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Survivorship

Life’s a Great Balancing Act

Leukemia survivor Alan Spector highlights the importance of maintaining balance and keeping hope during cancer by developing a “life plan” in addition to a “cancer plan.”
December 2019 Vol 5 No 6
Alan Spector
St. Louis, Missouri
9-year CLL survivor

Do you have a plan for the part of your life that is not associated with your cancer? Despite your diagnosis, are you creating and living the best life you can? Whether you are a patient with cancer or a patient’s loved one, it is difficult to find the energy to even think about these questions while dealing with the urgency of a cancer diagnosis. Yet, thinking about, and acting on, these questions can have a meaningful impact on finding your life’s path forward.

Focusing on working with your medical team to develop the plan for the part of your life that is associated with your cancer can feel, and often is, all-consuming. You must acknowledge and act on your new reality—the reality of the disease, the reality of cancer treatment and its possible side effects, and the reality of inevitable and persistent associated emotions. There is much to learn about the disease, and there are so many decisions to be made.

Reality and Hope

At the same time, it is in your best interest to summon the wherewithal to build hope for the future, regardless of the length of your “hope horizon.” Hope can derive from building confidence, controlling what you can, creating a plan to lean into your future, and realistically expecting life circumstances to change such that your plans may need adjusting.

Elizabeth J. Clark, PhD, ACSW, MHP, author of Choose Hope: (Always Choose Hope), and former Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers, has posited that “hope is a prerequisite for action.” I would add that action is also a prerequisite for hope. This synergy between acting on your reality and building hope is the basis for the importance of balancing these two.

As I discussed in my book, Cancer: Balancing Reality and Hope, the way to create this balance is to develop and follow your “cancer plan” as well as your “non-cancer life plan.”

Balance Is Crucial

The importance of bringing balance into your life is not a new concept derived solely from, or for, our cancer experience. During our school years, we strive to balance attention to our studies with extracurricular activities, enabling us to grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally. In our career, we strive to create a work-life balance, enabling us to build a successful career, as well as a successful family. As parents, we strive to balance giving our children room to explore with the need to keep them safe, thereby enabling them to grow into the people we want them to become.

In his book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss leads us into our futures with verse after verse of wise advice, which explains why the book is a frequent graduation gift. In that book, Dr. Seuss wrote:

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.

If Dr. Seuss wrote it, it must be true!

Hope with Cancer

As it relates to our cancer experience, acknowledging and acting on reality without building hope is disheartening. Having hope without confronting reality is destructive; it is, in fact, false hope. Life’s a great balancing act.

It is critical for each of us to focus on building our cancer plan, and it is necessary that we do so. We need to collaborate with our medical team to decide on our treatment regimen, and then follow it. We need to understand and address any potential or expected side effects of the treatment, deal with the psychosocial aspects of our disease, and build our support system.

But if we want to live our best life, having a cancer plan alone is not sufficient. That’s where the non-cancer life plan comes in. Each of us has our own unique life history and our set of life circumstances. The plan for our life that is the non-cancer part, therefore, is unique to each of us, and needs to be customized to meet our individual needs.

The 10 Key Elements

When my friend Keith Lawrence and I coauthored our book, Your Retirement Quest, we identified what we referred to as the “10 key elements of a fulfilling retirement.” As it turns out, these 10 key elements also apply to life in general, not just to retirement.

They certainly apply to our non-cancer life as well. The goal of developing our non-cancer life plan is to integrate aspects of each of the 10 key elements.

These key elements, which I’ve described in my previously mentioned book are:

  • Attitude
  • Connectedness (or relationships)
  • Giving back
  • Passions
  • Financial security
  • Life purpose
  • Well-being
  • Growth
  • Fun
  • Planning

Let’s use “passions” as one example to see how it can affect our life plan.

Following your Passion After a Cancer Diagnosis

Sheila Schwartz was an award-winning author and a creative writing teacher in college when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Eight years, 2 remissions, and a third cancer recurrence after her diagnosis, Sheila was still leaning into her future when she died in 2008.

In his article “What Happened to Sheila,” written to celebrate her life, her husband Dan Chaon wrote, “We continued to make plans.” These were plans that enabled Sheila to continue to live her best life by following

her passions in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

In his article, her husband described how they had made plane reservations a year in advance for a trip to Europe (passion: travel). Sheila had worried over her flower garden, getting it ready for the winter, so that it would be pretty in the spring (passion: gardening). She was finishing a novel and had outlines of 2 new books of short stories on her computer (passion: writing). And she was actively caring for her 3 children (passion: family). These passions were but a part of Sheila Schwartz’s non-cancer life plan.

Yes, she had a cancer plan, addressing the reality of her disease and its treatments. And yes, she was building hope by leaning into her future. Together, she was balancing reality and hope to create and live her best life for as long as she could.

Are You Pursuing Your Passions?

What are your passions in the face of a cancer diagnosis? Are you finding ways to pursue them as best you can? And are you bringing the other 9 key elements into your life? Do you have a cancer plan as well as a non-cancer life plan?

Are you balancing reality and hope?

Key Points

  • It is important to cultivate hope for the future when dealing with cancer
  • Finding balance is a key component throughout life, ad this doesn’t change with a cancer diagnosis
  • Try to foster a “non-cancer life plan” to go along with your “cancer plan”
  • Ask yourself if you are still pursuing your passions and interests
  • If at all possible, make time to put your energy and care into things not related to cancer

About the Author

Alan Spector is a 9-year chronic lymphocytic leukemia survivor. He is a consultant for cancer organizations across the country and the author of several books, including Cancer: Balancing Reality and Hope. In his foreword to this book, Louis DeGennaro, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, wrote, “With all the complexity they [patients] are and will be facing, it is not surprising that they are asking themselves and others, ‘Where can I learn what I need to know?’....answering that question well is a major attraction of Alan’s book. The title very well could have been, ‘Cancer: How to Think About What to Think About’.”

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Last modified: May 4, 2020

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