Finding the ‘Much in the Little’ After Cancer Strikes

A cancer survivor shares how to appreciate the good moments and lean on others during cancer. “My dire situation brought out the best of those around me,” he writes.

Getting the unwanted news that you have cancer can cause your life to collapse in on itself. Hope for your future years becomes hope for a tomorrow. Little seems to be left, but there is still much.

As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats once said, “The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” Now deep into my cancer journey, my senses are growing sharper.

Eight years ago, when I was struck with pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer so few survive it is considered a death sentence, it seemed my days of living would soon be over. With only five out of a hundred people who get this unwelcomed news seeing five years, for me the numbers were clear – plan your days because you don’t have many left. I didn’t think I would be there for any of my three daughters’ big days. (Two are now married.) A sorrowful thought for any father. It seemed my wife of over 30 years would be a widow all too soon. Nonetheless, despite the odds being against me, I fought through it and have thankfully remained cancer-free. Looking back on those days I now realize they were a gift wrapped in tattered newsprint bound with hemp twine.

It is not until your days seem numbered that you begin to understand how to live. People who I only knew in passing reached out to me the best they could. Unable to find words, often saying nothing, they hugged me. My dire situation brought out the best of those around me.

I was amazed at how many people, some I hardly knew, offered me their heartfelt thoughts and prayers. But beyond their words alone, they showed up unannounced to take on yardwork among other things. Still, others came alongside my wife and embraced her. This outpouring of love amazed me. And it continues to amaze me.

So how do we find, as Yeats said so well, the “magical things,” or as I would say, the “much in the little?”

Live in the present.

Having been through what I’ve been through today I focus on the now more than ever. Yesterday is gone with both its triumphs and failures. Nothing can be done to resurrect it. It is done. Tomorrow is blank, yet to be filled, unknown. Only today can be lived. After all, this is all any of us have. Live in the present.

Make deep connections.

Few, if any, of our tribe survive for long out on their own. We need each other. The mosaic of people around us is knitted into us and we into them. One simply doesn’t know who or under what circumstances those around us will come to play a key role in our or our family’s future. Rather than having thousands of phantom Facebook friends, having a few real-life physical friends who can come by and do stuff is crucial. It’s not that our social media friends don’t care about us, it’s they lack the physical means to do much. Make deep connections.

Look for the small joys.

It’s all too easy to stumble into the briar patches of life. They are everywhere. The “owly” person on their horn who makes hand gestures at us as they speed by. The angry cousin of a cousin twice removed who lives out some long-forgotten holiday dinner where something was said that no one remembers or cares to remember. But amid all these tough spots in our lives, small joys are brimming like a garden full of lush ready-to-pick fruits and vegetables. Even on a blustery day if we simply peek under the leaves of life, we’ll find there is so much good there, like sumptuous strawberries, all ours to harvest. Look for the small joys.

Focus on the wins.

Anyone who has been there knows the cancer journey can be the proverbial two steps forward and one step back. Progress can be and often is elusive. Setbacks seem the norm. Our insurance, if we have any, won’t cover a promising treatment because they say, “it’s too experimental,” whatever that means. But it helps to focus on the wins rather than the setbacks, like getting to spend another Christmas with our families or being there for a wedding we didn’t think we’d see. Nonetheless, focusing on wins is easier to write about than to do but do we must. Focus on the wins.

Encourage those closest to us.

As much as it is brutal for us, our cancer news can overwhelm those closest to us. While we may feel helpless, they feel it more. More than us as they live under a foreboding painfilled cloud, not knowing if our treatments will work or if we’ll make it. Despite our tough situation and unknown future, we need to maintain a sober but at the same time upbeat outlook. This can help those around us to avoid being swept away by the river of their emotions washing over them. Encourage those closest to us.

Finding the much in the little is vital to living after cancer has struck. Ways to do this include, living in the present, making deep connections, looking for the small joys, focusing on the wins and encouraging those closest to us.

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