Life Lessons from a Cancer Survivor: Avoid Burnout and Live a Purposeful Life

The hill is insurmountable. The laundry list of chores, tasks, to-dos –some mine, but mostly the doing is serving another’s needs, someone else’s mission. I grasp for air, for time to eat, to sleep, to play, to dream. Sound familiar? Before my cancer treatment ended, someone suggested to me that I be the person to write about, “How to Avoid Burnout after Cancer”. I’m not sure I can, as I’m still learning how. If you are looking for an easy step by step guide on how to get your life back on track, sorry. It is going to look completely different for everyone.

In the first few weeks after treatment ended, there was this thrill of returning to normalcy. Even though I still looked sickly, all bald, and pale and bloated, my white cell count was up and I could return to society without fear of falling seriously ill. All the parties missed, the skipped play dates with my son spent napping, the normal things like going grocery shopping or to the gym, all felt like novel privileges to return to.

There was also urgency behind my excitement because I felt that I had a year of my life to make up for. Breast Cancer had taken away my breasts, my fertility, my health and vitality, my hair, my physical beauty and femininity, and it had eaten up time. This mid-thirties time, when many of my friends were either having their second or third child or advancing in their careers, and I was coming face to face with my mortality, the fight for my life. Not wanting to sacrifice any more of myself or my time, I pushed myself to keep moving, to pick up the pieces.

Just a few months after treatment ended, I resumed the Life Coaching training program I had started exactly three weeks before learning I had breast cancer, in May of 2014. I rode the 5:45AM Adirondack Trailways bus from Woodstock to Port Authority for weekend long trainings every few weeks. Schlepping my suitcase to the hotel conference center, the sea of people made the air feel tangibly thick and heavy. My body weak and my brain, still discombobulated from the chemical assault, felt overwhelmingly confused that first time, so much that I almost turned around in the hotel lobby. Those neat roundabout doors wanted to propel me back to the bus station. The shame of being even a few minutes late, the self-pity and feeling that I was not ready for all this, threatened to send me home.

Then I met my CTI coaching colleagues and the incredible group leaders. As I immersed myself in this work, learning and practicing the tools of Co-Active coaching, I knew that I had found my calling. I knew by the end of that first weekend back that even if I were to ever relapse, or come face to face with another serious diagnosis of some sort, that I wanted to be doing this coaching work until the day that my body gives out.

One of the most transformative exercises involved going on a guided Inner Journey where we met with our Higher Selves, or “Captain,” as they called it, and from this we developed our own personal Life Purpose statements. My current Life Purpose statement goes something like this: “I am the spark that ignites creative fire and purposeful living in everyone I meet”. This brought a new level of urgency, this yearning to give back, partnering with other people to find purpose, meaning, joy and connection in their own lives. It was like being struck by lightning.

I began my private Life Coaching practice in earnest in July of 2015, mostly meeting new clients through word of mouth and by offering free private coaching sessions. In January of 2016 I began leading small group workshops and coaching demos. If you had told me the year prior, just as I was finishing my last chemo treatment that I would be leading coaching workshops in one year’s time, I would have thought you were out of your mind!

Here I am now, 14 months since treatment ended, about to crest the 2 year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. While I am starting to feel like the nightmare is really over, the reality is that it has not been very easy getting my life back to a “New Normal”. Starting a new career, the launching of my own Life Coaching business, after a year of very little income and work is risky business. I had to have tremendous courage and the fortitude to diversify and take on additional freelance work. I am impassioned though, and committed to my vision. It feels much greater and larger than me, a force that needs to come through me.

Within weeks of my private practice launch, we learned that we had to move out of our apartment. To shake things up even further, my husband’s blood pressure went through the roof, landing him in the hospital for a series of tests and medication. We have a 5 year old, which requires a high level of energy on its own, but additionally, he is a young boy on the Autism Spectrum. While he is a joy and the light of our lives, this developmental disability brings a good deal of Red-Alert stress and requires a ton of patience, time and energy.

My story is not uniquely challenging. Change the names and the variables, and it is someone else’s life. This is a picture of what overcoming adversity looks like. It is not pretty. It is not easy. It is not always inspirational. How do you keep going? You put one foot in front of the other. If you are sad and depressed, look into that, feel it, but get help if it comes to the point where you are starting to drift off into the unreachable ocean of grief. If you are angry, get pissed. Use that fire to light you up. Take it to the gym, or into the woods and break sticks, throw rocks, scream your brains out. There will be a rush of endorphins, the purity from having that anger burned out of you, the sanctity of peace that follows. Write it out of you, write and write and write until your eyes burn from staring at the screen. Paint it and draw it and walk with it. Dare to dream again, however big or small. There is juiciness to squeeze from each precious day.

If you have come through cancer treatment or a major surgery or some other tremendous battle for your physical or mental health, Congratulations. Welcome to the New Normal. It may look and feel different tomorrow by imperceptible degrees. A month from now or 6 months or 2 years it may all be new terrain.

One of the lessons cancer taught was to listen to my body. I know I am overdoing it when the neuropathy gets bad in my fingers and toes. I know I need to slow down or take a nap, or decline an invitation. Another lesson is that I am steering the ship. I can say no, setting limits for what I am willing to do. By staying in the present moment, I am less prone to over committing and more likely to honor what my body is telling me. Lastly, I can ask for help. This was a real kick in the ass lesson for me, but a true game changer. When you allow others to help, they feel needed and included. It can be very empowering for them and nurturing for you.


5 thoughts on “Life Lessons from a Cancer Survivor: Avoid Burnout and Live a Purposeful Life”

  1. anytime you would like to come over and scream, work out in our tiny gym or fiddle thru my closet of clothes that no longer fit my life style, please do. Life has sent us down different roads but they arent that far off from each other. I miss you and would love to connect.

  2. Reallly clear and beautiful writing, Melissa. And universal lessons for us all, for every single day.
    Thanks for the reminder. Much love.

  3. Thank you. I just finished stage 4 colorectal cancer treatment last month- moved from Alaska to North Carolina, solo and am starting a new career, going back to school fulltime and have enrolled in phlebotomy class (passed) and currently in real estate school (struggling) all before the university semester starts next month so I can finish my bachelors and hopefully get into PA school to help others on their health journeys. I needed this tonight. I’m struggling with my new normal. Thank you 🙏🏼

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