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 “normal.” 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, “You may survive breast cancer, but then you could get hit by a car.”

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, “All you can do is focus on today. Today the cancer is gone. Today you are doing chemo to kill everything else.”

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, “Why me?” I think, “Why the hell not me?” 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, “I have accepted my cancer.” She corrected me, saying, “No, you have embraced it.”

This post was originally published on Headspace.com.

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