It’s a new year. Do you have time to enjoy your life right now? Will you have time six months from now? Seize the day…
When you were growing up, time seemed to stretch out into the unknown future like a road disappearing on the horizon. Sometimes, like on the first day of summer vacation, this was a good thing. At other points — say, standing on the sidelines at the school dance — it seemed like an eternity.
As Albert Einstein explained his theory of relativity, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”
Time is flexible like that.
Most people probably don’t think very much about time, unless it’s to hurriedly glance at a smartphone to see how late they are. But when you have cancer, time suddenly becomes very important.
How long is the surgery? How many days will I be out of work? How long till my hair falls out? How many months before it grows back?
How much time do I have left, doctor?
It’s this last question that separates cancer survivors from the rest of the world. Before cancer, we blithely assumed our good health, envisioning a happy future of climbing the ladder at work, seeing children grow up to become adults, maybe even planning a relaxing retirement with plenty of time for books and gardens and golf.
But once you’ve heard the words “You have cancer,” the happy future disappears.
You enter the tunnel of treatment. Is there a light at the end? Maybe; maybe not. Mindless assumption becomes a mixture of hope and fear. You want to see your son graduate from high school… You hope to dance at your daughter’s wedding… But who knows?
Cancer robs you of confidence in your future. But it also gives you a gift: a new appreciation of time, which suddenly becomes precious.
During treatment, you learn to cherish every moment of happiness, no matter how brief. Afterward, each day brings a new milestone. Things you once ignored become important: the first snowflake of the season. The longest day of the year. The first day of autumn.
Your first anniversary.
Cancer anniversary, that is. You’ll always remember the day you were diagnosed; it’s the day you became a survivor. And ever after, you’ll mentally mark that day and celebrate another year of life. Of simply… being here.
Sometimes life seems so dark, it’s hard to do anything but get through it, one minute at a time. (Remember Einstein’s hot stove?)
Other times, when things are going well, you find yourself daring to hope that you will live to be an old lady, with time to watch the sun rise, time to sit in the garden, time to volunteer at the library… or to simply sit and do nothing.
None of us knows how much time we have left. Any one of us — a cancer survivor, a professional athlete, a 1-year-old learning to walk — could die tomorrow.
This isn’t negative thinking; it’s reality. And a wakeup call.
Time is a gift, meant to be enjoyed. Not rushed through, or endured, or simply ignored. But savored. Loved.
As this new year dawns, add this to your list of resolutions:
This year, I’ll appreciate time.
Maybe you have a single day left in your life. Maybe, if you’re stage 4, a year.
Heck, if you’re like most breast cancer survivors, cancer won’t kill you. You could live another 40 years and die in your sleep.
But if there’s one lesson cancer teaches you, it’s that quality of life, rather than quantity, is the goal.
Choose to enjoy each day. It’s such a cliché, but yes, stop to smell the roses.
And to thank God, or fate — or whatever you believe in — that you’re still here, among the living. Among the roses.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.