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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…

It has often been suggested that the diagnosis of a life-threatening condition can be a little like pointing the bone in Aboriginal culture. Where death results with relative speed for the person who has been boned. And it is a little like being boned, isn’t it?. When the shock of diagnosis can cause so many to give up.

I saw my own surgeon resign himself to a speedy exit. ‘My stats aren’t good’ he said about his own diagnosis of cancer. I don’t believe in stats (unless they’re in my favour). I think we can do much to create our own stats. And in a matter of only 4 weeks my strong, six foot surgeon went from being my doctor to becoming a frail and ill man needing support of his own. I was shocked by the speed of his transformation. In his book Timeless Healing, Dr Herbert Benson describes it like this: ‘Overnight, patients diagnosed with chronic medical problems or illnesses began to think of themselves as ‘sick’, and the effect that label had on their psyches and their physical heath was substantial’.

I’ve heard it said that there are some doctors who believe they have killed more people through diagnosis than the actual disease. And, as helpful as it is to diagnose something so we can get appropriate treatment, I often wonder how many lives are shortened by the power in these words? I’m not advocating we stick our heads in the sand, but it’s so important to remember we always have a choice in how we think of ourselves, isn’t it?. We can allow other people to label us, or we can choose to see ourselves differently.

Yesterday at a workshop, a beautiful young woman shared her father’s story when she heard of the work I was doing. A beautiful story of hope and the power of the human spirit. You see, many years ago, this man was misdiagnosed and treated for haemorroids for an extended period of time. So by the time he received the diagnosis of cancer, he was given only 3 months to live.

But he went on to enjoy another 7 years of life. And enjoy them he did!

When the doctors were pessimistic he allowed their pessimism to wash over him. After all, it was their pessimism, not his. And so he found new doctors that gave him hope. He travelled some distance to find them, doctors trialling experimental techniques, and he embraced them boots and all. During this time he travelled the world 5-6 times and enjoyed his family. Chemo was an experience they chose to share, his children accompanying him to the chemo suite and making the most of the opportunity just to be together. In the end, his daughter tells me, he let go not when the doctors decided, but when the time was of his making.

Isn’t it empowering when we can move through the shock of diagnosis and take the responsibility for our lives into our own hands. When we take an active part in our own self care…

The woman on the end of the phone was so surprised when I asked for a referral to two different plastic surgeons. ‘Taking a bet each way?’ she asked. But why the surprise? After all, don’t we shop around in every other aspect of our lives. If I had a plumbing job I’d be sure to ask a couple of plumbers to have a look. I’d check out the way they were going to go about things, the cost, and of course their attitude. If I didn’t like one, why would I give him the job? Well as far as I’m concerned the same goes for doctors. My body is the only house I live in. So how much more important is it than bricks and mortar? Some doctors have left me feeling scared and deflated, while others have given me such confidence. So I selected the ones that suited me best whether public or private. It’s so important who we have around us, isn’t it?!

Dr Herbert Benson writes about the importance of the doctor / patient relationship in his book Timeless Healing. It’s a fabulous read, I can’t recommend it enough! And he gives example after example of how much the bedside manner matters in our healing. You may be interested to know he devotes a whole section on how to choose your doctor. Because it is our choice, isn’t it?! And one of the most important we will ever make.

 ‘Never give up!’ Marylou Crabill writes in Stronger than Cancer. ‘Sixteen years ago I was given six months to live. My husband and I fired that doctor and sought a second opinion’. Whoa, I love her power. And I remember my daughter reading me a story from Chicken Soup for the Survivors Soul. By the way, I don’t like to use the term ‘survivor’ but that’s a different blog!  Anyway, this book recounts a conversation between two oncologists that goes something like this. One oncologist asked the other oncologist why his results were so much better despite the fact that they were both using the same drugs. And his reply: Where you give out the drugs E.O.H.P., I give out H.O.P.E…

 It’s all in the attitude isn’t it…

Sherry’s blog is spot on. I couldn’t agree with her more! Many people don’t realise stress is like the clothes we wear. We get so use to it we don’t feel it anymore. It seems that many women suffer a massive emotional stress before the onset of breast cancer, I know I did and so did many women I know of. Divorce, the loss of a child, the loss of a home are huge emotional losses. And then the stress of life just seems to bring on the inevitable.

The latest science is showing us that when we are chronically stressed our immune system gets shut down, which seems to actually allow the cancer to develop. My husband always says ‘cancer is something we’ve lost’, not something we’ve gained, because in cancer we lose our ability to get rid of cancer cells as they develop. This for most people, and at different times in our own lives, is a normal body process. Isn’t it empowering to view cancer from this perspective. That we can actually play a part in protecting our ability to deal with rogue cells. I was so lucky to have Steve involved in my recovery because he was able to measure the stress in my body and then help me to reduce it using biofeedback and adjustment techniques. There’s a bunch of about 50 neurologically based chiros like him in the US, Canada, Britain, Europe, South Africa and Australia who help people to recover from cancer in the same way. There’s also a great book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky that’s an easy read for those who like the science. The 2008 National Geographic documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer focuses on Robert Sapolsky’s work – it’s eye opening.

Thanks for your blog Sherry and for going out on a limb. I love the poem.