BY LIZZY SMITH A few weeks ago I met a fellow cancer warrior, “Mindy”. She was recently diagnosed and, as one can imagine, she’s scared, overwhelmed, and not feeling well. We spent an afternoon talking for two hours. In that conversation, Mindy lamented about all the responsibilities she had in her life. Kids, husband, church, neighbors, friends… Endless. And now all these dang time-intensive treatments that loomed ahead! Case in point: Mindy is a volunteer for an organization she loves but she doesn’t feel she has the time or energy to stay involved anymore. When she mentioned it to the powers-that-be, the guy kind of blew her off. She was frustrated. I stopped her right there. It was time to learn the word No. Simple, two letter, easy-to-spell, easy to pronounce NO. She needed to call the guy back up and say “I can’t do this anymore.” End of story. No apologies, no excuses, no guilt. If her kids needed something that wasn’t essential, the answer must be NO. If a neighbor asks a favor, the answer is NO. It’s ok. When you’re fighting for your life, finally, we become number one priority. And, really, it should always be this way. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, what good are we to anyone else? And, now that I think about it, this applies to all of us in the cancer world, including caregivers. It is illogical why it took me some 44 years to become comfy with saying No. Before getting cancer and marching my sick self out of a bad marriage, “No” was only used under dire circumstances. I was, after all, a people pleaser. I wanted everyone to like me and to think my life was perfect. I worked really super hard at accomplishing this. Here are some examples: From my then-boyfriend (who became my husband) “Let’s buy this big huge house.” My answer: Yes. The answer I wanted to give was No, I don’t want that house, it’s too big, too expensive, I love my little condo. Instead, I gave up my happy manageable life for something I didn’t want, all because I didn’t know how to say No. From my employer “I know we promised you that this new job would enable you to leave the office every night by 5:30 but we weren’t exactly honest. We expect you to work about 55 hours per week. Oh, and by the way, can you take on this new video project?” My answer: Sure! Who cares that I have a child who was left alone after soccer practice for almost 45-minutes before I could get there. Or that I no longer sleep at night. You need me to do something, of course I will! From my church “We need you to help with the Young Women’s program every Wednesday night from 6:30-9:00.” Me: Sure. I hardly have time to breathe but I’ll fit that right in. With a smile. I could go on and on but you get my drift. I said yes to everyone and guess who suffered most? Me. I felt the brunt of that awful YES word in full force. Overwhelmed, stressed out, unhappy, living a life I hated. When I got sick, I started saying NO often. And guess what? The Earth didn’t fall off its axis. From my church “We need you to help clean the chapel on Saturday.” Me: No, I can't. From my daughter “Can you bring me lunch today?” Me: I’m sick today. No, you'll need to buy lunch. From my daughter’s school “Can you help every Thursday with book exchange?” Me: Sorry, that’s my yoga time. (My health is number one priority.) And here’s the kicker—I don’t give reasons or excuses and I can’t find guilt anywhere. It’s great to help others, don’t get me wrong. Volunteering is important. But, at least, my needs (and wants) matter. A lot. Next, we cancer people must learn to ask for help, and also learn to accept it. This was really hard for me. I was always the one saying YES and helping everyone. But when I was sick, this changed in a snap. I needed to learn how to ask my parents (who were my caregivers) to do all kinds of things for me, like put my kids to bed, drive me to appointments, cook dinner, pay my medical expenses (from my own money), do my laundry, and even clean my bathroom. My aunt one day brought me dinner. I had to learn to simply say, “thank you” and enjoy the gesture. It was incredibly humbling and a huge learning experience. This crazy cancer journey has been One Huge Learning Experience. I’m a different person than I once was. I like this version of me far better.
about the author
Lizzy Smith was diagnosed with myeloma in 2012 at age 44. Within days, she left her job, ended her marriage, moved, and entered treatment. "To the extent I'm able, I want to prove that despite life's biggest challenges, it is possible to survive and come out stronger than ever," she says.