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New horizons

Author: Bridget McCrea

The experience of cancer can cause patients to reevaluate their professional lives, their family life, their goals and their passions. Frank Kuhar is no exception. A resident of Vintondale, Pennsylvania, Frank always had a passion for horses but never really had the time to invest in the ownership and the upkeep of these beautiful animals. One stage IV colon cancer diagnosis and six months of treatment later, this horse lover now has his heart set on opening the horse farm that he and his wife, Cindy, have been discussing for years.

“We’re planning to open a facility where cancer patients and survivors can come for some ‘horse therapy,’” says Frank, who points out that riding or even just brushing the gentle animals can create a sense of calm and stillness for individuals who are under stress.

A heavy equipment operator by trade, Frank has not yet returned to work and, as such, is able to put time and thought into the farm. His wife of 36 years and their adult daughter are both supportive of the idea and looking forward to participating in the planning and the running of the facility. “You forget all about cancer when you are around horses,” says Frank, who is currently exploring the funding and certification options for the therapy side of the venture.

The shift in focus that Frank experienced in the wake of the cancer diagnosis has extended beyond the horse farm and into his day-to-day priorities, which now revolve around enjoying life, spending time outdoors and fully appreciating time with family and friends. “I’ve been given my life back and a chance to continue the rest of my story with my family,” says Frank. “Before the cancer, every day was just another day. Now I wake up appreciating every day and treating it like an entirely new gift that I’ve been given.”

Shifting priorities

Frank’s decision to reevaluate his priorities and adjust his perspective after the diagnosis is not surprising to Lynn Bornfriend, MD, a psychiatrist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia. In fact, she says, shifts in emotional and physical priorities are common during cancer treatment and recovery. Emotional changes might include a changing outlook on life and the pursuit of new goals and aspirations. On the physical side of the equation, survivors may strive to live healthier lifestyles, live with less stress or make an effort to simply slow down somewhat to accommodate lower energy levels.

Emotional and physical changes may come immediately after a diagnosis, during treatment or even years later, Dr. Bornfriend says. “Upon being diagnosed patients are usually in shock, and they come face-to-face with the fact that they can’t continue to live how they’ve been living. They may have less energy or experience other physical limitations that suddenly prevent them from partaking in their normal activities.” Once the initial shock has worn of, Dr. Bornfriend says, patients tend to settle into new and different routines—some of which are influenced by the physical rigors of the treatment process. During this period, she says, many individuals begin to break free of the “shoulds” and the “oughts” that dictated their activities, intentions and lives up until the cancer diagnosis. Some patients, for example, start to mentally explore what their true calling might be and to evaluate the impact that they want to have on the world. “They start to experience things and take part in activities that they want to do—rather than what someone else wants them to do,” says Dr. Bornfriend. “It’s an extremely empowering time.”

Superman’s kryptonite

The changes that Dr. Bornfriend describes may be especially significant for “supermen” and “superwomen” who have spent their lives caring for others and shouldering considerable responsibility. When people who have lived their lives in this way suddenly find themselves in need of help and support, it can be a big adjustment. For the first time in their lives, they must put their own welfare ahead of everything else and realize that this isn’t a selfish move. “The key is to be flexible,” Dr. Bornfriend points out, “and realize that it’s time to relinquish some of the power you’ve had and allow others to help and support you.”

That transition from caregiver to recipient is often eased by the fact that a cancer diagnosis in and of itself encourages patients to more clearly communicate their emotions, wants, needs and gratitude. “People have conversations that they’ve never had before and are able to clarify misconceptions, express gratitude and let out their frustrations,” says Dr. Bornfriend. The intense circumstances surrounding a cancer diagnosis mean that sometimes these emotions come in rapid-fire succession. In this case, Dr. Bornfriend encourages patients to acknowledge and accept feeling overwhelmed by the swirling thoughts and the stress points but to not be self-critical and to reach out to friends and loved ones for support.

“Slow down and appreciate your experiences,” she says. “This isn’t the time to get hyper-vigilant and overly stressed about your job, your mortgage and your car payments. Try to take it easy on yourself, tackle what you can and leave the rest to others.”

Taming the rat race

In today’s busy society, it is easy to get caught up in the rat race. From the moment you wake up in the morning until you rest your head on your pillow at night, the demands on your time and energy are constant. When a cancer diagnosis rears its head, Dr. Bornfriend says, many patients begin to approach daily demands from a different perspective. Instead of rushing through dinner while thinking about what they have to do next, over-scheduling their days and nights or over-committing themselves, patients often adopt a more laidback mindset and focus on enjoying life.

And while stepping off the hamster wheel may sound alarming at first, the exercise can actually be quite liberating and life altering. “You start to appreciate the experiences around you instead of rushing through the day, trying to get everything crossed of your to-do list,” Dr. Bornfriend points out. “You become centered in your own world and, as a result, are better able to assess what’s really important and what’s not.”

As that hamster wheel fades in the rearview mirror, survivors tend to move into a period where long-term life changes—like opening a horse farm—begin to take shape. Working 12 hours a day and striving for millionaire status suddenly become less important than creating an enjoyable lifestyle. Personal passions may come front and center at this time: A patient who worked as an office equipment salesperson for many years and spent a few hours a week volunteering with at-risk youth, for example, may find that making a difference is now a priority and would cut back on work hours to be able to spend more time volunteering.

Dr. Bornfriend is quick to point out that cancer patients should use the same care and attention when developing their newfound dreams that they have relied on historically. “This isn’t the time to throw everything aside and join the circus,” she says, “but if the idea of selling office equipment isn’t exciting or fulfilling anymore, then definitely look into allotting more time to the activities that you enjoy.”

Resiliency and flexibility count

When it comes to making these transformative changes, there will always be challenges and obstacles to overcome. To make the transition as smooth as possible, Dr. Bornfriend says some behavioral and attitudinal changes may be in order. “The people who fare the best in the face of monumental life stress tend to be more flexible than others,” she says. “Their resilience comes from assessing a situation, moving into it and then adjusting accordingly.”

Along with resiliency and flexibility, Dr. Bornfriend says a degree of humility can also help patients make the best choices when shifting their priorities and developing new goals and aspirations for themselves. “Take responsibility for your behavior and commit to making the best possible choices for your individual situation,” she recommends. “Understand that you’ll probably make some mistakes along the way, but that as long as you acknowledge your actions and decisions, you’ll wind up well positioned to enjoy your renewed priorities.”

Frank Kuhar adds that treating every day as a new awakening and a gift can help cancer patients and survivors keep everything in perspective. “There was a time when every day was just another day, and my mind was always on what needed to get done next,” he says. “These days my wife and I both appreciate life more and enjoy this wonderful second chance that we’ve been given.”

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