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In Between the Tough Stuff
TOMMY WALKER CANCER
As newlyweds, Jessica Walker and her husband Tommy were blindsided by Tommy’s cancer diagnosis, but through treatments and recurrences, Jessica learned cancer doesn’t have to control their whole story.

Fill in the blank: “I’ll let myself be happy when _.”

I have fallen into this trap so many times in my life. The blank could be filled a number of ways: “… when I have (x) amount of money” or “… when I achieve (x) goal at work.”

We always hear we should enjoy the journey and not just the destination, but how do people find that easy to do? I definitely don’t. I’m a goal-oriented, box-checking planner who likes the feeling of accomplishing something, and a “journey” doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. I feel like I need to earn or justify my joy or relaxation. I’ve been working on this, but I know I’ve been somewhat unconsciously delaying life as I reach for a new milestone: a post-cancer life.

I’ve found myself in this spot many times since my husband Tommy’s cancer diagnosis two years ago. I give myself relaxation milestones: I’ll exhale and let myself live again “when chemo is done” or “when he is this many months past treatment” or “when we’re done with cancer.”

If I’ve learned anything, however, it’s that these hazy milestones tend to shift, disappear, and change without much notice. It began to feel silly focusing on goals we had so little control over—chemo dates would change or the course of treatment would take a different turn.

We’re in a new chapter of our “journey” where we are “living with cancer.” It’s not our destination, but it is woven in to daily life. Thankfully, cancer has graciously taken a position on the back burner of our minds. Tommy has treatment once every three weeks, and that’s that. We get to live “normal” lives in between treatments, with only brief reminders every few weeks.

If I’ve learned anything, however, it’s that these hazy milestones tend to shift, disappear, and change without much notice.

This season of “live and let live” has been a bit more difficult for me to settle with the past few weeks. Recently, we had a big cancer “anniversary.” For many people who are going through treatment, or supporting someone through it, these big dates hold a great deal of importance. They can be moments of great celebration, or laced with dread and anxiety, or a confusing mix of both. I land in the mix.

Oct. 18, 2017, was the day Tommy was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Oct. 18, 2018, was the day it was confirmed his cancer had returned.

A double whammy.

I am immensely grateful and anxious to be crossing that date, yet again. Cognitively, I know this milestone means we are in a good place, and we are incredibly lucky to be here. Nevertheless, the lead up to this date made me squirm. I felt like I wanted to race towards the day, and then leave it far behind us. But why should I try to rush the weeks? Why should I allow fear to let me take time for granted?

Why should I allow fear to let me take time for granted?

I wanted to make the time leading up to the anniversary a celebration. That didn’t mean I was going to pretend I wasn’t scared—it just meant I wasn’t going to let fear get in the way of life, as it has so often in the past two years. I didn’t need to pinpoint the date as a milestone where I only gave myself permission to exhale and enjoy life again after it had passed. Living the life we want to live at this exact moment is already a challenge. Attempting that with cancer is even more of a feat, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

One of my favorite motivational speakers says she measures her success based on how much fun she’s having. Can I eliminate all the difficult, not-fun stuff in my life? No, but no one can, cancer or not. Can I find space for more joy in between the tough stuff, and sometimes even woven in with it? Yes.

We strive for this on treatment days. These days are long, incredibly stressful, and can loom ahead like dark clouds. At our last hospital, we succumbed to the dread of these days, but when we transferred to our new treatment center, I decided I wanted to add in moments of joy that made us look forward to them, instead of dreading them. We take the “long way” to enjoy the walk to the hospital. I unplug from my phone and give Tommy all of my attention. I order us burgers from our favorite restaurant. We stop by the bookstore we love on the way back to the train.

Living the life we want to live at this exact moment is already a challenge. Attempting that with cancer is even more of a feat, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Yes, there will be some difficult moments, but adding in these bright tokens of joy means the bad moments are the small blips of the day, not the main event. I have often ended these treatment days saying to Tommy, “This was such a nice day! I mean the treatment sucked, but don’t you feel like today was great?” It always strikes me as weird, but I mean it genuinely. Of course, I’m not the one having treatment, and can’t speak to that end of it, but the anxiety is held at bay because we don’t give it the time it longs for.

Who says we have to be “done” with cancer to live a life without cancer as the focus? Not every moment of life will be perfectly pleasant. I can’t keep all negativity and struggle away at all times. But I do think I can make a conscious choice to limit it from the parts of my life where it is not absolutely necessary. Cancer already has so much stake in my daily life—if there is something else taking up space in my day that brings me down, I make a change. If something in my schedule brings me anxiety, and doesn’t HAVE to stay, I shift it or take it away.

This is, of course, a process that I’m learning is not made by one single major change, but a collection of minute shifts that make room for more joy and less stress—tiny, every day decisions and reminders that we are in charge of our day, and do not have to be slaves to it. Living intentionally is possible, even with cancer still in the picture. Cancer is part of our story, but we are the writers.

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