My Habit of Small Wins

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Don’t bring your mountain bike with you. Ontario is a pretty flat place.

That’s what I was told in 2008 when I was planning my move from Israel to Canada.

This is not a story about cycling or immigration but about the way we handle life.

It was a regular Thursday evening, six months after we’d immigrated to Canada when I felt a pain in my lower back. Nothing extreme to begin with, but later that night it became unbearable, and my wife urged me to go to the hospital. I don’t need to describe how stubborn men can be, right? Finally convinced, we headed to the hospital and after a few tests, I sat in a room with other patients waiting for the doctor’s analysis.

“You have a Lymphoma,” the doctor said.

“What’s a Lymphoma?” I asked. My medical vocabulary was pretty basic at the time.

“Well, it can be cancer, but we will have to run another test.”

“Oh!” That word. Cancer. I knew that one, and that it wasn’t good.

My brain was burning from thinking too many thoughts at once: how will I financially support my family? How do we cure this cancer? Will I be able to work? Will I be left with any physical limitations? Will I survive? What did I do wrong to get cancer? For some reason, my brain also began replaying hundreds of images – all of them happy childhood moments.

I was 31 years old, with an advanced stage Follicular Lymphoma. I was married with two little kids (3 1/2 and an 11-month-old), new to the country, with no other family or friends, and yes – I was the only income provider for the family.

How would you have handled it?

Go back to your origin country for family and friends support? Ask your partner to drop out of school and get a job? Depend on social services? Breakdown? Give up? Die?

No matter what you choose, you should be comfortable with the consequences. I chose to live and quickly came up with a plan to handle the situation.

The first week after receiving the news, I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts of “why me?” were filling my mind. I had lived a healthy lifestyle. I was eating well in general, exercising, and I wasn’t smoking or drinking. At times, looking back on my life, I thought I should have smoked and drunk more frequently: at least I would have enjoyed life a bit more before I died 🙂

After an emotional week, I made a concerted effort to return to my normal, more practical, self.

So, what next? Clearly, dying wasn’t an option.

I really enjoy life, and I would like to stick around for a while. I need to support my two boys, together with my beautiful (ex 😉 wife, and gain many more experiences. So after making an obvious decision, that I wanted to live, the execution of my plan started with a search. Not a spiritual one, but a Google one.

My plan was to learn as little as necessary about this Follicular Lymphoma that threatened my life so I could focus instead on recovering. Suitably educated by my short research, which obviously included Wikipedia and WebMD, I was prepared to discuss with my doctor how we would fix it and what recovery would entail.

I knew the medical treatments and technology were there, and it was mostly up to me to get through recovery. I tried to avoid subjective opinions on forums and in real life, well-meaning as they might be. If I was going to recover, I was going to do it my way. Well, the first two months of aggressive chemotherapy treatment were reasonable. I tried to find motivation in anything.

In a room full of cancer patients, I was the youngest. It was a bit depressing sometimes, watching these older people face this terrible disease, but that gave me inspiration. I made it my mission to put a smile on other patients’ faces every time I went to the hospital for treatment. I joked about being sleepy from the large dose of drugs and preparing for my chemotherapy “date” by “shaving” my facial hair.

As much as I enjoyed the laughter and jokes, I won’t forget my feeling when my wife wisely suggested that I shave off my hair before it fell out. Baldness is something we associate with the old, and I still felt young, but it’s part of the journey many cancer patients undertake, so off it came.

After a few months, I lost weight, felt depressed, and became anxious more often. When I looked in the mirror I saw a sick person. It finally started to become clear, this wasn’t a game, choosing to live might not be enough, I could die. My kids would lose their father, my wife would be widowed. Self-sufficiency and determination would not be enough, I had to learn to trust other people and accept their help, not because I was sick or weak, but because together we are stronger.

I also developed a habit: collecting small daily wins.

  • If I could get out of bed and walk around the house for ten minutes, even with debilitating nausea and headaches – that’s a win.
  • If I could fake it to my kids and play with them for five minutes – that’s a win.
  • If I could reply to work emails – that’s a win.
  • If I could take the subway to the hospital, all by myself – that’s a win.
  • If I could show my wife that everything was usual and that I was strong for her and the boys – that’s a win.

