My Melanoma Story Part III: 2017 Reflections
This year marks my first full year as a cancer survivor and what a year it has been. Becoming a cancer patient has challenged me mentally (and to a lesser extent physically), as well as changed my perspective on life.
As I reflect back on 2017 and continue to share My Melanoma Story, I was originally going to focus on more of the medical aspect of my condition and delve into more of a fact-based look at what I’ve encountered. I’m still going to share what I’ve learned in that regard, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt compelled to focus this post more broadly on how my perspective has changed over the past year.
I’ll start by providing what I believe is a very important confession. One of my biggest personal flaws is a penchant for comparing myself to others and caring too much what others think. This often causes me to swing wildly between being extremely critical of myself and being self righteous. It also results in me sometimes finding it difficult to appreciate who I am and the blessings I’ve received. That lack of consistent internal peace has made me very guarded around others and led to a situation where I’ve made very few close friends during the course of my life.
While I already knew about these personal shortcomings, it wasn’t until this past year that I was truly forced to confront how much they’ve impacted my life. It’s a funny thing how it took a life-threatening illness to finally understand a concept my father has tried to teach me since I was a little boy and my wife has tried to explain to me since we first started dating: Not everything is a matter of winning and losing.
Given my hyper competitive nature, I’ve always instinctually looked at things through that lens, but cancer has helped me realize that not everything is a competition. I will never “beat” my tendency to compare myself to others and care too much what others think. Likewise, I will never “beat” cancer.
I used to view any weaknesses I had as opponents which I had to defeat. My perspective changed in 2017 and that has begun to alter the way I look at so much of life. Just because my perspective has changed doesn’t mean I don’t still struggle with my character flaws and cancer on a daily basis, or occasionally fall back into a mindset of wanting to “beat” those things, but it has given me a deeper comprehension of life I previously lacked.
We are who we are. I am a person who has a tendency to compare myself to others. I am a person who cares too much what other people think. I am a guarded person who doesn’t easily make close friends. I am a person who has cancer. Those are simply just pieces of the complicated mass that is me. They are not opponents to be defeated. Rather than concentrating on beating those parts of myself, I now try to embrace them and work on making them positives as I continue my progress and growth as a person.
When I compare myself to others now, I try to do so with a healthier point of view (again, I regularly fail, but I am making progress). Instead of looking at others’ success and immediately criticizing myself for failing to achieve the same success, I try to celebrate and learn from their accomplishments. Instead of looking at others’ troubles and immediately passing judgment, I try to be empathetic and understand what led to their suffering.
When I care about what others think now, I also try to do so with a healthier point of view (again, I regularly fail, but I am growing). Instead of internalizing critical feedback and immediately becoming defensive, I try to learn from the feedback and understand the reasons for it. Instead of immediately dismissing encouragement and treating it skeptically, I try to embrace it and allow it to give me a boost.
When I interact socially now, I try to do so with a healthier point of view (again I regularly fail, but I am making progress.). Instead of anticipating rejection and immediately putting my guard up before even giving others a chance to know me, I try to open myself up more and let them make up their mind about me based on an honest understanding of who I am. Of everything, this is probably the most terrifying (even more so than the cancer), and is probably the thing I have the toughest time with of anything, but I am making strides.
Lastly, when I think about the fact I have cancer, I try to do so with a healthier point of view (again I regularly fail, but I am making progress). Instead of obsessing about killing the mutated cells I have inside my body and immediately becoming angry at them, I try to recognize that they are a part of me and that they won’t cause me harm as long as I care for my body the way it needs.
I recognize the desire to “beat” cancer and can relate to it, but it’s just not consistent with my new perspective. I will never “beat” cancer. There is no cure for cancer. It will be with me for the rest of my life. That’s why despite the fact I’m ending 2017 with my most recent scan showing “No Evidence of Disease” (NED), I don’t consider that having “beat” cancer.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that after all I’ve gone through in 2017 I’m now considered NED (a more accurate way of saying cancer-free), but cancer is still just as much a part of me as everything else. Those cells can reappear at any time and I’ve learned to accept that. They are a good reminder of how precious life is. They are a good reminder of all that I have to live for. And they are a reminder that despite how hard it is to continue the journey of personal progress and growth, it’s worth the effort.
I’m absolutely convinced that maintaining a healthier diet and giving my body the nutrition it deserves has helped my healthy cells overtake my cancerous cells. I’m not perfect and can in no way claim to be anything close to an ideal eater, but I’ve made tremendous progress in this area and credit it with potentially helping save my life. But it’s NOT easy. I would much rather go back into my old ways and eat pizza, hamburgers, fries, fried chicken, barbecue, and all the rest on a regular basis. But cancer helps me overcome those temptations most of the time.
I’m also absolutely convinced that the treatments I receive have helped my immune system naturally suppress my cancerous cells. It’s not always fun getting blood tests and Keytruda infusions every three weeks and scans every three months, but it’s what my body has needed to get itself back in shape. Being disciplined about these appointments is HARD. I’d much rather skip them when I didn’t feel like going. But cancer helps me take care of myself the way I need.
And it’s with that new perspective that I can look back at the past year with a great deal of gratitude. I’ve learned just how difficult it is to continue making personal progress and it gets even tougher as we age. But I can honestly say I’ve grown more this year than any other year in my life and for that I will be forever thankful for 2017.
The painful rapidly growing tumor on the back of my head, the Stage IV cancer diagnosis, being told (prematurely and possibly erroneously) seconds before I went under for surgery that it had spread to my lungs and chest, the surgery that still leaves the back of my head feeling stiff at times, the surgery recovery that involved sleeping with a drainage tube sticking out of my neck, the aforementioned blood tests/infusion treatments/scans, the psoriasis flare ups that have led to painful and bloody cuts all over my hands/feet/legs, the skin biopsies, the temporary stomach aches, the endoscopy stomach procedure; it’s all part of my story and I appreciate all of it.
I’m still here thanks to all of it. I’m still able to hold my infant daughter and wrestle with my kindergartner son thanks to all of it. I’m able to have made progress and become a better husband, father, and son thanks to all of it. I’m able to have grown and become a better person thanks to all of it. I have a new perspective thanks to all of it.
Goodbye 2017 and thanks for making me better understand who I am. I will always remember and appreciate you.
Now here’s hoping for a 2018 filled with more growth and progress, but a much lower degree of difficulty.
Happy New Year everyone and God bless!