BY LIZZY SMITH Over the past summer, my daughters and I went on vacation to Florida. When we landed in Orlando, I rented a car and we did a road trip to Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. We also spent time in Jacksonville and Orlando. What made the trip really amazing is that our best friends who live in California were also in Orlando at the same time we were so we spent five days of our vacation together. These friends, Julie and Shane, I've known since college and they are family. Anyway, Julie's mom, Kay, was also there. Kay is like a second mom to me and my daughters, who call her Grandma Kay. She is an amazing woman and truly an inspiration. Here is a woman who has taken life's lemons and made (a very sweet) lemonade. Some five years ago, Kay's leg was amputated due to a severe blood clot. Two years later, her husband passed away. She now lives alone in her home, wheelchair bound. It would be very easy for Kay to remain holed-up in her home, crying about how the kids never visit her enough and watching life pass her by while watching TV. She has chosen something else. Kay travels like no one I know. This summer, she took her two daughters Julie and Vicki, on a road trip. They flew to Chicago, rented a car, and drove to Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, DC, Vermont and New Hampshire. When that trip was over, she followed Julie and her family on a trip to Seattle and then drove down the coast to their home in Long Beach, California. They made a stop somewhere in Oregon and she went river rafting. After being home for a week, she hopped on another plane and went to Florida. One day, we went to Disneyworld and Kay went with us, not missing out on a single ride. I couldn't believe her energy level-- it far surpassed mine even though I'm 47 and she's 72. She is home now but leaving for a conference in Salt Lake City in a few days. She will be doing the 12-hour drive herself. We talked about her mindset on life. "I want to live," Kay said. "When Jim passed away, I decided that I wanted to spend whatever time I had left in this world doing things I love. I may be in a wheelchair but so what?" Yes, so what? So life hands us lemons. What do we do about it? Suck them dry, tartness and all, lamenting at how awful they are. Or we pour sugar on them, add a little water, and enjoy! I can't tell you how many cancer survivors I talk with who are in the throws of depression. Hey, it's common. Hearing you have a life-threatening illness is a real game-changer. It is terrifying, actually. When I was told I had cancer and then left my abusive husband just days later, I could easily have sat in an infusion room, cried my eyes out, and then gone home to... what? I have also talked to countless divorce survivors who also suffer from depression and PTSD. What to do about it? We can't change the fact that life handed us cancer. I would give just about anything for this all to go away but it isn't. But it is possible to make the best of it. (Note that if you are struggling with clinical depression, please see a therapist.) Sometimes it's really hard, other time, it is just awesome. For me, it depends on how much Dex I've taken or if I'm on my way to yet another un-fun biopsy. But I can tell you that I've had some pretty fabulous experiences since my cancer diagnosis. Here are some tips on overcoming sadness. Is it a cure-all? Of course not, but it can help get you started, one tiny step at a time. 1. Eat Well Your brain needs good nutrition. Now is the time to cut out processed foods and sugar and give your body the nutrients it needs to thrive. Add foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids (like salmon), loads of fresh fruits and veggies, beans and nuts. Drink lots of water. Add lemons to give it flavor. I am also a huge fan of unsweetened Ice Tea, especially in heat. It's a far better alternative than sodas and energy drinks. (Depending on what stage of treatment you are in, and what medications you are taking, you may have dietary restrictions. As always, discuss your particular case with your doctor and heed that advice to a T.) 2. Get Proper Sleep You must give your body time for proper rest. It is possible to get too much sleep, too. Each of us is different but about eight hours is typically something to aim for. If you are consistently getting more sleep than that, force yourself to get out of bed. Likewise, if you are consistently sleep deprived, it is nearly impossible to function properly. Get fresh linens in your room, diffuse a delicious scent, and consider taking a hot bath before getting in bed. It will relax and calm you. (If your body needs more rest, get it. If you feel a nap is necessary, that is perfectly acceptable and advisable.) 3. Make a Bucket List and Get To Work! Make a list of things you've never done but sound like fun. Now start working on crossing things off your list. One day when I was sitting in infusion getting chemo, I made my bucket list. Just writing things out gave me a huge emotional boost. While I might have been very sick, there was going to come a day when I would feel better and I could start having fun again. On my list included places I wanted to visit, trails I wanted to hike, and skills I wanted to learn. Here I am, three years later, and I am steadily working on that list and adding more to it. Several months ago, I went to South America and hiked around Iguazu Falls in Argentina and Brazil. I went hang gliding. And I was published in the Chicago Tribune. What's next? Well... I am getting married on October 3 and after that, who knows, but I cannot wait to figure it out! 4. Force Yourself To Get Out Of The House Sometimes, there is a "joy" in being a victim. We expect others to "just know" that they need to help us and when that doesn't happen, it can leave us really disappointed (this has happened to me many times, feeling betrayed and let down, starting with my then-husband who consistently called me a drama queen and lazy, despite the fact that I was in the process of undergoing tandem stem cell transplants. To be honest, I cut out anyone who wasn't a valuable part of my life. It was necessary and a good decision. Consider doing the same, it's ok and advisable). My advice is to get out of the house (shower first!) and go do something fun. Get a pedi, hike a trail, adopt a homeless pet... If you don't feel like it, do it anyway. 5. Exercise Go for a walk. Take up yoga. Garden. Do something (anything!) that gets your heart rate up. Adopt a dog and walk together. If the weather allows, try and get outdoors and take in natural vitamin D and fresh air. It is a huge emotional boost. We cancer survivors must get as much exercise as we possibly can. Yes, it matters in our recovery and survival! 6. Help Someone Spend your time doing something kind for someone else. Make a meal for a homebound senior, play cards with seniors at a residential community, volunteer at your child's school, or knit caps for fellow cancer survivors. Serving others helps us realize that we aren't alone and that there is always someone else who has it worse. Plus, you might meet some new friends. 7. Try New Foods One of my favorite activities is trying new foods. Look up an interesting recipe, try cooking with an ingredient you've never heard of, or hit up an ethnic restaurant. Take a friend or your children with you and enjoy a hearty conversation. (Of course, this isn't possible for those in the midst of transplants or other treatments so when you can't do this, it is ok. Do what you can.) Now is the time to challenge your current routine and take yourself outside your comfort zone. Sometimes finding joy and happiness takes work and commitment. Even if you don't feel like it, do it anyway. Your mind and spirit will thank you for it.
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.