Collecting these small wins made me stronger. It kept my motivation, and me, alive.

To distract my mind from the churn of negative thoughts and tough treatments, I picked up my biggest project at the time, developing my wife’s jewelry business. Between visits to the hospital for blood work, checkups, tests, and chemo treatment – I was planning, researching, familiarizing myself with the industry, and coordinating with the many vendors that could help build the business

Partially joking, I told my wife that if I died I would leave her with this business to support our family. She didn’t like me saying that. I guess when you love someone you don’t want to hear such things. Empowered by the support of my wife, kids, parents, and siblings, with my increasing stash of daily wins, I was ready to win through the remaining treatment.

But 11 months with intensive treatments prompted challenging questions. Where do you keep finding the motivation? How many small wins did I need to collect? The answers were simple really. Find motivation anywhere. When you’re going through chemo, no amount of small wins is too many.

I pretended to be Rocky Balboa, preparing for my comeback at the gym, working through the feelings of nausea, the headaches, and the weakness. Despite feeling sick and being sick of life some days – I really turned collecting wins into a habit. Although I’ve never been the type of person who goes to the gym (I always preferred outdoor activities), I gained almost 9 kg of muscles (ohh yeah!)

The two best comments regarding my achievements at the gym:

My nurse said, “It’s ridiculous! Most of my patients lose weight during their treatments, while you’re gaining weight and keeping fit.” She said that every time she put me on the weight scale.

After a visit my brother commented, “I came to Toronto to see my brother, and it seems like he grew an extra layer of shoulders! He’s been working out throughout his chemo treatments.”

After almost a year of intensive chemo treatments under a clinical trial, including a radioactive injection as my last treatment, and many personal challenges – I was out of the hospital and facing a new challenge – life’s daily routine. Although I had a great opportunity working with an international green energy company, I couldn’t keep the job. It required frequent traveling, which would have been risky with my health situation.

After almost 2 years in the country, I was facing a new immigrant’s biggest challenge – finding a job. I started collecting small wins again, “celebrating” successful information interviews, doing research about writing a resume in Canada, and trying my best to network with people to hopefully find my first job with a Canadian employer.

As a newcomer, you know that most of the time it doesn’t matter what you have done in your country, it’s about your Canadian experience and language skills. Coming from a marketing and communications background, I knew that language was a big part of the assets in my toolbox.

After years of working in the telecom and software sectors, I wanted to do something with more value and meaning instead of promoting “regular” products or services. After six long months of searching, and many frustrating moments, I was hired as a digital marketing coordinator for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

But I still didn’t stop collecting my small wins. I was eager to prove myself in the local market with this organization so I learned about the fundraising sector in Canada, developed new processes to communicate digitally with the masses, and contributed to national campaigns aiming to raise funds for heart disease prevention in Canada. During that time, I also developed a great friendship with a couple who encouraged me to get back into cycling (shout-out to my bike buddies Cameron & Victoria.)

To collect another personal win, I started training for mountain bike races. Although overshadowed by my little brother’s achievements as a professional mountain biker in the US, I was eager to collect more small wins and prove to myself that I could compete, and more importantly, fully recover from cancer. I found my motivation to train for 3-4 times a week from observing my brother’s dedication to the sport over the last decade. My wife and boys were extremely supportive, creating the environment for me to be successful, helping me focus on my next goal.

My small win was achieved as my kids ran around the house wearing my gold medal from the Ontario try-an-O Cup championship race. It wasn’t the Tour de France, but just a few months prior I had been fighting cancer, and now I was on the winner’s podium. That’s a win!

After almost a year with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, I was offered a great opportunity to join one of the leading career colleges in Ontario, Trillium College, and lead their marketing front. Symbolically, I started my new position a day after I finished my post-chemo maintenance treatments – Double win!

Health is everything, and by appreciating life, and collecting small wins, I’ve learned that I can live the life I deserved.

What does your list of small wins look like?

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