It’s common after receiving a cancer diagnosis to feel as though you need to make big plans. There is internal pressure as well as pressure from the people around you to see the world, pick a new path, and figure out the meaning of life. It’s a lot to tackle, especially when you have a few other things on your plate! This is the push to be a “super survivor.”
My husband, Tommy, and I always loved traveling. We make travel a priority and have always taken trips for special occasions rather than giving gifts. After his diagnosis, we weren’t able to travel as easily—there were too many appointments, he wasn’t feeling well enough, or we were worried about germs. We spent almost a year forgoing travel for Tommy’s health. We had a conversation where we decided that even though cancer is probably going to remain a part of our lives, we were not going to let it continue to make the calls. We wanted to start adventuring again, and travelling is a great way to remind ourselves that cancer is only part of our story.
Tommy’s new immunotherapy treatment has very little side effects, and he feels healthy and full of energy these days. I wanted to take advantage of this, so we flew to London during a 10-day break in his treatment schedule. I studied abroad there in college, and Tommy had always wanted to visit. With help from our generous families, we booked our tickets and felt, for the first time in a while, that we were in control again.
I immediately began planning an extensive itinerary and scheduling our trip down to the minute. I wanted Tommy to see everything, and I was so excited to share my favorite places and sights with him. Tommy had cultivated a love of castles after a trip to Ireland a few years ago, so I filled our schedule with castles, palaces, and museums. I planned day trips to Stonehenge, Oxford, Canterbury, and Windsor. I filled our evenings with theater productions and nightlife. It was a lot to fit into a 10-day trip, but I wanted him to experience it all.
I had “super” expectations for this trip. I wanted it to be the most perfect, memorable, and inspiring adventure. But here’s the problem: When you are trying to always make every moment the most perfect, the most memorable, and the most inspiring, you pull yourself out of the “moment” entirely. How can you enjoy the moment when you are trying to manipulate it?
Tommy possesses an ease when it comes to living in the present—this is something I have to work a lot harder to find. He can often sense when my mind begins to rush, and he’ll gently remind me to slow down. A lot of times, when my brain rushes, my feet follow, and I will literally quicken my pace. I wanted to start taking note of these impulses on my own, so I decided to practice “check-in” moments throughout the day: I took a break whenever I started to feel the push to do and be more, and I asked myself what I really wanted out of the moment. Would one more museum be more memorable, or would sitting for another hour on this park bench laughing and talking together mean more to us?
At the beginning of the week in London, I struggled with the push and pull, but as we went along, I allowed myself to settle and realize that our “small moments” together were really the ones that mattered.
Tommy’s one request was to see a show at the Globe Theatre—a historic venue where Shakespeare’s plays are performed in a large, open-air playhouse. We found tickets for a production of “Richard III,” and this was the first thing we booked. Tommy was so excited to be in that space and see an epic performance, and I couldn’t wait to experience it right next to him. We looked forward to it all week.
It’s crazy how doing less often equates to more success, whatever success means to you. When you blindly hustle just to feel like you’re doing “super” things, you miss the whole point.
The final night of our trip, we made an evening out of it and got to the theater early. We walked in to find our seats, and I immediately knew something was wrong. This was not the Globe Theatre. But how could it not be? We booked the “Globe” tickets, and we were at the “Globe” theater, right?
Apparently, the company has two spaces. One (the Globe) is used in the summer, and their second space (an enclosed, smaller theater) is used during the winter. To make things worse, we thought we had booked seated tickets, but found ourselves in standing room only in the back row of the theater, squished into a tiny row with many other people.
I was devastated. The play started, and all I could think about was how terrible I felt: I had “ruined” the trip.
At intermission, Tommy asked if we could go outside. As soon as we walked out, he told me he was on the verge of having a panic attack from the size of the space. He was trying to pull it together, but I felt similarly and knew we couldn’t go back in. So we did a thing that, as theater lovers, we “never” do—we left.
When you are trying to always make every moment the most perfect, the most memorable, and the most inspiring, you pull yourself out of the “moment” entirely. How can you enjoy the moment when you are trying to manipulate it?
We were breathless with laughter at the ridiculousness of the whole experience. There was a pub connected to the theatre, so we decided to go in for a dinner and beers. The laughing wouldn’t stop. We couldn’t believe it! We booked the wrong show, in the wrong seats, and it nearly gave us panic attacks. Talk about a night at the theater! We laughed and talked and had an amazing evening.
The conversations led to some important moments for us. This “crash and burn” evening was a beautiful reminder that things won’t always go as planned, but that is okay. Sometimes you have to follow the path you’re on, without being able to see the end. You have to trust that where you are headed will be exactly where you want to end, even if it looks a little different than you planned. We took this unexpected time together to reminisce on our trip and our lives for hours. We stayed until the pub was nearly closed, and walked home arm in arm, absolutely beaming.
What could have been labeled as the worst night of the trip turned into our favorite night. Was it because it was “perfect?” Not at all. It was because we were present. We let the “small” moment be as important as it deserved to be.
Cancer, overall, has taught us that it’s these small, beautiful moments that are valuable beyond measure. It can be hard to allow yourself to feel comfortable being still and enjoying what may seem like doing nothing, especially when you feel like you should be doing something “super.” This perspective shift has been profound for me. The moments I think we “should” be having are only worth it when we enjoy them at face value, without trying to make them what we think they “should” be. It’s crazy how doing less often equates to more success, whatever success means to you. When you blindly hustle just to feel like you’re doing “super” things, you miss the whole point.
Sometimes you have to follow the path you’re on, without being able to see the end.
Our marriage has undeniably changed since Tommy’s diagnosis. We are closer than we have ever been, and it’s not because we feel like we “should” be. We are going through this great challenge together, and we are closer because we use this opportunity to take a breath, take a step back, and really consider what is most important. For us, it’s being together and loving hard. That’s it.
Does this come easily every day? Of course not. Some days I can feel us living next to each other, rather than with each other. Jobs sweep us apart, and schedules make us feel like our to-do lists need to take precedence over each other. But we try to recognize when those moments happen and then take the time to “check in.” Is this what I want out of this day? Is there a way I can do what I need to do, but also cherish the gift of being together? There is always room for both; you just have to take the time to try.
The most important thing I’ve learned this year is to relentlessly forgive yourself. Seriously. Have grace with yourself and your partner. When I continue to allow growth while forgiving what I deem to be a mistake or missed opportunities, life becomes lighter. Guilt takes away your time and energy and gives you nothing in return. It’s easy to feel guilty when you think you need to be a “super survivor” or a “super caregiver,” but guess what? You’re already super. You are doing an amazing job, just by continuing to try. Have grace, check in, and be present in the moment—whatever that moment is. Cancer teaches, motivates, and challenges, but it can never take if you don’t let it.
Jessica Walker is a 28-year-old entrepreneur living in NYC with her husband Tommy. He has been fighting esophageal cancer the past year and a half and is currently on a successful immunotherapy clinical trial. Jessica created a planner called ‘The Better Book’ last year to help Tommy stay organized during his treatment. She has since self-published, and the planner is now being used by thousands of people across the country. She took this idea and her love of greeting cards and created Better and Company, which is a space used to support and encourage all people touched by cancer.