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Reclaiming a Life and Giving It New Meaning

The whole purpose of treatment is to extend life. We do not go through chemotherapy and radiation or surgery just to sit at home in front of the tv waiting to die. When treatment ended I focused on recovery and getting past the side effects. I focused on exercise and support groups as a way of reclaiming my life.

Reclaiming my life

There came a time when that was not enough. I wanted to become a “contributing member of society” again. Bringing it up at group I learned that I was not the only person struggling with my self-worth. As a society, we tend to define or to value ourselves according to the work we do, our athletic ability or the things we do that bring us pleasure. Many patients with advanced cancer find that they no longer have the strength, stamina or capacity to do the things that once brought them pleasure.

Taking inventory

The best advice I ever heard was from another stage 4 lung cancer survivor Kirk Smith. Kirk told me he was quoting Arthur Ashe on overcoming any adversity, “Start where you are at. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

This means doing an inventory of your new primary strengths and weaknesses. What was it about the things you did that gave you pleasure? What are you physically capable of doing? Where do those things meet?

For me, it is difficult to walk and stand for more than three hours at a time. I love socializing with people and find value in helping others. I found the hospital I used had a number of volunteer opportunities that matched my desire to include lung cancer patient advocacy.

My personal commitment

Of course, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. I find myself on three Patient Experience Advisory Councils -- Medical Oncology, Radiation Oncology, and Community Engagement. Each is about an hour and a half monthly commitment. We review everything from policy and nonmedical procedures to new marketing materials. We tell them what does or does not work from the patient perspective and make recommendations for improvement. Frequently the changes we recommend are incorporated into the new product or procedure

Two days a week I volunteer in the oncology resource area. One of those days is in the Lung Cancer Multidisciplinary Clinic. The newly diagnosed patient meets their care team -- the medical oncologist, the surgeon, the radiation oncologist -- they are educated about their treatment plan and if they aren’t on too much overload they meet with me. Most have never met a lung cancer survivor or even knew that such a thing was possible.

The second day I circulate the Oncology Department connecting patients with free services at the hospital, the Cancer Support Community and the American Cancer Society, providing them with publications about issues affecting their lives and their cancer. I give them snacks, water, and a listening ear.

What will you get out of it?

Volunteering has brought a deeper meaning to my life. It gives me a reason to get out of bed and keeps me moving. I’ve only explored the possibilities around my hospital. Look into programs in your city, your library, your school district, your political party, your neighborhood, a senior center. If it brings you joy it’s worth doing.

Check your skill set

What types of activities make you happy? What brings you pleasure? Where do you want to make a difference? What do you want to be your legacy?

A publication by the Mayo Clinic stresses the benefits of volunteering:

  • Reduces risk of depression
  • Creates a sense of purpose and teaches new skills
  • Keep you physically and mentally active
  • Reduce stress levels
  • Helps you live longer
  • Make new friends and develop new relationships

Start where you’re at. Use what you have. Do what you can.

Have you found pleasure volunteering? Please share your experience in the comments.

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