3 Lessons That Will Change Your Cancer Journey

In 1991 my aunt was diagnosed with the first of two cancers, breast cancer.  She finished chemo in November, and in December flew from Chicago to Denver to spend Christmas with our family.

I remember Aunt Debi and my mom on the ski lift in front of my brother and me. They were laughing hysterically – so hard that the chair was bouncing around. I could hear the peals of laughter ringing out on a clear winter day in the Colorado Mountains. My brother and I scooted off the lift wondering what was so funny - my aunt’s wig turned sideways and her bangs were over one ear and my mom said “she looked ridiculous” (but in that sisterly, laughter-is-the-best-medicine kind of a way).

My aunt taught me a lot of life lessons but the one that seeped into every crevice is the value of laughter. It would be a massive understatement to say that she had a good sense of humor.  She had an outstanding laugh, her belly would jiggle and her eyes would glow.  And being that we are Italian… it was never quiet.

Laughing with metastatic cancer

She laughed through two cancers. Breast and kidney.

I always knew that the life lessons she taught me were important, but I didn’t know the importance of what she taught me about how to LIVE with cancer … until I was diagnosed with metastatic, terminal and incurable Stage IV anaplastic lymphoma pinase positive (ALK+) lung cancer, three months after she passed away from complications of the effects of having chemo treatments in the early 90’s.

My cancer had metastasized to my lymph nodes and my brain.  I was only 34 and a newlywed.

My first thoughts snapped to that memory and I remember thinking that I would look like that during chemo treatment. Dried out and bone thin.

I prayed to ANY deity that was listening “please, just let me have one of those genetic mutations”

You see, in the whirlwind after my diagnosis, I had learned a few valuable pieces of information.

  1. Lung cancer is NOT caused by smoking in a VAST majority of cases (in case you were wondering: no, I am NOT a smoker!)
  2. There are multiple types of lung cancer- including those that are genetically driven
  3. Genetically driven lung cancer has a treatment path that does NOT involve chemotherapy.

You see why I prayed so hard?  The treatment path for a genetic mutation is targeted therapy.  I take pills every day and my little magic pills kill that one rogue cell, caused by that one rogue gene.

3 tips from my Aunt to me and now from me to you: 

My aunt’s journey with two different cancers taught me that I was responsible for ensuring I gave myself the best care in three vital ways. As we can all attest to, the first few months are a flurry of doctor’s appointments, scans, and in my case a bronchoscope and biomarker testing. 

Once the dust settled, I picked myself up and got to work on those vital lessons that my aunt taught. I made it my mission to:

  1. Assist the medication by supporting my ENTIRE body (and loving up on my organs who were working overtime processing these harsh chemicals)
  2. Assist my mental well–being by getting into therapy (because sometimes you need an outsider for your sympathetic ear)
  3. Assist my body by being as physically active as I could (and to just go outside and stand in the sun).

In the (nearly) 4 years since I was diagnosed, I have explored any possibility that is naturopathic, holistic or alternative. I am on herbal supplements that support my organ functions. I visit an acupuncturist regularly. I see a Reiki healer. This year I am excited to dive into Ayurveda (the sister science to yoga)

Shortly after diagnosis, I went out and found a therapist.  It took a few tries to find a person that I felt connected to – like I was talking to a friend who wouldn’t judge me and who was able to give wise advice when I needed it, but was far enough away from me that I wasn’t worried about talking to her about how bad some of the bad days can be. I cannot emphasize this enough: you absolutely should immediately consider finding an outsider to talk to.  I love my wife, my family, my friends – but when I’m talking to them, I don’t want to be talking about my cancer.  I have had to establish really firm boundaries around my cancer (who I talk to, when, and what I will not talk about)

Lastly, my body.  Over the course of my treatment, I have lost and then gained about 40 lbs.  I have all the clothes sizes.  I struggled with appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, edema, cholesterol, and liver and kidney functions.  I have lived with breakouts, hair loss and my own body odors smelling weird to me.

August 2019 - I discovered how brutal disease progression is. 

My latest TKI (the targeted therapy) was not keeping the disease under control.  I was on my routine dog walk when I became totally disoriented. My dogs actually walked me home.  My wife was ushering me from our patio to the truck to get to the hospital (because she knew something was not right) when the first seizure struck and I fell right out of her grasp. I cracked my head open on the patio. Thankfully my wife is a quick-thinking cool-in-a-crisis Marine, and she knew how to handle a seizure. She rolled me on my side, got my tongue and lips out of my teeth (which were clenched so hard I nearly bit through my lip) as she administered aid until the ambulance arrived to pick me up for eight staples in my head and a three day hospital stay.

An MRI showed that my brain metastasis had exploded from virtually none to radiology reporting “innumerable” and they were growing down my brain stem.

I was so tired of merely surviving. I was ready to THRIVE...

I came out of that hospital stay ON FIRE to really figure out this whole “living with cancer” thing. I was so tired of merely surviving. I was ready to THRIVE and I was ready to apply my aunt’s third tip: Assist your body. I found an online 30 day yoga challenge that I would commit myself to doing every day for the next month.

That changed everything. 

Do you know the power and momentum you can create by simply keeping one small promise to yourself every single day? Since October of 2019, I can confidently say that I have transformed my experience from merely surviving to truly thriving.  I have kept that fire in my heart and I continue to advocate for lung cancer, but what really inspires me is to teach and share my experience transforming from merely surviving to thriving, in that same belly shaking loud laughing way that my aunt did. To give to the community of amazing and courageous cancer thrivers that I have met – because I believe she paid it forward to me and it is my duty and my honor to pay it forward to you, on behalf of my beloved Aunt Debi.


Photo courtesy of author.