11 Habits of a Successful Cancer Patient

Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever to fly the planet, had this to say about success: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again. That is why I succeed.”

Photo: sneakerbardetroit.com

My husband, Gary, was a stellar cancer patient, even with late stage disease. He was proactive and highly disciplined. His dry humor remained intact and, while living much longer than the experts projected, he carried hope. Boatloads of hope.

Consider these 11 simple habits of a successful patient … or, for that matter, a successful caregiver, teacher, parent, athlete, first responder, bridge-builder, medical professional.

  1. Show up whole-heartedly.

Instead of sitting back and hoping treatment is all that’s needed, cancer patients should be as proactive and full-hearted as they possibly can be. Because half-hearted attempts at anything are never enough.

  1. Get educated.

Be careful with what you read on the world wide web (here’s a good place to get started). Get a second opinion. And maybe even a third. Come to consultations prepared with a list of questions, because chances are you won’t remember that important matter from last Tuesday.

  1. Enlist a co-captain.

Who is interested in your success as a cancer patient? You’re the one leading the charge when it comes to your health, but how fabulous would it be to have a hands-on, upbeat co-captain?! Someone to bring to medical appointments; someone to take notes and ask follow-up questions; someone to cheer you on and come alongside as you rage against cancer.

  1. Recruit a team.

The same people who supported us whole-heartedly as Gary was dying, morphed into my widow support posse. I have no family in town, but there are a number of people I can call on for advice, repair work, as a hiking companion, people I can offer support to in return. I am more resilient because of these chivalrous, defiant, audacious team members. Who’s on your team?

  1. Apply effective self-care.

Determine what works in managing the stress of a challenging situation. Check into a plant-rich diet and physical activity for your stage/type of cancer. Because if we’re caring for our physical bodies, if we’re seeing to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health, then we’ll be more successful in managing the side effects of treatment, in recovering well from surgeries, even in caring for our loved one with a serious diagnosis.

  1. Practice gratitude.

Instead of counting what will never be the same, try counting all that remains. Pay attention to the simple pleasures that make up a good life. And speak gratitude for those things. Do you have a place to lay your head tonight? Do you know where your next meal is coming from? Can you read this (which suggests you have a brain and eyes that work)? Are there people in your life who think you’re pretty awesome? Pay attention and speak gratitude.

  1. Maintain good humor.

Gary had a wry sense of humor. When he said something tongue-in-cheek-ish, people oftentimes did a double take: Did he just say what I think he said?!! You may as well laugh.

  1. Find meaning and give back.

This point, obviously, is dependent upon the time and health and energy levels of the patient and caregiver. But oftentimes when we notice the hurts and needs of others around us—and do something about it—it takes the focus off our own stuff.

  1. Discuss the elephant in the room.

Honest, brave, open-hearted conversations need to take place. Gary and I went a full year after his diagnosis before discussing the unsettledness we kept buried. Partly because my mom was living with us, sinking into dementia. Partly because I didn’t want to bother my husband with my fears. Partly because Gary was reticent about discussing those things that are difficult for men to say out loud. And surely because the words death and dying are fearsome. But, somehow, voicing our fears and anxieties moved the elephant we had been clumsily waltzing around to a far corner of the room – still present, but not tripping us up.

  1. Keep optimism afloat.

I’m the most optimistic person I know. And Gary was born a pessimist. He had the annoying gift of being able to note all that could go wrong with my brilliant ideas before he signed on. When late-stage cancer showed up, Gary could have given up all hope and started planning a funeral. But he didn’t. He remained a pessimist with courage (he called himself a realistic optimist, which I’m not sure there’s such a thing). I love that he carried hope.

  1. Lean into faith.

The critical component underlying all this was (and still is for me) our strong faith and relationship with God who is my wash of joy, who daily provides an array of reasons for gratitude, who is the reason for my deep contentedness.

Back to Michael Jordan for a moment: He missed more than 9,000 shots in his career. Twenty-six of those missed baskets were depending-on-you, game-winning shots. And yet, he was considered an epic success.

You and I will miss shots in life. We’ll fail as friends, students, business owners. We’ll receive rejection letters for our book proposals, grant applications, scholarship funding.

We’ll put money into inventions and investments, and not all of them will pan out. We’ll blow it — frequently, daily — at parenting (complete with reminders from our children).

We’ll make mistakes on the job; we’ll take the wrong fork in the road; we’ll miscalculate. We’ll write poetry and produce movies and create art that will flop.

But here’s the thing to engrave on our hearts and minds: We won’t make any shots we don’t take. We won’t win any games we don’t show up for.

Which begs the question: What habits are you practicing for success as you manage cancer?

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