by Heather Hall
I thought I had figured out this life-after-cancer journey. After all, it’s been more than 20 years since I finished treatment for osteosarcoma, my first cancer. Melanoma came shortly after. And once I recovered from that surgery, life flowed smoothly. But then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, marking another new chapter in this journey.
Each cancer changed my life. Beautiful and ugly transformations. I’ve lived as a cancer survivor longer than I have not. Considering not everyone has a positive outcome, including my dad, I am incredibly fortunate. Blessed. Grateful.
Cancer tried to break me more times than I can count. However, through this journey, I also found untapped strength, unplanned adventures, fresh opportunities, new friends, renewed confidence, and a profound inspiration to throw my arms open to love and to life.
I’ll admit, I sometimes get so focused on making sure I appreciate each day and don’t take my life for granted that I lose sight of the simple things that make me smile.
You cannot go through cancer without it affecting you in some way. This disease makes you face your fears and your mortality, but it also helps you find your inner strength. I decided long ago that cancer would not control my life. I control my life. I promised myself that I would learn and grow from the challenges cancer hurled in my path. And I’ve learned a lot.
Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from surviving three cancers.
1 Make your story about you.
No cancer survivor’s journey is the same as another’s. Stop comparing yourself to other survivors. Don’t compare cancer treatments or outcomes. Don’t waste time wondering why someone’s life seems better than yours. Embrace YOUR story. Trust your strength, your instinct, and your choices.
2 Acknowledge the ugly.
Cancer is ugly, but life is beautiful. There will be moments that make you feel like your life is shattering – a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, debilitating side effects. Acknowledge the pain, the fear, and the big emotions you’re feeling. Hiding from the ugly parts of life doesn’t make them go away. But facing them can help you begin to heal.
Choose wisely who you let in your life. Surround yourself with good people.
3 Take chances.
Staying in your comfort zone or burying yourself in a life that’s no longer working for you may be easier in the moment, but it won’t help you embrace the life you’re meant to live. It’s scary to take chances, and to let go of the obligations we place on ourselves. But it’s also exciting to discover a passion, untapped talent, a new career path, or unexpected love. I have never regretted taking a chance on something new. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s still a lesson.
4 Don’t give up on love.
I’m a romantic, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Of course, I’ve had my heart broken. It’s not fun. But when I look back at those heartbreaks, I realize I learned a lot about myself and what I want in a partner through those relationships. Love may not come in the cute, tidy package you dreamed about when you were younger. It may not look like the ideal society pushes on us. But I think that’s a good thing. It forces you to figure out what you really want in a relationship and not settle, even when others say you should. So just go for it. Don’t be afraid to take a chance on love.
5 Celebrate every step.
Sometimes it seems like life is moving sloooowly, or that your goals are still so far away. But as long as you’re moving forward, you’re accomplishing something. The small steps turn into big strides. The most important thing is to keep going. For example, when I’m on a 30-mile bike ride, I set my mile tracker to alert me every 5 miles. It’s easier to work toward those 5-mile increments than it is to slog my way through the full distance in one go. Each one gets me closer to my goal. This is also why I celebrate cancer anniversaries – each milestone adds up to a great achievement.
Take a break – from work, social media, news, obligations, emotional labor, physical and mental demands – to simply sit and focus on you. Breathe deep; feel alive. We need those quiet moments to acknowledge where we are in life. I’ll admit, I sometimes get so focused on making sure I appreciate each day and don’t take my life for granted that I lose sight of the simple things that make me smile. This pause reminds me to check in with myself and tune in to my needs.
7 Be part of the solution.
Help others. Get involved with organizations addressing causes that are important to you. Advocate for change. One of my favorite adages is “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” So, be kind to others. You never know what people are facing each day.
Don’t waste time wondering why someone’s life seems better than yours. Embrace YOUR story.
8 Practice gratitude.
The modern world we live in, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, can make it easy to focus on everything that’s going wrong in the world and in our lives. I fall into this trap at times too. But this life offers so many good things as well. To help me get in the right mindset, I start each day, before I even get out of bed, thinking of three things I’m grateful for. It reminds me to focus on the good.
9 Find your community.
Many people will come through your life. Some will stay; others will go. Sometimes it’s your choice, and sometimes they’ll disappear without a word. Some people will teach us lessons, intentionally or not. Some lessons will be good, and some hurtful. So, choose wisely who you let in your life. Surround yourself with good people, those who lift you up, support you, encourage you, and motivate you. Those who fill your heart with laughter, your days with adventure, and your life with brilliant memories. And be a good friend to others too.
10 Choose joy.
Find the simple things that make you smile and bring you joy. Hold tight to them, for that’s what will ground you in this wild journey of life after cancer. And that’s really my message to you today: Choose joy. You control your life. Not cancer or any illness, not other people, and certainly not society. Don’t settle, laugh as much as you can, surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you, and don’t waste any minute of the time you have. Live fully and splendidly, friends. You deserve a good life after cancer.
Heather Hall is a bone cancer, melanoma, and breast cancer survivor. She is a national public speaker, writer, and presenter, sharing information on advocacy, healthy living, cancer survivorship, motivation, and more. Heather hosts a blog, HeathersHangout.com, where she shares tips for living through and beyond cancer. A version of this article first appeared on Heather’s blog.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2021.
Everyone has a unique story to share. Do you want to share your story, quote or poem? We consider a cancer survivor to be anyone living with a history of cancer – from diagnosis through the remainder of life. Here are our submission guidelines.