Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Are You Living a Life of Substance?

 I had the strangest thing just happen. I woke up hearing the oncologist’s voice as he diagnosed me with terminal cancer and gave me two years to live. 

After he left, I looked out the hospital window and just thought, “I’m tired of living in fear and regret and dealing with so much guilt.” 

I suddenly felt exhausted from trying to accomplish things so people would be proud of me. My gosh, I wrote ten books in less than ten years. I became a physician liaison for the biggest hospital in southeastern Idaho. I worked as a publisher for a newspaper—and it STILL wasn’t enough. Like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it, no matter how much I put in there, it eventually ended up empty and dry.

At the end of my life, when I looked back, the only thing that really mattered was making a positive difference for the people I love. My so-called accomplishments, degrees, and careers all came up short. So, I wanted to make a change with the time I had left. And it wasn’t about me; life became about bettering the lives of those around me.

Whether my soul went on after death or ceased to exist, it no longer mattered anymore. What felt important was if my memory would remain with the people I care about. 

I wanted to ask you: Are you living the life that you really want? I’m not talking about quitting your job so you can move to the beach and surf all day; I’m talking about living a life of substance… of purpose. Or are you doing what I did: Searching for significance in all of the wrong places? Striving to fill your soul but getting stuck in monotony and forgetting that each day is a gift?

I hate to write this, but I do have terminal cancer. I’m fighting. Every single morning is a struggle to get up. It’s a struggle to go out. But I’m grateful because the fact that I’m struggling means I’m still alive.

If you’re reading this post, I hope you’ll take a minute to remember how lucky we are to have consciousness and the ability to even make choices. It’s vital that we recognize one simple truth: Our quality of life hinges on perspective AND attitude. Positivity can be an immense beacon in the darkness. Search for it and embody it.

So, even though life can be tough and I’m often in pain from the tumors in my bones, I’m grateful that I’m still alive—longer than doctors predicted! 

I’m going to enjoy today with my husband and my kids. Some days I can hardly believe that G-d decided to make me. He made all of us—and I don’t think we should take His handiwork for granted. Despite cancer and hardships, there are so many good things too. 

I… really am the luckiest.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Lucky $87 and the Grocery Store Angel

 The Grocery Store Angel

By EC Stilson

So many incredible things keep happening that I've begun worrying... 

Let me explain: Have you ever had to put an animal down? Unfortunately, I have. And the night before their final day, we've given them steak, eggs—even ice cream—to ensure they're having the best possible day. Then, the next morning, we've had to let them go. This could be due to illness or just quality of life… Anyway, so many Godwinks keep happening in my days that now I'm worried this is my steak dinner from G-d.


"Don't be such a negative Nelda," you might say, but the problem is that once oncologists diagnosed me with terminal cancer, my world changed. I have an early expiration date. So, whether this is my steak dinner from G-d or not, I better enjoy each moment—and that's exactly what I've been doing.


“Do you remember the story about the $87?” I asked my mom after we’d gone to the grocery store. 

“How that lady paid for your groceries?”

I nodded. My card hadn’t worked, and a cashier—of all people—footed the bill. I kept looking for her so I could pay back the $87, but she'd quit working as a cashier. “I finally got to pay it forward,” I told my mom. “Last week a guy couldn’t get his card to work, so I paid his bill. Guess how much it was?”

She looked at me, stunned. “$87?”


“That’s totally a Godwink. Is this the store where it happened?”

“Yeah. The cashier didn’t even know that I’m fighting terminal cancer—I wonder what she would’ve thought if I’d told her.”

My mom and I shopped for a while after that. I felt bad, but we took an extra long time because I had to keep stopping. “I’m so sorry,” I almost said it more to myself than my mom. I know she understands. After all, we’d gone to the store so she could make me her homemade chicken noodle soup. The problem is that I get mad at my body sometimes. I want to walk like I used to and jump around like Tigger, but I can’t even stand for long and I often use a wheelchair.

“Mom,” I said, trying to knock some sense into myself. “I’m gonna buy ice cream. It just sounds… fun.”

We’d rounded the corner when my mom’s expression changed. “You have…” She paused, trying to get another customer’s attention. “You have the most beautiful hair.”

A woman turned, practically glowing. Long gray hair danced from the back of her baseball cap, and after she left the ice cream isle, I could hardly speak. 

“Mom! Oh, my gosh. Mom! That’s the cashier!” The words wouldn’t come out fast enough.

