I love to tell this story. During one cycle of chemo, I had the most wonderful opportunity to hear about John and ‘Bloody’ John direct from John himself. As he sat beside me getting his port flushed, he told me his story. I was so excited by the possibilities!

 John met ‘Bloody’ John in the chemo suite while they were both going through treatment for cancer. ‘Bloody John’ had been so named by nursing staff because, as a great Aussie bloke, every second word he said was ‘bloody’. John and ‘Bloody’ John were both diagnosed with the same cancer, and given the same chemotherapy drugs: 10 cycles in total, one every two weeks for near on six months. John found it difficult to eat anything for the whole six months. He could only stomach fruit and lost an incredible 20kg. Despite his slenderness, he was in great spirits the day I met him with his treatment over. Bloody John however, ate steak and veg the whole six months of chemo. John just couldn’t believe it. How different it was for ‘Bloody’ John. The chemo just didn’t seem to worry him. Isn’t interesting how two people can experience the same things, at the same time in such different ways?

 I remember my beautiful oncologist saying ‘no side effects are compulsory’. And how important our minds are in the experience of cancer. He’s spot on. Given that external circumstances were the same, the differences between John and ‘Bloody’ John could only have come from inside of them. Many people don’t realise how tapping into our internal resources can make all the difference…

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* Embracing Chemo – six week course commences February 2013*

Ten days. Three theme parks. Six rollercoasters. Water slides to scare the pants off you. Three excited kids. One fabulous zoo. And a bit of surgery in between. What a ride! And as I sit here with a glass of bubbly, I am celebrating another milestone in the journey, the return of my B-cup. And it’s important to celebrate our victories, isn’t it. Wetting the booby’s head I said. By the second glass my husband suggested it was more a drowning. Because once again I feel the sheer joy of being alive. For a brief moment post surgery the grief took hold as I realised the extent of the radiation damage. But with my new breast now taking shape, and the anaesthetic out of my system, it was more than I could have hoped for to actually be able to feel my new breast as a part of me. When my daughter accidently bumped me two days post surgery, it took me completely by surprise. Because I felt sensation in a part of me that had not existed this time last week. That blows my mind. The possibilities are incredible, aren’t they.

And this end of the week I can smile as I remember my apprehension pre-surgery. It’s a bit like a rollercoaster, isn’t it. The ups and downs. The waiting, the anticipating. So often the hardest part. And I often wonder why we are conditioned to expect the worst? Because there are so many things, so many situations, we often anticipate or fear that never come to pass, aren’t there. And in those moments before I reached the hospital for my fourth surgery in under two years, it suddenly occurred to me that this could be much easier than I realised…

It dawned on me yesterday that this time next week I will have two breasts again. And I can’t quite believe I have finally come full circle. The end of a long journey. There are mixed emotions. Relief, excitement, guilt, apprehension, an overwhelming sense of being able to finally exhale. Because it feels like I have been holding my breath for just this moment. Last summer, battling the prosthetic I called ‘the jellyfish’ every time I wore my swimmers, I knew I never wanted to experience another summer in this way. Small things, yes. They only got a measly 500 grams from me. But sometimes it’s the small things that give us the most grief, isn’t it.

The birth of the bump my girlfriend called it. Stage one of my reconstruction. An incredible gift, worth every cent. Because the joy this bump has given me in the last six weeks is beyond words. The freedom to embrace my femininity again. The joy of normal clothes. I ditched the prosthetic immediately. And the image of swinging my half kilo bra around my head and wildly letting go, prosthetic and all, like some sort of catapult, delights the wickedness in me. I get a sense of why our foremothers burned their bras.

And the really amazing thing is that even though the reconstruction is not complete my brain seems to have accepted my body as ‘whole’ again. I am fascinated by the workings of the mind, the brain in action. Proprioception they call it. That ability we have to recognise ourselves in space. Before, I was so keenly aware of the deficit. Funny, I never hated the scar, I hated the absence of me. But this bump, in all its rawness, has been accepted by my brain as ‘me’ and the sense of wholeness in my quieter moments brings tears of joy.

But the guilt I feel? Because in some ways it is just a small thing. Just a breast. Hidden away, no-one need ever know. I saw a man at the shops in a wheelchair with an amputated leg, and I felt lucky. It’s a strange thing when I work with people facing other challenges, because in listening to their stories, I feel so fortunate. And yet, knowing my story I’ve heard them question their own challenges as being small. But I guess each of us has a story of our own and it’s a wonderful thing when we can feel fortunate in the face of it, isn’t it…

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I spent some time talking to a young woman yesterday about her choices. Locked into a particular paradigm yet still struggling with depression, she realised that perhaps she needed to open her mind to other possibilities for healing. She was scared. Reasonably so. Because when we try anything new, it’s natural to be nervous, or cautious or uncertain, isn’t it. It’s just the nature of doing something we haven’t done before.

