Starting Fresh After Unforeseen Challenges
It's 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in November of 2013 when Shanita gets the phone call.
Nearly three months earlier, unable to clear painful pressure in her head after a flight descend, she went to the doctor suspecting a sinus infection, which might explain the small nodule that had developed on her nose. The doctor examined her and did a biopsy of the nodule.
With the pathology report finally done, the results were in.
Seconds before Shanita picked up the phone, she considered her life great. She had recently purchased a home and was enjoying the fruits of the hard work that she'd put into her education and career.
After the call, she leaves work early, thinking about how her perception of her life has just turned upside down and how she's going tell her mom what the doctor said. The 10-minute phone call boiled down to one thing: she's been diagnosed with Stage 1 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The Fight Is For, Not Against
I'd like to think that the hiker in the cover photo isn't contemplating the journey ahead, but is looking back at the journey accomplished. The peaks, valleys, easy paths, hard trails, rest stops, and sprints. Every step advanced the hiker through the journey and lead them to the end.
Looking back at this year, for many, 2016 has been equal parts triumph and heartbreak. I think triumph should outweigh heartbreak by at least 3 times to cut through the blues of a broken heart. This year hasn't been that generous. More people than not are thrilled to be at the end of 2016 with '17 on the horizon bringing with it hope for a kinder year.
Sometimes our journeys are easy, but tough times happen. The other side of tough times is a wiser, evolved version of ourselves if we choose to learn.
As Shanita walked through her experience with cancer as a single woman in her 30s and with so little control over the future and with her life at stake, what became clear is that no matter the year, we all have a battle in life to fight.
Individually, we're fighting for different things, but universally, as Shanita explained, "The fight isn't against things you can’t change. The fight is for all the things that you really want in your life."
With a great deal of humility and grace, Shanita recalled how cancer taught her some of her greatest lessons.
What she discovered just may change your perception of 2016 and give you a new point-of-view for 2017 and for the rest of your life.
Be True To Your Own Needs
The next 2 to 3 days are the most difficult because Shanita isn't sure about what to do, but relies on prayer and faith to keep her grounded as she assembles a team of doctors.
Assembling a dream team doesn't come without a snag.
Shanita's first main doctor works at one the world's most renowned cancer facilities in the Texas Medical Center. However, being a capable doctor at an exceptional institution doesn't guarantee good bedside manner and unfortunately his temperament doesn't gel with Shanita's personality, so she researches a new doctor at a different hospital and switches right away.
Awesome, beautiful, and warm are words that describe her new doctor who feels more like a friend.
“If I’m going to die, I want to die working with someone I like working with. I don’t want to die giving somebody the side-eye on my way out,” Shanita laughs. "When you have someone who looks you in your eye and you know they care, if you die today, then the prior day would've been a beautiful day."
This sentiment transcends medicine and applies to her social and dating life, as well. "When [I'm] looking at someone and I can tell they don’t care about me...move on!"
There are so many seemingly small moments like this during Shanita's journey that lay ground work for a new and intentional perspective on life: not having the wrong-for-you people in your life (no matter how qualified they are on paper), making room for people who genuinely care, and focusing on things that matter.
Focus On The Things That Matter
At the hospital, to her right and left are people in different stages of cancer treatment. Some will make it to remission; others are near the end of their lives. Witnessing time nearly expire on someone's life is jarring in that it's a blunt reminder that life makes no promises. All there is is now. And what you choose to do with now is your decision.
Her team of doctors reinforce this as they only focus on her healing and saving her life. They don't focus on life because it's the optimistic thing to do. They focus on life because there is nothing more important. Good blood readings are important. Treatment is important. But mentions of hair or hair loss are treated with a "Why are we even talking about hair?" attitude.
By this time, Shanita's hair has fallen out and as she remembers, "I didn’t want to lose my hair, but I did." To her surprise, "No one cared." What they care about is her life and all the readings and test results that suggests she'll have a long one. In other words, "things that you don’t think are a big deal but are because it means that you’re going to stay alive.”
The doctors' indifference to her hair loss reshapes her thinking so that Shanita begins choosing to be thankful for ordinary, everyday miracles like waking up, going to work, eating a good meal, and appreciating whatever it is she's doing in the moment, which is a moment called "now."
Finding Comfort Through Your Faith
One. The number of times loneliness crept in.
