Just Show Up

The thing about cancer is that the news hits you hard at once.

And it’s not like you get time to get used to it, because the diagnosis is LOADED. All those scary things that you’ve ever associated with the “big C” rush at you and there’s no real way to protect yourself.

It would be terrifying for anyone, but those of us currently in mid-life grew up at a time when cancer treatment was not as refined or targeted as it is now: visions abound of hospital beds, bald heads, bodies wasting away, vomiting, hopelessness. Most cancers were frequently fatal and diagnosis was the beginning of the end.

Everyone’s pushing you to fight, fight, fight. It sounds like the right thing to say, but it can feel exhausting.

As we’re trying to process what this all means for us, for our future and for our families, others try to prop us up with cheers of, “Be a badass!” “Stay strong!” “You’ll beat this!” “You’re a fighter!”

So between juggling the cancer news and the “hang tough” messages from those around us, everything gets overwhelming. Our oncologist lays out a treatment plan and suddenly we need to learn a different language. Tumor types, chemo drugs, clinical terms, side effects.

I distinctly remember wanting to hide under my bed and wait for it to go away. There was so much I needed to do and I didn’t know how to get through it all. It seemed like an immense amount of work for one person.

And then it hit me. All I needed to do was show up.

I put the gloves away and realized I didn’t need to fight anything. I needed self-compassion.

I didn’t need to be the warrior that everyone was pushing me to be. The mere fact that I was going to my appointments on my scheduled day was enough. I wasn’t going to win a prize for being the best “infusee” or for absorbing the most radiation the fastest.

I didn’t have to fight. All I needed to do was endure and allow. To accept what was going on and move through it. And to breathe.

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I brought my office work with me to my first infusion. I was going to be there for at least 5 hours so I figured I should use the time “wisely”. I fired up my laptop but soon the Benadryl that I was given to prevent adverse reactions kicked in and brought on drowsiness.

Suffice it to say I might have answered an email here or there, but did little else. The same thing happened during the next infusion, and the one after that. Eventually I realized that the wisest way I could spend my time was by giving myself permission to rest and ride out the treatments.

When infusion day rolled around, I learned to put aside my work duties and family responsibilities, and simply be. It was such an uncomplicated concept, the benefits of which rippled out beyond my treatment. Why did it take cancer to teach me that?

Counting Backwards to Sleep

I’m still experiencing weird sleep disruptions. Many nights I’ll be up for an extended time during the wee hours of the morning.

This isn’t conducive to being bright and alert during the day, so I’m devising a game plan for limiting the length of these nighttime interruptions.

My newest strategy is a variant of a counting practice that I heard over the radio years ago, and it goes like this:

Imagine a clean whiteboard. In one hand you’re holding a dry-erase marker in your favorite color, in the other a cloth or eraser.

Your imaginary nighttime whiteboard won’t have a reflection like mine, but you get the idea. The numbers are familiar but you might need to think a bit about how to form them in reverse.

Write “100” in large numbers, but do it backwards so it looks like a mirror image. Channel your inner da Vinci. 🙂

Your board may be brighter and the numbers more perfect than mine. Perhaps you’ll choose a different color. All that matters is that you focus on forming the numbers in reverse.

Then erase the number and write “99”, again reversed. Erase it again.

Keep counting down. Don’t rush. Think about how your hand should move to scribe the backwards numbers. Breathe deeply. When you erase, erase carefully and completely.

As you count down, don’t breeze past the erasure. Make sure you allow your imagination to clean off all markings of the previous numbers before you start writing the next ones.

You probably won’t get to zero. The first two nights I did this, I didn’t make it past 80. It doesn’t always work so well, but when it does, it’s soothing and sleep-inducing.

Why does it put you to sleep? First, you’re not doing anything very complex and therefore this shouldn’t be putting you into a greater state of wakefulness; in fact, counting down is kind of boring. You’re giving your full focus to this task so there are fewer opportunities for intrusive thoughts to interrupt. If they do, return your focus to the numbers. Do this each time your mind wanders. And while the task is easy enough, it does require you to pause and consider how to move your hand, since you’re doing the opposite of what you usually do to write a number.

The counting task requires enough attention that you shift your focus away from thoughts that may be keeping you up, but is gentle enough to lull you into a calmer state that helps bring on sleep.

If imagining a whiteboard doesn’t work for you in the middle of the night, there are other counting variations that would work as well:

Starting from 100, simply count backwards by threes (no imaginary writing required). If 100 seems too optimistically small a number from which to start, use 300 or even 1000. If counting down by threes seems too complex, try twos. Go slow.

Really good at addition? Try calculating the Fibonacci Sequence, a series of numbers where the next number is the sum of the two preceeding it. Start from zero, add one and then keep going: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… unfortunately, this can get out of control quickly (I usually lose track somewhere in the three-digit numbers). But intrepid math fans might be able to get far enough to refocus themselves to the present and enter a calmer state.

Does the idea of math cause you stress? Then just count your breaths, start from 100 and going backwards, slowing down the breathing as you go, imagining the numbers count down with each inhale. This works particularly well if you focus on releasing all your muscles with each exhale.

A specific strategy may not work every time, but the overall idea is the same: something that requires a little brain focus with minimal excitation or strain (so that you can lazily shift your focus and keep your mind gently occupied). Do not rush through these; the magic lies in the process. There is nothing to achieve here. You’re simply boring yourself to sleep.

Try any of these the next time you find yourself awake with a racing mind and let me know how it goes.