And it can be the same when we begin to reinvent ourselves. And that’s a necessary part of healing, isn’t it. Because when we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve always got. And there are some things we don’t want to repeat, aren’t there! Once in a lifetime is enough to experience some of the things we’ve experienced.

Most people don’t realise we actually become addicted to being ourselves. Every time we think a thought, or feel an emotion, we release chemicals in our body that form receptors on our nerve cells. And the more we repeat the thought, or the emotion, the more receptors that form and the more our body feels the need to keep repeating the thoughts, or the emotions, to get its fix. Being addicted to bitterness, or judgement, or anger, or anxiety, or stress, or sadness is no different at a cellular level than being addicted to smoking, or drinking or drugs. In fact, there’s a great smoking ad on tv that actually shows how it happens. We get into the habit of being ourselves. And because our bodies get used to being a certain way, they can kick up a real stink when we try to change. Like breaking any addiction, it has to be a multi-level approach. And that’s why we need to go below the surface, to focus our healing where the true problem lies. 

Shortly after chatting to this young woman, I happened to notice the date yesterday and it took be back two years to my own journey. My 14th wedding anniversary. And I remember being beside myself on that day. Breaking down. Because two years ago, I didn’t know if I was going to live or if I was going to die. I didn’t know if I was going to be around ‘next year’ to celebrate with my husband and my children. And the fear in these thoughts can be a terrifying thing, can’t it. But thankfully, now it is only a memory. And I no longer live in it’s grip. And it seems such a long time ago. Such a different life to the one I have now. Because the choices I have made have helped to reinvent myself. To break the old addictions. To help me get here to where I am today, a safe passage through the storm, and now more alive than ever…

I found myself thinking about pain yesterday. Not the mental and emotional pain that comes with our journey, but the physical stuff. The pressure of tumours on areas they shouldn’t be, the pain of recovery after surgery, the pain that can sometimes be ongoing. I remember once imploring my tumour to stop hurting so that I could get some sleep. It use to burn and throb in my breast. And to my surprise it did just that. It’s an incredible thing how much control we actually have over the way experience our pain, isn’t it.

In hospital recently, the morning nurse greeted me with ‘oh you’re the one who doesn’t take anything’. Well, not quite true. A bit of mild paracetamol works wonders in taking the edge off. But if I can, I’d rather find another way than the codeine that binds you up making life a little unpleasant, let alone the harder morphine derivatives. And so I get through most of what I need to get through using everything I know about managing pain in other ways. Having a great doctor certainly helps reduce the need for pain relief. And sometimes the deeper breathing helps. Because it’s hard to feel pain when you’re relaxed, isn’t it. Sometimes it’s in distracting myself with things that make me feel good. A hobby, a funny movie, a relaxation CD, anything really. I’ve read that Norman Cousins found that just ten minutes of laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. Again, it’s about the choices we make isn’t it. Do we want to watch a funny movie that will help our healing, or do we want to watch the latest NCIS with it’s gruesome storyline? I deliberately chose to watch ‘Are You Being Served’ a few hours post surgery, and I’m sure this helped reduce my pain. I was too busy laughing to notice.

Sometimes it can just be in the reframing of the pain that I find it easier to manage. If I resist it, I just seem to tense up and it gets worse, but if I step back and observe it, notice it, where it is in my body, how it feels, what it looks like, what colour it is, it somehow seems to diffuse it. I remember hearing someone say that at least if they are in pain they know they’re alive. And I guess I’ve learnt to look at the positives of post surgery discomfort – at least I’ve still got some sensation in the areas I want to be sensitive!

But of course there are days I can’t do it all myself and I am happy to have a little bit of help. A good massage last week, took the burning out of the muscles of my shoulder that are learning to work differently. It’s also brilliant for breaking up adhesions. Physio exercises when I am disciplined to do them also help to rehabilitate. And I remember once, a few years ago, my body just couldn’t take the stress anymore. I bent over and locked up and the pain just kept ramping up until I was vomiting. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And this is when I am most grateful for my husband’s knowledge and training. After watching me for 20 minutes or so, he simply gave me just one adjustment and the whole thing shut down. I went straight to sleep and when I woke up, the pain was gone. I’ve never experienced anything so powerful. An open mind opens up a whole world of options, doesn’t it.

