Having Breast Cancer Gives You A Reason To Slow Down

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • “Stop and smell the roses.” What a cliché! It’s been used on so many greeting cards, in such a variety of self-help tomes–heck, it’s even the name and subject of a song–that it’s now heard as “sappy sentiment.” A groaner. “Yeah, yeah, yeah… whatever.”

    I used to view it that way myself. Every time someone suggested to me I was working too hard, that I might want to take time to “stop and smell the roses,” all I could hear was that early ’70s pop tune, and all I felt was “I can stop and smell the roses anytime. This work won’t wait.” As I climbed the corporate ladder (such as it is, here in northern New England), I piled more and more responsibilities onto my plate. Through my 30s and into my 40s, all through my son’s birth and childhood, I hung onto that attitude: I can do it all. I can have it all. I just have to work harder. And then–surprise!–cancer. That sound you hear, the sickening shriek and metal-on-metal bang of a serious crash, is life as I knew it coming to a screeching halt.
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    In retrospect, I should have known I was looking for trouble; I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found it. There were days when I was so stressed, I felt a serious illness would be the only way I could get off the spinning carousel. Yet I kept on, and on, and on, saying yes to every request, meeting every deadline with time to spare, showing the world that I was THE BEST. Had I skipped that mammogram 5 years ago, that ho-hum visit to the hospital that very quickly degenerated into uh-oh, I might be dead today, a victim of cancer that had spread too far, too fast. Luckily, a creature of habit, I dutifully had the mammogram, and shortly thereafter saw my life change–for the better, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

    Cancer forces you to stop. Everything is put on hold as you go through weeks or months of treatment. It’s impossible to work at the same pace, with the same intensity, that you did before your diagnosis. Even if you keep all the juggled balls in the air, you’re distracted. Your passion suddenly isn’t for your job; it’s for saving your own life. You go through the motions at work; or maybe you treat yourself gently, and are able to take some time off. Whatever you do, you’re no longer Superwoman, even if you’re still clutching the cape and trying to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

    And you know what? Life goes on. Things get done. You let go of the stress-inducing petty details, that over-the-top effort required to make everything perfect. And as you realize that less effort doesn’t necessarily mean inferior results, you relax. You slow down. And dare I say it? You stop and smell the roses.

    Last Sunday, as I sat in my cubbyhole at work, I watched out the small ceiling-level window as the day darkened, rain pelted down, and thunder rattled the building. Then the sky turned blue, and yellow leaves did a whirling dervish dance across my field of vision. The window is small; the room, dimly lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs, didn’t hold a candle to autumn’s natural fireworks going on outside. I had a big project due Monday. I “should” have stayed at my desk. But cancer has taught me this: there’s no time to waste. I got up, took my backpack, and walked out into the blue-and-gold day. Now, in late September, there are no roses left to smell. But the scent of sun-ripened apples from the orchard down the road was a perfect substitute. I stopped and smelled the apples. And remembered, once again, that not every overused saying is “sappy sentiment.” It’s often the truth, simply revealed, for anyone choosing to listen.
Published On: September 28, 2006