by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
On a gorgeous spring day 17 years ago, I met a new patient. Wearing a stylish wide-brimmed hat, which hid the early regrowth of her post-chemotherapy hair, as well as her signature strands of pearls, Michele sat calmly smiling. She recounted the discovery of a breast lump and the rigors of the ensuing treatments.
Always eager to move on with life despite any obstacle, Michele wanted to learn how to fully heal her body through optimal nutrition, meditation, and physical movement. A runner and outdoor enthusiast, she gradually built back her endurance.
Einstein once said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Michele took this to heart as she proposed to me the establishment of the Living in Pink Foundation for the purpose of raising funds to support breast cancer research and services. I agreed to be its medical director, and in 2003, we began what would become an annual fundraising luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, DC. Michele became the face of hope and inspiration for many women, men, and families touched by this disease. Our motto was “Live, Laugh, Love.” We invited other extraordinary women to speak at the event, including Elizabeth Edwards.
Over the next 10 years, Michele was part of a group of my patients who went on to share a variety of joyful and challenging adventures, including running the New York City Marathon together in 2001, six weeks after 9/11. A year later, she had her first recurrence. By this time, her mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and genetic studies confirmed that Michele and her mother carried the BRCA gene. Tough news, but she fought through this setback and yet another. She presided over the 10th anniversary of Living in Pink, and shortly thereafter was informed her cancer was resistant to therapy and was spreading.
On November 28th, Michele passed away at home, surrounded by her loving family.
At her funeral, Michele’s childhood friend read a letter to the standing-room-only crowd. In it, she expressed deep gratitude for the years she was able to enjoy, always aware that every breath was a gift, every embrace a priceless memory.
During our talks in the months prior to her passing, Michele was fervent that I share with others the lessons she’d learned about the meaning and purpose of life. This echoed a conversation I’d had with Elizabeth Edwards the day she keynoted our annual luncheon. At that time, she too had been informed that her cancer had metastasized and that her time left was short. She was just as adamant as Michele that I encourage others to live life deeply, grateful for every opportunity to live, laugh, and love.
So, in deep gratitude to both of these truly remarkable women, I share with you the highlights of our discussions.
Rules to live, laugh, and love by:
1. It’s memories, not possessions that are your greatest treasures in life. You can’t buy happiness. All money can ever give you is options. You can only experience the true bliss and exhilaration of life through memories you create for yourself, whether from the solitary enjoyment of a sunrise or a festive gathering at your house. During any difficult time in your life, no possession will ever take the place of a rich, loving memory that can warm your heart and comfort your soul.
2. Prioritize time with family and friends. At the 2009 Living in Pink luncheon, Elizabeth shared this story. Once she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer, she sat down and took a long hard look at an imaginary blackboard crammed with her usual “to do’s.” She then took a virtual eraser and erased the entire board. Staring at this empty slate, she then reconstructed what was truly important to her. Gone were petty arguments or tasks not in line with her life mission statement. Instead, she wrote only a few words on the board, including the names of her children, beloved family members, close friends, and causes dear to her heart. That’s all. Everything else fell by the wayside. With limited time left, Elizabeth chose to drive by herself from her home in North Carolina to stay with her older daughter in Washington, DC, and come to speak at our luncheon. Right after our event, she hopped back into her car and sped south to her home to host a party for her children. Her priorities were clear.
3. Celebrate what you can do, not what you can’t. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by how difficult life’s journey can sometimes be. Overcoming tough obstacles can seem daunting. Being told you cannot fulfill your life passions for any reason is painful. Michele and Elizabeth both suggested that people believe in the power of resilience and hope. Pushing through impediments and fighting for what you believe and deserve in life was their recipe for fulfillment and success. Know and appreciate your strengths.
4. Kick toxicity out of your life. There’s no room for emotional vampires who infect with negativity. Kick ’em to the curb. Minimize or eliminate exposure to anything or anyone that doesn’t contribute to your ongoing overall wellness. Be your own best advocate. Fight for the right to protect yourself and live your dreams.
5. Make your mission statement “no regrets!” Both Michele and Elizabeth lived lives filled with personal and professional achievements that brought them great pride and happiness. They pushed the envelope and reveled in new adventures. The only predictable regret was the inability to live a longer life to share with loved ones. Michele said, “Well, I’ve tried hard to cram 80 years into 52 and that’ll just have to do.” When I think of regrets, I recall Stephen Covey’s famous quote from his milestone text, The Seven Habits of Successful People: “Nobody on their deathbed wished they’d spent more time at the office.” The real regret would be not having spent more time in joy and happiness.
Your challenge is to take each of these rules and put them into action. Start with small steps, always keeping in mind that the end goal is to strive every day of your life to “Live, Laugh, Love.”
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.