“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Orson Welles director, actor and producer
Honestly, this blog is supposed to be funny, but sometimes it’s hard to get there.
I am a cancer survivor. You cannot imagine how good it feels to write that. This blog was established to help me document my journey, process my experiences and, ultimately, inch away from thinking of myself as a cancer patient and towards being a mindful, peaceful and accepting (that’s a tough one!) creature on this Earth. Be warned, some of my posts are self-indulgent and unnecessarily wordy; I have much respect for anyone willing to slog through them.
Right now, this blog is anonymous: I need to stumble through my feelings, complain when I feel like it and be blunt when necessary — and I need a safe space to do it without fear of judgmental glances. While my goal is to keep this light-hearted, I realize that I have the pleasure of being a survivor and chuckling about my cancer experience; there are many who are not granted that opportunity. Writing this blog is a privilege.
Cancer sucks. It’s an indiscriminate spectre that has haunted the lives of practically everyone at some point, whether relatives, friends or ourselves. For me, cancer cannot pass into faded memory quickly enough, but at the same time, I am infernally curious about the disease and how it has changed me.
So here are my facts:
In early 2017, I was diagnosed with triple-positive (estrogen+, progesterone+ and HER2+) breast cancer. The lump was 1.6cm in diameter, removed at the end of March, along with three sentinel lymph nodes that were revealed to be unaffected. Chemotherapy (Taxotere & carboplatin) started a month later and lasted the entire summer, 6 hefty courses, one every three weeks; adjuvant therapy (Herceptin, a monoclonal antibody) also started at this time, but went for 17 courses, ending in April 2018. Daily radiation treatment lasted six weeks through autumn of 2017. A 3-D mammogram in February 2018 showed nothing, in a good way. That marked my first year without the tumor.
I wish I’d been able to write in 2017, but my head wasn’t there. I was not processing, I was existing and enduring. After my final Herceptin infusion, my port was removed and I turned around to see what had happened. It took several months of writing before I tossed out my first post in September 2018, privately at first, and then, “Hello, world!”
It’s going to be a bumpy, unpolished ride. Bear with me.
At some point in a cancer patient’s life, there are certain questions that tend to come up. The most likely one of these is why we were singled out to have such a serious calamity befall us.
I went through a long period of this. I mean, loooong. The early posts of this blog are filled with agonized questions about why cancer hit me even when, by all accounts, it shouldn’t have. I posted about not having risk factors and blah blah blah. I kept going around and around and around on this, stuck on a hamster wheel that wouldn’t stop.
Allow me to stress: cancer is a serious illness. That is not to be taken lightly. Most of us, regardless of lifestyle, experience profound shock with our cancer diagnosis. It may seem that life is cruel and unfair (well, it is) and that we didn’t deserve to get cancer (well, we didn’t).
I struggled with anger and frustration for years. It’s both embarrassing and freeing to admit that.
Acceptance is a process. I thought I’d accepted my situation a couple of years ago, but in retrospect, I hadn’t. Some days I felt holy and zen-like, floating on my own little cloud, but it was a sham. I’d have glimpses of acceptance and then a wave of anger and resentment would wash over me and I’d be pissed off for another week.
I thought God hated me. A purportedly loving and merciful being allowed this to happen. It was hard to not think of cancer as a blow against my value as a person because of how I interpreted my situation.
It wasn’t until I stepped outside the confines of that type of thinking that I gained a different perspective. I posted about re-writing my life (basically, viewing the same experiences through a different, more positive lens) which provided a glimpse of another way to assess what had happened. And when I heard the retelling of an ancient Buddhist tale I finally understood what it meant.
What was that tale? It was “Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed”. In brief, Kisa Gotami’s young son dies and she is so distraught–not understanding why she would deserve such a painful experience–that she goes to the Buddha in hopes that he can bring the son back from the dead.
The Buddha agrees to revive her son if she can bring him mustard seeds from households where no one has died. Of course, she cannot because death touches all living creatures. She is comforted by the realization that her sorrow is shared and understood by everyone in the community and she finds acceptance of her loss .
