Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reflecting on 20 Years After Cancer

It’s literally difficult to recall the specifics of that fateful day 20 years ago when I heard those dreaded words, “You have cancer.” So much has changed since then: I’ve had careers in the USAF, the cancer space, professional cycling, and now the amazing Parkinson’s community. I’ve been in the worst and best physical shapes of my life, had multiple post-cancer surgeries, lost more friends to this disease, welcomed grandchildren, and have had several relationships end with blame on both sides. But through it all I’ve remained mainly positive; no, truly positive. Why is that?

While it’s certainly cliché to say it, I think for the most part being happy really is a choice, clinical and situational depression aside (and I’ve been situationally there, too). And regrettably it’s far too easy to see the negative side of things, especially as the news media focuses on its “If it bleeds it leads” mentality.

The movie “Happy” is one of the most reaffirming documentaries about not just having this positive attitude, but also how to as well. Here are the main points and some ways it’s applied to me in the last 20 years:

We need to play / exercise regularly
We are a social, active species. Our bodies and minds crave interaction and activity. These are not desires, they’re needs, and so carving out time in our busy lives for play and exercise must be a priority; after all it’s the “life” part of the “work / life balance” credo that we all say is so important. I can look back over the last two decades and clearly see when things were not so good, neither was my physical fitness and/or my social life with family and friends. It’s just math and also striking: if we dedicate one hour a day to play or exercise that’s 4% of your day. Make it happen.

We need to seek out new experiences
The #1 advice I give to young people is just one word: travel. And I would offer that for older people it’s really important too. I’ve been blessed to have seen a lot of this world and travel has changed my life. It reshaped my political, spiritual, and social views dramatically. It made me question not just what I believed, but more importantly why. But new experiences don’t have to be in some far away destination. It could be doing a random act of kindness for a stranger, or getting off the couch and doing a 1-day road trip, or finally chasing that dream you’ve kept shuttered away all these years. I think play, exercise, and seeking new experiences are so interrelated that you basically can’t help but feed these passions.

We need family and friends
Well here’s your Duh of the Day, but remember we’re talking about being happy here, and relationships can be hard and testing at times. So what is the key? I’d offer love. We need to do more of it because it’s one of the only things we have that the more we give it away, the more we receive. I had a great mentor who offered me the simple advice, “Remember, Chris, in order to have friends you must first be a friend.” So love your family and friends, forgive when you need to, and keep moving forward with those who are good for you.

We need to do meaningful things
I recently went to my son’s USAF Basic Training graduation. For 10 weeks he had drill sergeants not just teaching him initial military concepts, but strongly emphasizing the ideals of duty, honor, country and being a part of something larger than yourself for the greater good. We can all live a life of service to each other in some capacity. We all have causes and concerns that are very important to us. And like the topics above, it takes some effort, too. So I would challenge you to literally make a list of the top things you care about, and then some actions you will do to help out. You won’t regret it, especially after you take those actions.

We need to appreciate what we have
While I certainly agree with all of the above, this is by far the #1 key for me to being happy. In this time of mega consumption, the pursuit of more is far too often the focus. We’ve even designated the day after we pause to give thanks as Black Friday so we can consume even more. How sad is that?! We’ve all had times of prosperity and need; for me that pendulum has swung several times in each direction.

So what’s the best approach?

I’d suggest adopting the proverbial attitude of gratitude. We can actively look for things to be thankful for, and note them. That could be an internal or external action, but much like giving away love, I would offer that sincerely thanking someone has benefits on both sides. Internally we can focus on what we have – and be grateful! – and not on what we want or desire.

Years of working in the cancer community has taught me many things. It has also brought me very close to many people, some of whom are no longer with us. When I think about people like Robin, Jim, Brienne, Ruben, and Brian (and so many others we’ve lost) it’s actually hard to be grateful for the 20 years I’ve been afforded, but I am. Because it’s not the quantity of time that we have on this planet, it’s the quality that matters.

Thanks for reading this, thanks for 20 amazing years, cheers to seeing what the next 20+ years will entail, and thanks for all you do! – Chris…

* PS – you can watch the trailer here…