25 Things I Learned in 25 Years as a Breast Cancer Survivor

WIth all the attention last week on the anniversary of the assassination of JFK, it got me thinking about how quickly fifty years can pass. I have a hard time believing – but then again, I suppose I shouldn’t – that I can still remember that day with such intricate details, down to what I was wearing and the way the classroom smelled.  Fifty years later, the world is still healing from the event that altered our lives.

Twenty-five years later, I’m still healing from my own.

It’s near: the 25th anniversary of the day my music stopped, the day the cloud cover became impenetrable, the day a guaranteed tomorrow was unfathomable. It is said that with age comes wisdom; but for me the wisdom came first. Because at 34, you’re usually not granted the wisdom of an older person – but then it comes at you fast and furious when you’re diagnosed with cancer.

Weighty events have a sneaky way of embedding themselves so deeply into our psyches that they become a huge part of our lives… sometimes the defining theme of our lives. We teeter between who we were before and who we become after. I’ve learned a lot since that day, 25 years ago, the day that altered me not only physically but also emotionally.

1. Life is not fair. If it were, I wouldn’t have gotten breast cancer. My two best friends, and countless other women I knew, would not have died of it at such young ages.

2. No one is immune. We all have our “stuff” to bear. Eventually everyone gets their turn, some worse than others.

3. Not one day goes by without me reminding myself I’m grateful for being here. And if it does, I kick myself and tell myself I won’t forget again. Wishing…and hoping... 4. There’s nothing wrong with perseverance and trying to change things if you’re not happy with the way they are. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But at least you tried.

5. It’s also wise to surrender and to come to the realization when/if things cannot be changed.

6. Take a breath and slow down. Rushing is rarely worthwhile and will only make things take more time in the long run. Always remember what matters to you most – and make time for it/them.

My family - the people who matter most.

My family – the people who matter most.

7. Be here now. It’s the only “real” time there is. All that “stuff” running through our heads – worries about the future and regrets about the past – just takes up valuable space. And it keeps us from being where we actually are.

8. Don’t let little things go unnoticed. Take the time to examine the shape of the petals on a flower, the angle of the sun, the way the wind feels on your skin. They’re all miraculous if you think about it.

I paused to look closer and found such beauty in this amazing flower.

I paused to look closer and found such beauty in this amazing flower.

9. If you admire someone, tell them. Receiving a compliment not only makes the other person feel good; giving one also makes you feel real and genuine and strangely satisfied.

10. Learn to let the little things go. After my diagnosis, I was fond of saying, “If it’s not fatal, don’t worry about it.” That may be a bit extreme – I realize there are other things that legitimately matter – but not things like a dent in your car, getting stuck in traffic or a broken nail before a big event.

11. It’s not all about you. If you think someone else is focusing on your broken nail/wrinkles/frizzy hair/spot on your shirt, chances are they are more concerned with who is focusing on THEIR broken nail/wrinkles…you get my drift. Most people are too concerned about themselves to focus on you, so don’t worry.

12. Exercise is a cure for lots of life’s problems. So is a good, long walk, sitting and doing absolutely nothing or getting lost in a great book. Oh, and a long soak in a bath, preferably filled with lavender-scented bubbles.

Taking a break from running in Central Park.

Taking a break from running in Central Park.

13. Don’t be afraid to go against conventional wisdom. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut. And sometimes you’re right.

Life's a gamble, but why not take a chance?

Life’s a gamble, but why not take a chance?

14. If someone snubs you or is nasty, most of the time it’s more about them than about you.

15. Learn to manage and examine your expectations and assumptions. Just because you think or hope for something doesn’t make it true.

16. Smile at someone who looks really grumpy or unapproachable. They may look intimidating, but maybe they’re just preoccupied or frightened or awkward around other people. While it might not always work, usually it does.

At a media event with Shaq - intimidating at first but look at that smile!

At a media event with Shaq – intimidating at first but look at that smile!

17. It’s never too late to learn. Or to change. Or to make new friends.

Hiking in Utah with my BFF Ellen who I met "later in life." Love her!

Hiking in Utah with my BFF Ellen who I met “later in life.” Love her!

18. Worrying is futile. Most of the time the things we worry about never end up happening anyway. One of my most favorite quotes (one that resonates strongly with me, the original worrier) is from an influential writer of the French renaissance, Michel Montaigne: “There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.”

19. Always be curious. Things – and people – are not always what they seem, and there are so many hidden nuggets of knowledge in just about everything and everyone if you look hard enough.

20. If you try to control everything, you’ll drive yourself mad. Everything is not under our control, plain and simple. Here’s another favorite quote of mine from Montaigne: “Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.”

21. Try hard to work through fear and doubt. They have a way of overpowering you and stopping you from pursuing what you really want. Push yourself through them if you can, and you’ll find the most amazing things can happen. At the very least, you’ll feel wonderfully empowered.

I finally worked through my fears of going to high school renunions and went to my 40th!

I finally worked through my fears of going to high school renunions and went to my 40th!

22. Be open to other opinions. I don’t know everything; and I don’t know what I don’t know. So, there’s a lot to be learned. Always.

23. Also be open to other people’s quirks and differences. That’s what makes them unique. And usually fun and more interesting, too.

24. The art of empathy is underestimated. Trying to understand why a person is the way they are and what makes them do the things they do can enrich you with learning and acceptance.

25. Make your life matter. It’s too short. It’s too precious. We don’t all get to pay the rent indefinitely. Some of us get evicted way too soon. Remember to be silly…laugh…and have fun!

