Life Advice: I’ve just received a cancer diagnosis. Where do I go from here?

The source of the question was an anonymous poster asking for advice on Quora: My first year and a half after graduating college in 2014 has been filled with depression, doctors appointments, and a cancer diagnosis. I’m not looking for sympathy or pity, just life advice. Where do I go from here?

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From the moment we’re born, there is only one truth. We will die.

Now that we have gotten the bad news out of the way, we can move on with the important stuff. And no, I am not making light of your situation. I am trying to have you see, nothing has really changed for you. You are still alive, right now, and you have all the same responsibilities, issues, and capability for a life that is as rich as you choose to make it. We are all dying, just at different rates.

For you, this realization may be more pressing than for most. And if you want to delay dying for as long as possible after learning of your diagnosis (and who doesn’t) the most important thing you have to do is this: Want to live.

Depression has been called: Anger without enthusiasm. I relate to this description. When I’m depressed, I want to be angry but I can’t be bothered. If you are depressed about your diagnosis, you have every right to be.

But be legitimately angry. Be angry. Rage. Roll around in it. Wallow if you must, but only for a moment. You have things to take care of. Let that rage move you. Let that rage suffuse you. Let it get you up and out into a wide world you will surely not see hiding in your house.

Congratulations on finishing college. It is an accomplishment. And you will need to hold on to your sense of accomplishment in the years to come. Success matters to your psychology, to how you make decisions, why you make them and ultimately how you feel about them.

Don’t stop making decisions right now. Now is the time to sit down and make plans; short, medium and long term goals. Things you want to accomplish, things you need to take care of, and things you hope to do during the course of your life. It’s a diagnosis, not the end of the world. Not even for you. It is a clarion call for you to recognize, nothing lasts forever. Planning matters, you have things to take care of. Consider what you need to take care of in the months and years ahead. Yes, even the unpleasant things you might not want to think about. You and your family will be glad you did.

If you are depressed, continue to seek counseling in whatever format you find comforting. If that be through your clergy, your doctor, your family or my favorite method: my Labrador. Get your help and stay with it. Maintain an upbeat demeanor because happy people live longer, have less stress and are more resilient in the face of adversity.

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Your mental health is the one of the most important aspects of dealing with a health crisis. “Where goes our mind, the rest of us follows willingly.” Master your mind and your emotions.

See your doctors, maintain your schedules, follow the recommendations of your medical professionals. Seek second opinions. Seek third opinions. Become informed regarding your care. Ask as many questions as necessary to be comfortable with what you are being told. You are the patient, but you are also in charge of what decisions get made. If you are unsure, ask for help. Friends, family, other doctors. Health care is a team event.

There will be days ahead where you will not be happy. Happiness is over-rated. That’s to be expected. But you must push on. Life is like IKEA. You were shipped into the world and somewhere along the way the instructions were lost. Adding insult to injury, you might be missing some parts you needed to look your best. Nonetheless you’re still expected to figure out how to put it all together.

Master your use of time. There are 86,400 seconds in every day. The same number everyone else gets. There will never be more or less of them. You now have a need to make every second count. A second? How does a second matter? Ask Usain Bolt if a second made a difference for him.

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Usain Bolt, seen here winning the 200 meters at the world championships in Beijing last year, had planned to retire after the 2016 Rio Olympics, but now is thinking about participating in the 2020 Tokyo Games. | AP

It’s not the seconds. It’s what you do with them. When in doubt, err on the part of action, not inaction. Doing something useful is better than just sitting there hoping things will get better.

You haven’t mentioned friends or family. Hopefully, it’s just an oversight and you are blessed with both in this trying time. Lean on them if they will let you. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to acknowledge you don’t know what to do. Now, more than ever, you need to manage your time, your strength and your awareness of your limits.

Don’t accept anything less of yourself. Be focused. Be resolute. Understand you will have days where you are not at your peak. Do your best, for that day. Your diagnosis doesn’t have to mean life is ending for you. In fact, if you look at it it might mean for the first time, you are aware of life’s intrinsic value, its merits, and its failings.

It may also mean you realize, you don’t have time for people’s shit. Their bad behavior, their gossip, their cruelty to each other. You don’t have time for any of that. Stop sitting at home binge-watching reality television. You don’t have time for that anymore. There is a world out there you need to participate in. I would tell you this even if you hadn’t had a cancer diagnosis, reality TV isn’t real. Television is a life-sucking monster best avoided, especially now. You have the most real event you will ever participate in. You are working on you.

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In the early years, she didn’t seem phased by it and I couldn’t understand why. Her answer was simple: “Life isn’t about the hand you’re dealt. It’s about how you play the cards you get.” We were no strangers to hardship, so to her, it was just one more tough hand in a life of tough hands.

When it came to turning lemons into lemonade, my mother could have made a minivan out of them.

She was always a strong woman but during this time, her strength, her determination became a thing of iron. She went back to school for her Masters in Social Work. She worked as a social worker in the city of New York helping people, the thing she loved most.

She took a cruise to Mexico and the Bahamas. She traveled up and down the East Coast, something she hadn’t done in years. She made it her mission to be as happy as she could be.

I didn’t get to see her nearly as much as I would have liked, because I lived across the nation, but we talked all the time on the phone and during the time we talked about my life, my son’s autism, her advice, every second of it was something I treasure to this day.

She never quit. She fought hard. She lived hard. She played hard. And in those last days. I had to tell her how proud I was of her.

She could have stopped living on the day of her diagnosis. She could have said it doesn’t matter. But it did. And for ten more years after her diagnosis, her continued treatment, her intrinsically stubborn nature, she got up, she went to work and made the world a better place, the way she did it. One person at a time. She kept it moving.

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Don’t you stop till the race is won, or you are done.
Godspeed.

My Life Advice on Quora: Cancer © Thaddeus Howze 2015, All Rights Reserved

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I have included a lecture by a professor named Randy Pausch. I discovered his lecture during the time I was doing research on cancer for my mother. He was a professor who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and his inspirational speeches on life, the universe and everything were instrumental in helping me deal with my feelings on the subject of life after the diagnosis.

The “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch

This essay first appeared on Quora, September 18, 2015

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Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.

Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies:Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short(2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).

He has written two books: a collection called Hayward’s Reach (2011) and an e-book novella called Broken Glass (2013) featuring Clifford Engram, Paranormal Investigator.

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Author | Editor | Futurist | Activist | http://bit.ly/thowzebio | http://bit.ly/thpatreon

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