“The cashier?” she asked.

“The one who paid the $87! The one I’ve been looking for all this time.”

“You have to tell her what happened,” my mom whispered.

I moved as quickly as I could, almost frantic as I tried to find the woman.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me.”

She turned, looking every bit the angel I remembered.

I told her then about how I’m fighting terminal cancer. I explained that she’d paid for my groceries on a day years ago when I needed kindness the very most. “I tried to find you, but you’d quit.”

She laughed so hard, those thoughtful eyes sparkling. “I just switched departments! I’ve been here the whole time.”

“I wish I could pay you back! But I ended up buying someone else’s groceries last week. And can you believe it was for the same amount?”

She didn’t seem surprised at all. “That’s how these things work. Thank you for paying it forward.”

“It was your money.” I laughed. “Thank you for what you did for me.”

As my mom and I walked away, I heard a distant voice say, “I’m so glad I saw you again. You changed my whole day.”

“You changed mine,” I said.

That night as I ate the chicken noodle soup, we wondered over the experience from the store. “I’d been so upset that I got sick and took forever. But if I hadn’t been so slow, we would’ve missed her. I guess it all worked out.”

Filled with good food and the blessings only G-d and kind people can bring, it suddenly didn’t matter how sick I’d felt that day. Life once again shone so bright, and I realized once more how lucky I am to even be alive.



Saturday, February 3, 2024

A Change of Perspective

 I turned 41 today. Birthdays mean a lot more than they used to, and I guess it’s because doctors said I’d never turn 40. Even though I’m still fighting for each day, I’m really lucky to even be here.

This reminds me of a birthday from a few years before doctors diagnosed me with terminal cancer. I’d gone to get my taxes done, and as the accountant assessed my information, I studied a photo in her office.

It’s an intriguing picture with five people lying on their backs in a grassy field. Each person is a different race—and the concept of “diversified yet unified” is beautifully clear. But there was something even more that I couldn’t quite grasp.

“Wow, you really like that photo,” the accountant finally said.

Suddenly what eluded me before shone through. “It’s amazing,” I said, seeing the whole scene differently. 

“I like it, but I wouldn’t say it’s ‘amazing.’” She set down some papers and turned to me. 

“I know there are a lot of photos out there like this, but I just realized what makes this one different,” I said. “If you stop focusing on the obvious things and just focus on their glasses.... Did you notice that every person is wearing eyeglasses?”

She came next to me and stared at the picture. “Their glasses, huh? Well, they look like regular gla— Wait, I see it: the reflection! I’ve never had anyone point that out before.”

The reflection shone faintly in each of their eyeglasses, but even those replicas were far more beautiful than the obvious picture itself. Greying buildings, lanky trees, and a stormy sky showed itself in the glasses. As if every subject looked at a dry, dying world, ready to be refreshed…

I momentarily wished the photographer had rested in the grass as well and taken a picture—not of the people, but up, seeing what had appeared above and around them. 

Were the people the real subjects of this photo, or had the artist realized what the glass told about their surroundings?

“You’re right, Elisa. That picture is amazing!” As I took my paperwork and got in my truck to drive away, I looked through the business window. The tax preparer sat down where I had been moments before, and she intently studied the picture in her office.

Friday, January 26, 2024

A Veteran in a Truck Stop

stood at the truck stop, debating which candy bar to get, when several groups of people darted into the store at once. The cashier balked, watching as more and more customers got gas or parked in the parking lot, and I couldn't help studying every person who came in.

An older lady gazed at herself in the mirror, pulling strange faces as she tried on different sunglasses. A young mother and father chased their toddlers, and numerous people perused the drink section. But out of everyone, an elderly veteran intrigued me the most. He stood on one side of the store near a younger woman with the most beautifully dark skin. 

She kept glancing at the veteran whose baggy eyes bulged with fatigue. He limped, using a gnarled cane, yet as he walked past various people, he smiled at everyone. His jacket displayed badges, pictures of planes, and something about years of service. The beautiful woman must’ve noticed all of this, too, because even as she purchased a hat, her eyes hardly left the man. 

I thought she'd leave after that, but she didn't. Instead, she gracefully edged toward the veteran, long arms and legs majestic—like rippling like water. Her black hair floated behind like a veil. Then, she stopped right in front of the man. 

He seemed taken aback to have such a stunning woman approach him. "Can I h–help you?" he asked.

