Changing Your Priorities When Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • When you have cancer, you’re forced to let go of things. The laundry, cooking, the fast track at work… Let’s face it, fighting cancer trumps all of those. You may have THOUGHT you were in control of your life… uh-uh. No more.


    How do you handle this sudden turn of events? You can choose to forge ahead despite your diagnosis, a 120mph bullet train about to hit a patch of very bad track. Or you can slow down, become a “local” rather than an “express,” and handle that bumpy track with ease.

    I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be Superwoman, always winning the awards at work, chairing the committees at church or in the community, baking the very best dessert at every potluck…

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    It takes a lot of energy, desire, and organizational skill to retain that place you’ve established at the head of the table. What happens when your energy is gone, your desire centers around simply staying alive, and your organizational skill has disappeared in a chemotherapy-induced fog?

    Plain and simple: you change your priorities. You narrow your focus. Some might say you “settle for less,” or “lower your sights.” That’s not how I see it. Settling for less to do, perhaps; or lowering your sights so that you’re not chasing some far-off dream of fame and fortune, but simply doing the best you can for those around you. I think of it as “sitting at the foot of the table.”


    I remember hearing in church the parable advising that you not sit at the head of the table, lest someone more important come in and take your place. I have a slightly different take on that: It takes a lot of energy to sit at the head of the table, where much is expected of you in the way of witty repartée, opening wine bottles, and carving turkey.


    But sit at the foot, be “just one of the guests,” and nothing is expected of you, save a pleasant demeanor and good manners. The pressure to achieve is off; you can drop a few of those balls you’ve been juggling, and it doesn’t matter. Repeat after me: life goes on, and IT DOESN’T MATTER.

    For the past 4 years or so, ever since I finished treatment, I’ve been trying to stay in that calm, low-pressure area I settled into during the months of surgery, chemo, and radiation. I block my ears to the siren song of super-achievement, recognition, and praise at work, choosing instead to spend more time on the things in my life that give me pleasure: Reiki, reading, volunteering. I’ve given up even the pretense of noticing whether or not there are dust bunnies behind the couch; my wonderful husband took over all of the housecleaning when I was ill, and has kept it up ever since.


    Make no mistake, I’m a high-energy, conscientious person; always have been, always will be. But I’ve doffed the Superwoman cape. Now I choose to focus my energy at work on positive relationships with my colleagues, on seeing how I can help, rather than compete with them.


    And instead of maintaining lots of “acquaintanceships,” fitting them in among committee meetings and loads of laundry, I choose to be a caring friend, one who always has time for a movie, a cup of coffee, or a good, long talk. For me, making those human connections is what it’s all about.


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    When at last I die, I want to be remembered not for winning awards, but for capturing hearts.

Published On: November 01, 2006