Another way of looking at this is that we all suffer. For me, it’s a reminder that while a cancer diagnosis is life-threatening, there are few (if any) humans on this Earth who have not experienced some form of loss or grief at some point in their lives. Yes, some of us bear a far greater burden than others–grave inequities exist. But they also bring profound opportunities for growth.
And while I (and I expect most cancer patients/survivors) would have preferred to experience this personal growth through means other than cancer, being able to be here in this moment, having turned the corner, is one of the most beautiful gifts I could ever receive.
Two points need to be made here:
Point #1: Burdens are distributed unequally. Socioeconomic, racial and other disparities further tip the scales, making outcomes from a disease like cancer even worse. As a society, we haven’t come close to rebalancing this. Acceptance is easier for some than for others; no one has a right to preach to anyone else.
Point #2: It’s been over five years since my initial cancer diagnosis, and even longer that I’ve been worrying about it. As I mentioned above, it took a LONG time to get to this point of acceptance. Knowing this, I would never rush a new cancer patient to get here. Acceptance must come organically, and yes, sometimes never does. Cancer breaks hearts and no one experiences it in the same way. Be patient.
I have a problem. And if you’ve been reading this blog, that statement won’t surprise you.
My thoughts take me for a ride and it’s a wild one. I’ve gone from being perfectly calm one minute…and the next minute gesturing wildly, face screwed up, whisper-arguing with a person who is not there. I can feel agitation in my belly and an increase in breathing and heartrate.
The story takes off.
I have a solo argument with an invisible adversary. Sometimes it’s someone I know, rehashing past hurts; other times it’s an imaginary situation that my brain concocted, a fear of the future. Regardless, there is always some form of negative state change involved.
In the past, I would have barreled along like a runaway freight train, exhausting and unnerving myself. It became a habit, like an itch I needed to scratch. It was so hard to stop those thoughts once the train started rolling along.
Mindfulness changed that, but it took time to develop awareness. I learned to ask one very simple question of myself as soon I realize that I’m being swept away by that torrent of brain activity.
Three simple words: where am I?
This works like magic for me. It’s instant grounding.
That’s because the train screeches to a halt and I shake off the mental noise and look around myself. I’m usually somewhere alone. There’s often some far away street hum or something else not very intrusive. I feel where my body makes contact with whatever surface I’m on.
I am HERE. And in this moment, I am safe. Regardless of all the thoughts that suggest otherwise, I am safe.
It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems that will need solving or work that needs to be done. But all that noise that was panicking me just a bit ago? I am reminded that it doesn’t exist right now. And right now is the only moment that matters.
Three simple words. Man, if I’d known this years ago, I could have saved myself so much heartache. But at least I know now. And now, so do you.
One thing I’ve had trouble with is expressing self-compassion. When you’re a driven perfectionist it’s easy to believe that “giving yourself a break” is tantamount to “going soft” and “losing your edge”.
I couldn’t forgive myself when I felt that I’d failed. And guess what, getting cancer made me feel like a failure. I had tried to live the healthiest adult live I could, given the sometimes-limited resources I had, often denying myself what others called “pleasures” or “indulgences”.
The fact that I was convinced that I shouldn’t have gotten cancer was a recurring theme early on in this blog–I was convinced that I must have done something wrong, even when I tried so hard to do my best.
I was also ashamed. Cancer, I felt, opened my life up to judgment by others.
Getting myself out of that funk took serious work. It meant rewiring my brain and allowing in the same kindness and compassion for myself that I allowed for others. At the same time, I reminded myself of a quote by author and humor columnist Dave Barry: “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” I prefer to interpret Barry’s words in this way: I cannot be genuinely kind and non-judgmental to others until I’ve learned to be so to myself.
But how do you do that when you’ve spent your life pushing yourself, not accepting excuses? It wasn’t until I hit the lowest low that I ever experienced that I learned to dip into unadulterated compassion for myself. I imagined who I was as a chemo patient–skinny, bald, dehydrated, vulnerable, frightened. And suddenly felt it: that overwhelming desire to wrap my arms around that version of me and protect it.
