Living with cancer: four words for the new year

Living with cancer: four words for the new year
Ice, rocks and footprints along Lake Michigan.

I don’t mind the tradition of making resolutions. When I was 15 or 16 I resolved to not eat chocolate for a year. It was a specific, concrete resolution, and it offered me self awareness and a sense of empowerment. I was successful.

Of course, there have been lots of failed resolutions, just like everyone else’s. Eat better, lose weight, stop cursing. The vague but radical life changes that can’t be accomplished by writing a goal on a scrap of paper and then throwing it into the fire.

This year, I haven’t made any resolutions. Instead I’ve chosen four words for the year to remind me that healing and peace come from the inside. These aren’t mantras for every moment of life, and yes, they are a bit hippy-dippy. But they are concepts that have helped me in times of trouble and in the grind of ordinary life when I’m fed up.


I shoveled snow this morning, which I don’t really mind doing. My family and I moved to Chicago from Alaska two and a half years ago, and I miss the snow. I miss cross-country skiing a lot more than shoveling, but it’s not my least favorite chore.

As I was lifting the shovel I remembered something a friend in my support group said the last time we met, “Since cancer, I’m joyful about shoveling snow.” He’s grateful because he was down for the count for more than a year with chemo and side effects. As he struggles back into his life, he celebrates the ability to do physical work.

When your body fails you, it’s good to celebrate what you can do.


This past year has thrown out disappointments and loss. There’s nothing wrong with embracing sadness and sitting with it for a while. In fact, I think we must do that. But it’s sometimes easier for me to tend that hurt, to meditate on it, than it is to move forward from it. Sometimes I just need to let go.

People fail us. The universe slaps us. Cancer kills and maims. As my mother-in-law says, these are threads in life’s tapestry. I have to tell you that I’m not one of those folks who thinks these threads improve life’s tapestry or make it more beautiful. But they are there, woven into existence.


I am a restless soul. I’m happiest when I’m moving, and I often shoot from the hip. I am extemporaneous, relentlessly so sometimes. This quickness has been empowering for me as a student and a teacher. But I’ve been learning a lot about my limitations. These powerful, in the moment reactions, the constant doing have not always served me well.

I’m learning to be still, to breathe, to stop doing, to just let the emotion roll over me, to be in a situation without reacting to it. It’s a relief to rest, and I’m learning that peace is easier to find in the quiet.


I will always remember Valeta, who died this year at age 47 of breast cancer. I will always remember Tom, who died this year of leukemia. I will always remember Betsy, age 43, who died five years ago of breast cancer. I will always remember Sharon Morris, my mother, who died 21 years ago at age 51.

There are so many, but I will be particularly attentive to remembering these four human beings. They live on in our hearts and memories.

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