Human Spirit


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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…

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…

I wonder, have you ever noticed how good things can come out of the most difficult of circumstances? I can honestly say it’s happened more than once in my life. And so I am learning to trust the bigger picture.

The truth of this was again made real to me a couple of days ago. Minus 8 degrees overnight and as we warmed the car to get the ice off the windscreen, I suddenly noticed the ice crystals on the window. They took my breath away. Stunning little mandalas of such beauty. My daughter captured them in a photograph. And I realised that without the extreme cold of the night before, they would never have been created. Out of something as plain as a drop of water, it took the cold darkness of the night for this beauty to be born …

I wonder, have you ever noticed how we are surrounded by mirrors in our lives? Some are a true and clear reflection. While others are more like the foggy ones when you get out of the shower. Or the mirrors with a crack in the glass. You only see a snippet of yourself. A distorted image and not your true reflection. And then there are others like the ones at the fun park or the museum, where your body is stretched tall and thin, or shrunk short and stumpy. And we laugh at these mirrors, don’t we, because we know they are not a true reflection of who we really are. Safe in the knowledge the real us, the true us remains unchanged.

My husband became a true mirror for me the other day. As I took my shirt off, he whistled. You know, one of those appreciative wolf whistles. I could never work out why they have been rendered politically incorrect. They never offended me. In fact, I love them. And they make me feel good about myself. It feels good to be appreciated, doesn’t it. This one took me completely by surprise and I smiled with delight. Because I felt so unconditionally loved in this moment. I find him amazing. He doesn’t see the scars. He only sees me. In the days following I realised at an even deeper level that it is ‘me’ that is attractive to him, the real me inside. The outside bits, although desirable, are not as important. And in reflecting this back to me, he is teaching me to see myself this way. He became a mirror for me of what really matters. A true mirror. And I love him all the more.

The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes”, I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it he says, it’s kind of cute.”

All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I remember that gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in.

Richard Selzer – Lessons from the Art of Surgery as quoted in Love, Medicine and Miracles by Dr Bernie Siegel

Sometimes it helps me to remember that cancer is really only a cracked mirror. Just a snapshot of a moment in time. Because it’s not a true reflection of who we really are, is it. And it can be comforting to remember that no matter what happens, our real self, our true self will always remain safely tucked away inside…

I did something really dumb this morning. Like every good working mum on school holidays I was multi-tasking big time. And by the time I had the kids in the car, I was of course running a little behind schedule. As is my custom, I turned the engine on to warm up three freezing kids. An overnight temperature of minus five or thereabouts. The windscreen was frosty. So heavily frosted that the windscreen wipers weren’t making any progress. And so I began to move the car into the sun to help it along. We live on a farm and the drive is huge so I have a lot of room to turn around. Only trouble was I’d parked in the opposite direction the night before. And so as I turned the car slowly, winding down the window so I could see, with the windscreen wipers working furiously, I was effectively driving blind. No big problem when I’m facing the other way. The bump and the breaking of glass alerted me to my grave misjudgement as I hit the low brick wall. No speed, but enough to smash the fog light and break the bumper. Bugger. A small expletive. I got back in the car after examining the damage and smiled at the kids. After all, what could I do except get over it. If only I’d been a bit more patient, I’ll remember this for next time.

And then it dawned on me. Another of those wonderful aha moments. With reconstruction imminent, I suddenly felt like the car was an extension of me. Easily repaired, no harm done. On the other side of cancer, I realised I now have a different perspective. And I laughed. It seems the fear and sadness is done.

I was lucky enough to spend the day with my friend Peter yesterday. And I was privileged to watch the magic unfold in his calmbirth® class as he helps pregnant couples to let go of their fear and anxiety around birth. It’s simply breathtaking. To birth without fear, and in complete confidence that our bodies know what to do. Working with our inner wisdom, not against it. And the hospitals have noticed what a difference it makes. So much so, that across the country they are now asking Peter to run their birth classes.  And I am so inspired by Peter’s work. Because the gift of entering the world in calmness and love is beyond measure, even when medical intervention is required.

And birth can be many things, can’t it. Peter talks about The Law of Possibilities. Because we all know birth can be excruciatingly painful. But I wonder how many people realise that for some women it can be orgasmic? And of course, it can be everything in between. And it’s the same with cancer, isn’t it. For some people the diagnosis of cancer is their worst nightmare, while for others it presents an opportunity. A life changing experience that opens new doors, new possibilities, and the potential for a completely new start in life. And the chemo itself? I know of people who have been violently ill, encouraged by their families to feel as sick as possible because this is what they believed was needed to ensure the chemo was working. While others have described having chemo as feeling just a bit like having a mild hangover or even being ‘pleasantly surprised’. Mindset plays such a huge role, doesn’t it. As I began to understand how my own mindset, my subconscious fears, beliefs and expectations, affected my experience, each cycle of chemo became a bit of an adventure. What would I create for myself this time? I found it just got better and better.

Yesterday when I got home, I was thrilled to see an email from J—. I hadn’t heard from her in some months . And I always wonder how people are getting on. Diagnosed young as I was, a double mastectomy, chemo and all the rest with two small children in tow. The last time we spoke she was just preparing for it all. And we talked about the things she could do to help herself. To build her buffer. And here today, she is in a different space now. It’s all done and I feel her joy. Because J— discovered there are many things she could do to help herself. And that within her she had the strength to get through. And it makes me smile to think of her strength and zest for life – she tells me she was riding her bike just 5 days after her last cycle of chemo, thinking of me in the snow as I was just one week after mine. 

The Law of Possibilities. Without fear and with an open mind the possibilities are endless, aren’t they…

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