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Today: My five-year Cancerversary
And the last Strive for Five post (January 3, 2023)
Today is the five-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, and thus completes the end of this project: a year-long look back at my journey with cancer. On diagnosis, they estimated I had a year or two to live; and I knew I only a 10% chance of making it five years. A voice inside me convinced me to try; and the voices surrounding me kept me going.
Thank you, to one and all, for joining me on this journey. I wouldn’t be here—in every sense of the word—without you.
What I posted on January 3, 2023 (I mostly stopped blogging after I started Substacking, so it felt right to end with this reflection, one of my last):
Happy New Year!
We’ve had a truly lovely holiday, in spite of (or possibly because of?) a few forces that conspired against our original plans: Jack was sick for over a week, and the only car that fits all six of us decided it didn’t want to go more than 50 mph in the bitter cold.
We had a quiet Lille Jul Aften at home (in Norway they celebrate “Little Christmas Eve” on the 23rd of December), managed to make it to Milwaukee for Christmas Eve with one of four children in tow—after turning back 40 minutes into our drive—thanks to the generous car loan from Per’s ex-wife, and then petered out after that. Jack was too miserable to go anywhere, and it didn’t feel safe enough to risk a long drive anyway.
So, we lit a fire at home, ate Thai food and leftovers, napped regularly, and settled into Romjul—which is what Norwegians call the period between Christmas and New Year’s where you forget what day it is, stay cozy, and mainly just rest.
Again and again, I was struck by how happy I was.
I’ve often remarked that I’m happier than I ever was before cancer—so much happier, in fact, that if I had a choice to go back and NOT get cancer, I wouldn’t take it. (During editing, Per wanted to know if he should soften this sentence: “Do you mean you might not take it?” and then, when I told him I really meant what I said: “Seriously? It was really awful!”)
I spent a good chunk of the holiday thinking about why that is, and the lessons cancer has forced upon us that have ultimately changed our lives. Here’s my list:
First and most obviously, I’m healthy. It’s been five months since my ablation, and over a year since my last chemo. What’s more, I have the perspective of what it’s like to NOT be healthy, so I am truly appreciating what’s back to normal, especially during the holiday: having the energy to procure and wrap gifts, an appetite to eat the food, and functioning taste buds to be able to fully enjoy it.
I’m resting more. Having cancer during Covid allowed me to nap when I needed to; and I still feel better when I can lie down for a bit after the workday and before dinner—to sleep or to meditate. I used to see naps as lazy; cancer helped me to reframe rest as necessary and nourishing.
We work less. Per and I are no longer a “power couple” with two full-time-plus, executive-level advertising jobs. When Per’s full-time employment ended, it quickly became clear that 50-something white men were not the focus of recruiters, who were correctly looking to create diversity at senior levels. “We had a good run,” joked Per—and he started freelancing. He also took charge of most of our household responsibilities, including making dinner most nights and carrying the infamous mental load. We make a lot less these days, but we’re both a lot happier.
We spend more time together. The first summer of my cancer, between my work travel and Per’s, we spent only 16 days together. He even had to fly to L.A. the day after my second surgery, while I was still at the hospital. That’s… not OK. Not during treatment, and really, not ever.
I spend more time consciously reflecting on life. I unwittingly created a structure that requires introspection at least three times a week: during therapy and through the drafting of twice-weekly Substack posts. The latter is particularly challenging, and I’ve debated reducing frequency, only to realize the time saved would most likely be spent scrolling through social media. Understanding myself better has enabled stronger relationships with almost everyone in my life.
We’re better co-parents. People assume that cancer is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, but it isn’t—divorce is. Cancer, unlike divorce, has everyone pulling in the same direction—and over the past few years, we’ve better learned how to help each other (as well as ask for and accept help) when we need it.
We’ve started to think about purchases from the perspective of freedom gained. On analysis, freedom turns out to be the common benefit across all our best purchases: the electric car that never needs gas; the thick black tunic top I can pull on without thinking; the purse I’ve carried almost every day for years; the cottage where we make the same three dinners. (Our worst purchases, without exception, have been a function of ego.) This Christmas, my side of the family decided not to exchange gifts, opting to book a weekend away together instead. Eliminating the task of buying and wrapping may have been the greatest gift of all for the adults, and the kids didn’t seem to notice.
We’ve experienced more with the people we love. Last year, we all spent spring break in Hawaii, and two weeks introducing the twins and me to Norway—and all our lovely relatives who live there. Spending that much time away with the kids was simply not compatible with our “old” life.
Noticeably absent on this list are some of the things I once expected would make me happier—cooking new recipes more often, dinners out at spendy restaurants, buying that pair of studded Valentino’s I had my eye on during chemo, a promotion to a C-level title.
Each of these, on further inspection, is driven at least in part by achievement. As the author of a Substack called “Strive for Five,” there’s some irony in realizing that what I want for 2023 is to strive less. But maybe the trick is to focus energies on what’s truly important: life itself, and how you spend it.
My goal for 2023 is a life spent more often in alignment—when what I do honors my core values and is guided by intention and purpose, as opposed to what others might want or expect. For a lifelong “pleasing achiever,” this is a big ask—and feels like a big risk – but over the past year, I’ve realized that the more aligned I feel, the more easily life seems to flow into place.