And while that was “cancer me”, I realized that same version of me was the scared person inside that I had always bullied with perfectionism and accusations of not being good enough. This was who I really was, in need of and deserving of gentle holding.
It took a life threatening illness to make me realize that I deserved kindness and compassion. I believe that you are deserving of the same. Do something today to prove it to yourself.
While this isn’t exclusively an exercise blog, if you’ve perused my posts you’ve probably noticed that I’m a huge proponent of exercise for both cancer patients and survivors (well, actually for everyone; but see my important message at the bottom of this post).
The best way to achieve this is to start exercising right now, if you are not yet, no matter what stage of the cancer experience you’re in.
There is a growing body of research that shows the benefits of exercise for cancer folk (I’ve written about it here). But the fact is that only about 17-37% of cancer survivors meet the minimum physical activity guidelines set out by the American Cancer Society (Hirschey et al., 2017, Cancer Nurs) even though doing so reduces the risk of cancer recurrence by 55%, not to mention the improvement in quality of life (Cannioto et al., 2021, J Natl Cancer Inst).
Now, there is a call to include exercise as an adjuvant therapy for cancer for those who are currently undergoing chemotherapy. During the Oncology session of the 7th International Congress of the Spanish Society of Precision Health (SESAP) that took place in Spring 2022, Adrián Castillo García, a researcher at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute (IIBB) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), reviewed recent studies regarding the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment, including the potential role that it had in “modulating the tumor microenvironment and immune function.”
You can read a synopsis of his statements here in the section entitled “Exercise as Oncological Therapy” (starting towards the bottom of page 2). Castillo states that physical exercise “has been shown to have the ability to modulate the tumor environment… . This modulating effect translates into an improvement in the efficacy of chemotherapy and other oncological treatments.”
Castillo goes on to say that “prescribing doses of physical activity at an established intensity and volume can be very decisive in combating the tumor microenvironment, but this preliminary evidence must be confirmed in trials on humans to ratify the role of exercise as a treatment capable of improving the efficacy of the main therapies.” (All quotes from the aforementioned synopsis.)
With such promising results, it’s quite possible that future cancer treatments may be a combination of medicine and physical activity.
Ok, so say that you are not an avid exerciser, but motivated by these studies you’re willing to give regular exercise a go. What do you do when you’re already feeling fatigued from treatments?
I wrote about this here, but in a nutshell, the idea is that you need to decide what the right starting point is for you, and this will depend on your previous experiences, both physical and emotional, with a physical activity program. It will also depend on what you can manage at any given time in your treatment.
Ask yourself, “what is reasonable for me?” But don’t respond to that with a t-shirt slogan-type answer (“Exercise? I thought you said extra fries?!?”) that immediately shuts down the idea. Admittedly, there may be times during treatment that getting yourself to the toilet without help is a momumental achievement. But that will pass. And exercise will make you feel more in control of your health and better overall.
IMPORTANT: Find what you can do and then do it as consistently as you can.
This may mean starting very simply [always get your doctor’s okay first!]. Choose an activity, duration and frequency, say, brisk walking for 20 minutes a day, three days a week. Follow that pattern for two weeks, then add to it–perhaps another 10 minutes–not to overwhelm yourself, but simply to push the edge a bit (you can always ease off if you need to, give it a week and increase again). If possible, increase some aspect of your program every couple of weeks, as it suits your condition. In the example of walking, incorporate a flight of stairs and gradual upper body movements: first pumping the arms, then hand weights, eventually strength training for both upper and lower body.
The timing is up to you.
If a walking program feels too easy for you, train at a higher level, but remember that the same concepts still apply: (1) consistency, (2) progression, (3) balance in your activities. If you’re interested, read my post about my three “pillars” of fitness.
Most importantly, start, progress gradually and keep it up for the rest of your life.
If your starting point is a standstill, this will take patience. But I PROMISE you, no matter what you can muster, it will still be better than doing nothing.
I know I already said this, but it bears repeating, especially for cancer patients and survivors: do not start any exercise program without consulting with your medical team first. While I feel that improving your physical fitness is one of the best things you can do for yourself, every body is different and every cancer situation is different. Talk to your doctor and let them know what you’re planning to do.
