells you who you really are, and how far away you are from the real you – yeah, that voice that speaks in your language. And the question that I interrupted the flow of the doctor with was this.

“So, what level of fucked am I?”

Once you get over your shock at the expletive like Dr Rogers needed to, you can see the absolute beautiful simplicity of this question. I didn’t need to know the answer to anything else and at that point in time it was the only question that mattered because it would determine my outcome.

It came down to this… “If the spots on your liver are cancer, you’re going to die!” What a mind job… “If not, we operate, follow-up with chemo and see.”

O.K I can work with that… From that point on I knew it’ll be hit or miss. My mindset wasn’t focused on dying it was focused on living now and looking to the future and I started listening to what that little voice was telling me, ‘This is for a purpose’ and ‘You’re going to survive this, or at least die trying’.

As I started in on the first rounds of chemo I would find myself thinking about my life and it became apparent that I was at peace with myself… My life has not been easy, not by any means nor has it been perfect, but I have no regrets, feel no animosity towards anyone. I wasn’t afraid of dying and I had accepted ownership of the situation I was in… There was however one area that I could not rationalise or come to terms with and I guess it would be the same for most people in the same or similar situation. I called it facing the darkness and it had nothing to do with what I’d done or had been though in the past. Rather it was the regret of all that I would miss… Giving my daughter away at her wedding, ribbing my son’s at theirs… Being there at special occasions and of course not seeing my grandchildren being born or growing up. The thought of never having the opportunity to live these moments into memories were indeed the deepest, darkest and most lonely thoughts I have ever had, causing me to weep uncontrollably every time they crossed my mind.

As I went through chemo, surgery and then more chemo I had plenty of time to think and as a strategist it’s the one thing that I do extremely well… I reflected on the events of my life and what lessons I could learn from them… here are just 5 that I hope can help you to find your happiness in life.

Lesson 1: Who are you and why am I?

These two question you need to answer before you can even begin to take control of your life and set sail towards Joyville. They’re also really hard questions to answer because often we live a disconnected life to our inner voice and true self. It’s really kind of sad in a way, but when you look at the demands or perceived demands upon us as we live in a modern world you can understand the why of it. But understanding and accepting that we don’t have to live a status quo existence are two very different things.

Often by the time we reach adulthood the life we are living has been thrust upon us by the expectations of others or out of plain convenience. We get into our routine not realising how quickly it turns into a rut… and although we dislike the noise, busyness and stress of our lives it does have the advantage of drowning out that itchy thorn of knowing this is not who we are or where we want to be.

Many of us try to define ourselves by what we do, what we possess or the level of our success yet as I face the prospect of death not one of these things crosses my mind… The question I ask of myself most is… have I lived a happy life?

Setting sail on a journey of self discovery may not bring you riches, houses or streets paved in gold… But it should bring you a sense of purpose and joy even if the ocean ahead is still full with challenges and dangers. Yet there is something deeply exciting and attractive about journeying into the unknown.

Lesson 2: Life owes you nothing!

Most people live their lives in the expectation that somehow life owes them something… a lottery win, a better life, different parents or happiness. I’m sorry it doesn’t work like that… Life provides you with the experiences to grow, learn and become… but it doesn’t owe you anything. Life is hard, it doesn’t care about where you come from, who you are or what you think… Life is, what it is, and it is up to you to determine how you will play the cards life deals you. Nope, it’s not fair – but that’s life!

It grieves me to hear people in their adult years, still pushing the buck and blaming mummy, daddy or the government for their lack of happiness or success. Sure it may be that you went through some abuse as a child. Maybe your parents did suck. I fully understand that, as a child your options are limited in such circumstances. I know this because I’ve been there, I’ve lived it too. But at some point you grow up, look in the mirror and allow enough righteous anger to be released for you to declare, “Fuck this! I’m determining my life, I’m taking ownership.”

No, you can’t choose your parents, but you can choose what will define you, the behaviours and beliefs you will live by. You can choose to change, to be happy and most certainly to live towards the pursuit of a more fulfilling life.

Lesson 3: Take ownership of your life.

Most people are happy to give the control and governance of their life over to others, whether a spouse or partner, their parents, the government and even events that have happened in their past. It seems at times that we are living in a world in which we don’t have to think for ourselves and people no longer own their lives.