"You already have," she said, opened the bag, and handed him the hat. "Thank you for your years of service. People might not tell you all of the time, but you are so very appreciated.” Then she turned and simply left.

After a moment, the man shakily donned the hat and gazed in the mirror where the older woman had been before. But instead of pulling strange faces or preening like his predecessor, he tipped the hat a little to the right and wiped a few tears from his eyes. 
A brightly dressed lady suddenly spoke next to me. I'd been so enraptured that I hadn’t noticed her studying me—and the entire situation. "That was so amazing to watch," she said.
"It really was," I said with more emotion in my voice than I'd expected. How ironic that I'd entered that truck stop simply wanting to get a candy bar, but instead, I'd gotten so much more. It goes to show you never know where or when a miracle might happen. 

I paid for my favorite kind of candy bar, then surprised myself and gave it to the cashier. "I just wanted you to know you're doing an incredible job." Then, after complimenting him on his various tattoos and piercings, I left the store with empty hands and an overflowing heart.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

It Finally Came Full Circle, and It Only Cost $87

Something came full circle, and I'm so excited about it. In 2020, nearly two months after oncologists diagnosed me with terminal cancer, I finally got out of the house. Of course, I had to use a walker after surgeons removed a tumor-ridden vertebra in my lower back. Yet, there's always a silver lining, and I felt surprised to find that grocery carts work much like walkers—and they look better, too.

After a very slooow shopping session, I weaved toward the register, proud of my achievement. Sure cancer has changed my "wins," but I can still revel in accomplishing what I can. Before, success meant finishing a marathon. Now, I'm lucky to get out of bed and do my makeup. Before, I boasted about milestones, degrees, and promotions at work. Now, I'm grateful when insurance companies pay medical bills we've been battling over for years. 

Anyway, going shopping seemed a Herculean task, but I'd done it all alone! Unfortunately, when I went to pay, my card wouldn't go through. I stood so long that my right atrophied leg shook at the register. Why wouldn't the card work? We have a lot of issues—like... terminal cancer—but we're good at stretching pennies and saving what money we have. 

I flushed with embarrassment. (I wish I'd known earlier that the bank shut off our cards 'cause suspicious out-of-country charges aren't a good sign. Too bad I'd gone shopping instead of answering my phone.) 

"It's only $87," I squeaked. "I am so embarrassed."

"It's no big deal, ma'am. It happens all the time," the sweet cashier said. "But I will need you to go over to the customer service area to either return the groceries or figure out a form of payment. More customers are coming."

"I'll take care of it," another cashier said, then darted from her register several feet away, whipped out her personal credit card, and paid for my groceries before I could resist.

"But that was... That was... $87." I balked. "That's a lot of money."

"No big deal."

"Well...," I thought about my previous stay at the hospital, all of the grueling treatments and surgeries. I remembered my ongoing fights with insurance companies and how sometimes death seems easier than all of this. "It was a huge deal," tears filled my eyes, "to me."

Plus, who does that for someone? Especially a cashier?! I don't know how much they make, but she's not taking much home if she helps everyone who saunters through those doors.

The beautiful elderly woman simply returned to her register like she hadn't just saved my day... and then she helped the next person in line. 

"Thanks again," I said, slowly walking past her. My previously aching leg somehow felt a bit better.

"You just enjoy a nice meal with your family." 

Those unforgettable blue eyes twinkled, lighting up the entire checkout area, and it seemed ironic she had no idea what I faced. Her action meant much more than a monetary amount or a well-cooked meal. The timeliness changed my life because it made me feel like G-d "might" have a plan. Even in my loneliest times, sitting with the magnitude of having a terminal illness, preparing for surgeries, or getting long MRIs, I remember her actions. 

"It was a kiss from G-d," a friend told me the next day, and I decided to return the favor. I immediately visited the bank, withdrew $87, and returned to the grocery store. I'd prepared my speech. I wanted to tell the woman with the long silvery hair how much she changed my outlook. "I have terminal cancer," I'd say, "and you gave me fuel to keep fighting for my four children and my husband." I could hardly wait because I wanted her to know how much she blessed my life. But when I got back to the store, the lady no longer worked there; they didn't even have her forwarding address! 

That left me one option: I'd have to... pay it forward.

Since then, when I've gone to get groceries—for almost three years—I've wanted to pay for someone else's food. Unfortunately, it never seems to be the right time, and I don't want to embarrass someone. This has gotten so ridiculous it's a bit like a hunter/prey situation—except I'm a chick who's too excited to do something nice.

