How My Wife’s Cancer Diagnosis Helped Me Face Climate Change

What My Wife’s Cancer Taught Me About Climate Change

I remember a time back in late 2012 when, after a long work day, I came home to my favorite dinner cold on the stove top. My partner, Lauren, had already gone to bed. Tired, disappointed, and frustrated with myself, I ate my dinner alone and went to bed disheartened.  

I realized that I had no work-life balance. My days (and nights) consisted of all work and no life: I missed weekends, birthdays, and even holidays. My relationship and friendships suffered, and I felt worried and anxious that I didn’t have a choice in how I spent my time.

My time wasn’t my own, but the idea of changing my reality felt daunting and impossible. Instead of making a shift, I carried on as if everything was OK.

Shortly thereafter, in January 2013, everything changed. During a routine test, Lauren’s doctors found a tennis ball sized tumor in her left lung. She was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of lung cancer classified as a bronchial carcinoid tumor. The tumor completely obstructed the airway in her left lung.

She was given three months to live.  

You read that right: three months. 90 days.

We were both 26.

Here I was, working myself around the clock, and then the love of my life received this terrifying health prognosis.

We were faced with the cold, harsh reality that she might die sooner than we had ever imagined—three months before we were supposed to walk down to the aisle.

Suddenly, I had to reprioritize everything. At first, we were in a state of shock and disbelief. I spent the days immediately following her diagnosis placing calls to hospitals all over the country, scheduling appointments with specialists, and scouring the internet for every possible treatment and solution. We were uncertain about Lauren’s prognosis and didn’t yet have a clear plan for moving forward.

Bolstered by our love for one another and armed with the privilege and resources to research and seek out expert care, we resolved to keep a positive attitude, strong hopes, and then we prepared for whatever would happen with the belief that, no matter what we would face, we would create the most positive expectations; we believed that we would handle anything that came our way in the best way possible.

I was able to track down the #1 lung carcinoid specialist in the U.S. and, after her records were reviewed and her case was accepted, we temporarily relocated from Brooklyn to Nashville. There, Lauren underwent testing, surgery to remove the tumor, and recovery at the Vanderbilt University Neuroendocrine Center.

Throughout this whole arduous journey, it was easy to fall into the trap of fear, pity, or anger, but we stayed committed to doing what we could with the resources we had.

Lauren survived with the good fortune of her youth and otherwise good health, the timing of diagnosis, our health insurance coverage, and the unbounded love and support we received from friends, loved ones, our employers, and her medical team.

Crises like ours can give unexpected clarity and perspective, and, through our hardship, we realized the value of having a community, and just how fortunate, courageous, and resilient we truly are.

Interestingly enough, this experience taught me a lot about climate change, and what I learned while witnessing Lauren’s illness and recovery has helped me face climate reality.

It seems like every month there is a new climate report released with a dimmer prognosis for our planet.

Living with these daily reminders of seemingly inevitable doom feels just like when my wife received her bleak prognosis. Now as then, it’s so tempting to just hide away and embrace denial or despair.

When we’re told that we don’t have much time left, whether in a climate study report or in conversation with our doctor, we can feel helpless and alone.

We feel like we’re running out of time.

This sense of urgency requires us to develop effective coping strategies in order to courageously navigate an uncertain future.

Today, I find myself reaching for the same practices that helped me get through Lauren’s health trials to navigate my climate-related anxiety.

I choose to inform myself and take action.

We have to act even if we don’t know what the outcome will be; otherwise, we’re just giving up. We must try to be present with and tolerant of uncertainty, essentially we have to face our reality.

I am grateful.

One of the things that kept me going was my daily ritual of expressing my gratitude for Lauren’s life, health, and our relationship.  

I honor my ancestors.

I say prayers and give thanks to those who came before. I’m reminded that the very fact I am alive today means the resilient survival of my ancestors lives in my bones and DNA. When we seek help and guidance from beyond ourselves, we can find wisdom that we didn’t know we could access.

I keep going.

It’s true, time is of the essence, and I don’t deny that. I also don’t feel comfortable hiding away and waiting for the end. Instead, I believe that I’ve been given a second chance to live life on purpose, and I’m going to do what I can do to live a life that fulfills me and allows me to show up for my community.

We’re all making our way towards the end, but it’s what we do with our time in the process that matters. Choosing to move courageously through hardship and uncertainty, regardless of if there’s a guarantee of success, is one of the hardest and most rewarding things we can do.

Living in this way does not discount the grief, loss, or gravity of a particular circumstance; rather, it honors our struggle and imbues it with meaning.

Do you resonate with this message?

If you need help navigating your relationship with time, from chronic overcommitting to climate-related anxiety and are curious about the practices that I’ve developed to manage uncertainty, please reach out.

I’d be honored to get to know you.

Alex M. White, the founder of Roots & Resolve