A Survivor's Guide to Time Travel
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By Cynthia Ryan

A Survivor's Guide to Time Travel

Managing your time after a diagnosis is not an elusive task

By Cynthia Ryan


Live each day to the fullest.
Make every moment count.


Such mantras are familiar to most cancer survivors, as we are instructed by a host of sources to reframe our notions of time—both how much we have and how best to spend it after a diagnosis.

In the afterglow of each of my bouts with breast cancer, first in 1993 and again in 2004, I embraced the philosophy of the present. I filled my journals with details about activities and people that energized me, as well as the tasks and personalities that I found draining. I vowed to live rich, satisfying days.

Unfortunately, several of these well-intentioned vows quickly diminished like the thrill of a new sofa. All too soon, the vivid strands of gold and remarkably plush cushions blend in without distinction.

Shouldn’t a diagnosis that rattles mind, body and soul have a longer-lasting effect?

I’m convinced that survivors are handed an impossible task. While we are encouraged to cherish what surrounds us, our daily allotment of time is doled out to others: health care providers, support groups, robotic voices queuing up our calls on the medical claims hotline. Our desire might be to lie on the beach thumbing through a glossy magazine, but over us looms an inescapable and often inflexible slate of scheduled appointments and institutional time lines not of our own making.

In the short time I’ve had to ponder this predicament, I’ve arrived at a few conclusions.

Time is relative, literally

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone operates by the same clock. We are influenced by our families, our colleagues and our social circles to experience time in different ways. The good news is that we can change how we view our days.

Tom Curl, of Tallahassee, Fla., a survivor of colon cancer diagnosed in 1991, found himself “working life around the chemo” that he faced for a year. Luckily, his oncologist, a “laid-back, easygoing guy who dressed in flannel shirts and khakis,” made the time pass quickly in a not-so-clinical environment.  

At times, the “cancer clock” determines where we have to be and when, like for doctor appointments. But there’s no reason this schedule must be our focus and force the other plans we’ve made for trips to the theater or projects with our kids to fade into the background. In my date book, special occasions
are recorded in bright colors—alongside gray penciled-in appointments for MRIs and blood tests.



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