Long-term thinking vs. focusing on the present…cancer as a young adult

Here is another post I wrote about a month ago while half-way through radiation treatment.  I didn’t want to make many changes to it after the fact, so I apologize if it comes off as a bit of rambling…just blame the fatigue  😉

Just a couple weeks after finding out about my recurrence, a friend of mine posted the following Steve Job’s quote on Facebook:  “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future…because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even if it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

Having cancer at any age is a difficult reality, but having cancer as a young adult presents many unique challenges.  When I was originally diagnosed as a kid, I had my parents making the important decisions.  All I needed to focus on was recovering, getting healthy, and eventually returning to school.  Now as a young adult, cancer feels like a giant pause button on a life that was about to launch forward.

Just a few weeks before finding out about the new tumor growth in November, I was living independently in the beautiful country of Indonesia.  I enjoyed all facets of my present moment…my friends, the fascinating culture, the meaningful work…but like most young adults a couple years out of college, I constantly had thoughts about what’s next, what do I want to do with my life, where do I want to be 5, 10, 15 years down the road?

From my original journey with brain cancer, I understood the importance of living life to the fullest and enjoying the present, but as time went by, my ambition and drive to make a meaningful difference for others increased…and with that, so did my excitement to envision a potential path forward.  I think this is natural for most young adults.  We all have goals, both professional and personal.  There are issues I care deeply about, and I wanted to take the path towards the point where I could make a positive impact on those issues…that long-term point…close enough to visualize, but still distant enough where both drive and determination were needed to get there.

When I first found out about my brain cancer recurrence, that long-term point blurred away…somewhat able to visualize, but potentially unable to attain.  When that long-term point faded away, all that was left was the point right in front of me…the present moment.  It is not that my passions, dreams, and ambitions have disappeared; rather, the present moment has become so much more important.

Over the past decade, before my recurrence, I reflected extensively on my initial brain tumor diagnosis.  This process opened my eyes to the importance of the present, but also created a feeling of responsibility to make the most of my time.  While I further understood the meaning of “living life to the fullest,” I also felt a perpetual drive forward towards the future.  I was constantly pulled in two directions by this dichotomy between living in the present and moving towards the future.  What is different now in my current situation is that I am no longer simply reflecting on past experience, but rather, cancer is my present and future reality.

Just a week after finding out about my recurrence, I was corresponding via email with another Oligo tumor survivor.  In his email, one sentence in particular stayed with me:  “We are blessed, fortunate souls; our tumors invited us to open up and see the gifts we already are living…and then some.”  Over the past few months, among all of the hardships, this is probably one of the greatest silver linings I have experienced.  For the first time since probably my surgery in February, 2004, what is right in front of me…what I consider to be truly important in life…is clearer than ever.  When faced with my recurrence, I had nothing to do but focus on the present moment.  I finally had the time to appreciate the “gifts” in my life…my family and friends…the people who have and continue to be in my life.

For so long I was driven by this long-term, goal-oriented mindset that when I was briefly in the same physical place as my family and friends, my relationships remained on a mostly surface level.  This was not because I didn’t care, nor was it a reflection of the state of my relationships.  Rather, it was that I had not previously invested nor had the time to delve deeper into these relationships.  My cancer diagnosis has provided me with the time to focus on my relationships with those I care deeply about.  I think as a result, my relationships with family and friends have evolved into a deeper bond that I now want to continue to maintain and foster.

Cancer has not only offered me the ability to make more time for these relationships, but has also offered me the perspective and opportunity to reassess my values…to reassess my character…to look deep inside myself and discover what it is that I truly value in the present.  When I had coffee a few months back with my Rabbi, he asked, “In times of suffering, when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, what will I look to for the strength to keep moving forward?”  I sat silently for a few seconds to reflect, and answered, “my family and friends.”  He questioned if there was anything else, and I began to tear up as I told him my answer:  to experience true love, to find the person I want to spend my life with, to have the opportunity to have kids…Everything that was rolling through my mind were not long-term oriented goals I wanted to achieve, but moments I wanted to have the chance to experience…to cherish in the present moment.

My journey is uncertain…there is no way to know what the dots will be in the future.  This experience though has offered me a true gift to assess what matters most to me, who I want to be as a person, and how I want to live my life day to day.  This does not mean I do not still have goals and aspirations I wish to achieve.  There are many issues I care deeply about, but instead of always focusing on these distant points, I know that if I follow my heart…if I live my life authentically…then no matter where my journey leads me, I will be content with how I lived it and where I ended up.

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