A few days ago I received a text message from a very dear friend in the UK. Her message was short and succinct. She had just received a diagnosis for stage 2 breast cancer. The medical advice she’d received was for a ‘full mastectomy’. Her diagnosis was recent and she was still in shock. She apologised for asking me “for advice; my wisdom in how to deal with all this.” This was the message with which I started that day.
I immediately responded by firing back a text message. I had so many questions. Breast cancer is never simply ‘breast cancer’…there are different forms…which one did my friend have? It was difficult to discern what to say without knowing what information she’d been given by her doctors. I thought back to the early days of November 2005 when I had discovered a lump in my own breast. Over the course of the next twelve years I was to learn a lot. My message to my friend focused on immune health, thoughts/belief & hope.
Today, with days now between the time of responding to my friend and writing this article, I have given more thought to her request for my ‘wisdom’. How do you advise someone about approaching such a life changing diagnosis? I felt responsibility…the importance of any words that I shared far bigger than me. I remembered those early days – how I’d searched for any glimmer of lightness to my own diagnosis; body language, the spoken word, the content of a medical report, the words written by those who’d experienced cancer before me…and yet I had still felt lost, childlike, vulnerable and scared to trust any decision I made. What could I share with my friend? What could I say to ease her fear, confusion, anger, disbelief and sense of vulnerability? What could I say that might shed light on the darkness of a cancer diagnosis?
What is it that I could share with someone newly diagnosed?
One of the things that struck me early on in my own diagnosis was the realisation that conventional western oncology was only geared up and structured to deal with the physical. Although I didn’t realise it during the early months of my diagnosis, I was going to come to see that cancer would teach me about the unity of the human person. Whilst I could seek advice and information from an oncology perspective about treatments, I also needed to learn about myself and come to know ‘me’. I needed to understand what it was that I had to do to love this life I lived. We are not just a physical reality and so, on its own, oncology was never going to be enough to treat this dis-ease.
So, what can someone newly diagnosed with cancer focus on? Each of us will find our own way but, broadly speaking I approached (and continue to approach) my cancer diagnosis with three specific areas in mind:
* My physical health (Nutrition, exercise and potential treatment options)
* My emotional health (My thoughts and how these affect the perceptions of my life’s experiences and the emotions I have attached to these experiences)
* My spiritual health (How it is that I exist in this world. What it is that makes me uniquely me. What it is that makes life such a joy. What it is that I bring to this experience we call ‘life’.)
Focusing on my physical health was (and is), for me, the area that was easy to embrace and the easiest to commit to in order to maintain wellness (and hopefully one day healing), from cancer. The latter two areas however, whilst challenging at times, afforded me the deepest learning. It is here that I have ‘grown’ the most. Two important questions helped me look at my emotional and spiritual health:
1. What contributed to my illness?
2. What does my mind and body need to heal from this?
I was comforted to read, years after my diagnosis, that Dr. Kelly Turner in her book Radical Remissions, used the same questions to help her patients understand what to do to find a way forward.
In my experience, it isn’t always necessary to find a definitive answer to these questions but keeping them in mind kept me motivated, focused and looking to the future. It is in the search for answers to these two questions that a framework developed for the approach I’ve taken and all that I’ve done to remain so well and ‘grow’ as a person…despite living with stage 4 metastasized cancer.
Lesson 1: I recognised the importance of noticing the ‘language’ my body uses.
I remember the ‘frozen in time’ feeling I experienced the moment it was confirmed I had breast cancer. I became aware that a schism had occurred in my way of being in that moment. Outwardly I continued to function as though I was totally present to the conversation taking place and yet inwardly everything froze, leaving me numb to all that was happening around me and yet acutely aware of the conversation.
How does the body do that?
I was beginning to notice that our bodies speak to us. Mine had a language that, until now, had gone unnoticed and ignored. Two realities were able to coincide; the external and the internal. I was being awakened to the importance of not only my body’s existence but also that of a ‘me’ that came from a deeper place. I could no longer take it for granted that I was, as everyone else saw me…and only that.
Lesson 2: Cancer could show me new ways to live my life.
