Lessons from living with cancer

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lessonsfromlivingwithcancer.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.

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

In contrast to my dualities, which helped me understand what I was going through and how I was reacting - and should react - to my lymphoma treatment, a number of themes or general lessons were important to me over the longer term.

These first occurred to me about a month or so into my diagnosis, and I kept coming back to them, during good days and bad, as reminders of what I wanted to take away for the future. Thinking about these lessons during treatment, and having them to refer to in the future, is my way of ensuring that I continue to reflect on what matters as I return to "normal" life.

While my relapse threw into question whether my life would ever be "normal" again, my perspective on these lessons has remained, at least so far, remarkably consistent with my first thoughts on the subject two years ago.

Time changes
After a cancer diagnosis, one's mortality becomes more imminent, no matter how good - or bad - the prognosis. The question of how to best use one's time in the short, medium and long term becomes more important.

Work-life balance is not just a daily, weekly or monthly matter, but is also crucial in terms of years. What one does in all spheres of life becomes crucial and requires reflection.

After my diagnosis, I was struck by how my focus shifted from questions of short- and medium-term work-life balance to longer-term, almost existential questions. Facing my own mortality made me reflect on the fact that, unlike my parents, I will not live into my 80s - even making it to my 60s is a stretch.

I then wondered what this shorter-than-expected lifespan would mean for my retirement plans (the sooner the better) and how I wanted to spend my time in general.

I continue to reflect on these questions, coming back to them on a regular basis. My relapse answered the question about my retirement plans - I went on long-term disability, where I will likely stay until shortly before my retirement, marking the end of my professional career.

People are the focus

I learned to appreciate who really cares, who is important, and which relationships will become stronger and which will fade. Some of my friendships became much closer, others withered away.

Aside from friendships, I have also become much more conscious of the need to focus on people in general - what drives them, what motivates them - to ensure that I relate to others on a deeper, personal basis.

I stopped taking people for granted. I consciously organized my time to have more "being there" time with family and friends. Walks are my favorite way of doing this, as I find that I am more engaged when walking than sitting. My daily walks with my wife were particularly important, providing an opportunity for us to talk things through and just enjoy being together.

Of course, I am also more aware of what other people may be going through, and recognize my responsibility to provide them with support when they need it. Looking back, I'm not sure that I always fulfilled this responsibility. Now, knowing how important this kind of support is, I will be all the more conscious of the need to make an effort.

To help people help me, I started sharing articles that helped others have a better sense of what to say or do to a person in my situation. What to Say to Someone who is Sick and A Doctor's Letter to a Patient with Newly Diagnosed Cancer were particularly powerful articles that people commented and reflected on.


Part of putting the emphasis on people is sharing - sharing what you are going through and creating space for others to share. This is an important point whether or not cancer is in the mix. It transforms discussions from mere content and transactions to opportunities for a deeper connection, a connection that helps on both the personal and professional levels.

I made a deliberate effort to increase the depth of my emails to friends and coworkers, and later my blog. Many people responded more sincerely in turn, strengthening our relationships. After my relapse, the tone of my blog entries became even more personal, and about twice as long, on average, as they had been before - a reflection of the fact that I was exploring and sharing more.

Count your blessings
My Aunt Myrra, who had a hard life, often told me, "count your blessings." I found the saying irritating at the time, but now that I am older and (I hope) wiser, it resonates with me.

Materially, I had a very supportive employer with generous sick leave provisions, a good medical plan and a good long-term disability plan, which allowed me to take time off work without worrying about finances.

Other blessings include the strong emotional support of my family, friends and colleagues, a very comfortable lifestyle compared to most people, and the insights that have come from my journey with cancer. Good days - and most days were good - were also blessings, to be valued and to be made good use of.

Related story
Lessons from living with cancer part II

Read more posts by Andrew Griffith

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