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How Losing My Hair to Cancer Changed How I Think About Happiness

Life sometimes feels like being in a riptide, those powerful currents that run underneath the ocean. If you're in one and you try to swim directly to shore, the riptide will drag you back out to sea. As you continue to try to make forward progress, it will sap your strength. Many people have died trying to make it to the shore in a riptide. The key to surviving is to swim parallel to the beach until you find a safe area where there is no riptide.

During difficult times in our lives, we swim sideways, hoping that the powerful forces that are buffeting us will slow down so we can make some forward progress again. Some days we're swimming strongly, some days we're just doggy-paddling along, and some days, we just float, trying to keep our heads above water. We just do what we can.

Do we curl up in bed and pull the covers over our head? Do we give up?

No!

In trying times, you just keep trying.

Choosing to Be Positive

When faced with challenges, each of us has a choice presented to us: we can choose whether we will be weak or strong. It's interesting to ponder that choice.

I think it takes a lot of emotional energy to be weak. To be miserable and sad and depressed and discouraged and fearful takes a lot of work. Think of all the emotional energy that goes into those choices. It's pretty significant. Now consider how much emotional energy it takes to be strong. It takes effort to be strong and courageous and positive and brave, but I would contend that it takes less energy than choosing to be weak.

During my own fights in the last while, most recently with breast cancer, I knew I wanted to choose to be strong, but my choice was tested on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. I knew it was the right choice and the best choice for me, but it was certainly not an easy one.

I have come to look upon trials and tribulations for what they really are: strengthening opportunities. Doesn't that change how trials feel? Our challenges are tremendous opportunities to choose strength and to grow stronger as we do so.

So as we experience these "strengthening opportunities," what attitude should we choose?

Be of Good Cheer

I like to take a long walk each morning and pray—it's a transforming experience for me—and even on the darkest days, I would make myself smile and say, "I am cheerful! I am happy! I am choosing to be positive!" Some days I said it through tears and pain. Many days. But each day I tried to choose to be cheerful, and that simple choice made an amazing difference.

One Sunday, I was at church conducting Relief Society. I was sporting an especially stylish cream-colored hat and looking pretty snappy, even if I was in a fog of chemotherapy. After the lesson, a woman came up to me and said, "Sister, I want to see your hair under your hat!"

I replied, "Oh, sister, I don't have any hair. I'm bald."

She seemed rather confused by that for a moment, even though I had told her I was in chemo. "No, I want to see under your hat!"

I kept smiling. "Uh, sister, there's nothing under there."

But she was insistent and asked a third time.

So I lifted up my hat, and she gasped, "Sister! You are bald like a baby's bottom!"

I chuckled and said, "Yup, that's the truth."

She peered into my eyes and asked me, "But how can you be so happy and positive? You have no hair and you are sick. How can you be smiling?"

It was a moment when time stood still. I looked back into her eyes and said, "It's just hair. It will grow back. Every day I am faced with a choice. I can choose to be miserable and depressed, or I can choose to be cheerful and positive. I choose to be positive."

I can testify of the power of that choice. And when I was going through major chemical treatments, that choice was physically lifesaving. I would bound into my chemo treatments sporting my colorful Survivor buff of the week, the TV show's logo blazoned on the front. I would smile and laugh and chat with the other patients as we all sat hooked up to our IV's that were dripping liquid poisons into us. Bringing a positive attitude with me to my treatments made all the difference. Those who were negative and complained seemed to be suffering more than those who were willing to smile.

Choosing to Learn and Grow

Many years ago, I was teaching Sunday school, and I asked the class to raise their hands if they had experienced a major adversity in their lives. Almost every hand went up. Then I asked, "How many of you would give up that experience?" All of the same hands went back up with enthusiasm. Oops! I realized I had asked the wrong question! "How many of you would give up all the learning that you gained from that experience?" The hands all went back down.

No one is thrilled over experiencing trying times. I doubt any of us have prayed to request trials and tribulations to come into our lives. But when they do come, they invariably bring blessings with them—if we let them.

Certainly, we can endure trying times and not gain the benefit or understanding that is available to us. To obtain the full "good" from the experience requires a choice on our part. We must choose to approach these strengthening opportunities with an open mind of looking for learning.

I love this quote by Ronald E. Osborn: "Undertake something that is difficult; it will do you good. Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow."

As we face trying times in our lives, we need to realize that within them are found great opportunities for growth that we could experience in no other way. We will find out what we're made of. So just keep trying!


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Get more insights about finding joy in any situation with In Trying Times, Just Keep Trying!

What do you do when the storms of life leave you battered and bruised? When author Merrilee Boyack faced a series of difficult trials—including a diagnosis of cancer—she had to confront those questions head-on. Drawing from her own experience, Merrilee shares the valuable lessons she learned about overcoming adversity, finding physical and spiritual healing, and embracing joy.


Merrilee Boyack is an estate-planning attorney who conducts her law practice from home. She is also a professional lecturer, featured for many years at BYU Education Week. She and her husband, Steve, reside in Poway, California, and have four sons. Merrilee is the author of several books and talks, including Strangling Your Husband Is Not an Option, Toss the Guilt and Catch the Joy, and  In Trying Times, Just Keep Trying.

Lead image from Getty Images