As I mentioned, my friends and family featured prominently in my Reasons to Fight list. And for good reason: throughout my cancer treatment, they stepped up time and time again to help me. One incident in particular stands out.

During my stay at the hospital in March 2008, I discovered how dealing with a major life obstacle can become all-consuming. Throughout the month, I would eat, sleep and breathe cancer.

When I wasn’t receiving chemotherapy, I was thinking about it. It’s hard not to. Hooked up to a whirring and beeping IV machine 24/7, my circumstances quite literally followed me around. From my blood counts written on the whiteboard each morning to the vitals checks multiple times a day, leukemia crept into my every moment.

In fact, I became so preoccupied with my cancer that I almost forgot that it was my 28th birthday at the end of the month. Stuck in isolation, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able go out and party with my friends.

But true to their awesomeness, my loved ones brought the party to me.

On the street below my hospital window, a mob of more friends and family than I realized I had gathered to perform a surprise human art show. 

Set to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” they ran around the cordoned-off street, pulling off an amazing choreographed routine.

From high above on the 15th floor, I watched them use their bodies and colourful umbrellas to spell out words like “happy birthday” and morph themselves into a birthday cake, fireworks and more.

Little did I know that their kindness would do more than put me in an amazing mood.

The next morning, my nurse came into my room to check my weight and vitals. “You need to have more birthday parties,” she said cheerily. She then proceeded to write down the day’s blood counts, which had taken a healthy jump in the right direction since the epic flash mob.

Sure, it’s entirely possible it was just a coincidence. But I like to think that the boost to my physical health had a lot to do with the boost to my spirits. At the very least, it helped quiet the beehive in my brain and untwist my anxious gut, making it easier to get a decent night’s sleep, eat more food at dinner and build my strength up for the next round of chemo. 

My surprise birthday flash mob reminded me how crucial it is to come up for air once in a while. Indeed, a break from the incessant worrying and obsessing was just what the doctor ordered. (Well, a potent combination of asparaginase, vincristine and dexamethasone was what the doctor actually ordered. But you know what I mean.)

Overcoming obstacles takes a lot of hard work. But no one has an infinite supply of energy. And that’s why balancing great effort with beneficial pause is so important.

Breaks allow you to regroup and recharge your mental, emotional and physical batteries. They’re an opportunity to check the map and think strategically about the direction you’re taking. And stepping back from the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other grind lets you take stock of the bigger picture and remind yourself of what you’re trying to accomplish.

I could only bury my head in literature about leukemia for so long before I needed a break. So when I found my brain endlessly obsessing about my situation, I’d distract myself with some light reading, a movie or some video games. Meanwhile, when my friends came for a visit, I would definitely give them an update them about my health. But we always made sure to balance those heavier conversations with small talk about the latest gossip. Or lighthearted debates about who would win in a fight between Batman and Iron Man (the answer is clearly Batman). 

Building in breaks

Navigating obstacles can be a long and difficult process. Don’t forget to take breaks along the way. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Practise deep breathing — A good way to get out of your head is to focus on your breathing. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for seven counts, and slowly blow out through your mouth for eight counts. Repeat this four times in a row twice a day.

Switch off the guilt — Don’t beat yourself up for wanting to take a break. Breaks not only let you restore your energy, but a change in scenery can also get the problem-solving juices flowing. Stepping away from your laptop to grab a snack can be exactly what your brain needs to find the solution you’ve been looking for.

Get out of Dodge — Going on a personal retreat can give you the peace and perspective you need to tackle an obstacle. Pack your bags, get out of town and embrace the clarity that solitude and new surroundings can bring.

Socialize — Even if it’s just a half-hour coffee date with an old friend, force yourself to get out of your head and your house. Yes, there’s so much to do. But spending time with loved ones can help you keep things in perspective and can leave you feeling re-energized.

Get outside — It’s amazing how simple things like a little fresh air and sunshine can improve your mood. Exercise is another important way to get the endorphins flowing, stay positive and boost your energy.

Next: Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck