The list: What almost dying taught me about really living

When treatment got underway, I was determined to do everything I could to beat this disease. It started with a list.

At the top of a new page in my journal, I wrote the words “Reasons to Fight.” I then proceeded to write anything and everything that came to mind about what makes life so awesome and so worth fighting for. The idea was to create something to keep me motivated during my treatment when things got tough. Before I knew it, I had a list that was 118 items long.

Looking back at my list, there are a few things that stand out. For starters, it boasts obvious things like my mom (#4 on my list) and my friends (#107). But it also includes a lot of life’s simple pleasures.

Things like gin and tonics (#40), freshly made beds (#50) and the smell of campfires (#72).

Finally, my list overflows with the many experiential riches the world around me has to offer. Things like hiking in the fall (#19), busting a move at a wedding reception (#110), watching shooting stars at my grandma’s beach (#77)…

… and skinny dipping at that beach (#79).

What didn’t make the cut is eye-opening as well. Nowhere on my list are things like the latest gadgets, expensive cars or fancy clothes. Nor are things like spending more time at the office, mindlessly scrolling through my phone or zoning out in front of the TV.

Lying on what could very well have been my deathbed, I wasn’t wishing I had more time to sit on the couch or make more money. I wanted to live so I could enjoy more of the amazing experiences and simple pleasures life has to offer.

My experience with leukemia was tough. But it also taught me a lot.

It taught me the importance of pursuing memories over material things. It taught me about embracing the everyday awesome. And it taught me to appreciate the little things in life, whether it’s sunrises (#78), sandwiches (#99)…

… or even a good fart (#58).

When nausea or loneliness got bad during my cancer treatment, my list reminded me why it was all worth it. It helped me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Here are a few other suggestions on how to keep your spirits up when you’re facing an obstacle in life.

#1. Nurture an attitude of gratitude

Remind yourself of all the good stuff in your life. Similar to my list, 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.

#2. Surround yourself with 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.

#3. 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.

#4. 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.

#5. Get outside

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

#6. 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.

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.