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mindset reset: 7 reasons why Cancer was a good thing for me

In the last week of October, we highlight two YFFR instructors and Squad Leaders who share similar resilience and outlook around the battle that got them there. First, we heard from Sarah Hall, and now we will hear from Maggie Eastman. After reading their blogs, I ask you this: your most challenging trauma could be your greatest tool and teacher?


In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, and Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”


I’d read that line a dozen times without it impacting me or leaving any mark on my psyche. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t apply to me. I lived in a world of concrete black and white, right and wrong, fair and not fair, and definitive good and bad.


In my life BC (Before Cancer), I was often consumed by hurt and sadness when people did not live up to my expectations or when I did not meet my own expectations. I was frustrated with the unfairness of certain situations and angry when others were wrong and there were no consequences. Working in law enforcement didn’t help this. I also wanted others to see me as a good person. Trying to prove you are a good person and trying to be fair to everyone is exhausting and unachievable. I needed to be in control, and the more out of control I felt, the less joyful I became.


The evening of January 21, 2014, went like this: I was living with my parents after going through a very difficult and painful divorce. I was sad, lonely, and unhappy with my life. I had little that brought me joy and much that brought me fear and stress. I existed by masking guilt and shame every day. I was getting ready to work the night shift that evening when my cell phone rang. My doctor, who had done a biopsy the previous day, was suddenly on the line telling me, “It’s cancer.” I somehow managed to tell my parents the news, and then I sat in a dining room chair and cried, begging them to make it not be true and yet fully aware of my impossible request.


3 people smiling together wearing breath cancer shirts and pink ribbons
Maggie with her parents

The next few days were full of doctor appointments and lots of information. It always felt like we were talking about someone else, but I tried to absorb and process everything. I was scared, though. I was terribly afraid of the unknown, and I was desperately trying to control the situation. I learned about my diagnosis: stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. I learned about my treatment choices. And I thought, “This is very bad.” I met with an oncologist who wanted to start treatment immediately. She sent me for a scan before she finalized my treatment plan.


My dad reviewed the scan results with me at my next appointment. The oncologist told us the scan showed the cancer had spread to my bones and liver. It was now stage 4, and she was obligated to tell me there was no cure for stage 4. For me, the news didn’t really change anything. I still had all the same fears, and I still thought it was bad. It became obvious to me in that moment, feeling small and sitting in that tiny room, that this was now beyond my control. I was not going to be able to do anything. I couldn’t make this go away by proving I was a good person. It didn’t matter if it was fair or not; fairness was not going to change anything. It was the first time in my life I felt helpless.


My oncologist said my attitude was as important as the chemotherapy and the medications. “Well shit,” I thought, “I was kind of relying on the medications to do the heavy lifting and just sort of be along for the ride and come out the other side alive.” Hearing her say my attitude was just as important and knowing how out of control I felt, I realized I would have to throw my energy into controlling my attitude.


My oncologist said my attitude was as important as the chemotherapy and the medications.

Shortly after my treatment started, it became apparent I couldn’t hide what I was going through and mask my way through life anymore. I didn’t know any other way. I googled something like “resilience” or “mental strength.” Google, in her infinite wisdom, delivered an article titled “The 9 Essential Habits of Mentally Strong People.” And there, at number one, was Hamlet saying, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I read it about 5 times. I said it out loud.


"What?

There is nothing either good or bad?

Wait, what?

Thinking makes it so?

I control if something is a good experience or a bad experience because I control how I think about it?


Surely that could not be applied to cancer, though.

I mean, cancer is obviously bad.

What lunatic would think cancer is good?"


What lunatic would think cancer is good?

Now might be a good time to mention that I have a long history of not doing things like everyone else. If there are two ways to do something, and everyone does it one way, I will choose the other way. It’s that innate sense of trying to project an impossible fairness in life. At an early age, when all the kids in my class shared that their favorite colors were pink, purple, or blue, I declared my favorite color orange. This decision was mostly because I felt bad that no one else had chosen orange and only minimally because I liked orange. So when clarity about my diagnosis came in the form of an online article about mental strength, I thought, “Why not just try to pretend for a little while that cancer is a good thing. What harm could come from that?”


