What My Mom’s Cancer Diagnosis Taught Me About Mental Toughness

Matt Lillywhite

Photo by awar kurdish on Unsplash


Last year, I was living in New Zealand. As I sat in my bedroom, I could hear birds singing in the trees, and many other sounds of nature coming together as one to form a beautiful harmony.

I remember looking out the window, smiling, and thinking to myself that life was good. I was happy. That was until I received a phone call from my mom that changed my life forever.

I answered and asked how she was doing. Silence. But after a few seconds, she said three words that nobody ever wants to hear: “I have cancer.”

I was lost for words. I didn’t know what to say or do, as I was 18,000 km away from her in the United Kingdom. But after a few moments of wondering how to respond, I said, “Everything will be okay. We’ll get through this.”

Deep down, I didn’t know what would happen or if everything would be fine. However, I was on the other side of the planet, and a few words of comfort were all that I could give.

I took a few days off work to try and process the emotional bombshell that had suddenly been dropped on my life. But while taking a walk through the forest, I remembered a beautiful quote from Ryan Holiday, that helped calm my emotions. It goes like this:

“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself, and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.”

I learned that wishing for things to be different won’t change anything. I could not control the fact that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. However, the one thing that I would always be able to control is my attitude and how I use the event to become a better person.

So once I returned to the UK, I did my best to be there for my family and provide them with emotional support. And although my mom getting diagnosed with cancer was horrific, we became much closer as a family than ever before. Thankfully, she’s fully recovered from her treatment.

Life is unpredictable, chaotic, and full of surprises. But when you accept the things you can’t control and focus solely on what you can, every aspect of your mindset will quickly improve for the better.

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius

For all I know, I could get seriously injured this afternoon on the streets of Toronto. Or in a few months, another family member could get diagnosed with a disease that changes their life forever.

The truth is that I don’t have control over the future. But no matter what, I shall always be able to control my attitude and how I respond to any given set of circumstances.

For example, I cannot change the fact that my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer. But instead of hoping for things to be different, I did everything within my power to become closer with my family and support them during an extremely difficult time.

Unfortunately, Burying your head in the sand won’t solve your problems. After all, things in life can, and do, go wrong. So instead of crossing your fingers and hoping that you’ll never have to encounter adversity, a better solution is to prepare your mindset to find the good in every situation.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”―Epictetus

If you don’t learn to control your thoughts, they will always be in control of you. And whether you like it or not, that’s the truth. So take responsibility for your life. Take ownership of everything that happens, see the light, and help other people find their way out of the darkness.

Sure, I’m empathetic to the fact that facing your emotions and building mental toughness is uncomfortable. But do you want to know what’s worse? Seeing your family upset and not being able to support them emotionally or fix the situation.

I’m going to leave you with a final quote from Jordan Peterson, who perfectly describes what I’m trying to say:

“You’re going to pay a price for everything you do and everything you don’t do. You don’t get to choose to not pay a price. You get to choose which poison you’re going to take. That’s it.”

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