Last year, I became one of the estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer to be diagnosed in 2016. Of that number, one out of three was projected to die from the disease. While the diagnosis and statistics are daunting at best, for me cancer became a lesson in how to live like I was dying, in how to embrace life in whatever form I was allowed. Surgery and chemotherapy were fraught with unexpected complications and hospitalizations. I chose to share my diagnosis only with close friends, family and my managers at work. I did not rush to Facebook or Twitter to bemoan my state, because let’s face it, many people have it much worse. I didn’t want sympathy or sad-eyed glances. I wanted only to be normal once again, and that status could be found only in living normally. Between chemotherapy treatments, I returned to my job as a nurse, worked on my third novel, and tried to savor every special moment of every day. What I discovered is that every moment is extraordinary—especially if it might be your last—a last kiss, a last hello, a last glimpse of someone special, a final goodbye, and with those possibilities firmly in mind, I appreciated them all the more. There is magic in every moment and in so much around us. And the prospect of dying makes them that much richer.
The first lesson I learned was that it’s not all about me—well, it is, in a way—but then again, it isn’t. The world will get on nicely without me. The best any of us can hope for is to know that it mattered that we were here—that we somehow made a difference for someone somewhere, that we created a special moment, a special memory for someone to cherish. And every day, we have a chance to create those moments for ourselves and for someone else, and it may well start with a seemingly innocuous greeting. A simple “how are you?” is not so simple anymore. Most people expect a quick nod of your head, not a long monologue on the state of your health, so for the most part, I respond in the way I’m expected to—I say I’m fine. Those closest to me might know otherwise, but there’s a kind of simple power in saying “I’m fine.” For that moment, I am fine, and I’ve learned that if I say it often enough, it becomes my truth, my mantra.
As the months wore on, and my stamina flagged, I tried to remember that the worst thing that can happen may turn out to be the best thing that can happen, for even the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Moments to cherish are everywhere. The perfect rose in your garden may well not be the only perfect rose in your day. There are roses everywhere. Perhaps it’s the older lady in line at the supermarket, bent and frail and fumbling for change and a smile, or maybe it’s a soft breeze that ruffles your hair and reminds you that you are alive, or perhaps, a ray of sun that warms your cheek. The beauty in our days is most notable in the subtle—the crack in the sidewalk that brings you back to your childhood games, the far-away friend who calls, the smile of a perfect stranger. If we can see the miracle in the ordinary, we can live a little better and leave a sweet foot print in our wake.
Cancer may have stolen a year of my life, but it gave me so much more, a life sentence rather than a death sentence, and an appreciation of all that is beautiful in life. I’ve learned the hardest lesson there is—how to live like I’m dying. And while I’m now in remission, the lessons I’ve learned will stay with me forever, and I wish that for all of you—a life filled with endless beauty and endless possibilities. Without the diagnosis of course.