Time is ultimately a limited resource. No one is going to live forever, even if most people don’t walk around thinking about that fact.
Some people, however, have a more heightened sense of their own mortality. A cancer diagnosis can upend everything. Surviving the disease changes how you feel about time.
How? Here are some answers from a few young survivors.
Matt Hall learned he had leukemia in 2006, at age 32. Fortunately, his form of cancer was treatable with Gleevec, a drug that keeps the disease manageable, meaning that Hall can expect to live a relatively normal life.
Still, that good news wasn’t immediately obvious when he was diagnosed. He recalls being in his car afterward. His wife was driving. He looked out the window and saw other people in their cars, heads moving to the music. "Life goes on, but in my car it felt like life was at a standstill," he says. "I lived with a perspective of three feet in front of me. When something like this happens, you don’t take the long view."
Eventually, once he transitioned from thinking he might die soon to learning he would live with a chronic disease, he realized he needed a longer-term view. The urgency does fade, he says, "but it never faded all the way back to what I would consider a normal, pre-cancer rhythm of life."
Hall says, "Now, I’m decisive, and have an urgency that is sometimes uncomfortable for other people." He cofounded a business (Hill Investment Group), and wrote a book (Odds On: The Making of an Evidence-Based Investor). When he wants to do something, he tends to do it. He recently went to Wimbledon because he loves tennis and wanted to see Roger Federer play. "I get deeper into conversations with people faster," he says.
This intense rhythm does have its complications. "It is in some ways exhausting," Hall admits. "You don’t give yourself time to just coast or relax, ease into things," he says. "I would say that’s something I have to work on."
When Hall was diagnosed, he came across a series of articles in Glamour magazine by a young woman who had the same form of leukemia. Writer Erin Zammett Ruddy was diagnosed at age 23, and has been living with the disease for 15 years. Her perception of time changed in a somewhat different way than Hall’s did.
As a 23-year-old go-getter, "I had to maximize every hour of the day," she says. "I never relaxed. I was always doing, and accomplishing, and obsessing about the future." The roller coaster of her diagnosis, and then her realization that she would be able to live a relatively normal life, "made me realize that I don’t really care about that," Ruddy says. She finds herself thinking, "I’m healthy, and I’m feeling good, so I’m just going to chill."
That said, she’s not a slacker. Pre-cancer, she wanted to travel, to be a writer, to have influence. The irony is that "what I thought was going to derail me, didn’t quite derail me." Ruddy wrote a book (My So-Called Normal Life) about having cancer. She’s traveled the world speaking about cancer. She realized that while she could accomplish a lot, "I didn’t need to be that crazy about all of it," Ruddy says. "I guess I just stopped waking up every day feeling like I have to conquer the world today. If watching Below Deck on Bravo is something that makes me happy for an hour at night as opposed to a number of other things I could be doing, I don’t beat myself up. I just do it."
Layla Banihashemi, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32, a few months after getting married. She spent a year going through chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
Before her diagnosis, she says, "I was almost exclusively focused on my research and career." She hadn’t traveled much. "There were definitely things in the back of my mind that I wanted to pursue, like yoga teacher training or learning to how to play the guitar and write songs. But they stayed in the back of my mind because there was always something seemingly more important going on, and there was always a later or an after this is over." Banihashemi and her husband even decided to delay their honeymoon because they were busy with work. "I also spent a lot of time worrying intensely about the future—what will happen if my grant doesn’t get funded, what will I do with my life?— and not seeing any other possibilities."
The diagnosis changed that. Banihashemi learned "to act on the things I wish to do." After finishing most of her treatment, she wrote two songs with the help of a musician friend. She and her husband took their delayed honeymoon to Kauai. She took a singing class and two guitar classes. Currently, Banihashemi is taking a drawing class and learning to swim. She also began to address her spiritual side more.
"After my radiation treatments, I experienced some post-traumatic stress symptoms and began to seek out ways to heal on an emotional and spiritual level," Banihashemi says. "When these symptoms were at their worst, I decided to pursue the yoga teacher training I had wanted to do since college," she explains. "And although it would be time consuming, I couldn’t think of a reason not to do it." She spent 10 hours in the studio on weekends, finding peace and healing. Banihashemi spent more time in nature. "One thing that I devote much less time to is worrying about the future," she says. "I have a greater sense that I’m on the right path, and that things will work out exactly as they’re meant to."
For all the different reactions, one theme emerges: Surviving tends to make people think that there is no point wasting time and energy on things that are neither meaningful nor enjoyable. "I don’t fool around with small stuff," says Hall. "I outsource as much as I possibly can now. I used to have a lawnmower but now I don’t." He also lives close to work to spend as little time as possible in the car.
Ruddy finds herself relaxed when things go wrong—a good trait to have while raising three small children. She can plan a great day, and then have the toddler throw up everywhere. "Next thing you know it’s 2 p.m. and I haven’t showered," she says. But "because I’ve had that experience, I know, thank God, there is going to be another day. It’s not the end of the world."