"When I got the call from the doctor, I went home and nobody was there. I went to bed and thought about everything that I thought my life would’ve been," Shanita recalls.
"I thought I was going to be married. I thought I was going to have children. And no one was in that house but me. I went to bed and turned off the lights and it was quiet. I felt alone."
"I prayed, but my prayers did not help me at that moment."
The next morning Shanita wakes up with a call-to-action for herself: don't live life thinking about everything she doesn't have, but center her thoughts around what she does have. The truth is, in those first 72 hours of her diagnosis, she wasn't sure how long she had to enjoy the things she had, so the uncertainly of her lifespan was unintentionally inspiring.
Talking about loneliness and choosing thoughts is also a conversation about faith in God, which too is a choice.
Admittedly, her faith is tested, but is also affirmed when she wonders how she got through hard times in the past, like her father's death, or how she got blessed to live a great life despite bumps in the road. There was nothing that she did that she could say helped her through, so for Shanita, the only answer left to explain her survival and success is the grace of God. So she reasons with herself to believe that God will carry her through this just as He's done in the past.
The one time she felt lonely was the first, last, and only time.
Did I Cause This? Yes.
A pattern appeared in my conversation with Shanita.
3 themes kept popping up: choice, perception, and responsibility. Not fault, responsibility. Not blame, responsibility. Responsibility for things that are within one's control that can be improved. One's response ability. The ability a person has to respond to their circumstances to create a healthier environment.
To that point, Shanita reflectively says, "I looked at my lifestyle and asked [myself] if there was something I did that caused this to be in my body and the answer was 'yes'.”
She names the offenses: stressing about her job, working so many late nights, poor relationships, poor diet and exercise habits. There's no guarantee that controlling any of these things will prevent cancer. In fact, people who live "clean and healthy" lifestyles aren't immune from the disease. The point is the development of cancer, and hardship in general, can't be controlled, but making decisions that are aligned with good physical, mental, and spiritual health is in our control. And we have to hope that doing a better job will result in better results.
Years ago I went whitewater rafting and received advice that parallels a spiritual principal about not resisting: If you fall off the raft, don't try to swim upstream--you'll wear yourself out which'll put yourself in danger of drowning. Allow the flow of the current to carry you downstream. Use the current to find a way out.
With that in mind, I ask Shanita if she ever looked at cancer antagonistically, like it was the enemy or something to fight. "Resistance is futile," she says, but identifies a major question that should be considered: "How does this situation help me live a better life?"
Choose To Do Better
As she speaks about her experience in detail on her YouTube channel, Sugar Free Shanita, she says "I needed to do better about a whole bunch of things. I needed to start doing some things that were outside my comfort zone."
With that, Shanita began running, completing her first half marathon in January 2015 and then her full marathon in January of 2016, to make a 180° pivot in her life. She changed her lifestyle--diet and exercise--and she upgraded her outlook on life.
As she often stresses throughout our conversation, "I can't control a whole bunch of things, but I can control what I do."
The person she is today is not the same person who got the diagnosis in 2013 and despite how difficult it was, she's grateful.
What My Experience Taught Me
1) Life Is a journey
Look at every situation as a learning moment. You can't change things, but you can change your perspective. Even when it comes to singleness, some people are upset about it, but is that going to change anything? Just learn from it.
2) Focus on HOW to use a situation to live your best life
Use your struggles and stories to help others. If you go through a bankruptcy, figure out how your situation can make you better. Ask yourself what better decisions can you make. Got into a car accident? Laid up in hospital? Challenge yourself to make it a good day anyway.
3) Don’t take seemingly small things for granted
You woke up. It sounds trivial, but many people didn’t. Look at tragedies. You walked. How many people can't, but wish they could walk? If you have a brilliant mind and someone breaks both your legs, you still have your mind.
4) Be thankful
Be thankful for every breath you take. Be thankful for the people in your life who truly love you. Be thankful for today. Don't take any of it for granted and don't wait until you go through something to feel grateful.
5) Lean On Your Faith
Remain grounded in your faith. Your faith and prayers will get you through trying times. Your prayers bear fruit.
Today Shanita is a proud cancer survivor, an accomplished marketing leader in the energy industry, and a Certified Professional Coach on a mission to help others live their best lives.
Photo Credits: Cover - Patrick Chin via Death To Stock Photo. Shanita - Sugar Free Shanita.