Updated: Sep 5, 2019
Cancer shook me to my core. It changed things deep in me that I didn’t think could be changed. The basis of who I am was no longer the same. I no longer found joy in the things I used to and I felt disconnected from the people I was closest to. Whether it was from the depression or from cancer I lost everything I felt that was solid in my life. I had to leave my career and, in turn, I lost my identity. I had nothing left to give and lost my girlfriend I loved dearly. I felt awkward going out to party because I was no longer carefree. I felt the people I loved and who loved me too could not relate or understand me anymore. The food I had always enjoyed scared me because I felt it would fuel my cancer. With all of these changes I felt I lost the core part of me, which was my personality and sense of humor. Everything felt serious and unfamiliar. How do you start to rebuild yourself and get your life back when you don’t even have the ground under you anymore?
My brain was so slow from chemo fog that I knew I couldn’t trust my own judgments anymore. I had always been able to make quick decisions and I trusted my gut wholeheartedly. I couldn’t even trust that I understood what was going on around me. If I can’t understand what is happening around me and I know my emotions are running wild then I can’t believe that I will make the best decisions. It’s like playing cards with the numbers smudged out. I was barely able to keep ahold of the cards, much less read what they were or make a clear decision on how to play them. I knew I was going to be starting from scratch. I knew I couldn’t wait until treatment was over and the fog started to lift to move on with my life. I had to come up with a way to make sense of it all.
We have a saying in the oilfield that goes “KISS it”, keep it simple stupid. Never have I felt this applied more than right now. I came up with a simple method to rediscover what I was interested in and hopefully this would help me figure out who I had become. I had to disconnect myself from my emotions, cravings, responses and listen to what was going on inside of me objectively. Some call this being present. Tell someone in treatment to not stress about the past or the future and they will probably tell you to shove it or at least they will want to. Another lesson I learned in the oilfield is pre-job planning and post-job reviews. We would meet and do a risk assessment before doing any task. What tools did we need, what hazards were around, what have we done before that worked, etc. When we had a good game plan we would execute the task with all of our focus and attention. After we would meet to discuss what went well and what we can improve on. I just applied this to my life.
When I was going through treatment I craved having people around. You didn’t even have to talk to me, just be near me. I never wanted to turn down anyone coming to hang out or, if I was capable, going to meet anyone who wanted to hang out. What I learned is that I didn’t always feel better after I met with people. Some people just had a stressful energy, which I was hyper aware of. Some people would just say ignorant things or give advice when they had no idea what the fuck they were talking about. I would leave feeling stressed and drained, which I found is worse than feeling lonely. The same thing would happen with my meals. Because I had colorectal cancer and was receiving radiation, and later multiple surgeries to that area, what I could eat and digest kept changing. The food that felt nourishing and easy to digest one week would leave me in pain and constantly on the toilet the next. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all of these big changes.
What I ended up doing, which I still do to this day, is try to listen to my body with full focus. I had to learn to separate my cravings from my body demanding something. Before I would do anything I would ask myself some simple questions. First, I would identify exactly what it was I was about to do. If I’m going to a party, meeting a friend for lunch, what I’m about to eat at lunch, if I’m exercising, if I’m buying something….whatever. I would then ask if this was in line with my goals? Is this within my budget? Have I enjoyed doing this in the past? Basically I would be asking myself if this would make me happy or if it would add stress. Do I really want to do this? If the answer was yes I would go forward. If the answer was no I would back out of it.
I had to learn to be ok with saying no and disappointing others. I would then try to be as present in the moment as I could be in whatever I was doing. If I was hanging out with someone I would try to be focused on just spending time with him or her. If I was eating I would pay attention to what all I was putting in my body. Afterwards I would ask myself how I felt. Do I feel uplifted and energized after being with this person or do I feel stressed and drained? How did I digest that meal? What is my energy level after? Was it worth the amount of money I paid for it? Then I had to accept whatever it was that came back. I learned that I did so many things just because they felt comfortable because they were normal to me but they didn’t leave me feeling happy the way they once did. If all my responses weren’t positive I had to be able to walk away from anything that wasn’t serving to me. Basically, I was reconnecting to myself and I did more of the shit I liked and less of the shit I didn’t. KISS it.
This is how I began to regain control. I began to understand who I was now and what my true interests were. I could see the kind of person I wanted to spend my time with. I could see what my new diet would be. I could see how I wanted to spend my time. I was learning what my new lifestyle would look like. This is how I combat societal pressures or misguided advice. This is how I would make decisions on if I wanted to follow what the doctors were telling me to do. I was making decisions for me with my best intention at heart. I wasn’t trying to please anyone else. Friends and family may not be happy with my decisions in the short term but in the long run they just want me to be happy and healthy. People can see when you are genuine and true. No one wants to spend time with someone who is fake. When you do things for you and only you and they feel right and make you happy you begin to grow confidence, something I had lost during treatment. You worry less and less about the judgment of others because you feel fully confident in the decisions you are making.
This isn’t a comfortable process to start off with. It takes time and energy and sometimes you just want things to be easy. If you stick with it and make it a habit it becomes second nature and this helps to cultivate awareness. It forces me to be in the moment. At times I would get done spending time with someone and realize my focus wasn’t in the moment and I didn’t have enough information on what happened to make a decision on if I wanted to do it again. That’s great! Then I knew next time I did that same things I needed to make my focus more on being aware and present.
I use this strategy to battle food cravings as well. I would get a terrible sweet tooth at night and feel like I couldn’t sleep without having some sugar. I thought this was my body telling me what it needed so I would give in and indulge. On treatment days there would be donuts and the nurses would say maybe it wasn't healthy but it was a mood booster. I felt I could use a mood booster pretty much all the time so I would eat the sweets. After, I noticed I never felt good. I made this mistake countless times, even while practicing this method. Over time the message finally sunk in that eating those brownies or that fried food left me feeling worse than that original craving I was trying to settle. I would think back on everything I had been through. Those dark times and moments of immense pain that I didn’t think I would be able to get through, but I did. If I had the strength to get through that then I had the strength to get through the allure of a fucking candy bar.
What this all boils down to is happiness. If I surround myself with people who uplift me, if I eat food that nourishes my body, if my digestion is good, if my sleep is good, if I work at a job that is fulfilling, etc. then I am happy. I could try to fix every little thing individually, which is a daunting task, or focus on being happy. Does this make me happy? Then I’m doing it unapologetically. If it doesn’t make me happy then I’m leaving it behind unapologetically.