And probably for me the most healing has been the healing of painful emotions which has brought me such physical relief. In healing my feelings, I am no longer pouring these inflammatory chemicals through my system, minute to minute, day to day. And so my body copes with things so much better. Because, what I’ve learnt most about the management of pain, is that if I can take the physical, mental and emotional stress out of my body, no matter which path I take to do this, everything just relaxes and the pain just seems to melt away…

How many people get to live their dream life? Today I realised once again how perfect my life is, just as it is. Sure there are a few little things I might wish were different, but all in all, I wouldn’t change a thing. I was standing at the bus stop this afternoon waiting for my girls, watching the sheep with their lambs in the paddock across the road, and that deep sense of knowing that I am living my dream came over me. There are so many little things that fill me with such joy. The morning light that illuminates the spiders webs in the paddocks that have been spun during the night. It’s an incredible sight. I didn’t realise what I was looking at the first time I saw it. The white frost that sparkles as the sun hits it. The new born calves, the filly born on Melbourne Cup day. The old church across the road in the middle of nowhere, where the dogs chase the rabbits. My neighbour who turns up on my doorstep with the regular gift of two dozen freshly laid eggs. Our beautiful bus driver that cares enough to bring flowers the day I finished radiation treatment. That my life is full of people I love and work that fulfils me.

Years ago I could only dream of this life. But it seems it has now found me. And I feel with every ounce of my being that this is my special, healing place. It is such a gift to live here, waking up to this life everyday. While I was going through surgery and chemo, it helped me to know that even though things were a bit crazy around me, I had my safe place to retreat to. It would be the same beautiful place regardless of what was happening with me. And it blows my mind that seven years ago, I described the very home that I am now living in. An old rambling farmhouse on a hundred acres, big open rooms with small cosy nooks, surrounded by mountains, snow sometimes. Well it’s all come to pass. It’s snowed twice in the last two weeks, reminding me I am exactly where I am meant to be. I was like a kid in a snowdome. It was beautiful. I put it out there and this special place found me, the very year I said it would. Many people don’t realise we all have a special part of us that seeks out what we set our hearts and minds on. And it’s happened so many times in my life, I’m now very conscious of where I put my focus. And I encourage others to do the same.

Because it’s so important to surround ourselves with things we love as a part of our healing, isn’t it. I wonder how many people realise that when we feel good, we release healing chemicals into our body. Our own drugstore, the pharmacy we carry within us. Not something we want to take lightly, is it. Because our feelings are actually some of the most important biochemicals in our healing. And the wonder of our minds is that even when we can’t physically be in our special place or with those we love, when we choose to focus on the people or places or things that fill us with joy, those healing feelings are released anyway…

 

If the sight of blue skies fills you with joy

If a blade of grass springing up in the fields has the power to move you

If the simplest things of nature have a message that you understand

Rejoice

For your soul is alive

http://www.affirmations.com.au

I am reading Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book at the moment, Man’s Search For Meaning. Heavy reading? I guess it is, in one way. But I am so inspired by people’s stories that speak of greatness. Because they can teach us so much, can’t they. This book is Dr Frankl’s autobiographical account of his imprisonment during World War II. And he talks about how life in a concentration camp could be called a ‘provisional existence’. With no known end date to their imprisonment, some prisoners were unable to hold on to future goals. They simply stopped living for the future. And without a future and without a goal, the decay set in. In mind and body. And what struck me is how similar this experience can be to the experience of cancer. Because sometimes it feels like there is no end, doesn’t it. Treading water. An uncertain future. Life on hold.

I woke the other night thinking about how hard it can be to keep living with a dark shadow hanging overhead. And there are days it can be tough, I know. In the struggle to survive, Dr Frankl describes how  easy it became to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, ‘opportunities which really did exist’. Pretty amazing, huh! That the horror of a concentration camp could secretly hold opportunities for something better. But it happens all the time, doesn’t it. Strangely, it seems that in these most difficult of circumstances, we often find the opportunity to grow. Because it’s only when things are tough that we can realise how strong we really are, isn’t it. The difficult stuff gives us the chance to develop our inner strength. And that is an incredible feeling, isn’t it. To know how strong and capable we really are. It dawned on me we’d be a bunch of wusses if life were always easy.

So thank God, they finally say ‘living with cancer’. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it. Living. Living with a challenge, yes. But living all the same. And it seems that when we acknowledge and accept the possibilities – all of them – and remind ourselves that we are okay, right here, right now, it somehow frees us to truly keep on living. And it’s important to keep living, isn’t it. To resist the urge to put life on hold ‘for next year’. Because this is the only life we’ve got. And it’s only when we define this as ‘bad’ that we run the risk of putting our life on hold. Because if we step back and look from another angle, it just may be that the experience of cancer can be a wake up call to do something different for ourselves. To finally give ourselves permission to do those things we have always wanted to do. To live for ourselves for a time, rather than for others. To heal our lives. An opportunity to do something special for ourselves, just for us…

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