But this is also about taking ownership of your emotions and the events of your life thus far. At the age of 12, I was the victim of a paedophile and this traumatic event could have easily controlled my life and for a little while it did. Once I took ownership of the emotions and the experience I was able to work past the trauma to a point where I no longer relive the experience if it crosses my mind.

Until you take ownership of your life, your actions and outcomes will always be determined by someone or something else and often for their benefit and not yours. Listen here’s the simple principle about ownership… You cannot change what you do not own.

Lesson 4: Be honest with yourself.

Stated another way – ‘to thy self be true.’ This is a two part lesson because it deals with being true to the things that make you happy and bring joy to your life. That is your passions, naturally abilities and talents. You need to reconnect to that inner voice again… You know the one I’m talking about. You need to trust that voice because it is what we call your authentic self and it can lead you to a place of joy and happiness.

The second part of this lesson is that you need to stop lying to yourself and the world around you, about who you are… All those multiple personas and masks we wear, the excuses we use for why we are the way we are. These are just the true lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to face the real truth and because the real truth scares us, especially when it’s the truth about you.

In the bible it says “the truth shall set you free…” but what it doesn’t tell you is that first it will kick your arse… it may embarrass you, or require that you confess something… it may require that you break off unhealthy relationships… but to make that connection with your true, authentic self is like entering the holy of holies because it is also the centre of your spiritual essence… it is a place where you are completely naked, vulnerable and where only love and truth can abide.

I’m still learning about this place and how to access it and how to strip back the layers and masks that I’ve created over time… This is a journey we all need to undertake, it is the pilgrimage to self discovery. It saddens me to think that today as you read this there are those who have closed their eyes for the last time who never lived their authentic life. Determine today not to die, having never truly lived, which leads us to lesson 5.

Lesson 5: Know what you need to live.

There are realities to living that we need to take care of. We need to eat, we need clothes, we need shelter and to pay the bills. So if you truly want to change your life and pursue happiness you need to determine the level of lifestyle that will satisfy you. But answer this question with your pride in check, especially if you are used to living a more excessive lifestyle.

Remember this isn’t just about setting a dollar amount, it’s about looking at the problem of living and finding solutions that help to support your lifestyle… for example a simple solution to supporting a lifestyle not focused on money alone may be to grow your own vegetables or use your craft making skills to make things you can sell at a market. Maybe you need to stop playing around the fringe of your passion or skills and refocus on becoming the expert by narrowing in on one or two core offering, charge more for your services and work less.

Again listen to that inner voice it may surprise you and tell you that you need to up your output to gain a better place of being… or it may tell you to downsize. What surprises me is that as I read, or listen to stories of people that have transformed their lives, whether they were starting from nothing or had everything and were looking for something real. As they faced the challenges of transformation and listened to their inner self it led them to exactly where they needed to be.

There is the story of the corporate couple that gave up their mansion, and dedicated their lives to sustainable living and then taught others to do the same. Or, there is the solo mother who listened to the story that her inner voice was telling her about a young wizard with big round glasses and a scar on his forehead, and we all know where that led her. Then there is Cathy, a woman I knew many years ago who appeared to have nothing of any financial value. Everything she owned had been given to her, yet she lacked for nothing and was the happiest and most genuine person I have personally ever met. Cathy found happiness in helping homeless teenagers while raising her own amazing children.

I can’t tell you where your journey will take you or how long it will take you to get there. What I do know is that I would personally like to be the one in control of my life, so in closing I will leave you with this quote from a man that lived life on his terms, Steve Jobs (1955-2011) – Commencement speech given to students at Stanford University in 1995.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Are you ready to be you? I’ll be honest, it’s going to be scary for a little while and you’re going to cry some… You may even pine for another puff on that old self, but it does pass.

True Happiness Awaits You.


2 responses to “5 lessons of life transformation that cancer taught me

  1. Yes. Just yes. The part about how much it hurts to think of the moments you may miss out on very loudly echoes my own heart. And the part about people at some point letting go of the past and choosing their own path instead of whining about the past?! I have been saying that very thing for years!! Thanks for this!

    • You’re welcome… There’s nothing more powerful than a dose of ultimate reality to change your world view, and nothing more liberating than the realisation that we are each only responsible for the thoughts within our heads, the condition of our heart and the actions we choice – to me that is what, “to thy own self be true”, means.

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