Lesson #4: Stay Strong

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Attitude is everything.

A poopy rainstorm

Getting drenched in a shower of feces may not seem like the best way to spend an afternoon. Especially while you’re in the hospital dealing with a life-threatening illness. Even so, there have been few occasions when I’ve laughed so hard.

It was October 2008 and I was back as an inpatient at Princess Margaret. After seven months of searching international bone marrow registries, my doctors had finally found me a match. With the anonymous European donor lined up, my weekly chemo outpatient sessions were stopped. Now I had to prepare for the big show: the bone marrow transplant that would (hopefully) cure me of cancer by replacing my garbage stem cells with healthy ones.

My month-long pre- and post-transplant stay in the hospital made my induction phase stint seem like a cakewalk. For starters, they weren’t just trying to get my cancer into remission. They were out for total eradication, firebombing my bone marrow into oblivion with heavy-duty chemicals and multiple sessions of total body irradiation.

The transplant itself was pretty tame. I pictured myself undergoing a dramatic operation like Wolverine getting his adamantium skeleton, with long needles boring into my bones and infusing me with new marrow. Instead, I got a little bag hooked up to my IV just like any of the other dozen blood transfusions I’d had.

It didn’t take long for the side effects of the transplant, radiation treatment and innumerable drugs I was taking to emerge. During that time, I endured all manner of physical horrors, including nausea, vomiting, mouth sores and a tongue so swollen that I had to sleep in an upright position for a couple nights so I wouldn’t choke on it.

I also suffered through a few days of ridiculous diarrhea. I had to keep meticulous track of all my liquid intakes and outputs to help ensure I was getting enough fluids each day, which meant recording the amount of water or juice I drank. It also meant peeing into a container to measure how much I was voiding. And yes, unfortunately, the watery nature of diarrhea meant that I now had to measure those excretions as well. To accomplish this wretched task, I was given a special plastic container that fit over the toilet.

When you’re rushing to the toilet every twenty minutes or so, measuring your poop gets tiresome in a real hurry. And it doesn’t take long for the container to become intolerably filthy. I decided my poo bucket needed a scrubbing. Befouling my sink where I brush my teeth was out of the question so I turned to the bidet next to the toilet. I should have held onto the bowl with a firmer grip. I cranked the bidet on full blast and underestimated the strength of the water pressure, as a geyser of water blasted the diarrhea-lined container from my hand and sent it skyrocketing.

The stream of water sent the bowl crashing into the bathroom’s high ceiling, and sent torrents of feces-tainted water crashing back onto my head. Although I managed to shut the bidet off quickly, the damage had been done. It looked as though I had been caught in a rainstorm.

My mom, who was with me every day while I was hospitalized, started to wonder what was taking me so long. She asked through the closed bathroom door if everything was all right. Emerging, I sheepishly walked out drenched from head to toe in my own sewage.

Despite the horror of being caught in a deluge of dung, it was exactly the release we both needed and we both broke into fits of uncontrollable laughter. Finding humour in such a difficult situation did wonders for our mood and helped us get through the tough times we were facing.

Yelling at gravestones

“I hear you’re unconquerable.” That was the first thing my dear friend and mentor, Myrta, told me after I had been diagnosed. I was determined to beat this cancer, and from then on “unconquerable” became my mantra. No matter what the disease did to me physically—even if it killed me—I promised myself I wasn’t going to let it beat me mentally, emotionally or spiritually.

I would find other ways to keep myself motivated. In the seven months leading up to my transplant, I would take my dog Stockie for walks in the cemetery behind our house. Passing gravestones, I would point to them and shout “Not yet!” Sure, Stockie gave me a funny look, but that attitude of defiance helped keep me strong.

That’s not to say I never had low moments. There were many. But keeping a positive attitude kept me from sinking too deeply into the quicksand of depression and despair.

Unlike a container full of diarrhea, just how much my positive outlook aided in my recovery from cancer can’t be measured. But I know it kept me psychologically and emotionally fit to deal with the rollercoaster of setbacks and struggles. It helped keep me on track in terms of eating properly, getting enough sleep, taking my medications on time, following my doctors’ instructions and getting through treatment. There’s no question in my mind that all those factors played an essential role in my physical recovery.

Success involves the ability to laugh at yourself, shrug off difficult situations and stubbornly refuse to quit. The right attitude makes all the difference.

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TAKEAWAY IDEAS

Nurture an attitude of gratitude. Remind yourself of all the good stuff in your life. Keep a journal and record all the little things that were good about that day—a tasty meal, sunshine, a visit from a friend. Or keep a jar in your bedroom with slips of paper next to it. Take a moment each night to write something you’re thankful for and add it to the jar. Read through your entries at the end of each month or so to help you stay positive and keep things in perspective.

You can also visit www.badgeofawesome.com/list to add your items of gratitude to my Simple Pleasures Project, which was inspired by my experience with cancer.

Surround yourself in the good stuff. Post motivational quotes around your office or bedroom. Listen to uplifting music. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I asked my friend Royce to put together a collection of real-life stories of people from history who had persevered in the face of great challenges. The book was chock full of examples that included Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and other inspirational figures.

Share. Don’t keep your feelings bottled up. Sharing how you feel with loved ones can boost your spirits. Articulating your feelings also helps you get your head around your problem—and once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start tackling it.

Create a personal mantra. What’s your personal mantra? Identify key objectives and priorities in your life and attach a word or phrase to them. I had two: “Unconquerable,” and “I am healthy, I am strong.” Write your personal mantra out on a piece of paper and post it somewhere visible. Use it as a way to focus your attention and keep you on track. Take time every day to quietly repeat the words over and over again and meditate on their meaning. If you find yourself in a stressful situation, pull your mantra out of your bag of tricks as a way of calming down and taking control of the situation.

Get outside. It’s amazing how a little fresh air and sunshine can improve your mood. Exercise is another important way to stay positive.

Expose yourself to the lighter side of life. Watch funny movies and TV shows or go see a comedy act. Balance out the seriousness of life with a few laughs.

NEXT – LESSON #5: DIG IN

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