Making silly faces with my son Jeremy.

Making silly faces with my son Jeremy.


  1. Great list. The final photo made me remember laughter, how important it is to laugh. My son was a clown and always made us laugh when he was growing up. Then he moved away and my daily/weekly dose of laughter went with him. Got to get more laughter back into my life.

  2. Such a great list of reminders. I especially like the “smile at someone grumpy” one.
    Donna Hull recently posted..20 Under $20: Gifts for the Boomer Traveler, 2013 EditionMy Profile

  3. Terrific list! I’m a survivor of 28 years from a lymphoma — it certainly gives a perspective on life.
    Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) recently posted..Why I Heart ThanksgivingMy Profile

  4. Love this list of reminders. I’m really sorry you had to deal with cancer….I know you’ve mentioned this before. I just had two coworkers walk 60 miles to raise funds for breast cancer research. Like you said, it’s important to make every day count….Happy Thanksgiving!
    Lisa Froman recently posted..Dead In TexasMy Profile

  5. numbers 5, 13…aw, so many of these are great. thank you ; – )

  6. What a wonderful and wise list of reminders. Wishing a wonderful Thanksgiving to a wonderful friend and colleague!
    Hugs, Irene
    Irene S. Levine recently posted..Thanksgiving Day – 2013My Profile

  7. Love this list, Sheryl. What a gift the last 25 years have been for you, your family, and your friends. love, Ruth
    ruth pennebaker recently posted..I Really Do Forgive You, Kitty!My Profile

  8. What a lovely piece, as a 3 1/2 year survivor I can relate. Congratulations on 25 years, you’re an inspiration to this newbie.

  9. Beautiful post and I’m so glad you have not only survived but thrived and can now help others through your writing.
    Estelle Sobel Erasmus recently posted..Holiday Boots Giveaway from Country OutfitterMy Profile

  10. What a great list. I was guilty of worrying too much but have one benefit of aging is that I’ve learned to just “let it be”.

    Happy Thanksgiving.
    Kay Lynn recently posted..5 Ways to Avoid Overeating on ThanksgivingMy Profile

  11. 5, 7, 9,10 words to live by. Sorry I am not in that great LB pix. You really are a beautiful woman, inside and out…congrats on your anniversary…wishing you at least 25 more.

    • Sorry you weren’t in that LB picture, too…it was a very impromptu meeting the following day on the boardwalk (and I so enjoyed being back on it!) Thanks for reading, Rob, and for your words.

  12. Sheryl
    Congrats on ur victory against cancer. Your list is a great reminder, and should be read on a weekly basis.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Enjoy your t giving weekend–

  13. OMG, first of all, I am currently printing your list because I want to share all 25 of your items with my family today, on Thanksgiving Day. They are beautiful reminders of how to live a “good” life and sometimes we forget how lucky we are until it’s threatened to be taken away. How nice that you understood that and have turned it around to remind others (like me) to cherish time and people and loved ones before it’s too late…
    You are truly an inspiration to me and I adore you and am thankful for all of your wisdom and also to have you in my life.
    Keep it comin’ honey!!

    • So, Lou, how did your family like the list? Did they have any particular faves? Thanks for sharing it with them, and thanks, as always for your unconditional love, support and friendship.

  14. We can make silly faces anytime you’d like!!

    This is a great piece with many great rules to live by!

  15. This is an insightful, moving and inspiring list, Sheryl . . . as your husband of nearly thirty three years, I am always proud of you, but reading this made me even prouder than usual.

    My hope is that many, many people get to benefit from the insight and wisdom you’ve shared with us . . . I know I will be sharing it with friends and colleagues.

    Thanks from your number one fan!

  16. Wonderful life lessons from someone who teaches me something new every day. Thanks, Mom!


  17. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    We never know when life will take a turn that demands so much inner strength. As your friend, I am so grateful that you kicked cancer and have been healthy since. Your wisdom and positive outlook always inspire me.

  18. Congratulations to you Sheryl for this great list of remembering what is most important. As you say in #2 above, we all have “stuff” happen, but it’s the wise ones that grasp a few of the tips you’ve learned along the road. I hopped over here from the Blog Hop I’m featuring on my page this week (I have two of your posts I think!) and wanted to let you know they are live. Thanks for the inspiration of this post and the good that you are sharing with the world! ~Kathy P.S. The link below will take you to the Blog Hop!
    Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com recently posted..Gratitude Blog Hop—Thank You For Everything!My Profile

    • Kathy, Thank you so much for your comment – you are always so thoughtful. And thanks a million for including me in your Blog Hop – I would never have done that on my own. I really appreciate it and you!

  19. I’m sharing this on FB with a pal who was also diagnosed at a young age. Great insights.
    Roxanne recently posted..Monitoring the Miracle of LillyMy Profile

  20. So much insight you share. The learning surely wasn’t easy, but my-oh-my, the wisdom here is important and appreciated, especially by those of us still trying to convince ourselves we have these lessons down. Thank you for sharing.
    Lisa @ Grandma’s Briefs recently posted..Holiday Guide 2013 and GRAND Social 81My Profile

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa. I think life is definitely a work in progress. I have to pull up these reminders when my mind starts to go the wrong way!

  21. Congratulations! You are a true survivor! This is a great list that everyone can learn from.
    Connie McLeod recently posted..The Pooping Holiday Toy Collection and other TraditionsMy Profile

join the conversation


CommentLuv badge