Lana Barhum is a legal assistant, patient advocate, freelance writer, blogger, and single parent. She has lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008 and uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness.

No one ever shared with me any secrets to achieving my dreams despite chronic illness. It was something I had to learn all on my own. And when I did, that understanding changed everything for me. I assured myself that I could continue to achieve my dreams and work towards new ones despite the fact that chronic illness was now a part of my life.

Making dreams possible

Being chronically ill isn’t easy and it requires constant work and patience, in addition to a willingness to overcome adversity. My chronic illnesses regularly try to pull me away from my goals, but I force myself to stay focused on the things I need to do. Over the years, chronic illness has forced me to question the possibility of my dreams. There have been many occasions where I have asked: How does someone living with illness cope with daily pain, doctor’s appointments, and medication achieve dreams?

The only thing that matters is believing that you will and you can, rather than how and when you will achieve dreams.

There is no magic formula or secret to anyone’s success—healthy or not. You only have to observe the remarkable accomplishments of others to realize that dreams are always achievable even in the face of heart conditions or other chronic illnesses. I have chosen to believe this and I continually surround myself with inspiring people to remind me that anything and everything is possible.

What I have learned about continuing to dream

Langston Hughes said it best in his poem “Dream Deferred.” What happens to dreams that are deferred? Especially when chronic illness forces us to change the plan, destination, and timing? When dreams are deferred, they are merely delayed until they can become apparent reality.

Living with chronic illness means looking for a better quality of life so you can continue to dream and to achieve those dreams.

Here are three things I have learned on my own about continuing to have dreams despite living with chronic illness.

I needed to understand that my life had changed.

A diagnosis of chronic illness is initially hard to accept, but it doesn’t mean you stop thinking about the future. It means that your life has changed and you have a choice whether illness will define you positively or negatively. Living a good life means accepting and appreciating what you have in the present and not focusing on the things you no longer have control over. It also means believing that you can be more than your illness.

I have learned that even though my life has changed, I can still advocate for myself. I can still make good choices to eat smart, exercise and get plenty of rest. If I take care of myself, there is nothing that can stop me from dreaming as big as I want to and going out there and making those dreams reality.

I needed to manage expectations.

One’s confidence lies in the expectations they have for themselves and in the things they allow others to expect from them. But living with chronic illness changes that standard and requires us to throw out the old rules and think of new ones.

Experience has taught me that I not only had to change the expectations I had for myself, but also the ones that others had for me.

Prior to getting sick, I had a full schedule from my son’s school activities to dinner parties, to a stressful job in a law office, to jumping every time a friend or family member asked for help. Chronic illness forced me to realize I had to prioritize what was most important in my life. And at the time, that was my health and my children. Now I spend more time at home, I don’t have as many visitors as I used to, I don’t work a stressful job, and I don’t jump at every opportunity to help.

I have changed and so have my expectations, and now, I have more time to focus on the things that truly matter: my dreams and my children’s dreams.

I needed to adjust my dreams.

We all had ambitions and dreams prior to getting sick. Perhaps, you wanted a big promotion or to travel the world or get married and have children or, in my case, go to law school and be a successful lawyer.

Heart conditions and other chronic illness makes you wonder if you should give up on all those dreams, but it is vital to your happiness that you have dreams—big and small. Even if you have to adjust those dreams or create new ones, you don’t have to stop reaching for the stars because of chronic illness. Instead, you rise above the challenge and adjust those dreams so that chronic illness doesn’t stop you from accomplishing them.

Just like so many with chronic illness, I feared that I could no longer achieve my dreams. But illness forced me to see those dreams in a different light as I worked to adjust them in a way that meant I could still be happy.

Law school was my dream, but when I got sick, I knew that I could not work full-time, attend law school, spend time with my kids, and be sick. But I didn’t let that stop me. Instead, I changed my plans and got a master’s degree online, switched jobs, and started freelance writing, advocating for chronic illness, and spending more time at home. Law school might still be part of my plans but even if it isn’t, I will never stop dreaming.

You deserve to achieve your dreams

We all deserve to reach for the stars and make our dreams reality. But nothing happens without action, so take the time to pull yourself towards your dreams. It won’t take long if you set your mind and your heart to it and change “I can’t” to “I can.” Fight for your dreams so you can have the life you deserve.

To learn more about coping with heart conditions:

Heart: A Sometimes Lonely Road
Three Ways to Take Care of Yourself Despite a Heart Condition
When the Diagnosis Is Terminal. Eleven Steps Toward Coping … and Hope