10 Lessons I Learned That May Help You Too

10 Lessons I Learned That May Help You Too Charlene Wheeless, photo by Heather Philbin Photography

Lessons I’ve learned along the way that just maybe will help you too.

1. I forgive myself for getting cancer. Intellectually, I know I did not cause my cancer, but deep down I think my lifestyle contributed to weakening my immune system. Did I work too much? Carry too much stress? Exercise too little? Internalize my concerns to the point it weakened my body and my immune system?

2. I accept the “new” me, inside and out. Recently, I went to see a cosmetic surgeon to have him look at something on my non-cancerous breast I did not like. He told me he could excise this and stitch that, etc. I told him I would think about it, but at this point, perfection is not the goal. Living is.

3. I forgive others and approach most situations with empathy. The thing about being sick is that it brings out the best and, sometimes, the worst in people. I mostly experienced the best ten times over. But I did see the other side, too. There were people who didn’t know how to have a friend with cancer, so they didn’t come around much; and there were people who knew how to take advantage of people in a weakened state—and did—for their gain. This hurts the most—the people who betray you because pushing you down helps them rise. To the former, I hold no grudge, no feeling of disappointment, only understanding and a hope that we can reconnect. It can be hard having a sick friend. I get it. To the latter, those who took advantage of my weakened state, well, there is a special place in Hell for you.

4. I have a responsibility to myself to choose how I channel my energy. Where, how much, and when. I have said it before: time is finite. And I am thankful for every new day that I have.

5. I discovered and tapped into things that bring me pure joy: the perfect jalapeño margarita, cuddling with my dogs, driving my car with the top down and the wind in my hair, listening to music (Darius, of course), quiet moments with my husband, loud moments with my adult children as they regale me with stories of how they think they tricked us when they were kids (silly them) and their interesting lives now.

6. I accept that disease is not fair. I knew that life was not fair. Just like my grandmother told my mother decades ago, my mother taught me that life would not be fair for me as a Black female. So, I do not expect fairness in most situations. I really do not. But I thought disease affected all of us (broadly) in the same way. But then I learned that breast cancer death rates are 40 percent higher among Black women than White women. Is it because of lesser access to good healthcare?

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Maybe, but dozens of studies say it is much more than just that. Is there somewhere out there where the playing field is level for Black women? (The question is rhetorical).

7. I do not know how to smoke pot (is that still what it is called?). Someone gave me these bud-like things when I was going through chemo, but I did not know what to do with them. I Googled “how to smoke pot,” and YouTube tried to show me the way. After twenty minutes of watching how-to videos, I decided it was easier to just take a nap. At least then, when I woke up, I did not have the munchies.

8. I stopped wearing bras. It is freeing. I have gorgeous bras adorned with crystals, rhinestones, lace, silk—you name it—but now they stay carefully arranged in several specially designed drawers that I never open because, frankly, these new breasts do not move.

9. It matters that I am on this planet. I have made a difference in some areas that really matter to me. I have a purpose. I know that now.

10. And finally, I learned. That is all. I learned. This list has only ten items, but I am sure I could come up with fifty more. Cancer taught me a lot in a relatively short period of time. There were some hard lessons. But I learned.


Charlene Wheeless is a breast cancer survivor, keynote speaker, author, and leadership/life empowerment coach helping organizations and individuals chart a roadmap to success. Charlene is also a senior advisor for APCO Worldwide and the chairman of the board of trustees for the Page Society. She is also the recipient of many awards, including Global Power Book’s “Most Influential Professionals in Public Relations” and The Network Journal’s “Most Influential Black Women in Business.”

Charlene has been featured in a number of publications and is the author of You Are Enough! Reclaiming Your Career and Your Life with Purpose, Passion, and Unapologetic Authenticity (Amplify Publishing; 2021), of which this article was adapted from.

You can find Charlene on her website (CharleneWheeless.biz) Twitter (@CharWheeless), and Instagram (@CharWheeless).

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