My 5 Pillars of Resolve
Many people have asked me what goes through your head in the middle of an extreme cancer battle. Where did I find the resolve to keep going when everything looked so dark? And did I take anything from the experience that I still apply in my life today.
The answer of course is yes. These are probably the 5 greatest life lessons cancer has taught me.
Draw a Line
When you are diagnosed with cancer, or indeed handed any crisis in your life, the first thing you do is draw a line. Now is not the time to go backwards into “why me” or “poor me” territory. It is too late for that now. Your life has now been divided into two very distinctive categories, life before cancer and life after cancer. There is no point in trying to spend time in the former, when you have already been told you have enrolled in the latter. Any trawl back through the “whys” and “wherefores” only takes you back into what I regard as minus territory. You can only start to take on what is in front of you when you get yourself back to zero. You simply draw a line, and there is only one direction to go from there.
Run What You See
A narrow focus keeps you strong. You can only climb the part of the mountain that is under your foot. When I would run badly I used to adopt a strategy of “run what you see”. I would tell myself that all I needed to do was run the stretch of road in front of me. Just get myself over the top of the next hill, or around the next bend, and so on. If I kept doing that the finish line would come to me rather than I run to it. I broke the run down into much smaller components to keep myself strong.
I applied exactly the same tactic to a long and difficult cancer survival and recovery. Now was not the time to worry about when I would go to a wedding, or to a football game or back to work. All I needed to focus on today was the physiotherapist was coming to see me at 3 and I was having a colonoscopy at 5. It was my job to do those two things to the very best of my ability. And that was my only job. Concentrate on the inches. They will make the mile.
Don’t Ever Give Up
My case has become the ultimate proof that nothing is for certain. I should have died many times in 2002 and there would appear to be no logical reason why I did not. My survival was a complete jigsaw and if any piece was missing I simply would not be here today. But one of those essential pieces was that I always kept myself in a position to survive. I never gave up. The fight became more important to me than whatever the end result could have been. If I was to go down, I was going down in the ring with my gloves on. That was the duty I imposed on myself. So I put myself on the team too and gave myself the role of making myself the best patient I could possibly be.
Not giving up won’t necessarily guarantee success. But you won’t succeed without it. And the right mindset will open the most unimaginable doors. My case, by itself, puts the onus on everybody coming behind me to never give up.
Perspective is the Antidote to Everything
None of us have to look too far to find somebody worse off than we are. Perspective makes you strong. If you are bankrupt you look at the person in the wheelchair. If you are in a wheelchair you look at the person with depression. If you have depression you look at the person living in the warzone. If you live in a warzone you look at the person in prison. If you are in prison you look at the person who is suicidal because they are bankrupt.
When I was diagnosed and looked as if I was about to die at the age of 40, cancer suddenly allowed me to see people I had never seen before. I saw the 3 year old diagnosed with leukemia. I saw the 17 year old after a horrific accident on their motorcycle. I saw the 20 year olds, all over the world, who leave home every day only to never return again.
And it wasn’t just the people who die young. I saw people who would live twice as long as me but never have the life I had. The child soldier. The oppressed factory worker. The many people in the world whose entire lives are blighted by illness or violence or poverty. Perspective gives you perspective. It can turn a frightening negative into an extraordinary positive. If I was to die my overriding emotion at that point was an immense gratitude for having lived so well, for so long.
We Are All Going to Die
One thing I like about cancer is it calls our bluff. For all of our advancement, most of us choose to turn a blind eye to one of the greatest certainties of all. Many people do not consider the possibility that their death will occur before the age of at least 70. And yet we read in our newspapers every day about people all over the world who die at every age from 0 to 70. Life is a lottery, we all know that. Cancer not only forces us to see that there is an elephant in the room, it lifts him up and plonks him on our lap.
We should all just deal with the fact that we are going to die, put it away, and get on with making sure we live every day of our lives until then. When I did this, in the middle of my treatment, I gained huge strength from it. I plucked the only card cancer held over me, out of its hand. I was untouchable after that. If you are not afraid to die there is nothing left to be afraid of. It was a huge turning point in my fight. My cancer knew it was going to be dragged all the way, kicking and screaming, from there. And in a nice twist, by not being afraid to die, I lived.
My death has already revealed itself to me so there will be no surprise when it comes back for real. I will not be afraid then either. And until that day comes I intend to spend every day of this amazing life I have been given savoring the wonderful part of my glass that is half full, rather than living in fear of the part that is half empty.