Looking Back on Lessons Learned Through 20 Years of Cancer Survivorship
by Jane Rubin
As I approach the 10th anniversary of my peritoneal cancer diagnosis (and 20th for breast cancer), I am compelled to hit pause and reflect on how I have stayed positive and focused on living my life despite the challenges I have faced.
People often tell me I have an unusual philosophy regarding my disease. I tend to be more casual about it than others expect – not engaging in too much brooding. I’m not sure how much of this is nature and what part is nurture, but I do consciously rehearse several affirmations when needed. I’ll get to that in a minute.
But first, let me tell you about a couple of significant conversations that have shaped my view on life. The first happened 20 years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer just two months after my second husband proposed. Looking for love for over a decade and finally finding it, I could not believe cancer could have such bad timing. I was scared and discouraged. My soon-to-be husband, David, suggested I speak with a rabbi. This was completely out of my comfort zone, as I grew up in a home with some Jewish tradition but no actual religion. Expecting something religious in nature, I was stunned by the advice I received.
“Look for the cancer-related things you can control, like your will, your treatment decisions, and any other tangible decisions, and deal with all of those issues,” the rabbi advised. “Then put them away in your ‘cancer box.’ Close the box – that is all you can control regarding your disease, life, and death. Then LIVE – work on yourself, your relationships, your job, interests, and so forth, and make them what you want them to be. You won’t have any time left to worry.”
His advice was like the serenity prayer with a practical twist. And he was right! David and I married and had a happy, very enviable decade of life.
Then I received a second diagnosis, much scarier than the first. The disease – primary peritoneal cancer – was not curable. I was on the cusp of grandparenthood and what I viewed as the harvest years of my life. David and I were on the verge of purchasing a lake home that I had been fantasizing about since childhood. I vividly remember sitting in the hospital conference room waiting to hear my prognosis and telling myself, “You can handle this. You can handle this. You’re tough.” But when I asked the surgeon my big question – Should we buy the lake house? – he looked down at the table despondently and I promptly passed out.
Later that week, I had an appointment with my oncologist, who shared the most uplifting advice. He spoke the exact words I needed to hear: “What?! Of course, buy the house – LIVE, Jane! Your husband can always sell the house later if needed. And who knows what will happen next.”
My chest filled with relief. We did buy the house and, ironically, flipped it last summer to buy an even nicer one. Now retired, with six gorgeous grandchildren, David and I have been living out our bucket list; we’re not putting important things off. I have been blessed with a full, happy life.
Thankfully, my cancer has responded well to treatment, and I keep getting another one of those proverbial nine lives. Cancer treatments have come such a long way since my initial diagnosis.
My husband and our big family have been there for me through everything, helping me stay focused on living my life and not dwelling on my disease. This has enabled me to put my cancer fears away when I can and enjoy the preciousness of living and loving every day.
And I have my affirmations when I need them. The first one comes from my husband. Early in the diagnostic period, when I was especially nervous about an upcoming CT scan, my husband suggested that I think about the things I was planning to do after the scan and that I, like a tightrope walker, “don’t look down.” The next came from my rabbi: “Do what you can control and then put it away.” And finally, there’s the all-important mantra given me by my physician: “LIVE!”
Jane Rubin is the author of the memoir Almost a Princess, My Life as a Two-Time Cancer Survivor, available at most online bookstores. Royalties from book sales are donated to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. You can learn more about Jane by visiting her blog, “The Space Between,” at babyboomerage.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2019.