Anna Dabrowski - Habits to thrive after cancer
In 2004, I was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), a rare form of childhood cancer and subsequently underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, spending the better part of nine months in and out of the children’s hospital. In September, I’ll be celebrating my 17th “Cancerversary” and so it only made sense to me that when I was asked to write a piece for this blog, that I would reflect on life after cancer. While the intricacies of survivorship are challenging to relay (although the author Suleika Jaouad successfully does this in her recent memoir, “Between Two Kingdoms” - I can’t recommend this book enough), the following three habits or mindsets have significantly contributed to and enabled me to thrive after cancer.
Quite simply - “Movement is Medicine”. I was an avid athlete prior to my diagnosis, and one of the hardest things of being bedridden during treatment was the inability to be active - I yearned for the day when I could play basketball and run again. So much so that a year following my last treatment, I completed my first full marathon as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.
In addition to the multitude of physical and mental health benefits of exercise, movement is a reminder of my strength and health. I workout because I can, because it makes me feel alive. It is now a priority and a big part of who I am - I always make time for it, but I don’t punish myself when I miss a workout. It’s all about self-compassion and taking care of this body that has really gotten me through a lot. As my favorite Peloton instructor says, “You don’t have to, you get to workout!”
The arduous treatment of AML forced me to step away from the 11th grade, and the subsequent recovery “slowed me down”. I immediately catapulted into my achiever mindset, making all subsequent life decisions with the mindset that I needed to catch up - using my previous peers as a baseline for where I needed to be. With every supposed failure or inability to attain the expectations I had set for myself came another disappointment.
Fast forward to a few years ago, where I finally slowed down, dealt with many unresolved issues (associated with my experiences with childhood cancer) and had a major “a-ha” moment that instead propelled me to where I am now.
This simple mindset change was the acknowledgement of the importance of marginal gains. The theory of marginal gains posits that small changes can lead to big results. I can’t recommend this focus enough to anyone else who is overwhelmed with life after cancer and trying to “make up for lost time”.
While cancer has a clarifying effect on the important things in life, it reversely creates anxiety, uncertainty and fear of recurrence. I turned to meditation to control these pervasive thoughts. My practice of meditation, which very simply started with my yoga practice and is now often facilitated through apps (I love Ten Percent, and Peloton) has directly enabled me to become more mindful and self-aware. The acknowledgement alone reduces my overall stress and anxiety, and as a result, I am able to live more fully in the present moment