Throughout my primary and middle school years, I thought I had powerful extra-sensory perception. Actually, it might have even been longer than that, although I’m embarassed to admit it.
I blame my older brother for this. We were in grade school and my grandma had just passed away. Due to the arrival of a number of relatives for the funeral, we were left alone to entertain ourselves. As we turned off the lights for sleep, he and I somehow got on the topic of extra-sensory perception and decided to test it out.
One of us would think of a number and the other would guess what it was. I guessed correctly, over and over again. I would “see” it through my closed eyes as I concentrated. I didn’t miss a single one and my brother was very impressed.
I fell asleep that night believing that my dear grandmother had imparted me a special gift with her passing, and I felt that I had undisputable empirical evidence of it.
In reality, my claim was on shakey ground, but I had already convinced myself that there was something magical there. In fact, I began seeing “evidence” of it everywhere. These couldn’t have possibly been coincidences, could they? I started fearing that if I could see something as a possibility, it would actually happen. As a result, I fought to keep certain thoughts out of my mind. Avoidance, anyone?
Some years later my older brother admitted he had fibbed to me that night, that no matter what number I “saw”, he would pretend that was the number he was thinking about. He thought it would be funny.
But by then, the latent fear of my thoughts was ingrained in me, even though I knew that triggering event had been a lie. What was true, however, was that my mind had always been very powerful. In one instance, I experienced intense pain that I couldn’t explain, lasting several days. While I was vaguely aware that this pain disappeared upon the release of a stressor, I didn’t realize that it was psychosomatic –literally something my mind created that had been expressed in my body.
My mind also had the power to hijack my thoughts, amplifying negative feelings. I was anything but grounded. I managed to plow on, garnering notable academic achievements. But there was always a sense of fear in the background and since it ran unchecked, eventually it overtook me and pointed my life’s path in a direction quite different from that of my peers.
Lacking awareness of how my mind operated meant that I didn’t realize why I was making the decisions that I was. It took years, even decades, to understand that so many of the things I had feared originated in my mind, affecting my interpretation of whatever input I was receiving.
Now, after all these realizations and a number of painful lessons, my world is not as “magical” as it used to be, but I am better rooted and grounded. And that feels a lot better.
What about “ghosts”?
When I live in the present, I am safe and secure. Those unexplainable occurences that I attributed to otherworldly origins have become much more explainable. And I’m well-aware of how my mind has twisted meaningless common things into terrible foreboding ones.
There are quite enough frightening things in the material world (cancer, wars, having my email account hacked…) that there’s no need to search the paranormal world for their cause.
A 2021 survey of 1000 Americans revealed that 2 out of 5 people believe in ghosts. I am not here to contradict their beliefs, and frankly, when I talk of “ghosts” I don’t mean spooks. At the same time, I learned the hard way that my mind wasn’t always reflecting 100% truth. I was compelled to take inventory of what was bouncing around in my noggin and decided that, while I can’t neatly explain everything going on around me, it’s harmful to let my thoughts run wild.
One of the benefits of doing a yoga teacher training (YTT) is that there are some interesting side effects that go far past learning about yoga instruction.
It also involves a great deal of introspection, sometimes uncomfortable, but always valuable.
What I found curious about myself was how, when I was stressed, I exhibited loads of visible signs of stress even if I was aware that I was doing it. It was as if I didn’t want anyone to mistake me for not being stressed when I was.
This made me wonder, was it simply habit? Or was I being a drama queen? Stress does affect me deeply and anxiety is hard for me to shake. It’s possible that I feared not being believed that I was suffering.
Perhaps I needed people to care that I was not okay.
But I came across a recent research article about this that suggested an even deeper reason. UK researchers Whitehouse et al. (2022, Evol Hum Behav) conducted a study in which it appeared that individuals displaying signs of stress came across as more likeable and more likely to elicit support from those around us.
This is curious because often in nature, showing “weakness” may result in a greater chance of being attacked. But apparently it doesn’t work this way in human society. The researchers postulated that signs of stress suggested that the individual might be deemed friendly and not a threat.
