How I Learned to Not Defer My Life

Read about how the 5 years after my husband finished cancer treatment helped me learn to not defer my life.

How I Learned to Not Defer My Life
Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

To defer life is to:

  • Postpone doing things you want to do because "you don’t have the time right now".
  • Delay spending time with people you care about because "you can always connect with them later."
  • Wait to start something important to you because "more pressing things" got in the way.
  • Shelve a dream because "it wasn’t the right time".

It’s built into North American culture that if you work hard and sacrifice now, you will reap the benefits at some nebulous future date. There is an assumption that there is always more time.

But that simply isn’t true. Life can change very fast.

I learned just how fast life can change with my husband’s cancer diagnosis.

I learned to not defer my life during the 5 years after his cancer treatment when he went for regular scans to see if the cancer had come back.

Custom whiskey label I asked our friend, Jeff Archibald, to design for Dana post-treatment.

Life can change very quickly

For the first 2 years after chemotherapy, Dana went for scans every 3 months, and for the last 3 years, every 6 months. For 5 whole years, there was always a scan on the horizon and each scan was an opportunity for our life to change drastically. We were told that after those 5 years were done, if Dana had no recurrence, he would be declared “cured” of his cancer. It would finally be over and we could move on with our life.

There were always two appointments: one for the scans, and one a week later when Dana met with his oncologist to go over the results. Both appointments were always on Fridays. I usually didn’t go with him to the first one since he had to sit in a separate waiting area and then get the scan itself. But I went to every one of the results appointments with his oncologist.

The week between appointments was always extremely hard on me. I often had nightmares and slept poorly. My anxiety would crescendo over the course of the week until I was a bundle of nerves the morning of the appointment. Dana and I didn’t often talk about the fear. We both just knew it was there... and tried to make it through those weeks as best we could.

On the day of the results appointment, we drove the 20 minutes to the Cross Cancer Institute (it’s always winter in my memory) and checked in with Danielle at the reception desk. Danielle (who always remembered my name) would give Dana his green requisition form that directed us to which outpatient area to go to (usually Area C). Dana and I would walk, hand in hand, past friendly volunteers, hustling doctors and nurses, and other pale-faced patients and loved ones.  We were often the youngest people we came across.

When we arrived at the correct outpatient area, Dana would hand over his requisition. They would pull down his (substantial) file and hand him a clipboard with a form to fill out to report on how he was feeling, his appetite, sleeping, and the like.

After he filled out his form and returned it, we waited.

Dana was invited to celebrate the Cross Cancer Institute 50 year Anniversary with 49 other cancer survivors at a (formerly) Edmonton Eskimos football game.

Living between scans

Over the course of those 5 years post-chemo, our business was growing and there was a lot of pressure (mostly internal) to buy into the entrepreneur narrative of grow, grow, grow, and work like crazy to get that growth. And for a while we did, but that narrative often felt like it clashed with the life we wanted to live together: one with more quality time together and with our loved ones, and less grinding through work.

The thread of time between appointments would pull tighter as each appointment got closer, and then slacken a little immediately after, only to tighten once more. That thread was the feeling that I needed to be careful with my time. Because what if everything changed again...what if it came back?  

Almost every time, in the 15 to 45 minutes we waited to see his oncologist and hear his results, I would think:

“If our life changes today, if it’s back and Dana has to go through chemo again, can I look back be happy about how I spent it? Is there anything I would regret?”

With each scan, a little more clarity

Each time he went into the appointment, he would get a quick check over by a medical student, and his oncologist would come in. Each time she told him everything was clear.

Each time I would make it to the car before I finally let go of all the pent-up anxiety and cry tears of relief as we drove home.

It wasn’t perfect, or entirely conscious, but over those 5 years, with each passing scan, those thoughts about making sure I didn’t have any regrets over how I spent my time became ingrained in me.

Both Dana and I got clearer and clearer on our values and what was important to us.

We slowed down and decided to stay a small, specialized company. We worked hard, and occasionally had crazy weeks, but not all the time. We tried to make sure the time we spent working wasn’t at the expense of the other things that were important to us. We made sure we did the things we wanted, with the people that mattered to us. We travelled. We played video games on Saturdays.

We got into a rhythm of life that felt good for us, while still having a business that we love.

A pretty common Saturday morning at my house.

Don’t defer life, live with intention

The year of treatment, and the 5 years of scans that followed, changed me. It changed how I think about our life together and how I want to spend my time.

To put an exclamation on that long road, a few weeks before the end of Dana’s 5 years of scans (when he would eventually be declared cured of cancer) I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. My diagnosis had only further reinforced these changes.

For me in particular, these experiences changed how I think about the future. They changed how often I think, “I will do that later”. The experiences made me, and continue to make me, conscious of how quickly life can change and how the future I imagine for myself is precarious.

Most importantly, these experiences made me realize that I don’t want to defer my life. These experiences made me realize that I might not have time to defer my life.

I don’t want to postpone the things that are important to me now for some eventual future outcome when I will have the time and get to do the things I dream of.

So I don’t.

How I live my life with intention

Living with intention is not a “live each day as though it was your last'' situation, because I don’t think that’s realistic. Life is not all or nothing. I still work long days or weeks sometimes. I still have to do chores and normal day-to-day things. I still to save money to go on trips and be a responsible adult.

But I try to make my time matter in the ways that are important to me.

These are some things that I do to live with intention:

  • I do a daily reflection to remind myself of how I am spending my time.
  • I plan my weeks based on my ideal week which helps me prioritize my friends and family, in addition to my professional goals.
  • I set boundaries around my time and attention to make sure I am able to spend focussed, productive time on things that are important to me.
  • I make self-care a priority and take care of my body because I know I handle everything that life throws at me better when I am healthy.
  • I try to be kind to myself (perhaps the hardest one of all).

Am I intentional and living my dreams every single day? Nope.

Do I have to make sacrifices of my time and attention for work sometimes? Yep.

Do I have crappy days where I am upset and down? Sure do.

Is my intentional life a work in progress? You bet.

Am I happy with my life? Sure am!

I think to be intentional every day and not defer life is always going to be a work in progress. But it’s one that I am committed to. So far it’s working out pretty great. :)

One of my favourite quotes is:

Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin.
- Neil Gaiman
On our 10-year anniversary trip in New York at the Billy Joel concert at Madison Square Garden in 2019.

Do you live with intention?

As the New Year approaches it is common to reflect on the past year. I shared this story to encourage you to think about how you spent your time, and to think about how you will spend your time in the year ahead.

How will you make your time matter? How will you make sure you don’t defer your life? How will you live with more intention?

Book some time with me if you need some help figuring out how to answer these questions.