June 2012

Surreal. That’s how it felt the day I found out I had cancer. And even though it was expected, a sort of dreamlike state seemed to envelop me as my doctor uttered those dreaded words. I guess that’s what shock feels like. Detached. Not quite real. I was stoic as I left, but collapsed into despair in the car. My husband, Steve, wanted to scream. I remember we drove to see a friend, who calmed me down a little with his words and his confidence that I would heal. I remember sitting in the park watching my children play, thinking it’s not every day you get diagnosed with cancer. I remember taking my kids out for dinner that night and looking around at the other families, thinking to myself, they have no idea of what’s just happened. Nothing seemed real.

And as the minutes turned into hours and the hours into days, I found the fear and indecision took hold. What best to do? Everyone had a different opinion. Would I live or would I die? Would I survive the treatment let alone the cancer? I felt lost. And there were those days that it all became too much, and I’d scream or cry inconsolably at the injustice of it all and the thought of having my breast cut off. I was fortunate at those times to have my friends who would calm me with their words. Helping me to find some inner peace amidst the chaos and pain through their impromptu relaxations. I wasn’t good at meditating. Too hard to calm myself with all the stress inside my head. I was so grateful they were there to guide me, to carry me when I needed it most.

After I had healed I thanked them for the love they had shown in my darkest times. ‘Pay it forward’ said Peter. And so this is so much a part of what I do. Sharing with others the tools that helped me.

And their words of comfort? I bottled them so to speak. Today I recorded a guided relaxation to help people cope with the distress of diagnosis. Any diagnosis. Any difficult news really. Just as I was helped. And I’ve called it A Safe Place.

Because there’s no where to hide when you get the diagnosis, is there? There isn’t much on offer when you hear that news? You’re kind of left to your own devices, leaving the doctor’s office in a sort of daze. And there is no going back.  No turning back of time. The only path is forward. And it can be difficult to know what to do.

And I feel good about this relaxation. Knowing the path, it’s my way of helping people through the madness that seems to descend with those dreaded words. Anywhere, anytime feelings of overwhelm set in. To help counteract those feelings of being disconnected as people seem to talk at you. And you’re not really there. Not quite taking it all in. Not quite sure what to do.

It is my hope that in time the hospitals will embrace this CD. Offer it in the chemo suites to calm and relax people while the chemo is going in. And in calming people it may even help to reduce the side effects. A big call I know, but I know the value of this work. I’m fortunate to have lived it first-hand. Because I know that even when the pain is great, you can always find a safe place within yourself. A place of peace and calm which can give you the strength to get through. A place where you can feel safe as you leave the world and it’s worries behind…

Did I mention we have three ‘life-threatening’ conditions in our little family of five? As you know, I have come through the ups and downs of the breast cancer experience, while my husband, Steve, has Type 1 diabetes (doing well for 30 years now) and my middle daughter was born with cystic fibrosis. Makes for a trifecta, doesn’t it! I remember expressing my overwhelm to my breast care nurse, ‘I must have run over a Chinaman’. She was wonderful. She suggested it must have been a bus load! (My thanks to Phil Smith who explained this term beautifully. To run over a Chinaman is an Australian slang expression dating back to the 1850s and means that someone has an inordinate amount of bad luck – no offence intended).

But we’re all going strong. And for the most part, we don’t focus on the conditions, and they don’t dominate our lives. We’ve learnt to live with them and manage them well. Sure we have flare ups from time to time but all in all they just fade into the background as we continue to get on with the joy of living. I think in part this has a lot to do with building ourselves a buffer. By this I mean building our strengths – mental, physical and emotional. And this can be a winning strategy, can’t it. Do you recall a few years back the winning Olympic ping pong team did something a little different? They focused their training on developing their strengths, not improving their weaknesses. And didn’t that turn out to be an incredibly successful strategy. Perhaps one we can learn much from. Because we all have strengths, don’t we.

And this is how we approach our health challenges. Take for example my daughter. At nine years of age she knows her lungs are strong. And they really are. 100 breaths a day she does on a PEP mask to strengthen and clear her lungs. I tried it once and she beat me hands down. The hospital was surprised when I mentioned how part of our management includes helping her to develop a strong mental picture of herself. After all, everyone knows it’s those with the mental strength who pull through, isn’t it. If it wasn’t for our understanding of the importance of this, we may have raised her believing she had a life shortening disease. But what good could that possibly do? It doesn’t make for happiness or longevity, does it. If she believes that, she might just give up trying.  The Hunger Games puts it beautifully. “I can’t afford to think that way’. And that’s why I have some issues with the ads that are running to raise money for cystic fibrosis at the moment. A friend raised the alarm when she saw a subtitle flash across the screen ‘The average age for someone with cystic fibrosis is 37 years’. Perish the thought if ‘37’ got into her psyche. We’re all going for 100! Thankfully I haven’t seen one of these ads and neither has my daughter. I certainly don’t mean to be critical, but I wonder about the wisdom of these ads. I wonder about the psychological cost.

