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How Terminal Cancer Prepared Me for Coronavirus

As someone who's spent a year on death's door, the effects of the pandemic are eerily familiar.

Maggie by fishpond Karsa Bali

We feel separated from our friends and loved ones even as we watch them becoming sick. We’re afraid for our health, our job and our basic survival. We don’t know what the future will look like but know that nothing will ever be the same. 

Pandemic life feels a lot like life with terminal cancer.

One month after turning 40 I was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 lung cancer which had metastasized to my brain and dozens of other places. My prognosis at the time was six to eight months.

A cancer diagnosis means the immediate cancellation of all future plans. Mine offered no hope of rescheduling. 

The tools I developed to cope with my sudden new reality may be just what the world needs now as our collective society faces similar uncertainty, anxiety, and peril. 

Life in the Present

Before my diagnosis I was always trying to get the current task over with so I could move on to the next, presumably better thing. I’d find parking at the bottom of a hill so I could save the easy walk for the way home, I’d rush to finish the dishes before eating my (now cold) dinner, and I always saved the best bite for last. Mine was a very “finish your vegetables so you can have dessert” mentality. At its most insidious, this mindset drove me to mild workaholism as I sacrificed my present happiness for a future dream of retirement bliss.

One of the unexpected blessings of cancer was having to give up that dream. 

When I no longer had a future, I slowly learned to cherish the present – to savor the sensations of dishwashing and feel profound gratitude when I have the strength to walk uphill. For someone at the end of life, each opportunity to experience living is its own reward and nothing is too mundane to cause joy. I’ve learned to appreciate the vegetables more than the promise of dessert.

Now the world has lost – or at least postponed – its collective future. As a result of coronavirus, so many lives have been cut shorter than they should have been. So many plans have been canceled – travel, weddings, graduations, employment. 

Now is the opportunity to claw back our hopes from some distant future that we expected to provide fulfillment and happiness. Now is the opportunity to find that happiness in present reality. 

It’s not as hard as it sounds. I’ve done it, and here’s how I started.

1. Adopt a mindfulness practice

Spend 20 minutes each day in some practice of mindfulness. Past excuses about not having the time are no longer relevant. Instead of commuting to work, instead of watching that next episode, close your eyes and be fully aware of this moment. 

Whether your practice takes the form of sitting meditation, body scan, or mindfulness yoga, the results will slowly seep into the rest of your day. Your anxiety will lessen and you’ll feel less attachment to the future as your happiness becomes more immediate. 

2. Allow Yourself to Grieve

Allow yourself to grieve for what is lost. COVID-19 has taken too many of our loved ones. Economic changes have reshaped every future. And social distancing and isolation have removed much of our emotional support. 

These are tragedies, and must be grieved. 

As a society we have pathologized sadness such that tears are a weakness and the ability to “be strong” in the face of suffering is considered admirable. The only way to overcome the emotional damage of a tragedy is to grieve it: to acknowledge the horror, fully experience it, and let it wash through you and away. 

3. Be Grateful

Grief and gratitude go hand-in-hand. As you grieve what has been lost, allow yourself to feel gratitude for the gifts you have now. Don’t let guilt over the suffering of others affect your ability to appreciate what is good about your own life. 

Even while drowning in my cancerous lung fluid or enduring the unspeakable side effects from treatment, I found that if I could focus on the things that make me grateful — the kindness of a nurse, the sound of children playing outside, being able to sit up and look out the window — that happiness filled my world. 

Whether it’s more time with your immediate family, more frequent phone calls with distant family and friends, the kindness of others, the sunshine outside, appreciate whatever small parts of daily life make you happy. Over time, the things you are grateful for will overwhelm you in their abundance.

If you find yourself struggling to feel grateful, now is a perfect time to start a formal gratitude practice.

4. Prioritize your own health

Our tendency when others are suffering is all too often to want to suffer along with them. Instead, see what you can do to add to the overall health and happiness in the world by focusing on your own health and healing.

The new, healthier lifestyle I adopted after my diagnosis led to 50 pounds of fat loss, the ability to go off my anxiety medication. During that transition, I was so grateful to cancer for giving me a reason to turn down any activity that wasn’t healing. COVID-19 could provide the same excuse. 

Maybe this extra time at home can be used to prepare more healthy, whole-food meals rather than ordering out or reaching for the packaged, processed stuff. Zoom breaks could be the perfect time to pull out the yoga mat or put on a workout video and get sweaty in your living room. As crazy as it sounds, see if you can put the phone away, detach from the news, and actually get a full night’s sleep. Not only will all of these activities form the foundation for healthy habits in the future, they all may help to support your immune system now. [1,2,3]

The Bottom Line

Having to change — or cancel — our plans for the future is an opportunity to focus on the present. Terminal cancer taught me that. 

While I’m currently incredibly fortunate to be cancer-free, the lessons stay with me.  I will never forget that, no matter how crazy or imperfect my reality, this is the life I fought so hard to keep.  

I’m profoundly grateful that I’m here to experience it.

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