Can you believe that after YEARS of waiting, today it finally came full circle?! A man in front of me couldn't pay for his groceries. His face paled as he swiped the card again and appeared mortified. "I'm sorry, sir. They can help you over there."

A bagger materialized out of thin air and escorted the man to the customer service desk. 

I looked at the cashier. "I want to pay his bill." But I could lose my opportunity. Why had they whisked him away that quickly? There are people jonesing to do something nice, but I have issues, and I can only move so fast. 

"Don't you want to know how much it is?"

"No, I just want to pay his bill."

She pointed to the customer service area, and I lumbered over and simply swiped my card. The man stood, pleading with someone on his cellphone, but he hung up and stared at me, slack-jawed. "Did you just... Um. You just... You paid my bill?"

I lit with so much excitement that I could feel it radiating from my eyes. I had shocked the hell out of this stranger. It was the best. Moment. Ever. Kindness is (to use a word my teenage son hates) RAD.

The man looked quite a bit older than me, but after I paid his bill, a massive smile spread across his face, waking up all of his features until the worry and fatigue of life crumbled in the wake of happiness. He looked so young and full of life.

"Yes, I paid. It's no big deal," I squealed because I felt like a Jedi or something.

"But that was... $87!" he said, looking beyond shocked.

Chills ran up my spine and tingled in all the places where doctors say I have cancer. $87! I could hardly believe his bill was the exact amount that angelic woman had paid years before. Suddenly, sickness and cancer didn't matter to me—they were just words that can't damper my love for life. I felt so much joy in simply being alive and enjoying the moment.

The wonder in that man's eyes filled my soul with such hope. Even when I returned home, I gushed with pure happiness. I have been waiting for this moment, and it finally happened for me. $87 spent on my groceries and now someone else's! It seemed like it hadn't even been my money at all. Just like everything in my life is a gift. Everything. 

Life is beautiful. Oncologists said I'd never live to see 2023, but he

re we are in 2024, and I'm so grateful. Thank G-d for experiencing the greatest win in life—just being alive. Even if my goals are different than they used to be, I've realized what really matters. It's not about the degrees we attain, the books we write, the mountains we climb; it's about helping others along the way.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

A Great Way to Show Love

It seemed  like an assembly line where receptionists checked people in, phlebotomists drew labs, and nurses took vitals. At the melanoma unit in this particular cancer center, most of these things take place where patients and staff can hear each other. 


As I sat waiting for almost an hour, something really surprised me. Each patient would go back and talk about their journey with cancer. At first, I found it quite beautiful that they could talk there. One man in particular seemed so bottled up. I wondered if he'd ever talked with anyone about his struggles with cancer before, yet there he sat, telling everything to the phlebotomist. Another patient said they'd be getting surgery later that day. I shook inside because I've had so many surgeries over the years. I can't fathom having another one. Doctors talk about knowing where my "hard stop" will be. Is it when I'll need radiation again? Or is it brain surgery?


I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but it's hard not to listen in, especially when it helps me feel like I'm not alone. It had been difficult getting to the cancer center that day because I needed both cancer treatments and bone infusions. These make me feel especially unwell for weeks (if not months), and it can be tough dragging myself to the cancer center for all of this. 


Thinking about my own plight and hearing fellow patients talk about theirs, at some point, I realized that no one had asked how the staff members were doing. The main receptionist bubbled with exuberance while helping patients, but when she didn't think anyone was looking, she seemed beyond tired. Same for the phlebotomists and nurses who had their own worries. That's when I vowed to solely ask staff members about themselves. I felt grateful patients could talk with them about everything—after all, that is their job—but for just a moment, I wanted to be the respite in the day.


"Elisa?" a phlebotomist called.


"I'm here." I stood and went to get my blood drawn. Although they couldn't see everything, I knew fellow patients could hear the conversation, and I momentarily wondered if anyone else in the waiting area was listening.


"How are you today?" the phlebotomist asked, looking genuinely concerned.


"Well, the only thing wrong with me is cancer. That's it! The real question," I turned to him, "is how you're doing. I want to know how you are?"


This opened up the most beautiful conversation. Instead of talking about my problems for the millionth time, I got to hear about the goodness of humanity. "This is just part-time?" I asked as he prepared to draw my blood. 


"I'm usually a firefighter."


"And that's your passion?" I asked.


"For sure," he said, then gave me a conspiratorial smile. "I'll tell you something most people here don't even know about me."