The truth? No harm came from it. Rather, immense growth and happiness I never imagined I would find came from a silly game of "What is good about cancer?"



Here are my top 7 good things about cancer:

#7. Even as your body is fighting a disease, there is incredible harmony as you start to see what your amazing body is capable of. Sure, you get weak. But that comeback? It’s like King Kong on steroids.


#6. People pray for you. And I mean, they really pray for you. And they light candles, meditate, Om, or do whatever they do. There is a lot of good energy coming your way.


#5. You don’t have to shave your legs. This means your shower and bath time can finally be spent how it should be; relaxing, solving serious world problems, contemplating song lyrics you don’t understand, and trying not to forget what you need at the grocery store. No more having to decide if there is enough time before the water gets cold to shave your whole leg or if you should just stick to the lower half.


#4. People make more out of the moments they have with you. It’s subtle at first, but don’t take it as anything more than they really enjoy your company, and your situation has helped them develop a new appreciation for slowing down and making time for quality time. Your mortality seems to help others realize their own, and without meaning to, you end up helping others live.


Without meaning to, Your mortality ends up helping others live

#3. You get a cancer card. Reserve the cancer card if you really need it, though. One day, during a spirited game of Monopoly, when your brother-in-law refuses to sell you the property you need to stage a mini takeover, you’ll throw down the cancer card and expect the property to be sold to you immediately. When he responds, “Roll the dice, you’re not dying tonight,” you will know that you have overused that cancer card and you can never use it again.


#2. People will give you little gifts and trinkets. Maybe a bracelet that says “strength” or a sticker that says “Fight like a girl.” Gifts are always nice. Enjoy the gift while you have it, and then, when you’ve got what you need from it, never underestimate the power of re-gifting it to someone newly diagnosed who needs some encouragement. Gifts given from a survivor to a new fighter are very special. It’s the same with life lessons. If you learned it, get out there and teach it.


If you learned it, get out there and teach it.

And the number one good thing about cancer?

#1. You will meet the most amazing people. Maybe it is a doctor, a nurse, a caregiver, another patient – it could be anyone. I have met and connected with people all over the world, and it has opened up MY world. My brain can’t comprehend my life without them, the opportunities I would have missed, or the meaning and purpose I might still be lacking. So, cancer taught me that if you are willing to adjust your mindset and see what you have gained instead of what you have lost, you can see a typically "bad" situation as "good."


5 yoga students sitting in a cross-legged position
Maggie, in the grey shirt second from the right, at YFFR Instructor School

In June of 2022, I inadvertently ended up at Yoga For First Responders Instructor School nine years after finishing chemo. I worked as a 911 operator for over 15 years, and my agency sent me to this training. I had done some yoga, but I’m grateful I arrived at Instructor School with relatively little experience. I had moments throughout the program where all my pieces clashed in these beautiful “worlds colliding” epiphanies. There was an understanding of first responder culture. There was an explanation of trauma’s effect on the brain. There was a description of health impacts and the mind/body connection. Every night after Instructor School, I went to my hotel room smiling and feeling more and more like yoga was this beautifully simple answer to everything I had struggled with for so long. It was helping my mind and my body be at peace with one another so they could fight together.

Woman smiling in a firefighter coat
Maggie at Instructor School on Tac Skills day, learning firefighter skills

I learned about the concept, "challenge vs threat". I learned we never can control what happens on the outside, but we always have control over what happens on the inside. And I learned that if I don’t show up and work it out on the mat, I won’t be able to show up and do it anywhere else. I felt the last of my fears slip away while lying on a yoga mat in Colorado. All of the pieces were now connected. Yoga affirmed, without judgment, everything I knew to be true in the simplest of ways.


On the yoga mat, I’m just Maggie. I’m not the cancer survivor. I’m not the first responder. I’m just me. And who am I at my most basic? My core identity? Well, orange is my favorite color, and I think cancer was a good thing for me.





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