Lessons from living with cancer: Part II

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lymphoma patient on living with cancer.JPGBy Andrew Griffith

Andrew Griffith has mantle cell lymphoma and had auto (2009) and allo (2011) stem cell transplants. He lives in Canada and is married with two young adult children. He blogs at, has published "Living with Cancer: A Journey," and can be followed on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

Part II of  Lessons from living with cancer

Some lessons emerge from the experience of having cancer, all of which contribute to our overall attitude toward life and living.

Be in the moment

My lessons about time, people and sharing all require that I be in the moment. At the same time, planning moments and making the space for them gives them meaning.

When you have ups and downs in your treatment, you will quickly identify whether the present moment is a "this too shall pass" one, or whether you're in a moment when your health and mental state will allow you to enjoy and be enthusiastic about life.

Given that my first part of the journey could be compared to boxing rounds (knocked down only to get up again) or a roller coaster (choose your metaphor), planning for the moments when I would feel better helped me take advantage of those moments.

My plans usually revolved around people: timing my son's visits from Toronto, seeing friends and colleagues, going out to movies and restaurants when my immunity allowed. This really helped put the "this too shall pass" moments into perspective.

Taking advantage of the break between the "salvage" chemo and the stem cell transplant for a Paris getaway was another example. Of course, this break was different in character; less "this too shall pass" and more "enjoy while you can" in light of what lay ahead.

Do something meaningful, to the extent that your condition and feelings allow. As I mentioned earlier, my focus was on daily walks with my wife, often for two to three hours in a day. The physical activity was secondary to the emotional connection that these walks fostered. To my surprise, I spent relatively little time watching TV or movies, choosing instead to read.

I also shared my reading list with friends and colleagues, who appreciated the suggestions, though not without some jealousy about my "chemo sabbatical."

I also used my time to do some of the things that I had rarely found time for in the past: organizing family photos, videos, the family tree and the like, which was another expression of my focus on family.

My updates and blog engaged me in reflection about what I was going through, gave me a sense of how people reacted to my thoughts, and were also an opportunity for me to learn about blogging.

In addition, though I was away from the office (at first temporarily, then permanently), I tried to provide some coaching and mentoring to my replacements, while ensuring that they had the space to grow and develop on their own.

All of these lessons - along with my "dualities" framework - helped me maintain the positive attitude required to get through lymphoma treatment the first time around, and then face the much harder challenge of relapse and an allogeneic stem cell transplant.

While there are always dark thoughts in the background (these were darkest at relapse), they're normal and manageable and don't overwhelm me or plunge me into depression.

Being open about these also helps my family members deal with their own dark thoughts rather than ignore them.

Following my first round of treatment, I faced the challenge of reintegrating into the workplace and my normal busy life. While I largely plunged back in, these lessons, along with background anxiety about whether or not my treatment was effective, were never far from my thoughts. My experience was too close to me in the short-term.

I never really made it to the medium-term challenge of ensuring that these lessons continued to be lived in my day-to-day existence, since my remission was so short. I was, however, able to come back to the lessons periodically, as I had written them down and shared them through my blog.

I also had help from many of the readers who know me (starting with my family), who occasionally reminded me of the lessons when I appeared to stray.

In the longer term, the lessons I have identified here helped ground me after my relapse, and helped me get through the allogenic stem cell transplant and accompanying period of high risk.

As the painful memories continue to recede, these lessons will remain important to remember as I go on with my "new normal."

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Lessons from living with cancer

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