How Cancer Turned Me Into a Minimalist
I have always been somewhat of a minimalist despite growing up in the household of an antiques dealer. As a child, I was surrounded by collections of every kind- antique mirrors, old tools, and dusty furniture. When I was finally on my own, I realized the lightness I felt without those things around me. It took a lot of energy to keep track of all those objects and intuitively I knew that an empty space was more peaceful. But when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 41, I realized that, although my home was minimalist, my life in general had become very cluttered.
Before my diagnosis, I was working full time as an anesthesiologist in a busy practice. This was a stressful and demanding job but one that I drew deep satisfaction from. It was easy to feel purposeful when your day job involved helping people in times of illness. But there were days so long and stressful that all I could think about was my couch and a glass of wine when I got home. I was also the mother of a 3-year-old adorable little boy and the wife of a loving husband. But I was exhausted and emotionally drained. All this pressure turned me into an irritable person and the thought that I was an absent mother weighed heavily on my heart.
A cancer diagnosis never happens in a vacuum, and needless to say, there is never a “good time” to have cancer. Things were as crazy in my life as ever when I got that phone call confirming my worst nightmare. I had invasive breast cancer. I was going to need surgery and chemotherapy. In an instant, my roll as physician abruptly changed to the roll of a patient and I knew that my life had changed for forever. This sudden confrontation with your mortality makes you reassess all you thought was true. And in this space, the decluttering of my life began.
Cancer is an incredibly isolating disease but rather than wallow and get bored, I found myself to have a very rich inner life. I took an on line design course. I read and wrote. I meditated. I had time to myself to create for the first time in many years. And despite the pain and fear of having cancer, I was more……….relaxed. I was more patient and less angry. I was a better mom. I knew that if I wanted to survive this disease, I would need to find a way to make these changes permanent.
After ten months of treatments it was time to assimilate back into my “normal” existence. I vowed to maintain the lightness that resulted from decluttering my life during my illness. Some things were practical, some of them were philosophical, and many things overlapped. The one thing I knew for certain was that I needed to have more time for myself, or what I now call “empty time”, so that I could practice self-care and rest. There were five areas in my life that needed clearing for me to achieve this goal.
Being a doctor was what I worked very hard for countless years to become and it was a huge part of my identity. At the time of my diagnosis, I was working long hours, sometimes 24 hours at a time. I wasn’t around enough for my son so when I had free time, I did what I could to be with him. As a result, there was little time for myself, which just made me resentful. I knew I had to cut back and that my health was dependent on it. In 2013 there was the movement for women to “lean in” to their careers and as a response to that, a “lean out” movement ensued. I don’t think its fair to say one is better than the other since valid scientific research supports the concept that a purposeful life is linked to real metrics including longevity. But where and how that purpose is discovered is a unique thing for everyone. And for me, my sense of purpose was most realized in the extra time I had with my son, my husband, and to myself that I found during my treatments. It is big financial sacrifice to work less, but the empty space it leaves in my life is invaluable.
My Daily Routine
I figured I lost countless minutes in my day-to-day routine. The wasted hours fixing my long hair. The pedicures that took an hour a week of precious time. The time worrying about what to wear. I never really enjoyed these routines but did them out of a sense of vanity. But after losing all of my hair during chemotherapy, I realized how much time and identity was tied up into it. After attempting to grow my hair out, I realized the longer it grew, the more time wasted and the more I cared. I found myself actually missing the ease of my baldness and I found a short length that I could have my husband cut. At first it felt like a defeat but when I thought about the freedom from my hair weighing me down, it just felt right. I simplified everything from my hair and makeup to my wardrobe and by doing this, I freed up time and money for more creative pursuits.
I began to look at the wasteful way I used to spend and consume. The single serving coffee pods seemed so wasteful both financially and environmentally. So did the Starbucks trips and eating out most nights. I used to grocery shop for food that was left to spoil half of the time. As a result of this reflection, I made the following changes. I consolidated loans and simplified my mortgage. I got rid of credit cards that I didn’t need. I went to the supermarket with a menu for the week. I didn’t have to pay for as much childcare because I was caring for my own child, which was a win all around. My spending curtailed on things that now seem frivolous without even thinking about it. By cutting my expenditures and simplifying my existence, I was able to continue to work part time while still spending on experiences that mattered more.
You learn a lot about your family and friends during a time of crisis. Who is there and who isn’t. I am lucky to have a loving family and close friends, but I also had my share of dysfunctional relationships and I knew it was time to clear these out of my life. I learned to recognize when I was having an unhealthy reaction during conflicts and with that recognition, I let go and cared a lot less. I stopped wasting my time on these interactions. And by clearing all this emotional space, I had more room for patience and loving. I was less frustrated with my son when he acted out and was able to relate to him more. I was able to become more vulnerable to my husband and valued spending more time with my aging parents despite our differences. I began to see my friends and family differently and valued more meaningful connections.
Before my diagnosis I didn’t think much about this part of myself. Not to say I didn’t think. That is something I did, all day long, without much insight into how this thinking was shaping my external world. I was distracted at all times with unnecessary thoughts, many of them negative. A couple of years before my diagnosis I was introduced to the concept of meditation and recognized the potential for benefit. But I rarely made the time for this practice. After getting sick, though, I realized I had to make major changes. First to cope with the fear that cancer brings along for the ride. Second, and more importantly, I knew I had to change the way I handled stress if I wanted to survive my cancer. By letting go of old patterns, by practicing meditation, yoga, and forgiving myself and others, I decluttered my mind and made space for more constructive practices. I had a new perspective and an expanded sense of empathy. I exercised and rested. I wrote and read a lot. I began to create. I had time alone and was at peace.
When I look back at my life before cancer, I can honestly say that I am in a better place than I was before my diagnosis. What is harder to admit is that I am in this better place BECAUSE of my diagnosis. There are countless stories about how a crisis changes a person and I realize that mine may not be much different than any of the others. I do hope however, that by sharing my journey, others can find the benefits of decluttering one’s life to make empty time and space for oneself without having a crisis be the catalyst for that transformation.
Disclaimer:This is a personal essay, produced in my own time and solely reflecting my personal opinions. These statements do not represent the views, policies or opinions of my employer, past or present, or any other organization with which I may be affiliated.