What I Learned About Military Life From Cancer


I’ve watched it closely, but  it was still at distance when cancer hit two dear military spouse friends. I thought immediately, “Really? They’ve already survived extreme life challenges because of military life and now this?”

Now I’m not at a distance. The dreaded “C” diagnosis hit our family directly in December.

When I’m faced with any big challenge, my response is to research the heck out of it.

That’s what I did early on when I was unhappy with military life, when I was, quite frankly, depressed. I went to counseling and I dove into books, reading everything I could find on happiness.

That research resulted in big life changes for me and eventually turned into workshops and books to help other military spouses.

As I research cancer now, I realize I’ve been sharing cancer survivor’s tips for years.

Here’s one story I’ve shared since 1998, in my workshops and books:

It’s the story of Greg Anderson, author of the terrific book, Living Life on Purpose, published in 1997. In 1984 Greg was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. “A surgeon told me I had 30 days to live.” In order to figure out how to deal with this, Greg started interviewing people who had been given terminal diagnoses. In three-and-a-half years he talked to over 550 survivors of terminal diagnoses. He said there were many things that came out of the study, but none was as important as the decision of each person to live out their life’s mission. “To dance my dance, “ as one breast cancer survivor put it.

Greg went on to write the book, Fifty Things You Can Do When the Doctor Says It’s Cancer. In the back of the book, he has a survey for readers to send in. Over the years he received over 11,000 surveys back. He says fully 72% of the respondents linked their recovery in part to understanding and living out important purposes in their lives.

Figuring out your life isn’t just important for joy. It’s important for your life!

I just finished reading Anderson’s book Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do, out in it’s 4th edition in 2013 (quite a few years after that terminal diagnosis in 1984.)

Anderson shares the key strategies of cancer survivors. Many of these are the key life strategies Holly and I share in Military Spouse Journey: Discover the Possibilities & Live Your Dreams and in our workshops.

1. Cultivate strong positive support structures. Stay away from the “ain’t it awful clubs.” 

2. Attitude. “Survivors believe they will survive.” Military spouses who thrive learn to live in the world of possibilities, asking always, “What is possible here? What can I do here towards my dream?” rather than focusing on obstacles and what isn’t possible.

3. Survivors ask questions; don’t just defer to doctors. Military spouses who thrive often step up to improve things for other military spouses as well as themselves. They question the status quo; don’t just defer to current regulations/laws.

…and the Most Important Lesson?

Here’s the life choice that I think is most important, for cancer survivors and all of us. It’s the central message in the work that Holly and I do with military spouses.

4. Live now, not when. Cancer survivors cultivate gratitude and grasp the high value of living in the now.

Military spouses survive deployments and other challenges of military life by focusing on the things they are grateful for on a daily basis, experiencing and relishing simple daily joys. They dive into life rather than waiting for that perfect assignment or for the deployment to be over or for their spouse’s retirement. They live now, not when.

My husband and I talked deeply when the “C” word hit us. “Is there one BIG trip/experience you want in case this is it?” We both said, “No, really, we’ve done so many of the things we wanted to do. We’ve lived what we wanted to live.

Mind you, we both are still immersed in life, in family, projects and community. We have plans for trips and new adventures. We continue to dive into life now in between those medical appointments.

But we realize no matter what happens, we can say we don’t live in the “wish I had…we should have” world many people live in.

What about you? Are you waiting for a wake-up call?

Use mine. Dive in!


Kathie Hightower is a longtime military spouse. With her cohort Holly Scherer she’s presented Follow Your Dreams While You Follow the Military™ workshops for military spouses worldwide. Coauthor of Military Spouse Journey: Discover the Possibilities and Live Your Dreams, and 1001 Things to Love About Military Life, along with many columns and articles. Find more about Military Spouse Journey on Facebook here.

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