How to Live Your Best Life After Cancer

Sean Swarner at South Pole

On National Cancer Survivors Day, I spoke to a room filled with cancer survivors at Littleton Adventist Hospital.

I started the conversation by asking them a simple question, “How many of you are cancer survivors?” 

Of course, hands immediately shot up across the room. Then I prompted a more unusual question, “How many of you now see cancer as a good thing?” This time, only a few hands raised.

“Why on earth would I see cancer as a good thing?” I’m sure most of them thought from their seats.

But then I began to tell my story about cancer — and life after it.

As a teenager, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare cancer that limited my body’s ability to fight infection. After aggressive treatment, the cancer went into remission for almost 20 months. During a routine checkup, however, a second, unrelated cancer was found (Askin’s sarcoma). I was given 14 days to live.

At this point, I could choose to give up and die or I could choose to fight for my life. That day — and every day since the cancer went into remission 25 years ago — I chose to fight for the life that I wanted.

I may not be able to control everything — like the two-time terminal cancer diagnosis or the radiation treatments that damaged one of my lungs. But I could choose to focus my time and energy on the things within my control — the thoughts in my head, the way I speak to myself and others, and the things that I choose to give my time to each day.

Cancer has given me the opportunity to see life in a way that I never would have otherwise. It didn’t just teach me how to survive, it taught me how to truly live.

Since that diagnosis, I’ve gone on to ascend Everest, climb the highest mountain on every continent, ski to the North and South Poles, and complete the Hawaii Ironman.

After telling my story, I asked the audience again, “How many of you now see cancer as a good thing?”

Almost everyone raised their hands.

For survivors, there is life after cancer.

Here are four simple ways to utilize that gift:

1. Be a good roommate to yourself.

You spend more time talking to yourself than anyone else. Pay attention to your thoughts. Listen for things that are framed in the negative, such as “I hope I don’t fall” if you’re navigating a paddle board for the first time or taking a new road bike out for a spin. Thinking about the negative draws us toward it. Instead, acknowledge the thought and re-phrase it, “I’m proud of myself for trying something new.”

2. Understand your intrinsic motivators.

Everyone has a different motivation for getting out of bed each day. Maybe you want to spend your life after cancer becoming a healthier person. But your motivation for leading a healthier life isn’t just to live longer (although that’d be a pretty great bonus). You might want to lead a healthier life so that you can have the energy to play with your grandchildren. Family might be the real reason “why” you’re motivated to make a change. Understanding your “why” can help to propel you toward your goals, especially when things get challenging. The Step-Up Program I’m developing can help you identify your intrinsic motivators by taking a Core Values Assessment. In the program, you’ll discover what motivates you, identify the obstacles standing in your way, and outline an action plan to overcome them to achieve your goals.

3. Make micro changes.

Let’s say you’d like to be healthier, in order to play with your grandchildren. You wouldn’t start out by saying, “I’m overweight, I need to lose 30 pounds.” That starts you off on a negative, and doesn’t speak to how you’ll get there. Instead, focus on your intrinsic motivator (family) and the small, micro choices you will make to reach your goals. It could be as simple as switching soda for water at every meal. Or putting snacks between meals on a plate so that you can see the portion size, instead of eating out of the bag. Each time you make a healthy choice, it will boost your confidence — and brings you one step closer toward your goals.

4. Give back to the cancer community.

It’s easy to feel angry, overwhelmed, and alone when you have cancer. You might remember those feelings all too well. As a cancer survivor, you now have the ability to help someone else who is in the same place you once stood. Imerman Angels helps connect cancer fighters with cancer survivors who have already battled that same type of cancer — and won. Your insight, guidance and encouragement might be exactly what someone needs to hear right now. Bonus: studies have shown that volunteering has both physical and mental health benefits.

How will you live your best life after cancer?

Join me online Sat., October 5 at 10:30 a.m. (Eastern Standard Time) at the 2019 Global Virtual Cancer Conference. I’ll be addressing real issues that cancer survivors face — and how to overcome those challenges, step-by-step.