I’ve got enough data to be placing my bet—and have high hopes that the following year will be more filled with time spent with the people I love and in the places I want to be.
Here’s to being healthy and free in 2023.
Looking back today:
Writing my last “Strive for Five” Substack on the eve’s eve of my five-year cancerversary, I’m feeling the pressure to write some last great post which eloquently and emotionally summarizes everything I’ve learned over the past five years.
That “pleasing achiever” in me dies hard, I guess.
In advertising, sometimes the hardest part of a project is identifying the goal. And I find myself wondering if I happened upon the right goal—at the end sentence of this post:
“Healthy and free in 2023.”
Two years prior, I was hoping to be “Healthy and done in 2021,” a wish that ultimately did not come to pass that year; and now, I wonder whether it was the right goal at all.
Today, I recognize the roots of a happier me in a freer me—a freedom that is inextricably linked to my health, and to so much more besides. Inherent in each of the points above is increased freedom, which might be restated as thus:
I’m healthy: even as I deal with the aftereffects of treatment, I’m mostly free from any limitations of living a joyful life. Since March, I’ve also hired a trainer to guide me through twice-weekly workouts on Zoom—an expense that also freed me from the guilt I was feeling for not exercising regularly!
I nap more: I’m free to do what I need to do to feel and be at my best without thinking about what I am “supposed” to be doing. I was feeling conflicted about daily afternoon naps until my therapist pointed out there are whole cultures that are built around siestas. More naps, more joy (see #1 above).
We work less: we’ve freed ourselves from the idea that our primary value comes from recognition and approval at work. We’ve realized that while we can control what we do at work, we cannot control how others feel about it, or how they feel about us—and it’s a lot easier to stop seeking approval once you realize someone else’s approval is ultimately not within your control. In stepping away from two big executive jobs, we’ve also freed ourselves from the energies required to outsource the management of our lives and/or the fraught last-minute triaging that comes from trying to juggle too many balls.
We spend more time together: Per’s step into freelance and my step away from a career in new business has freed us to have flexibility regarding how and when we work—which means we can do more together, sometimes including the work itself. We recently decided to spend a long weekend completing a last-minute brief Per received—and remembered how much we like collaborating, even when that’s work.
I spend more time consciously reflecting on life: admittedly, the twice-weekly thing has felt a little less like freedom over the last few months of this Substack. I realize it is because it started to impede on the freedom to do other things. I’m looking forward to maintaining introspection while broadening the mechanisms I use to achieve it.
We’re better co-parents: largely, this is about how relationships improve once we recognize that we only have control of and responsibility for ourselves. I found it easier to “forgive” my ex for irritations past and present when I realized they were at least partially rooted in self-defense: my desire to feel justified about divorcing in the first place. Everyone in the family is happier as a result.
We’ve started to think about purchases from the perspective of freedom gained: I used to envision a retirement where we had a home in California, maybe even Hawaii. But we have a home and a cottage we already love; and the idea of another property is fraught with obligations and worry: the very opposite of freedom. Deciding to enjoy what we have versus stretch for more in the future also brings us closer to the freedom of retirement—whenever that happens. (And, ironically, as we’ve grown happier in our current professional endeavors, the idea of the ultimate “relief” of retirement as a vacation that lasts the rest of your life seems less and less urgent.)
We’re experiencing more with the people we love: and increasingly, it’s about being able to show up for the everyday versus vacations. Per brings me and Evelyn lattes in the morning and regularly talks to Nathan now that he’s back at college. I’ve got the energy to just be with Delaney at bedtime after she’s had an anxiety-ridden day, and to make calzones and mochi from scratch with Jack. We can invite friends and family to our cottage and spend time drinking coffee and making eggs and swinging on the hammock and grilling hot dogs and eating ice cream, and it’s nothing special and yet everything that matters all at once.
More than once, I’ve quipped that cancer has a positioning problem.
I feel like it’s reinforced by every Cancer Warrior t-shirt, every Fuck Cancer sentiment, every dramatic headline that references someone famous losing their battle to cancer.
I’ll be the first to admit that the cancer experience is rife with all kinds of inexpressible awful: physical pain and limitations and conscious and unconscious fear that reverberate from patient to family and beyond, throughout treatment, and in the case of survival, maybe forever after.
And also: cancer’s very ruthlessness is what grants its transformative power, forcing you off a presumed path toward one that is more intentional.
Lately, I feel my current and future lives collapsing toward one another: the future I’m hoping for looks more and more like the life I am living today. When told to “live in the present,” I used to think that meant stop living for the light at the end of the tunnel—but I never considered the possibility of bringing the light to today.
I used to think that being able to live a free life was a function of having enough money in the bank to afford it. Now, I see how much freedom is within reach, when I value it more than possessions or perception, when I see how much freedom can be found in realizing that others’ approval is (really and honestly) not in my control.
Cancer has been brutally transformative: brutally healing; brutally freeing.
My therapist calls it “sacred pain.”
Cancer has been the best worst thing that has ever happened to me. I hope it doesn’t happen again, but there’s no part of me that wishes it never happened in the first place. I’m taking steps to live a healthier life, which is making me happier today—even with the knowledge that I can’t control tomorrow.
This is the end of “Strive for Five” and as I wrap this final post, I finally understand what it has done for me:
I am free.
This is the end of Strive for Five, but subscribe for what’s next: coming soon after a few weeks of rest