As we go through life, many of us take a lot of things for granted—our ability to function independently, our ability to make plans with a fair degree of certainty that those plans will come to fruition, the joy we get from pursuing our hobbies, spending time with friends and relatives and even working.

Spin classes, running, playing with our children or being active become part of the fabric of our lives, and most of us never consider what will happen if our health changes dramatically.

Until. Until the day you go into your doctor’s office for the results of a routine test, blood work, an MRI or other tests, and your doctor sits down and opens your file and says, “I have your test results and…”

When that ‘and’ is followed by the words “you need a knee replacement,” “you have a tumour,” “you have MS,” or “you have cancer,” you’ll probably be largely focused on what it means for you now.

Initially, you’ll experience a wide range of emotions, depending on the news—surprise, shock, fear, frustration and anger can all be normal immediate reactions. But these words will take root in your mind like a seed planted in your thoughts, and there they’ll grow, spread out and produce a tree bearing the fruit of questions, concerns and feelings of loss.

Embrace it

Slowly but surely, your life will change. Doctor’s appointments and tests will replace some of your workdays. The progression of the illness or injury can make you tired, and visits with friends and relatives may die down, particularly if those people don’t live nearby.

Exercise may no longer be an option, and hobbies may soon take a backseat. Medications to treat your condition, along with surgeries and procedures, may make it difficult for you to be as involved with your kids as you used to be.

The part that sucks—that really sucks—is that whatever your diagnosis, you won’t realize the full impact it will have on your life right away, so you’ll inevitably find yourself going through the stages of grief over and over again, as you lose more and more of what you once took for granted and expected of your youth.

A dear loved one, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, said to me, “I don’t ask myself what I can’t do with cancer, I ask myself what I CAN do.” Those words made me angry at first, because I thought, ‘You need to rest, to fight this, to beat it! Wage war with it! Not embrace it!’

But embrace it he did. He lived a very full life with cancer, volunteering at the Cancer Clinic to help others cope emotionally with their diagnoses and treatments, volunteering with the Red Cross (now Canadian Blood Services) and focusing on how he could help others.

He took his experiences with the disease and used them to live life on his own terms. He rejected the terms ‘fighting cancer’ and ‘battling cancer.’ He believed in living life to its fullest with, not despite, the disease. He was actively volunteering until about three weeks before he died, and those seven years he lived with cancer were high-quality, rewarding years.

In another case, a dear friend of mine was a competitive triathlete, and at the age of 32, she tore the ligaments in her shoulders and had to have surgery to repair them.

Afterward, she just couldn’t find her ‘groove’ in the pool, and shortly thereafter, began to have knee problems. An MRI revealed that both her knees needed to be replaced, urgently, but that she was too young for the surgery. It hurt to walk up and down stairs, arthritis set in and she started to lose her balance. Even riding her bike began to cause knee pain.

Time is the best healer

Always the optimist, she chose to pursue Yoga, and became a Yoga instructor, volunteering at retirement homes to provide Yoga to seniors. Chair Yoga, floor Yoga and even bed Yoga helped the residents remain mobile or become more mobile. She went on to write a book about Yoga and its healing strength, but her transformation didn’t happen overnight.

Being diagnosed with a life-altering illness or injury in your youth can destroy you, or it can be the catalyst for a great metamorphosis.

We would drive past a runner on the sidewalk, and she’d wince and say, “I’m so jealous.” She held onto her precious triathlon bike for 10 years after her diagnosis, refusing to let go of the dream of one day competing again.

She lost touch with many of her swim team friends. During recovery from her many surgeries, she was restricted in her movement, so she couldn’t be active with her kids until she had fully healed.

Time is the best healer, as the saying goes, and while she still sometimes misses her busy, active training schedule and the thrill of the race, she has found a balance in her life that allows her to give back to others as a result of her experiences.

Being diagnosed with a life-altering illness or injury in your youth can destroy you, or it can be the catalyst for a great metamorphosis. No doubt, you will make mental lists of what you can no longer do because of your diagnosis, and that’s fine—but start to make lists of what you CAN do, too. Embrace who you once were and honour your accomplishments, but also embrace who you can now become.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” beautifully illustrates the opportunities you have to embrace difficult, life-changing events in a less-than-conventional and positive way:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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