The birthday: What a hospital celebration taught me about coming up for air

Dealing with a major life obstacle can be all consuming. That’s certainly how I felt when I started the induction phase of my chemotherapy protocol in March 2008. As an inpatient, I was to stay at Princess Margaret Hospital for a month while the amazing team on Floor 15 reined in my wild blood counts. During that month, I would eat, sleep and breathe cancer.

When I wasn’t receiving chemotherapy, I was thinking about it. It’s hard not to. Being hooked up to a whirring and beeping IV stand 24/7, your circumstances quite literally follow you around. From my blood counts written on the whiteboard each morning to the containers I peed in so the nurses could measure my fluid output, CML crept into my every moment.

So preoccupied with trying not to die, I almost forgot about my 28th birthday at the end of the month.

I was a bit bummed that I couldn’t go out and party with my friends, but true to their awesomeness, they brought the party to me. Under the leadership of my friends Rob, Meagan and Royce — and with a mob of more friends and family than I realized I had — a “human art show” was performed for me on the street far below my hospital room window.

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, 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 even two giant stick figures playing ultimate Frisbee.

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 street performance.

Coincidence? Maybe. But I like to think that the boost to my physical health had a lot to do with the boost to my spirits.

It turned out that 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.

Remembering to breathe

My dad once told us kids, “Don’t be afraid to giv’er, but don’t giv’er all the time.” Sure, it’s not Shakespeare, but great advice nonetheless. Overcoming obstacles takes a lot of hard work, but no one has an infinite supply of energy. Balancing great effort with beneficial pause is crucial.

Breaks allow you to regroup and recharge your mental, emotional and physical batteries. They’re an opportunity to check the map and think strategically. Stepping back from the “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” grind lets you take stock of the bigger picture and remind yourself of why you’re on your bear hunt.

I could only bury my head in literature about my leukemia for so long before I needed a break. When I found my brain endlessly obsessing about my situation, I’d distract myself with some light reading, a movie or some video games. My friends and family always wanted to know how my treatment was going, but we were sure to balance those heavier conversations with small talk about the weather, politics and whether Batman or Iron Man would win in a fight. (FYI, the answer is Batman. Obviously.)

Navigating obstacles can be a long and difficult process. Don’t forget to come up for air from time to time! Below are a few ideas to consider.

#1. Take a focus walk

One technique I use to get out of my head and its jumble of thoughts involves going for a walk and concentrating on just one sensory experience. For example, I may decide to focus on sounds and then make a deliberate effort to take a mental inventory of the various sounds I am hearing at that moment. You’ll be amazed at the symphony going on around you, from birds singing, to cars driving by, to the sound of your footsteps. Or, if I decide to focus on smell, I pay careful attention to the many aromas around me: the smell of flowers, leaves, my deodorant, concrete, or the old man ahead of me who clearly just farted. Bringing your focus to your immediate surroundings is a great way to clear your head and be in the moment.

#2. Meditate

Another way to get out of your head is by focusing on your breathing. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for seven counts, and slowly blow out for eight counts. Repeat this four times in a row twice a day.

#3. Set boundaries.

These days, the prevalence of emails and smart phones can tie us to our work 24/7. Whether you implement a strict no-phone rule at dinner, set aside one day a week as date night or join a beginner’s kung fu class, it’s important to make an effort to step away from your bear hunt from time to time.

#4. Switch off the guilt.

Don’t beat yourself up for wanting to take a break. Breaks not only let you recharge your energy, but a change in scenery can also get the problem-solving juices flowing. I can’t count how many times I’ve been stuck staring at a blank screen with writers’ block and how getting away from my desk to do the dishes or go for stroll around the block will jar the ideas loose and give me the words I was looking for.

#5. Go on a retreat.

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.

#6. 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 your relationships should be a priority and need to be nurtured and cared for too.

More stories from the Overcoming Obstacles Handbook


Lessons learned from leukemia

More life lessons

Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.