The Mindset Cure

The Upside to Leukemia: 5 Life-changing Lessons I Learned from Battling this Disease

It may sound odd to hear that there was an upside to battling leukemia, but the disease was one of my greatest teachers. Yes, the diagnosis was devastating. I was sicker than I ever imagined anyone could be. The treatments were even worse. I thought about the joke, I’d have to die to get better. But it wasn’t funny. I went into the treatment having absolute conviction that I would prevail. As the weeks and months wore on, there were times when I doubted I would win. Some days, I was ready to surrender to a welcome death.

In the end, I won my battle with leukemia. It was a long, hard battle that taught me many things that I am grateful to have learned—things I wish someone had taught me when I was much younger.

  • Life is temporary. 

Everyone has an expiration date, but it’s not printed on the label. I realized that I had been rushing through life. I was oblivious to how fragile our existence is until I was told I was dying. Here’s what I learned about life that I would share with my younger self.

Don’t spend your life in the past, rehashing failures and reliving slights from others. Stop the self-talk about what you should have done or said. Stop fantasizing how your life would be different if you’d made better choices or had more supportive friends and bosses. It won’t happen. You can’t change one thing from your past. Learn from it, then let it go.

Don’t worry about the future. It doesn’t exist yet. Have dreams and make plans, but don’t be rigid in how it will look. Much will change before the future arrives. What unfolds will be just as it is intended to be.

The present is the only time that you have. It is the only thing that is real. Don’t miss out on your life. Stop and smell the roses. Discover your joy in today.

  • Gratitude is critical. 

I realized that each day I lived, life brought me many gifts. Some were large–the birth of a child, a promotion, a raise or having a strong circle of loving friends and family. But I didn’t see the hundreds of wonderful small things that happened each day that I could focus my energy on. I learned to delight in a phone call, a kind word, a beautiful image or sound, a delicious meal or a card from a friend. I learned not to take anything for granted. I discovered beauty in the all the little joys in my life; it shifted my perspective. I replaced stress and worry with gratitude.

Focusing on the good things I had in my life, kept me from falling into feeling like I was a victim; it kept me out of the Oh, Poor Me! Why is this Happening to Me? mindset.

 I realized that when I directed my energy to positive thoughts, rather than to negative ones, that I had more emotional and physical energy. I felt a spiritual connection and hope, rather than desolation and despair.

 Here’s what I would share with my younger self about gratitude—don’t dwell on your problems and frustrations. Take time each day to reflect on everything in your life that you are grateful for, even little things like a great cup of coffee or a smile from a stranger. You will feel happier and more positive and energetic, both spiritually and physically.

  • Relationships matter, things don’t.  

When I lay in my bed, I had plenty of time to think. To think about my life and how I had spent my time. I came to realize that I had been spending most of my time in pursuit of money, status and collecting things. The people and relationships in my life were given the time that was left at the end of the day or week. My priorities showed that I valued things over people. I had never realized that my priorities were upside-down. I was chasing things that didn’t matter to me when I contemplated how I had lived my life. The rewards I sought, were unimportant and fleeting.

 My advice to my younger self would be—spend less time and energy on material success and more on connecting from your heart with the people in your world. Positive focus on relationships is what creates happiness for yourself and others.

  • Fear is a choice.  

The dictionary defines fear as: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. Fear is anticipation of something bad happening, not the fact that something bad is happening.

Fear keeps us from taking action, from moving forward. When I was a child, afraid of monsters in the dark, I hid under the covers. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t cross the room to turn on the light to reveal the truth. Fear had paralyzed me.

When I was ill, I feared dying. It was the most terrifying feeling I had ever experienced, far more fear than the Mummy or Dracula had even induced. There was a point in Mayo Clinic where I realized that I was allowing my fear to control me.

I had to make a decision. I had to decide whether Fear would win or whether I would push through my terror and fight for my life. I acknowledged that I was afraid. I acknowledged that I might die. I wanted to live so I chose to stare down that fear and to fight.

My advice to my younger self—face your fears. Stare them down. Start small but do something scary every day. You will soon discover that what you were worried about wasn’t real. Taking risks and meeting challenges will become easier with practice.

  • My always-on, driven, competitive lifestyle was killing me.

The one thing I never realized over all the years of working was the pace that was my life. I was proud of the fact that I multi-tasked and that I did it all. I was Super Mom, Super Employee, Super Home Manager, Super Volunteer. I burned the proverbial candle at both ends. I was ‘on’ from the time I got up until I went to bed late each day, juggling an overwhelming workload, a growing family and my volunteer activities. Everything I tackled, I approached with gusto. I never did anything half-way. I was proud of my super powers.

But the truth was that my lifestyle was killing me—I was living under constant stress. I seldom took time to recover, relax and renew. When I did go on vacation, my computer went along. I spent hours checking and answering emails. I created and analyzed reports and spreadsheets while pretending to relax on the beach. My frantic pace silently weakened my immune system and set me up to allow the leukemia to gain the foothold it needed to ravage my body. The disease went unnoticed until it almost ended my life.

My advice to my younger self—slow down. Breathe. Don’t worry about being perfect. Unplug. Take time to rest and recharge. It’s OK to say “no”.

Facing death, brought a deep focus into what really matters in life. It was the upside to my battle with leukemia. I am grateful for these lessons I learned.

If you would like to hear more about my journey, the story is in my book, The Mindset Cure: How I Beat My 90 Day Death Sentence, which is available on Amazon.com. I am also working on my next book, Better Than Yesterday: Strategies for Shifting Your Mindset to Win at Life, where I will be discussing how powerful our mind is in helping us overcome adversity and what strategies we can use to shift our mindset and unleash our incredible capacity to heal ourselves and to create exponential change in our lives.