Bill Couzens, Less Cancer Founder Photo Caitlin Scott

Taking Inventory

Professionally, I’ve had the privilege to be a part of and witness many victories through Less Cancer’s relentless mission to decrease incidences of increasing cancer, including educating the masses about cancer prevention, providing continuing medical education for physicians, nurses, and public health professionals, and championing national policy changes. Less Cancer’s work has impacted countless lives.

On February 6, I turn sixty, and I have never worked harder to be healthy. While I’m delighted to have made it this far, and surprised more than a few friends in doing so, reaching this milestone isn’t something I take for granted. I’ve been fortunate to survive decades of hard work, high-stress, and infrequent self-care; I’ve made it here, but by the skin of my teeth. Like the cobbler with no shoes, for too long I put my health on the back burner.

Paradoxically, between the victories we’ve won on behalf of Less Cancer and in the private moments away from partners, family, and friends, I’ve struggled with chronic pain, exhaustion, and other health issues, often at the cost of my well being. I put basic health needs on hold, convincing myself that my discomfort paled in comparison to the life and death struggle cancer patients deal with every day. In many ways it’s true, I’ve seen that suffering firsthand, and I’ve gained perspective from it. But I felt guilty for living, for what health I had, what joys I treasured.

This last December, my son, Ian graduated from college, and the real value of sixty years hit me. Sitting in the concourse and watching the graduates mill about, I was busy snapping photos and soaking it all in when I realized just how fortunate I was to be there, to witness my son’s accomplishment and all the successes and failures and special moments that had brought him to that stage. I thought of my brother, Frank, and sister, Anne, who missed milestones in their children’s lives. And while saddened for the loss at the same time, I felt gratitude for being present for my son.

After years of giving my health nothing but a second thought, I found myself between a rock and a hard place. A couple of years ago, my doctor informed me that I was teetering on the edge between pre-diabetic and diabetic. I’d also learned that I had precancerous growths on my pancreas, also known as pancreatic cysts. The news was terrifying, but armed with information and access to incredible care at the University of Virginia and Memorial Sloan Kettering, I am carefully monitored and it remains non-threatening today.

My health, got away from me for a variety of reasons, just like it happens with so many of us. I, however, was lucky, recent hurdles forced my hand to seriously choose my health as a daily priority. I now have a trainer, Chris Forsten, who can always get me away from my desk and motivated to move. The local tennis pro, John Dokken, never turns me down when I need him to hit a few volleys with me. Just playing tennis has been a big step for me, helping to develop coordination, balance, and something to keep me eager to improve. These two commitments are saving my life.

Access to health care and finding the time to be active are both endeavors I could not have done in other periods of my life. It’s because of support through my employers and the support of those around me that I’ve been able to make personal health a priority; in effect, those pillars are what we all need to truly live the cancer prevention mission. Incorporating fitness into my daily routine, even if I’m not always excited about it, has changed how I shape my day.

As much effort, as much time, and as much work as these healthy lifestyle changes have been, they are nothing like the expense and toll that a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment take on an individual and their loved ones’ lives. Physically, mentally, and financially, the sacrifices we face in fighting the disease are disproportionate to the measures we can all take to prevent such a diagnosis. When I started the work on Less Cancer in 2003, the only organizations in the cancer community were geared toward treatment. Those models have proven exorbitantly profitable for some but devastatingly costly for others.

I know a few things. I know every ounce of sweat equity I’ve put in, and the people we’ve impacted and that every late night and every long meeting has made a difference. I know that all of my sixty years have brought me the experiences that sustain me in this work, and will continue to drive me in the years to come. I know that passion comes from love, from pain, and from everyone who has supported us along the way. And I know it has been worth it, but I will be taking better care of myself in the next chapter.

So hello to sixty and many productive and impactful years ahead!

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This is 60 was originally published in Less Cancer Journal on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.