How Living in Service to Others Helped Me Cope During Cancer

March 9, 2023
Kristoffer B. Kristensen, PhD

Kristoffer B. Kristensen, PhD, is a chondrosarcoma survivor. Most of his career has focused on applying principles of psychology to creating learning communities and supporting lifelong learning. He is driven by a passion for helping people grow and reach their maximum potential. Since being diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Kristensen leverages this passion to become a tireless champion for those who experience life-changing traumatic experiences. He now spends much of his time writing books and promoting the use of proven, data-driven practices that help people find hope and overcome their trauma. You can follow Dr. Kristensen on Twitter and his personal blog website.

On the morning of September 2, 2020, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of my pelvis and leg revealed a large and aggressive mass growing on the inside of my left pelvis. Sure enough, it was cancer. After a couple of biopsies, it was determined that I had advanced stage III chondrosarcoma, which is cancer of the cartilage. 

With this particular diagnosis, surgery was my only treatment option. Since the tumor had completely invaded my pelvis and had broken through the bone wall, there was no other choice than to have a hemipelvectomy, which involved the removal of the left half of my pelvis and entire left leg. The cancer was so advanced and growing so quickly that if wasn’t removed immediately, I would have only between 3 weeks and 3 months before the cancer was untreatable.

The news of my cancer diagnosis was heartrending. I could either go through with the surgery or spend my last few months of life living them to their fullest, saying goodbye to everyone I love, and eventually leaving this life. For a little while, I contemplated not having the surgery. I didn’t want to live without my left leg. But, of course, the choice was clear. With a wife and 4 young adult daughters to take care of, I needed to be here for them. So, on September 23, 2020, I was in the operating room having my lower left extremity removed.

Finding purpose by helping others during recovery

I was in the hospital for over 3 months recovering. That was hard, and I started to get a little depressed.  But during that time, I formed a resolve: I was not going to let the cancer get the better of me. “I am stronger than this,” I thought.

Still, I didn’t know what to do to make the most of the situation. Then it hit me like a freight train: service to others. If I could only get out of my own head and try to make the lives of others better, then I wouldn’t slip into the rabbit holes of despair and depression. But how? I was stuck in a hospital bed and couldn’t do the things one normally does to serve others. Then, another flash insight: I could simply try to improve the days of anyone who came into my room, just for having seen me. I could tell them a joke to make them laugh, find out what was going on in their worlds and what they were struggling with, and just be there for them. I could even offer them some of the treats that had been sent to me.

So, I executed on my plan. I told a lot of bad dad jokes. I gave away a lot of treats. I asked a lot of questions and sat with those who visited me in their pain. The more I got into their worlds, the less I was stuck in my own. The more I helped them carry their burdens, the less heavy mine seemed. It felt great! I learned that one of life’s greatest pleasures is to just truly be with other people in their trials and help them carry their burdens. I would cry with those who cried and laugh with those who laughed. I mourned with those who mourned and tried to be in their service.

Dealing with complications

While I was recovering in the hospital, I contracted a Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infection and slipped into septic shock. I was unconscious for the next few weeks. The doctors discovered that the infection had killed my entire large intestine and was quickly killing me. The only solution was a total colectomy, which is surgery to remove the colon.

Two and a half weeks later, I regained consciousness. I immediately discovered the ostomy bag attached to my stomach and realized other bodily functions had also been taken away from me. Then, my heart sank lower than it ever has. I immediately fell into depression. I couldn’t find energy or motivation to get back to servicing others. I became completely consumed with my own condition. 

It has taken many months and a lot of therapy to deal with my situation, which is still hard to come to grips with. However, slowly but surely, things have been changing. Several groups have invited me to share my story with them. Invariably, some of the audience members are struggling with something so challenging that they, too, are in despair. Many of them have approached me or written to me, sharing some of their struggles and how they gained strength from hearing my story and lessons learned.

Indeed, there have been a number of lessons I have learned through my cancer experience. First, by getting out and sharing my story with others, I have learned to get out of my own head, which relieves some of the hurt. I have also realized that my words serve me as much as they may serve others. Next, I’ve learned to look around. Chances are that 9 out of 10 people I encounter are struggling with something so difficult that it is challenging them to their very core. By sharing my experiences, my hope is that they are finding the strength to carry on.

If you are coping with a cancer diagnosis, I encourage you to acknowledge where you are in your own cancer journey, but don’t get stuck on it. Rather, I have found it is most helpful to do whatever you can to get out of your own head and start serving others. You might even consider sharing your story in a way that might benefit them. Finally, learn to take your own advice and risk just 1 more step into your own unknown future.

The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose.


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