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I Learned About Life, Love and Peace After Losing My Mom to Cancer

As March 1996 came to a close, the roller-coaster that had become my life as a young teenage boy took an inevitable turn for the worst. Though expected, my siblings and I weren’t ready  — we found ourselves entering uncharted waters with a capsized ship, not knowing how to carry on without her.

It was terrifying to think about how life might be moving forward, knowing she wouldn’t be around . Mom’s five-year bout with cancer had come to a close.

She lost, but not really.

Her battle taught me a lot about life, love and the importance of fighting for things. More than that though, through the process of having to stare her own death in the eye, I think she was able to dig into her soul and find a sense of peace in the way her story was playing out  —  even though it was far from a fairy tale ending.

I can’t imagine this peacemaking within one’s self coming easily, and I’m sure there were times when she felt helpless and broken, especially during the early years, as rivers of tears flooded our house over time. However, as the cancer progressed in her final years, she couldn’t help realizing and teaching us the only true guarantee any of us have is this very moment  – right here and right now.

None of us is promised anything past this very instant, and in the grand scheme of things, none of us will be around for very long.


Over the course of those five years, she fought through nearly a dozen surgeries, as well as round after round of chemotherapy that was interspersed with radiation treatment. Plus, towards the end, the doctors pulled out their Hail Mary pass in attempting an experimental laser surgery. It was a last ditch effort we were told not to be overly optimistic about.

These were all reminders everything she had could be taken away at an instant, forever. She didn’t have control over the treatment, the way she felt, the way she looked, nor her appetite. The one thing she had control over was her attitude, and the way she responded to and embraced every situation.

So, she started running  —  a lot. The title picture of this article is of my mother standing next to a plaque that reads, “This trail is dedicated to the courage of Marcia Hill.”

The mayor of Atlanta, along with friends and family, were there to unveil her dedicated piece. It was such a beautiful day, and  so representative of who she was.

I guess when you can start to see the end is or at least could be near, you start to realize there is an actual finite number of breaths that each of us will take  —  days we’ll wake up, meals we’ll eat, vacations we’ll enjoy, birthdays to celebrate, friends to make, and the list goes on.

She constantly reminded me and our entire family to be grateful for each moment, to treasure and cherish them, and to be the keeper of my own happiness. Through viscerally experiencing the tenuous and often uncontrollable nature of life, she developed the ability to let go of the things over which she had no control ;  she had to, otherwise she would have missed out on her time left with us.

It’s true, cancer attacked her body and put her through living hell, but it couldn’t rob her of happiness or her ability to enjoy whatever remaining time she had with us. She wouldn’t have ever pictured her life playing out the way it did  —  leaving behind a husband and four kids. She would have given anything in the world in exchange for a different set of circumstances. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

Sure, she could complain about it and feel sorry for herself, which is how some of us handle not getting what we want in life, but instead, she chose to fight, embrace the time she had left, and use her circumstances to make a difference in the world around her .

That’s how she will always be remembered.

People are shocked at how upbeat and positive I always am. Give me an empty glass and I’ll find a way to make it half full . At times, I think it annoys my girlfriend. That’s the honest to God truth, but that hasn’t always been the case, and it’s still not always the case .

 I’m very human, very often.

I do feel like, in a strange way, I kind of fell into this way of thinking. Whether you realize it or not, having to deal with the reality of watching the most important person in your life die, over an extended period of time  —  it shapes you.

After about a year of wondering if your mom will be around for your birthday, Christmas or the following summer, you start to realize worrying not only doesn’t fix the problem, but it actually exacerbates it and keeps you from being happy in the present.

I am pretty positive and upbeat these days, but when I was 9, 10 or 11, I was petrified , often scared stiff at what the future might hold. After a hundred or so hospital visits and just as many “family meetings” over the same amount of time, you become tired of feeling a certain way, and it was the impact of mom’s outlook on life that encouraged me along.

Plus, when someone you love is staring death in the eyes, you can’t help but develop a greater sense of appreciation for your life and the blessings throughout. One of my favorite Oprah quotes cuts right to the core of this idea:

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”

I’ve experienced low points over the last couple of years  — stressed over money for bills, disagreements with girlfriends, disputes with business partners, etc., and at times, I’d have done anything to fix things.

At times I’ve wanted to call it quits on my dreams, but whenever that voice sneaks into my head, I can’t help but remind myself there are just too many reasons to keep fighting.

The only way I’ve been able to maintain such a sense of resilience is because I was trained for five years straight as an early teen.

Daily, I had to decide how I’d respond to the circumstances of my life. After a while, I think you start to realize it takes a lot less energy, is a lot less stressful, and you’re overall a better person when you’re able to maintain a positive outlook on whatever circumstances you find yourself.

However, just because life goes wrong sometimes or even often, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be upset or attempt to bypass our feelings. In fact, we absolutely need to feel the pain, hurt and vulnerability of what it means to be a human being who can be hurt in so many ways at any given time. If we don’t tend to this part of our humanity, I think over time, we become less human and less able to empathize with those around us. We close ourselves off from a lot of what it means to be human and alive.

Instead, we must learn to appropriately process, then move past things, while opening ourselves up to whatever lesson is there to be learned along the way.

Every situation in life presents an opportunity to make a choice in regards to how we’ll manage ourselves.

Sadly, most of us never recognize this, and struggle with this very idea our entire lives. Instead of choosing a response, we tell ourselves “this” happened so “this” is how I’m supposed to respond. We evolved this way as a species, in order to protect ourselves from the dangers our predecessors faced thousands of years ago. That instinctual response was incredibly useful in protecting the tribe from predators, however now, as highly evolved social creatures, this reaction gets in the way of our ability to make rational decisions. That in turn affects our relationships, and subsequently, our own happiness.

Before reacting instinctively and in ways we’re all familiar with, it’s important to step back and say to ourselves, “Given the situation , what’s within my control?” If you get honest with yourself, you’ll see the only reliable answer to this question is your ability and choice to respond however you’d like.

This is what my mother was so brilliant at doing, and what inspired thousands in our community.

As you can probably imagine, my mom taught me a lot about life, and actually living  —  something so many of us just take for granted. I wouldn’t in a million years have ever wanted her to die, but if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure I would.

My fingers tremble writing this because that’s not something I’m supposed to say. I guess it’s just hard for me to look back at my life and try to imagine what it would have been like if she hadn’t have gotten sick and how my childhood could have looked otherwise. I can’t imagine who I might have become, but I know I wouldn’t have been as emotionally as strong and resilient. Nor would I be here, writing this, as it took going through a lot of pain and tears to discover some beautiful truths about life and myself.

Honestly, these are ways of being and living  I think we can all benefit from by applying them to our lives. So, if you take anything from this article, I hope it’s these three things:

1. Every day and in every instant, we have choices.

You can choose to let go of the things outside of your control or you can choose to let them eat you up inside.

You can choose to negatively react to circumstances, or you can choose to respond to such circumstances with a sense of emotional courage. It’s your choice, but one way leads to a much happier and more fulfilling life.

Choose courage whenever possible.

2. Live by the words the late, great Jim Valvano shared in his heroic ESPY’s speech.

“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

3. You’re alive this very second  — what a miracle.

No matter how bad things seem to get at times, remind yourself there’s always something to be grateful for. There are so many reasons to smile, so don’t let too many of them pass you by.

Damn , that was hard to write. Really hard. 

I’m glad I did though, and I hope you’re able to apply some of these things to your own life, whether you’re in the midst of a disheartening chapter of life, or not. Don’t wait any longer to start living a life that is real, authentic and most important of all, truly alive.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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