Five-time cancer survivor and author Donald Wilhelm is the first to admit that finding “happiness” while battling cancer is a bit difficult. However, he definitely advocates positive thinking.
“You have a choice,” he says. “You can be negative, or you can be positive, make some changes, and make the most of it. My question to people is, why would you choose negativity?”
Diagnosed in 2000 with Hodgkins 4A, Donald has gone through a long journey of cancer treatments. Total up the chemo he’s had and you’re talking over 24 month’s worth. His journey has been a series of remissions followed by recurrences, more chemo, remission, recurrence, chemo, rinse, and repeat. To say the least, it’s been grueling.
“I got to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he says. “So I took some time off, and for three years I did okay, but then the emotions caught up with me. I was partying a lot of nights, all night, and really couldn’t get ahold of what was happening. Of course, the cancer came back, and this time it was everywhere. We did almost 16 months of chemo to keep it at bay, but I was sick two weeks out of every month. I was living only half the life everyone else was. I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I wanted to enjoy life, whatever life I had. So I quit treatment, got a new oncologist, a new hospital, had my enlarged spleen removed, and set about changing my life.”
The chemo did reduce the amount of cancer in Don’s body, but didn’t completely get rid of it. So how does he manage the knowledge that it could spread at any time?
“It doesn’t bother me at all anymore,” he says. “When I first started chemo, I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect, and chemo kicked my butt. I would be sick before I even got to the hospital. But I know now that all of that is controlled by your mind, and the more you practice redirecting your thoughts, the easier it gets.”
Far from a Pollyanna, Don advocates using positive thinking as a tool to make the cancer journey easier on yourself. He now does meditation and visualization on a daily basis. “We need to take care of the physical body, with good food and exercise, but I think the mental component has far more to do with our well-being. The brain is a crazy animal. It’s amazing the power it has, and how much damage it can do if it runs unchecked.”
Sounds all well and good, but when he was going through chemo treatment after chemo treatment and recurrence after recurrence, how did he keep up the positive emotions? You may be surprised to know!
“I started by pretending!” he says. “You know, the ‘act as if’ kind of thing. Cancer patients experience a lot of pressure around other people, because of course they ask you how you’re doing. I would think to myself, ‘Do they want the simple answer or do they want the truth?’ But you know, people want to hear the simple answer. They want to hear you’re doing great. So I started faking it. It’s like smiling when you don’t feel like it. You do it for awhile, and suddenly you’re really smiling, and your whole body benefits from it.”
What techniques does he use when his thoughts start spiraling downward? “The secret I’ve found is gratefulness. When you start getting that pit in your stomach, and your thoughts snowball in the wrong direction, take five minutes and you can change that.” Don suggests focusing on the things you’re grateful for. Some days it may be that you’re still alive. Or that you still have your loved ones around you, or even something silly like you got to enjoy your favorite kind of ice cream. “It’s a process and you have to learn how to do it,” he says, “but the benefits are huge.”
Don’s future, at this point, is unknown. He says the FDA may soon approve a new treatment for his type of cancer, and if so, he’s eager to try it. In the meantime, he’s adept at living in the moment, and is excited about accomplishing his goals in whatever time he’s given. One of those goals is to help other cancer patients by sharing his experience.
“My main message is that you have a role in how this turns out,” he says. “Cancer changes you. You’re never going to be the same person you were before. It’s such an emotional climb, you really can’t see back to where you came from. But you can choose who you are, today. And you can choose who you will become, tomorrow.”
If you’d like to read a copy of Don’s book and/or his blogs about his journey, please visit his website.
I just found out about Don’s passing today! I am forever changed by Don’s tenacity and his passion for life. Even though we only knew each other from social media, he has forever changed my life and attitude towards life. may you rest in peace Don. I have interviewed Don for my upcoming book and hope to spread his message far and wide – we need more Don’s in this world – You are greatly missed Don – Britta
How sad to hear the news of Don’s passing, but his legacy lives on.
“Keeping it Real”, has been my motto since diagnosis with breast cancer. “Saying it’s so makes it so” is another! Did you hear about Joel Osteen’s mother being diagnosed with cancer with only two weeks to live, only to find out that as of today (last I heard) she is a survivor. Wanna know what she did, right? Well the story goes she came home and repeated a prayer aka possitive thought of “Thank you God for healing me from cancer over a very long period time, probably to this day she repeats this prayer 🙂
Before my masectomy I kept invisioning me waking up asking about the results, in an unfoggy state, guess what , that’s how it went. For some reason I was not scared of chemo either,that has gone (knock on wood) extremely well. I just do what they tell me to and keep my mind aware of my blessings.
I have a great support system of friends and family all of whom are very possitive. I am a person of faith, but not religious. There is one thing that others do not get to experience with this diagnosis, that we do… we get to see all of our friends and family reach out, I tell everyone, because I want all woman to get their mammograms and I want all people to know having cancer does not mean you are goung to die…today that is. The only thing that I am pissed off about is being bald not because I look bad, but because society is happier with women with hair so I wear an itchy wig. Ahhh..I do look pretty damn good, but there is always the chance my daughter goes to hug me and pulls it off and then I would have to deak with the shock factor…lol Seeeee just hearing myself complain about that is pathetic. Oh well good luck to you and reaching all the people with their cancer diagnosis….I believe we have been chosen to have this disease because there is something for us to learn and teach.
Thank you Diane for sharing your story and inspirational words of wisdom and love. Faith keeps us going and doesn’t let us give up… You are absolutely right about that! Congratulations on your survivorship and please continue to be a beam of light for others fighting this disease. – Britta