Because these sort of messages, these statistics, are not really accurate, are they. They are one thing at face value, and quite something else when we look a little deeper. And therein lies the danger. For starters, there must be a number of people who live well beyond 37 to average this life expectancy. So why shouldn’t my daughter be one of these people? After all, she’s got the added mental advantage from an early age. And we build her strengths at every opportunity. Build up rather than wipe out as often as possible. I want her to believe that longevity is possible for her too. Secondly, these stats must be retrospective. This number ‘37’ can only be based on people who have lived and died up until now. They are relevant to the people who have gone before. It doesn’t account for the fact that the people living with cystic fibrosis today have the benefit of new medical treatments. And I am very grateful. Because most of all, the number ’37’ doesn’t convey that they are talking about a cure within 5 years. Magic words I never expected to hear in my lifetime. A bit like when they developed insulin for diabetes. Because they are always developing new ways to treat things, aren’t they.

So while we hold tight and await a cure, we will continue to give thanks and build our strengths. Because sometimes, making something stronger can be the best defence…

Looking back I am amused by people’s perceptions. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I walked around for a couple of months with a tumour inside of me, while I processed the shock and worked out what was best for me. I didn’t tell many people and so, even though I had an active cancer, nobody treated me any differently. After all, I looked the same, didn’t I. And so it strikes me as funny that once the cancer had been removed, and I began chemo as an insurance policy against it ever returning, people then thought of me as a person with cancer. Simply because I had no hair. The stereotypical sign of cancer. And I smile, because in fact, it was actually the other way round.

Our perceptions are interesting, aren’t they. How many times have we thought that something was one way, only to realise later it was something else? I gave my daughter a beautiful book called Duck! Rabbit!.

Throughout this gorgeous book there’s a debate about whether or not the drawing is in fact a duck or a rabbit. And it really could be either. I love it, because it causes the reader to stretch the way they think about things. To challenge our perceptions, to question and explore new ways of thinking, other possibilities. Because, like a lot of parents, I want to open up the possibilities life holds for my children. And this begins with them, doesn’t it. Helping them to develop their own way of thinking and not just automatically buy into what every body else thinks is real, or right or true. What delights me most is that the benefit is not just for my children.

Because there are always two sides to every coin, aren’t there. And when one lands in our lap, I think we can sometimes forget to flip it over. To take a look at what the other side has to offer. And although there were many times throughout my experience I wondered if this was the end, looking back I now realise that it was just the beginning. An opportunity, a chance in life, to do something very special for myself…

I must confess I went through a Give Way sign the other day. It was 5.30am, dark and I was in unfamiliar territory. As I followed the curve in the road, I could have sworn I was on a roundabout and had the right of way. After all everyone knows Canberra is full of roundabouts and the airport is no exception. It’s full of them! I was lucky the other driver saw me and gave the horn a blast. But for the whole day, I couldn’t work out what his problem was. It was a roundabout after all, or was it?

My curiosity got the better of me and I went back to check it out in daylight. And then I saw it. The Give Way sign. And I realised with a sinking feeling that while most of the intersections around the airport terminal are roundabouts, despite the curve, this one is not. I gave thanks to the other driver for being more aware than I was. For seeing things differently. I was so sure it was a roundabout, that I was driving with this blinkered mindset. I simply didn’t entertain any other possibilities. They weren’t even on my radar. And despite the evidence in front of me, my self-imposed blinkers prevented me from seeing the reality of the situation. But it was there for others to see and it was only my mindset that blocked me from it.

We talk about this phenomena during the Embracing Chemo programme. How we can approach chemo and cancer locked into a particular mindset, a particular set of beliefs that do not let us see the other, often more positive, possibilities. Many people don’t realise these beliefs affect our decisions and our physiology. Isn’t it interesting that our beliefs can create much of our experience. Because there are many possibilities in life, aren’t there. There for our choosing, if only we could see them.

Many people don’t realise that stretching our minds can be one of the most proactive things we can do to help ourselves make the experience of cancer and cancer treatment that much easier.

A colleague gave me a gift the other day without even realising it. As she rushed out the door, she asked if I would turn her computer off. Of course I would. And as I moved over to her desk to flick the switch, the photo on her desktop caused me to just stop and enjoy the moment. I was transfixed by the beauty of a pagoda, perhaps five stories high on the edge of a lake, surrounded by blossom trees. And the scene just oozed peace and calm. And as I connected to these feelings that arose within me simply by gazing at the photo, it struck me again the importance of where we choose to put our focus. Isn’t it incredible that a simple photo can generate such healing feelings within us.

For many years now I have been practising mindfulness. Observing my thoughts, watching my reactions and how I respond to different people, places and things. And I am very careful about what I let into my world because I recognise the impact that seemingly insignificant things can have. To the best of my ability, I choose people, places and things that make me feel good about myself. Because if we have the choice, it doesn’t make sense to choose anything else, does it? I’m selective about my television and the books I read. And I don’t listen to the news, it’s usually all bad anyway, isn’t it. Instead I listen to music I find uplifting, or watch shows that make me laugh or in those few precious moments I sometimes find, I just enjoy the stillness.

I wonder, have you ever noticed how the things around you make you feel?