I am a firm believer in planning whatever I want to achieve in my life. Planning (and taking all the actions required to realise the plan) was invaluable in coping with my six lifetime cancer diagnoses.
First diagnosed in 1979, in 2004 I faced my most challenging cancer encounter. For the second time in my life the lymphoma had relapsed to stage 4 (there is no stage 5). Six months of chemotherapy preceded the removal of my spleen, high-dose chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant.
The combined effects of advanced disease and treatments left me weaker and less mobile than ever before. My willpower, determination and exuberance for life, which had always been my strongest suits, were waning.
My plan for coping included employing a range of psychosocial support measures that had helped me in the past. I drew from my humour library, regularly watching my favourite comedies to lift my spirits. I played music to help me express and manage my emotions. I wrote about what I was experiencing each day to help me examine and vent my feelings.
What helped most though was carrying out a review of my life; looking at whether it was everything I wanted it to be (the cancer notwithstanding). When at your lowest ebb, you need everything possible in your present and future to encourage you to hold on. Reflecting on all areas of my life I realised I needed to change my vocation.
I had never enjoyed some aspects of being a corporate manager. By nature I loved to create and positively influence those around me, while the corporate world is driven by competitiveness and immersed in politics, where values are often surrendered for self-interest. There was a fundamental mismatch between who I was and what I did for a living and I felt remedying this would help my recovery aspirations.
I wrote a compelling vision statement to focus me on a new career and lifestyle: To show people how to live happier and more fulfilling lives. For me this meant doing a number of things. I had long intended to write a book on how to take action to help cope with a cancer battle. I set this project as a high priority.
One thing I had really enjoyed about my corporate job was helping my staff develop and grow as people. I did some research and resolved that I would be able to focus on this for a living as a life and career coach.
I also wanted to give something back in recognition of the support I had received in coping with cancer throughout my life. Like so many people I had benefited greatly from the services of my local Cancer Society, but many others had given freely and generously to help me cope too. I decided that after I had recovered I would find forums to deliver talks about the coping strategies I would subsequently write about in my book Life, Happiness & Cancer.
The motivation and excitement generated by my life-after-cancer planning helped me re-gain my zest for life and emotional strength. I began to cope better with the treatments and my recovery progressed well. By Christmas 2004 I was back at home in full remission. My energies returned steadily along with my hair, as I put my plan into action full of enthusiasm for life.
That was over two years ago. I found happiness and fulfilment in my new activities. I wrote and published my book, which became and remains a bestseller in New Zealand. I trained to become a life and career coach and established my own business. I was even discovered (as they say) while promoting my book on television, and became the resident life coach on a morning TV show. And as Christmas 2006 arrived I had delivered my Life, Happiness & Cancer presentation to over 1,500 people at 31 forums.
But my ultimate joy came in November 2006 when I learned my wife Gillian was pregnant with our first child. This too, we planned!
The great English poet WH Auden defined cancer as a foiled creative fire. For me, reigniting my own fire by planning a new lifestyle and career helped me cope with and eventually overcome cancer, and to establish an even better life than before.
Phil Kerslake lives in New Zealand, is a six-time survivor of different lymphomas across four decades and the author of the 2006 book Life, Happiness & Cancer: Survive with Action and Attitude! For more information about Phil, his book and presentations to cancer support conferences visit his website www.lifepaths.co.nz.