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Lessons Learned

by Mary Dunnewold

Inspiration image

In general, I don’t think about cancer in terms of lessons learned, because I believe cancer is just stupid and unlucky, not a golden opportunity to improve your life. Whether we’ve been diagnosed with cancer or not, all of us should live every moment to its fullest because life is, in fact, short. I believed that before I had cancer, and I think I did a good job putting it into practice.

But a few months after I finished my treatment for breast cancer, I ran up against that “life is short” lesson with a surprising new intensity. Specifically, the lesson was this: Life is too short to finish War and Peace.

When my hyper-intellectual book group decided to finally go for it and tackle War and Peace last winter, I was game. I like a challenge, and I believe that reading “big books” builds character.

Life is too short to finish War and Peace.

I almost never abandon a book in the middle. However, after encounter­ing cancer, I had become more intensely aware of how fleeting life is. And a few hundred pages in to War and Peace, a persistent question kept popping up in my mind: Do I really want to devote any of my remaining moments to an activity as boring as this? I put the book down, and I haven’t picked it back up.

Other “life’s too short” moments require a bit more thought, though, and a little balance. I contemplate the second (or third) cookie, the warm chocolate lava cake on the dessert menu, or an­other margarita, and I think to myself, Which principle wins here: Live life to the fullest in every moment (no matter the consequences), or live healthily to live longer? Clearly, I can’t always choose both.

These days, decisions like these al­ways wind themselves back to cancer and what it means to have endured it. I know that if I had terminal cancer, I would eat the cookie and order an­other margarita. I decided that much when I was first diagnosed.

But as far as I know, I don’t actually have terminal cancer. And I do want to live a long time, at a reasonable weight, and in reasonably good health. So my idea that we should all live like we have cancer doesn’t stand up to practi­cal scrutiny. We can’t be simultaneously nearsighted – our eyes focused sharply on the distant horizon – and farsighted – eyes narrowed in on the still life in front of us. We have to live somewhere in the middle, finding our bliss well enough every day, but mindful of the fact that we need to have the stamina to make it to the end.

So now when I’m faced with some irritating but mundane task, like getting that last bit of expensive moisturizer out of the tube or searching for airline tickets just a little bit cheaper, I think: If I had terminal cancer, I would not do this. Then I allow myself to not do it anyway, because this moment isn’t any less valuable just because my death is probably years away rather than months.

In the end, I can’t plausibly say that my life was not changed by cancer, although that’s what I want to claim. I’m an unreliable narrator in that re­spect; my confirmation bias chugging away like everyone else’s.

My life was irrevocably changed by cancer. But it is also changed by getting out of bed every morning and tackling whatever comes down the pike. I just have to remember to embrace the lessons with gratitude, alongside every­thing else on my gratitude list.

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Mary Dunnewold is a breast cancer survivor living in Northfield, MN.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2015.