Cancer sucks. I mean it really, REALLY sucks.
I know I’m stating the obvious – and I tend to do that a lot. But sometimes life hits you with such heart-wrenching news that you are reminded again, in the most excruciating ways. In the past two or so years, I have mourned our dear friend and an aunt. CANCER. I have started a fight myself that I will likely wage for the rest of my life. CANCER. My cousin – who also has Multiple Myeloma – is now bravely fighting a horribly painful secondary CANCER. And this is in addition to the all-too-many diagnoses of cancer around us, every single day. Literally the other day our doorbell rang and behind it was a sweet friend, sharing that another young mom in our town just got diagnosed with ovarian cancer and thought we might able to help each other.
And then…last week I got a call that my (half) brother, John, who was fighting a second fight with breast cancer (yes, men get breast cancer), had died. The cancer had spread to other parts of his body a few months ago and he had been fighting hard – REALLY hard – and always with a positive attitude. Just a few weeks ago he had gone with his longtime fiancé, Kate to Chicago for a second opinion. It was serious, we knew this – but there was time to keep fighting. THAT was the plan. The plan was NOT that he would be killed from the treatment that was supposed to help him. He was getting radiation and it was complications from the radiation that took his life.
God damn it, cancer. You suck – you really, REALLY suck.
When you lose someone suddenly, you really take stock of your life. I have been able to think of little else since I got the call but how he spent those last few days. Did he do things he enjoyed? Luckily the answer is yes. He spent time with Kate, and they celebrated that, ironically, he was feeling well. For months, he had a stent in his throat as part of the treatment – and it was taken out a few days before he died. It had been painful for him so he was so happy to not be in that pain anymore. He spent the weekend feeling good, with people he loved, in the Hamptons, where they lived, which he also loved.
When my father died suddenly, I was haunted by the same thoughts. But I was also comforted knowing that he spent his final night with my mom, the love of his life, watching videos and looking at pictures of our kids (the other loves of his life). Granted, he would have appreciated a nice dish of gravy and macaroni but all in all, I think he spent those final hours being happy and knowing he was loved.
What would I do if I knew today was my last day? What would you do? For me, that next day, I decided to throw out that long and ever-growing To Do list I talked about in my last blog out and take my older daughter Kate to the aquarium for the day (the other two kids were in camp). It was a great day and a memory we will have forever.
But here’s the unfair part of life, rearing its ugly head. Despite feeling GREAT for weeks, the next day I got sick. Again. With pneumonia. Again. I mean honestly – just when you think you’ve gotten as much as you can handle in, say, a week, the hits keep coming. Last week, when I got sick, was supposed to be MY week. The one week a month I get to feel like a “normal” (aka non-sick) person. I’m supposed to be able to have a lot of energy, eat food that doesn’t taste like it’s slightly tinged with metal and maybe, just maybe, even indulge in a few adult beverages. But nope – not this time. This time I was in bed for 36 hours straight before being smart enough to head to the ER to confirm my suspicions of pneumonia. Sadly, after having it three or four times in the last two years, I can now recognize the symptoms all too quickly. The silver lining – and yes, you know me by now, there always is one – is that they didn’t admit me to the hospital this time (I actually packed a bag to go the ER…how many people do that?). I was able to come home to my house, my family, my bed to rest and recuperate. And I am thankful to say I now am feeling much, much better!
And while that felt unfair to me, what is really and truly unfair is that my brother, my father and many, many others started their days expecting them to go one way and had no way of knowing that day would be their last. This could happen to any of us. Every day tragic accidents happen.
When I was a teenager and things didn’t go my way (as they tend to do for most teenagers), I would say “LIFE’S. NOT. FAIR!!!”. And my dad would always say “Life isn’t fair, Jenny Girl”. And damn it, he was right. Life can be unfair in so many ways. It isn’t fair that I am 44-years old and have a cancer for which there is currently no cure. It isn’t fair that my brother was so sick and died so young. It isn’t fair that parents lose their children. It isn’t fair that marriages end, that friendships end. It isn’t fair that each of us wakes up so many mornings to stories of gun violence or terrorism with an alarming frequency. These things are really unfair.
So today, there’s no sugarcoating.
Stop the nonsense, people. Stop fighting. Stop the drama. Stop the political bullying. Get your face out of your phone and TALK to people. Leave work for that soccer game or yoga class – work can WAIT. Do MORE of the things you enjoy doing. Stuff you don’t like? Stop. Doing. It. This is the only life we get – there’s no sequel.
Yes, I make this sound easy and I realize it isn’t completely that simple. We can’t all walk away from our responsibilities and start living willy-nilly without a care in the world. There’s that pesky To Do list that keeps following us around. However, I found this excerpt from a commencement speech given by Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005, and really resonated for me.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
This stuck with me. If you catch yourself having too many days when you’re saying yes to everyone else but no to yourself, you should make a change. If you’re continuing to do things that make you unhappy or stressed, you should make a change. If look back on yesterday and the day before and the day before and you have to struggle to find memories and moments that made you smile, you should – you must – make a change.
Life IS short and it IS unfair. That is the plain and simple truth. However, we each have the choice in how we live this life – no one can take that away from us. What we can control is how we spend our days, who we spend our days with and the energy we give to those around – both positive and negative. What the last two years has taught me is that I want to have many more good days than bad.
I also want to honor the legacy of my dad by continuing to make him proud of me – by emulating the best parts of him, by being straightforward and honest but also trying not to hold a grudge after an argument. I will keep talking to my kids about him all the time, telling stories that make them laugh and always keep him in their memories.
I want to honor the legacy of my brother by continuing my fight the same way he did – with a huge smile, a great sense of humor, an incredibly positive attitude and the belief that everything is going to be okay (even – and especially – on those days when it feels like it won’t.)
And most importantly I want to create my own legacy. I think one’s legacy is always a work in progress and our everyday actions are the building blocks to how we are seen by others, now and after we are gone. This blog is a big part of that for me – my hope is that I will be able to make a difference to people – if that’s by making someone know they aren’t the only one feeling a certain way, making someone laugh or cry (depending on what they need at that particular moment) or just making us all stop and think a little bit differently.
As I said, life IS short and it IS unfair…but is also about choice. For me, it’s about choosing to live life with a positive attitude, showing kindness towards others, giving people the benefit of the doubt and, if all else fails, having a good laugh when you need it. To me, that would be the ultimate legacy.
Until next time….#gameon
In October 2014, after being admitted to the hospital for an eye infection, I was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma (never heard of it? Neither had I!). In the past year, I have had multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a Stem Cell Transplant (SCT) – and I am thrilled to say I am in remission! I am a wife and a mom of three young children ages 9, 7 and 5.