March 2012

ImageWe lost our beloved dog Gus this week. Suddenly and unexpectedly he was gone. The shock was immense. And then the grief set in. You know, that raw pain, that deep wrenching ache that nothing can stem,the guilt that maybe if we’d been with him we could have done something. I cried for days. It’s like losing a member of the family isn’t it.

I’ve been around emotional work long enough to know I just had to feel it, to let it move through me. And I knew I had to help my kids do the same. Many people don’t realise that when we resist our feelings or worse still bury or repress them, it just makes them worse. And sometimes they can get ‘stuck’ and plague us years later, even after we’ve forgotten why they were there in the first place. There’s a universal law, that what we resist persists. So by the third day, I found I could begin to step back and observe the pain.  I noticed the pain in my throat, my chest, my stomach. I gave myself permission to just notice it and feel its depth. It didn’t hurt any less, but I knew that it would speed up the healing. Well meaning friends of course told me I shouldn’t feel guilty, but I did, simple as that. And I knew I had to accept my feelings and really feel them. Not judge myself, just feel them. To try and make myself not feel something would only make it worse.

I wonder, have you ever tried to make yourself not feel something, or instead try to feel something you don’t? It’s not so easy is it. Feelings are what they are. They come from somewhere deeper inside that’s not under our conscious control. It’s like they’re automatic. Many people don’t realise that one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves is to allow ourselves to feel what we feel for as long as we need to. And it’s a gift to be able to do this for others…

I took my radiation oncologist by surprise one day. She’s an absolutely gorgeous woman, a real breath of fresh air when you’re dealing with the ups and downs of treatment. She asked me the standard question of how I was feeling and I took great delight in telling her I felt better than I’d felt in 10 years! ‘Well’ she said ‘I’ve never heard anybody say that before’. I’d only just finished radio and chemo only weeks before that.

I put it down to the fact that I’ve done a ton of emotional healing. Not that I went to a therapist every week, far from it. But I’d spent a couple of sessions dealing with the depression and anxiety that I was feeling. You see I’d had this dark feeling hanging over me for years. I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know where it had come from, only that it was dark and ominous. A real sadness. Maybe it had something to do with the shock of my daughter’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis? Maybe it went further back than that. Add to that the stress in my life and I was a recipe for breast cancer. I felt completely alone.

I wonder why emotional healing is so often overlooked in the medical treatment of cancer? It’s so obviously essential and research is proving that. Back in 1995 at King’s College Hospital in London, a team of psychiatrists, radiologists, oncologists and surgeons undertook research which showed severe life events, and the way in which we cope with them as individuals, significantly predicts a diagnosis of breast cancer. And what I find even more incredible is that a woman with metastatic breast cancer has a longer survival time associated with a reduction in depression score. They’ve also shown that animals experiencing the stress of social isolation go on to develop cancer whereas animals that are kept in groups remain cancer free.

There’s no getting away from it – we are emotional beings and our emotions affect our bodies. It doesn’t take Einstein to work this out. If you get a fright, your muscles tense and your heart races, if you feel sad, you cry. Emotions have a physical consequence. When you have a disease that generates a minefield of negative emotions and those emotions cause inflammation – and studies have associated chronic inflammation with cancer incidence, progression and survival – it is essential to break the cycle isn’t it?! Many people don’t realise that when you are holding onto emotions that are pouring inflammation through your body, it’s difficult to heal. I get so frustrated when emotional healing is seen as an optional extra. There doesn’t seem to be anything optional about it. I often wonder if medical treatment may be even more successful if the emotional stuff is out of the way.

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a group of doctors about the importance of emotional healing in serious illness. I love it when I get the chance to do this. Slowly I see the message getting through. The light is dawning. It’s important that doctors understand the role emotions play in health. Because people living with cancer and other serious illnesses need this information don’t they?! We can wipe the slate clean with chemo, radio and surgery but what if those emotions are still in play? It’s not too difficult to see that physical healing without the emotional or emotional without the physical is only doing half the job, isn’t it.

And that dark ominous feeling I had… well I’m relieved to say it’s gone. I noticed it wasn’t hanging over me any more just before my 6th cycle of chemo. It was a revelation. I suddenly felt lighter, freer. I didn’t notice it disappear, it just seemed to do that all by itself. It’s like I set the ball in motion, and that other part of me, that part that was creating the feeling in the first place, just knew what to do to let it go. That feeling of lightness and wellbeing has continued and I feel so much joy now in the simple beauty of everyday life…