How cancer has helped me cope with aging

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Ben Sanders

By Ben Sanders

For me, the side effects from my prostate cancer and melanoma have lasted longer than the cancer cells did. I endured prostate cancer treatment in 2002, and metastatic melanoma treatment five years later.

But the side effects have had their benefits: I'm now 75 years old, and it turns out that my experience with cancer's side effects has helped me age better. 

Coping with cancer treatment side effects
After dealing with prostate cancer, I can no longer take emptying my bladder for granted. I sometimes have accidents, which are no fun at all. So now, I take my time and pay attention.

The lymphedema, or build up of protein-rich fluid, that followed my metastatic melanoma surgery means I can no longer take vigorous use of my arms for granted. That is, unless I want some swelling and inflammation. So, each morning I put on a compression sleeve and watch the manly deeds of might. The swelling reduces as the pressure from the compression sleeve prevents the fluid from collecting.  

Learning to slow down with age, thanks to cancer
In dealing with the challenges brought about by these side effects, I have found that I need to be consciously attentive and mindful. All the time. No excuses. 

I've taken this same cautious and slow approach to many of my daily routines as I've gotten older. I've learned, for instance, how to open jars in new ways now that arthritis impedes my grip. Having tripped several times, I watch my step on stairs. I take special care to avoid distractions while driving because my reaction time has changed. I strain to pay attention to spoken words because background noise increasingly confuses my hearing.

I'm learning to focus more keenly in many ways as I age because that's what cancer has been teaching me to do for years. Cancer, it turns out, has provided a lab in which I learn how to live more intentionally with challenges that are unrelated to cancer.

While I once may have had the luxury of acting without thought, I no longer view that time with envy. I missed a lot while multitasking -- facial expressions, emotionally charged words, the flight of a bird across my field of vision, the sound of the wind, the shape of trees, rocks, the horizon. In other words, by multitasking, I effectively used to shut down the wonderful nonverbal information my five senses collect all the time. A person has to focus in order to appreciate.

Aging requires thought and keen attention. My cancer journey has given me a leg up on that rather daunting challenge. For that, I am grateful.

Ben Sanders is a retired Episcopal priest. Five years after doctors diagnosed him with aggressive prostate cancer, he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.

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