Enjoying life at a
(slightly) slower pace

by Barbara Lang

Cancer offered me the freedom to step back; it gave me permission to change the way I was living my life.

windmill of Hollan, photo by Barbara LangTen down and two to go. When this article gets published, I'll be on my second-to-last chemotherapy treatment. I feel like a horse aiming for the barn — I can feel the end of the journey is near, and I'm itching to get there.

My trip to the Netherlands was a welcome break from the cancer treatment routine. Four days felt like two weeks as Dave and I toured Amsterdam and drove into the countryside to see tulips galore in a landscape speckled with windmills. The trip was free from stress, well, except for smuggling out some Gouda cheese and Dutch chocolate.

Upon my return, the nurses said my vitals looked great — evidently the trip was good medicine. Then POW! I was clobbered with another treatment, but this time, I was given steroids to help with another new side effect — itching as if I had ants in the pants and everywhere else. Luckily, my fears of a lower voice and more facial hair didn't come to pass, and I felt great for a few days. Then I crashed, and I'm still trying to get my energy back. No such thing as a free ride with these medications. For every positive effect, there always seems to be a payback of some sort.

But for all my moaning and groaning, mentally at least I've never felt better and have had time to reflect on how stress has impacted my life. Stress can mean a variety of things — placing an emphasized importance on something; becoming mentally or emotionally upset, and as a result impacting one's physical health; or, as defined in physics, either a force that can deform a body or create “internal resistance” in a body exposed to such an applied force.

All these definitions fit my personal history, and I believe stress was a major contributing factor in my developing cancer. I have absolutely no factual evidence, nor did I do any research on this. But when I learned that I had cancer, I wasn't surprised. I knew I had been going down a road filled with exhausting and wrenching internal pushing and shoving that had clearly been out of control. In response, my body quietly gathered up all that toxic junk and formed it into one big, neatly wrapped package of cancerous polyps and neighboring lymph nodes. I was clueless about my condition until that routine colonoscopy, but in retrospect, I was a train wreck waiting to happen. Don't misunderstand — I don't blame myself, pounding my chest with declarations of mea culpa; I just recognize that I allowed work to define and drive my life in ways that weren't healthy. Suddenly I was being forced to stop and settle down. I never would have done that if it weren't for the cancer.

The cancer offered me the freedom to step back; it gave me permission to change the way I was living my life. Some people are smarter than I am and don't need such extreme disruptions to get their attention — but not me. There may have been a good reason why my daughters once lovingly said I was “smart like tractor, strong like bull.” I suppose one could interpret this as a diss, but I welcomed the distinction between such dubious intelligence and powerful strength. But now, I am learning to place an appropriate measure of significance on situations and just don't sweat the small stuff as in the past. I no longer live to work, but work to live. The imposed shift in my career had felt like my life was falling apart when, in fact, it was actually falling into place. My new job demands fewer hours, less daily commitment and yet is totally fulfilling and fun. Call it a gift, an epiphany, a state of grace or a wake-up call, but whatever it may have been, I gratefully accept it. I had allowed stress to become an accepted way of living, and now I'm consciously resisting any urges to ramp up my obligations, but rather enjoy my life at a slower pace.

Recently, I signed up for the August Cayuga Lake Triathlon and Women Swimmin' events. Prior to being diagnosed with cancer, I trained for triathlons. I know, I know, these could be viewed as two big obligations that contradict what I just said; but they are both quite manageable when broken down into components. Just like I viewed the chemotherapies, one treatment at a time, I'm using the same approach to my training. Stay in the moment and focus on what has be done at that specific time and don't get overwhelmed by the big picture. Once the chemo is done at the end of this month, I want to slowly train and get my body and energy back. I don't know if I'll be ready to finish either event, but it doesn't really matter. The process of training and having a goal are what I want right now. My body has no hesitation telling me when I need to stop, and though I may be a Tractor Bull, I truly have learned to listen more carefully to these messages.

Barbara Lang, 52, was diagnosed with colon cancer in October 2006. An enthusiastic triathlete with a passion for healthful cooking, Barbara’s career has included being a culinary director for a Napa Valley winery, restaurant owner, host of a series of culinary videos, author and consultant (www.restauranttoretail.com).  She is a former longtime faculty member and present undergraduate advisor for the Cornell University Hotel School.  

This essay was first published on May 16, 2007 in the Ithaca Journal, Ithaca, New York.