Learning to Breathe (Again)

Losing Body Parts and Loved Ones Leads to New Growth

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In 1990 I had a challenging job at a big brand, an amazing two-year-old daughter and loving family, and both lungs.

Less than two years later, I had lost two-thirds of my right lung to a rapidly growing (but thankfully benign) tumor and my father (who was my mentor and biggest fan) died suddenly at 64 as a result of an aortic aneurism. Three years ago I lost my younger brother at 58 to cancer. I never used to talk or write about my losses. It felt indulgent and self-pitying.

But it taught me some huge life lessons:

  1. Never (I repeat, NEVER) put work above family and health. I had ignored my own symptoms while building my career and until my lung collapsed, I refused to believe I had a problem.
  2. Take time to mourn and heal. After my health issues and my father’s death, I jumped right back on the corporate hamster wheel, had a second child, and told everyone around me that I was “fine.” In retrospect, I was far from OK and the sadness simply hit me years later like a polluted tsunami. Cry (even wail if you need to) and reach out to others for support. By the time my brother died (three years ago), I knew better and felt less compelled to sport my big girl pants — letting those close to me know that I was hurting and graciously accepted hugs, flowers, and shoulders to lean on. I learned through that experience who my true friends were too.
  3. Learn to breathe again. After my lung surgery, I was presented with a little plastic device to breathe into. The goal was to get the top part as high as possible as my lung reinflated. (Pulmonary fun fact — when you lose part of your lung, the rest of it inflates to fill the chest cavity.) I now hike, spin, run through airports, and do all kinds of other things that involve exertion.

Although much of that happened years ago, the lessons I learned have stuck with me. When I become too consumed with stress, deadlines, and people who sweat the small stuff, I teleport myself (not literally) back to my days in the ICU. I look at my fading “wraparound scar” and remind myself that without one’s health none of the rest really matters and that we should savor every day.

But perhaps even more important, I think about that little plastic device and how it helped me heal. Learning to breathe again after any loss is possible — and necessary.

Now I’m off to the gym…

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