Five years ago last month, my wife of two months and I had just moved into a new house. We both were employed, we had no children, and there were lots of things we planned to do – when we found the time.

Join a church, perhaps. Volunteer. Travel. Maybe even have children.

We were relatively young. Very busy, of course. All we lacked was a little more time.

But my, how things change.

Seventy-two hours after George Bush was elected president, I was lying on a gurney in St. Paul Hospital waiting for a surgeon I’d met once to remove a malignant tumor.

Our lives changed so quickly it was almost laughable. But I can guarantee you we weren’t laughing much just then.

The doctor who removed the tumor told me I was lucky; my cancer was “curable,” and if it didn’t recur within two years, I was “probably” out of the woods. If I was “clean” in five years, he said, my chances of contracting cancer again were only marginally higher than the next guy’s.

I spent the two years following surgery receiving monthly blood tests and chest X-rays, and every seven weeks I had an abdominal CAT scan. The doctor said I’d notice no symptoms if cancer had spread to my lymph nodes; instead, the cancer “probably” would show up in blood work, or “hopefully” in the X-ray or CAT scan.

Then, I’d be facing surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or some combination thereof.

“The markers are usually pretty accurate,” he said, offering up a few words that didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

So for two years, we lived from medical report to medical report. Or more accurately, we lived from non-medical report to non-medical report, for the only time someone calls is with bad news.

During idle moments, and suddenly it seemed like there were plenty, my mind played tricks on my body. The image of cancer devouring my grandfather, wasting him from robust farmer to skin-and-bones couch potato was fresh in my mind, so every unusual ache, every minor pain convinced me I was as good as eaten up with cancer cells.

But time passed, and things didn’t change for the worse. And in my increasing moments of optimism, I thought about what I’d do with my time when cancer no longer defined my days.

All the things I’d always told myself and others I wanted to do – would I really find the time to do them, given a second chance?

Five years later, I’m clinically “cured.” I was lucky. And as I look back on this experience, some thoughts stick with me.

Having cancer initiated my interest in rejoining a church after 10 years. It changed my views, I think for the better, on the value of a dollar and on the relative value of where I spend it.

It made me more sympathetic, in general, to those less-privileged than my family, to those whose luck hasn’t held out as well as mine.

Having cancer made me realize that many of the projects I’d been putting off until I found the time – some of them lifelong dreams – couldn’t and probably shouldn’t wait.

Even this newspaper probably wouldn’t be here had I not contracted cancer. Looking back, I tend to think this start-up project of three partners may just have continued to be like the rabbit at a dog race – fun to contemplate but always a little bit out of reach.

Cancer convinced me to make time today for myself and others. These days, I like to think I spend less time dreaming and more time doing – I don’t want to worry about running short on time again.

So I write this column with the hope that the upcoming holiday season finds you happy, healthy and ready to consider these well-worn words of wisdom: There is no time like the present to start making a difference.

Too many people I’ve known punched their clocks faithfully, grudgingly and without happiness throughout their lives, realizing too late they had misspent their time.

But if you are reading this, it’s not too late for you to find a volunteer opportunity with a worthy neighborhood group, to donate your time to a neighborhood school’s tutoring program, to start your own business, or to do something else you’ve always dreamed about.

Our hope is that the Advocate helps push you in that direction.

Every month in our pages, you’ll find information about worthy groups that need volunteers or funding, and you’ll find pictures and stories about neighbors who are making a positive difference in their lives by helping others. These people aren’t waiting until tomorrow to do today’s work.

It’s not too early to find time in your busy schedule to make a difference. After all, in only a moment, it may become too late.