I can attest to the fact that seeing someone displaying anxiety immediately triggers a strong empathic response in me, no matter who the person is or what they’ve done. Having suffered anxiety myself, I am immediately drawn into what the individual might be feeling, projecting my own feelings onto them.
And it is very true that I’ve often gone out of my way to look more friendly, less scary, particularly when it comes to people smaller and weaker than I am (I’m 5’11”). I have a drive to appear less threatening. However, this does not necessarily benefit me–does the term ‘doormat’sound familiar? When you lower yourself far lower than is even remotely necessary, you’re not doing anyone any favors.
This explains a lot about my own life and it underscores the importance of being aware of your behavior and why you engage in it. When you run on autopilot you risk reinforcing negative self-beliefs and even generating new ones. Self-awareness is the antidote to that.
So that is what I’ve been musing about. YTT provided me with space from which to reflect on the ways that I behave and feel in certain situations. In turn I can use that information to make much needed changes in my life and get myself unstuck. How about you?
Original research article: Whitehouse J, Milward SJ, Parker MO, Kavanagh E, Waller BM (2022). Signal value of stress behaviour. Evolution and Human Behavior; DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2022.04.001
I came across a delightful mindfulness visualization on the Calmmeditation app, presented by meditation teacher Jeff Warren who credits his teacher, Dan Clurman, with relating the idea of this exercise.
It is an effective and immersive way to ground yourself into the present moment with the emphasis on being in your body.
Imagine that you are an hourglass and your awareness is the cool sand that falls from above. First, bring your awareness down into your feet and ankles, feeling into the sensations there, filling up not only that part of your body, but also inviting attention into the space between your feet and around them at the bottom of the hourglass. Feel the level of your awareness rise.
Now invite your awareness to fill up your legs, while still keeping attention on your feet and ankles. Notice how the level of these “sands of awareness” travels up and fills out the space up to your hips. Feel into how that feels, not trying to change anything, but simply noticing any sensations.
In this way, continue to work your way upwards, allowing these “sands” to gradually fill up your body as they empty from your mind. Allow the swirling thoughts to release and drop down to light up your lower limbs, your entire torso, your arms and shoulders little by little. Maintain awareness of the parts of your body that have awakened already, so that as you move along in this way, the sensations in your body build and you feel the liveliness of the present moment in them.
Finally, coming to the top of your head, feel into all the sensations vibrating through your entire body, perhaps gentle tingling in your feet and legs or a subtle pulsing in your arms and hands. Maybe the awareness of movement through your intestines, the beating of your heart and even the areas where your body makes contact with the surface that supports it.
In this way, you bring the whole of your body into the present, not focusing on just one part, but on everything that makes up your physical presence, and also the space around your physical presence, while at the same time relieving your mind of the pressures exerted by thinking. As your body fills, your mind empties and thoughts are replaced by a sense of peace and well-being.
I’ve tried this a number of times and found it to be both grounding and uplifting simultaneously and an effective way to bring myself out of my head and into the here and now. If you’re looking for a different way of engaging in a body scan, give it a try.
Please note that a form of this meditation appeared on the Calm app on April 29, 2022, as an installment of Jeff Warren’s Daily Trip.
While I am a subscriber to Calm, I do not receive compensation for writing about the app. I am simply a very satisfied user.
I’m neck-deep in juggling my day job and studying for my Yoga Teacher Training final exam, so I’m going to keep this short and tell you about a daily practice that I’ve established, as suggested by one of our teacher trainers.
We were to choose one thing to do consistently, something that was just for us and our well-being. And it was something that we should commit to doing everyday.
I chose making myself a tall glassful of hibiscus tea as my daily practice. As it is, I love tea because the process of making it requires that I pay attention to what I’m doing. While we set up morning (decaf) coffee the night before and the coffee maker is on a timer to brew, tea requires my presence.
Between waiting for the water to boil in the tea kettle, placing the hibiscus petals into the infuser, inserting that into the teaglass, pouring the hot water over it…the process becomes mindfulness meditation. And the best part is the visual reward of watching the vivid colors of the red hibiscus flowers seep through the infuser and into the glass, beautiful swirls of vibrant pink that, even if just for a handful of seconds, fill me with a sense of peace and spaciousness.
