Breathing


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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 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…

This morning I made a better choice. I awoke full of busy thoughts competing for attention. Things I wanted to do, things I needed to do, things I’d rather do… A restless mind and I felt agitated. So much so, I almost got up to feed that driven part of me who wants to get everything done now. But something stopped me. A little voice calling out for a much needed rest. My body begging me to go gently. To respect its needs. And so I decided to just lie there and breathe. Gently in, gently out. Deep rhythmic breathing, using all of my lungs. And within 10 minutes, perhaps less, I noticed the change. My mind stopped racing, my body relaxed and I made the decision to nurture myself for the rest of the day. Sure I had things to do, but I chose to do them second to giving myself a much needed rest, rather than the other way round. Propped up on the lounge reading, despite having three kids at home on school holidays. Declining to answer the phone when it demanded attention. A day off from the computer, the mobile, the internet. By the afternoon, I actually felt rested. And the important things had all still been attended to. I just hadn’t pushed.

Isn’t it incredible how our priorities can change just through the simple act of breathing. In slowing down we can better assess what is necessary and what can wait. Because to heal we need to do this, don’t we. Prioritise. Look after ourselves. Make better choices.

Most people don’t realise that the simple act of breathing can switch our bodies from stress into healing. Rapid shallow breathing stimulates the flight or fight response while deep, rhythmic breathing returns our bodies to a state in which we can rest and repair. Just breathing, it costs nothing, and it can change our biochemistry in the blink of an eye. Why aren’t we taught how to use the breath to heal? Most people don’t even think about how they are breathing, caught in the habit of rapid shallow breathing without even realising it. ‘Practise makes permanent’ my friend Peter says and so I make the conscious choice to practise deep breathing at every opportunity. To form a better habit.  Because we are what we practise, aren’t we. Once again it’s all about the choices we make. To be able to say no to demands that compromise our healing. To love ourselves enough to make the right choices that keep us on the healing path…

 With every breath we have a choice – Dr Richard Aplin DC