This post was originally started prior to Thanksgiving, but unexpected health problems delayed the editing and posting of it.
It’s Holiday Season. Whether you agree with the principles or not, whether you celebrate or not, it’s a good time for reflection. A cancer diagnosis … and the subsequent treatments … as well as the death of friends, has forced me to be more contemplative. I reflect on my life, my choices, and what is really important to me.
I know I’m going to die and not in the “we’re all going to die some time in the future” way. That may be true, and we are all “terminal” as one of my doctors philosophized when he was asked about the implications of my metastatic diagnosis, but most of us have the luxury of at least thinking that death is a far off notion. Some theoretical concept to prepare for, but after the grandchildren have grown. Well into retirement, after traveling around the world. I’m 52. I’ve had cancer for 3 years. It metastasized a year and a half ago. However you want to manipulate or argue with the data, right now, the average survival time for someone with metastatic breast cancer is 3 years. As of now, I’m “NED” (no evidence of disease), but that doesn’t mean the cancer is gone. It just means that, for whatever reason, I have been blessed with more time. While it’s not unheard of, the odds of me surviving long enough to receive social security is unlikely.
What is possible, however, is that every day that I wake up I have an opportunity to celebrate one more day. To enjoy my life. To learn something new. To appreciate the experiences. To take NOTHING, myself included, for granted. I no longer plan for the future. Don’t get me wrong, I have put my legal papers and end of life decisions in order. That’s important and necessary. In everything else, however, I try to live in the moment. I let family and friends know that I love them. I acknowledge my own value. I take the small trips. I write. I enjoy what I have now and try not to live in the “some day” mindset. I focus on today. Am I always successful? Nope, but I do achieve my goals more days than not.
I recently saw an interview with a woman who had metastatic disease. She had been told that she had just a few weeks to live and she had agreed to be a part of a study to assist doctors with helping patients during end of life. During an interview, the reporter asked her, “Don’t you feel sad? Don’t you just want to cry?” Yes, two stupid questions, but the response was incredible … (paraphrasing) “Yes, I do want to cry, but then I realize I have very little time and I don’t want to waste it.” “I don’t want to waste it!” How many of us waste precious time by not living in the present? By focusing on the unimportant? By being with people, or in situations, that make us less? How many of us waste time by complaining rather than reaching for what we want? By not appreciating what is truly important to us? By not valuing ourselves or allowing others to not value us? If you knew you had just a few weeks to live, what would you do?
I would like to say that my evolution, my growth, was a focused, dedicated process by which I grew through the years. It wasn’t. It was a slap in the back of the head, kick in the ass, one. I spent YEARS chasing after relationships with people, including family members, who had no interest in having a relationship with me. Not that they disliked me, they just had little to no interest in me. I wasn’t a blip on their radar. If I never interacted with them again, they wouldn’t miss my presence. On the flip side, I also allowed people into my life who psychologically, emotionally, and physically drained me because I “didn’t want to hurt their feelings.” I felt sorry for them — I didn’t particularly care for them or even like them. I did a disservice to myself and them. I allowed people who couldn’t manage their own lives to have input into the decisions I made regarding my life. It was exhausting and brought absolutely no value to my life, but I was a people-pleaser and refused to accept the damage these relationships did to me (something I think a lot of “nice” people do). In all of these relationships, I was the one who kept in touch — called to see how they were doing, sent little notes, remembered birthdays, baked cookies, dropped what I was doing to help someone else — even when it was never reciprocated or appreciated.
Post-diagnosis … limited energy, limited funds, and limited time changed that dynamic. It still took an epiphany for me to recognize that it was time for a change. I was getting ready to visit friends in New York. The week prior to leaving, I received e-mails, texts, and telephone calls confirming that I was coming, making accommodations for my health, and coordinating events. In other words, they were engaged in my visit! Not because they felt obligated or because I could do something for them, but because they cared about me and enjoyed my company. There was no “end game” other than enjoying each others’ company! What a joyful experience.
As simple as that. I did a sorting in my mind of all the times I chased after someone for a visit, a phone call, an acknowledgement that I was important to them — again, not for what I could provide or because of some sort of mixed up sense of obligation, but because I had a piece of their heart — and realized how many of my relationships fell far short of what most would do for complete strangers. So, I made a decision and an announcement and, believe me, there were a lot of people who looked at me like I was crazy, but for anyone who would listen, I said, “I am not an obligation. I am not here for your convenience. I will no longer chase after you. I don’t have the energy for your self-created drama. I wish you the very best in life.” I WAS DONE.
Some felt I was being “melodramatic.” Some ignored me or got angry. Most set me free as I had done for them. Others, those who truly wanted me in their life, listened. Interestingly enough, an almost universal perception was that I was mad at people and would get over it. That’s not what this was about. I was sad and, as people I had always relied on (at least in my mind) as my support system started to fall away, I was disillusioned, but I wasn’t mad. Mad is a reaction. This was a conscious decision.
There was no big drama. I stepped away or I set up boundaries for many of my relationships. For others, I identified what the situation actually was … Casual friends who spoke online or occasionally met for dinner to catch up? Friends who interact on a daily / weekly / monthly basis and are somewhat invested in each others’ lives? Friends who will be there for medical appointments and to listen when you freak out over a diagnosis? Friends who invite you into their home and drop everything to rush you to the hospital in the middle of the night? For everyone’s sake, I categorized my relationships and no longer placed unrealistic expectations on myself or others. What a relief!
It wasn’t, and isn’t, easy to continue along this line, especially during the holidays, but it’s necessary. I do have limited time and energy. There is so much that I want to do and I have to focus on what’s important to me. Relationships aren’t easy — neither is ending them — but there are grown-up, mature, ways of dealing with them that don’t include wasting time on empty friendships or annihilating another person. As I told a friend, “Who would have thought that a cancer diagnosis would save the rest of my life?”