Feeling my spirit refreshed, I take a deep breath and return to my day.
I feel like I write a lot about loss when speaking of my cancer experience. That may seem like a downer, but truly, cancer treatment is a complicated process in more ways that expected. Bear with me for a few…
There’s so much to lose: lose control of your life, lose your hair, lose your lunch, lose a lot of money, lose time at work, lose your libido, lose your overall quality-of-life. In more extreme cases, lose your spouse and your house. And unfortunately, sometimes lose your life. On some level most of us may feel some sense of loss.
I keep talking about this because it’s not something that’s fun to talk about. Most people don’t know what to say when they find out you have cancer. They’re hesitant to say something to “remind you” of the illness, as if you could forget. Relationships can become strained and awkward.
Interactions with cancer patients often turn into a “rah-rah” fest, with well-meaning friends showering you with “you got this” encouragement. But that’s not always what you need to hear.
I urge everyone who cares about the well-being of a cancer patient to allow them the opportunity to express how crappy things are. To simply listen and not contradict them. Because being insistent that it’s not okay to talk about anything negative creates an even bigger sense of loss for the patient.
Does this sound wrong? We’ve been led to believe that being positive is the only way we should be and that it’s no fun to be around those who are gloomy.
But consider this: would you go to a funeral and try to get the grieving family to “cheer up”? Would you try to tell them jokes and elbow them into smiling? I don’t think you’d be very successful and might be escorted away – at the least your invitation to the meal afterwards would probably be revoked.
We know that behaving this way is unacceptable, at least in most cultures (I can’t speak for everyone). Grieving is an important part of the human condition and not being allowed to grieve loss can be very stressful and lead to problems down the road.
So it is for the cancer patient. There’s so much more going on than simply increased doctor visits and medical procedures. Minimizing the impact that this has on their lives may range from feeling unfair to devastating.
Of course, every patient is different and their reactions will differ too. But I would urge loved ones to err on the side of caution, give their cancer patient the time and space to process and grieve and save the exhuberant “cheering up” for a time when the patient seeks that out.
In my ever-continuing quest to maintain my concentration during meditation, I’m constantly exploring different points of focus. My go-to still remains the breath, but I’ve written about sharing that spotlight with focus on sensations in the hands as part of a dual focus meditation.
More recently, however, I’ve incorporated more of the senses into my meditation practice (I mean, we have five so why not?).
In between the inhales and exhales, there’s space during which I’m notoriously susceptible to distractions. Lately, I’ve been working with sounds. I live in the city on a busy street and there’s rarely a lack of noise, so in the lulls between my breaths, my ears turn on and absorb the sounds transpiring outside my window.
The trick with sounds, however, is to allow them to simply be interpreted as tones and refrain from being drawn into naming them. A siren runs the risk of eliciting thoughts of “where’s the fire?” or similar scenarios. For this to work, it’s important to engage our “beginner’s mind” — our brains are quick to match familiar sounds with a story — and divorce the sounds from associations that we’ve made over the years.
If simply shuttling between breath and sound provides enough fodder for concentration, this might not be an issue.
In that case, street noise can be an effective anchor for its variability, its high tones and low tones, as the passing of cars may morph into ocean wave-like sounds.
However, if urban noises are either too intermittent or too difficult to resist spinning tales around, there are many other options for ambient sounds that will work for purposes of meditation. It’s no surprise that platforms like YouTube have a gazillion listings under “meditation music” that may fit the bill. In addition, apps like “myNoise” (and website myNoise.net) provide customizable background sounds to help mask outside noise and maximize ability to stay focused longer.
As the body moves with the breath, sound will remain in the background allowing attention to organically cycle between the two. From personal experience, I’ve learned that juggling between feeling into sensations in the body (breath) and being aware of sounds coming through my ears results in really turning down the dial on my Monkey Mind, which seems to fade to the distance. This dual focus can close the gap through which mind chatter might otherwise intrude.
If you feel inspired, give it a try and let me know how it goes!