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What Breast Cancer Taught Me About Living in the Moment

I am 33 years old. I am cofounder of an education technology startup. I am a new mother to a beautiful baby girl. I exercise religiously. I eat healthfully. I floss my teeth. I do not smoke. I rarely drink. I am kind. And I got breast cancer.

I do not carry the gene, nor is there a family history. This just happened, a mere four months after having my baby. At a time in my life when I thought I could never be happier, when I believed my life couldn’t possibly be better, I discovered a lump in my left breast and it was cancer.

It has been three months since my diagnosis and two months since my bilateral mastectomy. Now I¬†have just thirty more days until I am finished with chemo and my life can begin to go back to ‚Äúnormal.‚Ä̬†My life has drastically changed in such a short amount of time. To say it’s been a lot to process is an¬†understatement.

It’s fucking overwhelming.

I find it interesting my husband’s coping mechanism for this traumatic time in our life is to look¬†towards the future, convinced that if we can just get this ugly chapter over with, everything will be fine.¬†I pointed out to him that his method meant that he was wishing away time, not enjoying each day¬†despite the cancer.

My friend’s mom, who is disturbingly apt at making observations about life,¬†recently remarked, ‚ÄúYou may survive breast cancer, but then you could get hit by a car.‚ÄĚ

Prior to cancer, I was more like my husband. I struggled to be in the moment because the promises of¬†the future seemed more appealing. With cancer, the future now represents the unknown and the¬†unknown terrifies me. The present today¬≠ is more manageable, and by focusing on today, I can be¬†most happy. (Also, I now compulsively look both ways before crossing the street so I don’t get hit by a¬†car.)

I did not come to this zen understanding of the appreciation of each day easily.

Like my physical battle with cancer, my emotional battle has also been a journey. Upon learning I had breast cancer I was absolutely devastated. Then I was shocked and angry and confused and anxious and sad and depressed and absolutely terrified.

I worried incessantly about the cancer spreading, about dying during surgery, about my hair falling out during chemo and about the cancer recurring, even after doing everything I possibly could and as aggressively as I could. I would fall asleep at night crying for fear that I would not see my baby grow up.

I could continue to worry about all the things I cannot control and be depressed about the unfortunate fact that I had cancer, or I could choose to make each day a good day.

I alone have the power to determine where I invest my emotional energy and how.

One day during therapy, after unleashing a deluge of hypotheticals related to cancer, my therapist¬†said in her soothing voice, ‚ÄúAll you can do is focus on today. Today the cancer is gone. Today you are¬†doing chemo to kill everything else.‚ÄĚ

Hearing this reminded me that as scary as cancer is, I am not powerless. Just as I had choices in my course of treatment (lumpectomy vs. mastectomy, chemo light vs. a more aggressive chemo), I have a choice now. I could continue to worry about all the things I cannot control and be sad about the unfortunate fact that I had cancer, or I could choose to make each day a good day.

I alone have the power to determine where I invest my emotional energy and how.

Rather than torture myself with what ifs, I focus on my baby and completely distract myself with my¬†love for her. Rather than fret about the chemo and all of its side effects, I view it as a cancer-¬≠fighting¬†uber-cleanse. Rather than grieving the loss of my hair, I revel in the feeling of the warm summer air on¬†my newly bald head. Rather than wallow in self pity wondering, ‚ÄúWhy me?‚ÄĚ I think, ‚ÄúWhy the hell not me?‚ÄĚ and invest my energy in helping other young women with breast cancer.

I could easily let the sadness of cancer change me, but instead I choose to rejoice in the gift of today.

Jessica Reid Sliwerski and baby

Through these reframing exercises I have learned to suck every possible ounce of joy out of each day.

As I told my therapist yesterday, ‚ÄúI have accepted my cancer.‚ÄĚ She corrected me, saying, ‚ÄúNo,¬†you have embraced it.‚ÄĚ

This post was originally published on Headspace.com.

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