Six Life-changing Lessons I Learned from my Mother’s Terminal Cancer

1.Sometimes you don’t know whether something is good or bad until much later. 

I lived my entire life in Ohio and when I graduated law school, I wanted to experience something different.  I was fortunate to land a job with a small firm in Golden, Colorado, a small town outside of Denver nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  The locale was beautiful, the city life vibrant, and I spent weekends hiking, cycling and enjoying life in what remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in the world.  But I was struggling with my job: I was barely eeking out a living, I didn’t enjoy the work, my boss and I didn’t click.  Less than two years after arriving, I got an offer out of the blue from a firm back in Ohio that would double my income and offer better opportunity for growth.  Logically, it was a no-brainer, but I still felt like I was giving up, taking the easy way out, going home with my tail between my legs.  A few short years after coming back, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and she died nine months later.  Those nine months I spent with her—able to spend it with her because I lived in the same town—were irreplaceable; some of the most important moments of our relationship happened then.  This could not have happened if I was still living in Colorado. Instead of feeling like a failure, I now understand what a monumental gift I was given in the opportunity to come home at the time I did.


2.Happiness can still be found in the most despairing moments.

As anyone who’s experienced cancer or has had a loved one go through the ordeal knows, it is horrendous experience.  I watched my mother shrivel in size, constantly feel sick, have excruciating pain.  But my mom became awake in a way she had never been before.  She opened up and shared things with me that I never knew about her.  She valued each moment of beauty she was given, and this rubbed off on the people around her.  She suffered from stomach cancer and her stomach was surgically removed in an attempt to stop the disease spreading.  Despite this, when we went to Mexico the last month of her life she ordered exotic foods to experience new things even if it meant only nibbling at them.  She had no stomach, and found a way to enjoy beautiful meals with her family.  Joy is present in everything if we are strong enough to find it.


3.We don’t have time to put off important things until later.

Whether we die in our twenties or live to a ripe ninety, our time here is brutally short.  My mom wanted to travel, but there were always things taking priority, always something else to get done.  When she got to Mexico she reveled in it—spending hours communing with the ocean, having a Pina Colada for the first time, haggling with merchants.  I wish she could have had many more of these experiences.  Within the past month a friend invited me on a trip to South Africa, and it took me about 30 seconds to commit to going.  Seeing every continent is on my bucket list, and after this year, I will only have two to go.  Yes, this will cost time and money.  But these experiences are what I value, much more so than a newer car, bigger home, or fancier watch.  I’m not going to let them slip by.  If you want to write a book, write now.  If you want to paint, paint now.  If you hate your job, change it.  There really is no tomorrow.


4.Not everything happens for a reason, but value can still be drawn from awful things.

If you tell me that my mom got cancer because “everything happens for a reason” or “its part of God’s mysterious plan” I will probably punch you in the face.  Cancer and other tragedies may have causes, but they are tragedies, mostly random, and not part of the Universe’s grand scheme.  But watching my mother’s courage, the joy she took in life even while in pain, her acceptance and offering of love amidst hopelessness, forever changed me for the better.  I am a deeper, more empathetic, more present person solely because of my experience of her suffering and death.  I will not undervalue that gift she continues to give me, ten years on.


5.Petty things do not matter.  Ever.

That slight that your coworker gave you, the aggressive driver that cut you off, the hatefulness of the pundit on tv, the remote control that doesn’t work, the computer that crashes.  These things are irrelevant inconveniences that have no effect on your life except that which you give them.  They are as relevant as the puddle you step over to cross the street. Stop giving them importance they do not deserve.  I’ve had full days ruined because I’ve obsessed over a perceived insult. Whole days lost because I gave that power to someone else.  No more.  If you feel slighted, feel it, acknowledge it, laugh at it, and let it go.  As Wayne Dyer says, other peoples’ opinions of me are none of my business.


6.Happiness doesn’t exist without sadness.

Like yin and yang, dark and light—we can’t truly experience, understand or value true joy and happiness unless we’ve experienced it’s opposite.  And don’t worry—you won’t have to seek it out: sadness, loneliness, heartbreak and loss will find us all eventually.  But knowing this gives happiness a value and a meaning that it would not otherwise have.  We must revel in our moments of bliss.  We must turn over every rock and look behind every tree to find joy.  But for the sadness of the inevitable moment of death that was coming for my mom, I wouldn’t have had those deep, long moments of true connection.  It took the sadness to push us deeper into our happiness.  We built happiness out of sadness.  Everyone can do this, even when things seem darkest.  Look for the light in the dark.  And if its not there, light a candle and make it exist.



Thanks, mom.