Losing Dreams, Yet Gaining Today
Wrestling with how cancer changed my life brings me grief but also hope and joy.
(Pastor and Colon Cancer Survivor)
I often wrestle with the ways that cancer has changed my life, yet it’s often intermingled with gratitude.
Diagnosed with cancer five years ago, rarely a day goes by where I do not stop and give thanks that my journey continues.
I am reminded of this when I go for chemotherapy, and some of the “familiar faces” that were fixtures in the treatment rooms are no longer there. I rejoice with those who have heard words like “remission” or “cured.” Yet I am sad about those who are no longer with us.
While I’m grateful to be here, cancer has certainly changed my life. And if I’m honest, part of me mourns the loss of the person I used to be.
A recent experience reminded me of this fact.
My Appalachian dream
In 2007 I picked up a hitchhiker. While this is not a practice I would recommend, it did result in a fascinating conversation. Eddie had left Georgia a few months earlier and walked the Appalachian Trail to Massachusetts. The charm of the trail had worn off and he was calling it quits.
As we talked, Eddie encouraged me to “live life as an adventure.” Our conversation ignited within me a desire to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. So my son, Joseph, and I began to study what that would mean, and plans started taking shape.
Life intervened, and our plans moved to the back burner. However, while plans were on hold, there remained this ache inside me to experience the freedom of spending months in the wilderness walking from Georgia to Maine.
A dream derailed
Last December, my liver was acting up, as it tends to do, and I spent a week in the hospital. In preparation for discharge, I started walking the halls to gain strength. One of the nurses told me four complete laps around the halls equaled a mile. That became my goal. Walk a mile to show them (and myself) I was ready to head home. Cane in hand, I slowly completed my fourth lap.
As soon as the discharge papers were signed, I was ready to go. I could “wait for transport” or walk to the car myself. Waiting for transport could easily add another hour to my time in the hospital, so Nancy, my wife, and I headed toward the door.
Partway to the car, I began struggling. My steps were unsure, and I needed to sit down for a few minutes. As we started on our way again, I was undone. I was talking to Nancy but essentially speaking to myself.
Well, I guess my plans for walking the Appalachian Trail are over. Here I am struggling to make it to the car walking on smooth sidewalks without any pack on my back. There is no way I could handle the ups and downs of the Appalachian Trail carrying supplies. Cancer has robbed me of that dream.
We walked in silence for a while.
Nancy began to speak of all the positive things in my world these days. Everything she said was true. I still hurt.
A few moments later, she said, “I thought I might walk the trail in your honor someday.” Her words were well-intentioned, but they revealed the truth that she did not believe me capable of living out my dream.
I changed the subject as we continued our trek toward the parking garage.
Rethinking, Adjusting and Refocusing
Over the next few weeks, my thoughts returned to that long walk out of the hospital. The reality of how cancer has changed my life has caused me to rethink plans, adjust dreams, and refocus my energy.
These changes can be the smallest of things to significant, life-altering realities. Over time, it is hard to escape how cancer has impacted the way I and my family experience life.
A few months ago, I stepped down from my role as pastor and went on disability, long before I had ever planned on retiring. Once again, cancer was changing the plans I had for the way my life would unfold.
I could move through my days mourning lost dreams or plans before cancer changed my life. There have been seasons where I battled these feelings. But, in my experience, consistently thinking such thoughts does not lead to peace. The longer my mind wallows in despair, the darker the world seems.
Finding hope amidst disappointment
Hope and Joy come only when I can see the gift of each day. My spirit is encouraged when I lay aside dreams of what “might have been” and step into “what God is doing in my life today.”
Let me help you understand what that looks like in my life.
The other day my retired self was sitting in my study at home. It was early afternoon, and I had a few projects to complete. I looked down at my dog, Avila, napping by my feet and asked if she wanted to go for a walk. She went from full sleep to eagerly pacing the floor in seconds. A few moments later, the two of us were hiking along a beautiful trout stream on a wooded trail.
It was not the Appalachian Trail, yet it was the trail God has for me right now. I could mourn the fact I will most likely never thru-hike the Appalachian trail, or I could get about enjoying Avila and the beauty all around me. I am retired (again, not my plan), so I have plenty of time for daily hikes—or walks–on the trails. The longer we walked, the lighter my spirit and the bigger my smile.
Yes, cancer has brought changes to my life and the plans I had. Yet, the gift is that some of the new opportunities that have come my way because of my cancer are filled with hope and promise. Learning to see the Spirit at work in the midst of this “disruption” is one of the greatest gifts of my life.
I pray that as you reflect upon the many changes cancer has brought into your life, God grants you the grace to see the opportunity surrounding you.
For more help with finding gratitude, see Every Day is a Gift.