I discovered a depth of resilience in me that I was unaware I possessed. I learnt that I had a choice…I could live in fear because I was now a cancer patient or I could use this experience to notice what life was about. Einstein is quoted as saying that insanity is:
”doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”
Cancer taught me that I couldn’t afford to continue ‘existing’ through life, doing the ‘same old, same old’. This approach certainly hadn’t served me well and had culminated in the diagnosis of a life threatening condition. I needed to re-learn (or remember) how to immerse myself fully in life, how to be present and mindful about how I lived life, enjoy it and notice what there was to be grateful for.
Lesson 3: Surrender brings freedom.
Being diagnosed with a life threatening illness affects us physically but it also challenges us emotionally and psychologically. Until my diagnosis I had felt in control of my life. I was capable, self-reliant and didn’t ‘burden’ others. Everything I did was with an outcome in mind which I had some control over. Suddenly, in learning I had cancer, I had no way of knowing what my outcome would be…and neither did the experts (oncology specialists). I lost control over my privacy, I was faced with trusting ‘experts’ I didn’t know, some of my body parts were surgically removed and I have been challenged by feelings of being an ‘incomplete woman’ – with a fear of never feeling ‘sexy’ again.
Then I experienced the freedom that surrender brings.
Not the surrender that comes with defeat but the surrender that comes with the willingness to let go. I have to be honest here…this has been one of the lessons I resisted the most…but the one that has brought me such a sense of peace and acceptance. I learnt to focus more on the gifts a situation or relationship brings and surrender the resentments I fostered. I learnt to surrender the idea that other people’s judgements matter or that I should mask my imperfections from others for fear of judgement. I learnt too to surrender the belief that I should strive to be as capable, funny, smart or reliant as others. Surrender brought me a freedom to simply be – fully – myself. I’m still developing skills in learning this lesson but the acceptance I have so far for ‘me’ is well worth the peace it brings.
Lesson 4: Life is a glorious mystery.
I was surprised to discover that the ugly, frightening experience of a cancer diagnosis led me to discover the joy and beauty in the preciousness of life and my interaction with it.
The Taoist tradition brought the term ‘Yin/Yang’ to our western world. It refers to the concept that two halves together create wholeness. Of course we know this to be true mathematically but how else is it used in Taoism? It is also considered the starting point for change. When something is whole it is complete, balanced with no need to change. When you split something (Yin/Yang) the wholeness is disrupted and the two halves need to come together again to seek balance. Each half, on their own, are incomplete…together they bring completeness. It is from here we begin to appreciate the connectedness that unity brings. We can’t appreciate beauty without understanding what makes something ugly. We can’t know peace without knowing conflict. Perfection can’t be known without imperfection and I couldn’t identify what it was that I needed to do without allowing myself to sit with my insecurities, face my limitations and allow myself to be fearful, angry and confused about having cancer. From these places I allowed myself to dig deeper. This has brought a sense of reconnection between my mind, body and spirit. It is from this place that I realised the necessity of the yin and yang in life and within myself. It is from here that I am learning to surrender, to trust, to enjoy, to be grateful, to accept, to love, to give and receive and subsequently to grow and appreciate who I am now, perfect and imperfect, and the greater divinity that is life.
Sometimes it’s hard to realise this. We are all, at some time, burdened with the demands and responsibilities of living life within the societies and cultures within which we reside. Work, finances, relationships, commitments, expectations, our perceptions etc. can all take their toll on the joy or dissatisfactions we feel with life, each creating stressors that can dampen our spirits.
There is a beauty and preciousness in life. I am learning to notice the connection I have with those around me, my place in this world and the affect I have on others on any given day. I have come to realise that life is a glorious mystery and that when I stop resisting, life offers me treasures.
It hasn’t been easy allowing cancer to be my teacher but I needed to recognise some purpose to having my world turn upside down. None of the lessons I learnt came quickly. But in allowing their teachings to be revealed, I have come to a place of peace in living with cancer; I continue to live in joy despite having cancer; I accept I don’t know and can’t control the outcome of having cancer and I am learning to trust others because I’m not so perfect that I can solve or understand everything or control all that happens in my life.
Every struggle in life presents an opportunity to realise the depths our humanness can take us to; our capacity for resilience, learning and compassion; our willingness to change, accept and love. It is when we meet, head on, the struggles in life that we can recognise a whole new opportunity. At these times we can grow to know, love and appreciate ourselves more fully. When we do this our capacity to give to others also grows.