"Well, I made national news a little while ago." 


"For saving someone from a fire?" I guessed.


"No," he said and almost smiled. "My team and I have saved quite a few people and barely even made local news. But when I saved a couple of kittens from a fire, that's when I made national news."


"Were they in a house that was on fire?"


"Nope. They were under it. I had to climb under a house that was on fire."


"You are so brave. That's absolutely amazing!"


That night when I got home, I told Mike and the kids about my day at the cancer center. "I really didn't want to go because treatments are brutal, but then I decided to try making the day better for everyone around me. Whether they were facing cancer or working at the center, I asked about their lives, their days, and how they're doing. It ended up being the most incredible day. Sure, I don’t feel well, but my heart is full of the most amazing stories. I even met a man who saved kittens from under a house while it was on fire." My family thought that was pretty great.


Anyway, there are times when I want to share my story, but there are other moments when it's much more important to listen. I'm so glad I got to hear everyone's stories and talk with the people I came across at the cancer center. I heard some pretty wonderful things that I'll never forget.


My grandma once told me something, and I think she was right. She said, "One of the greatest ways to show love is by asking people about themselves." My last trip to the cancer center really proved her point.

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Hope is a Powerful Motivator

 This is my second 90-minute scan since Thursday. Wow, this journey is exhausting. I didn’t fully understand how tough fighting cancer was, and like I keep saying, you never know what someone else might be going through. Be kind. 🤗

Anyway, I can hardly wait to get home, give the kids their charms from the gift shop (they love it 💓), play a board game with Mike, and snuggle Borah.

I met a family from Africa today. They were so grateful to be at the Huntsman specifically. It sounds like this cancer center might be their only hope at beating the exact cancer they’re facing. I need to remember to pray for them. To travel from soooo far away… Just the thought was sobering. And I act like Idaho is far 🤦‍♀️😅

Monday, January 1, 2024

Hope is a Powerful Motivator

 Even though I continue to fight stage four melanoma, every day that I wake up, I feel amazed.

Doctors said I’d never make it past October of 2022, so some friends got together and gave me and Mike money to bring our kids to Italy (my biggest bucket-list item). I can’t tell you how humbling that was, especially since several of those friends were also fighting cancer. Yet, they still found it in their hearts to do something kind for us despite their own struggles. Anyway, we bought the tickets almost a year in advance and, after finding surprisingly cheap prices (that felt like a miracle itself), we booked flights for a time when I would most likely no longer be alive. THIS was a huge leap of faith… but, even with our health, it’s important to make goals because hope is a powerful motivator.

I’m so proud to say that almost a year ago today (in December of 2022), we visited Italy, and it was life changing. (Mike and I both have grandparents who came from Italy, so this was extra special.)

The time spent after the expiration date (that men gave me) has been filled with beautiful moments. I’ve lived much longer than doctors predicted (going into calendar-year three—whoot!). I had a massive surgery and needed a blood transfusion, got pulmonary embolisms (blot clots in my lungs) on different occasions, needed to be hospitalized several times, went into liver failure, and almost died of sepsis before pulling out of it… But I ALSO went skydiving with my family and survived a crash landing (because of my bum leg), sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a semi-pro baseball game, got a real Maine Coon (Trey did, but we all love the little guy), wrote two books—one that got traditionally published, but both are now audiobooks—and now, we’ve actually seen Italy! It’s sad it took fighting cancer for me to truly “live,” but I’m grateful for the extra time and memories. 

It’s rough still having cancer and fighting sickness each and every day, but I’m so grateful to still be living. I’m not in remission but my crappy attitude sure is. 

Life is such a miracle, and I’m surrounded by the most wonderful family and friends. To the people who generously made the time since my diagnosis shine, I don’t know how to truly thank you, but I hope you know how much my family and I appreciate what you’ve done for us. 

And in regard to Italy, the people who made that happen a year ago… They gave all of us—especially my kids—memories that will last a lifetime. I know no matter what the future might be, my kids can look back and remember backpacking through Italy while Mike pushed me in my wheelchair! 😅🤗 In fact, sometimes when I’m facing bad news, possible surgeries, more radiation, and grueling treatments, I remember Italy. And those beautiful moments with my family get me through. My kids were just so happy. Unbelievably happy. Maybe Heaven simply looks like Florence the exact days we were there. Probably…

You can see pictures of that trip below. If you’d like to read more about those adventures, they’re in my memoir, “Ring the Bell”: