2023: Thriving at Last?

Some of our greatest strengths are born in our lowest moments.

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While I try not to keep returning to stories about “how far I’ve come” since my breast cancer diagnosis almost six years ago, for the start of 2023, I wanted to do a teensy bit of navel-gazing and take stock of how different everything looks compared to how it did after my 2017 diagnosis…and even from just a year ago.

My breast cancer story started the same way as it does for most of those diagnosed with cancer, with a lot of shock and disbelief. There’s nothing new or special about that.

However, for me cancer had been my ultimate health fear, the worst thing that I could image happening, particularly because I grew up during a time that cancer patients had poor prognoses and I had lost dear family to the disease. My exercise, dietary and lifestyle habits were in part driven by health concerns and that’s why my eventual diagnosis felt all the more “unfair”.

I have survived almost six years! But I had been so angry about my diagnosis that it took several years to appreciate how much of a victory that was.

The absolute worst health catastrophe that I feared could happen to me actually did happen…and I was too bitter to appreciate that I survived it.

Not only did I survive the treatment, I have slogged through lasting side effects. Trapped by fear and anger, I lost the initial positivity that I’d experienced right after completing chemo and radiation — I mean, after all that almost anything is going to feel better — and became mired in frustration.

When I finally managed to get through my head that there are many bad things that happen to people who do not deserve them, and many far worse than my own, I was able to move past my preoccupation with myself. That took longer than I’d like to admit.

But allowing that time to work through anger and fear until I got to the point of acceptance was so important for me. And the magical part of this is that acceptance was followed by an unfettering of my thoughts. Holding that bitterness had taken so much energy that little remained for other, more important things.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was fearful and bitter. A mere year ago, I was still angry. But in 2023, I have given myself the gift of freedom from that negativity and that allows so much space to breathe deeply and turn my attention towards better things. It was that release that took with it a nice chunk of anxiety that had likewise held me captive.

And now, instead of being just a survivor, I am finally feeling like I’m thriving.

New Year, New Approach to Resolutions

With the start of the new year, many of us set lofty goals with the intention of changing things that we do not like about ourselves.

But so many of those goals are not realized. You may be aware that it takes approximately 21-28 days in order to create a new behavior, but a cursory search on the internet suggests that most people don’t even last that long.

New Year’s resolutions are not known for their longevity!

There are certainly behavioral modification tricks that you could use to establish a new healthy habit, but if you haven’t had success in the past, perhaps it would be worth taking a different tack this year.

Instead of doing something to immediately “fix” yourself, try sitting with the acceptance of who you are right now.

Release the pressures of becoming that person that you think you want to be and spend some time getting to know the ins and outs of the person that you already are.

You may argue that there are things that you must change within yourself, that there are challenges you must take on and healthy behaviors that you must establish. I am certainly not telling you to give up on those.

Sit quietly with acceptance of that person that you are right now, in your current “unchanged” state.

But it’s possible that you need a little self-compassion before plunging into making big changes.

So just for today, consider what an amazing being you are. Beautiful as you are right now. A mosaic of the years that you’ve already lived, showing the marks of your experiences. Some of those might be scars, but that’s okay. They have all come together to make that unique being that is “you”.

Then consider what this “you” really needs. Not late nights and fast food meals. Not being jammed into an office chair, hunched over a desk, or crumpled on a couch trying to distract yourself with TV shows about other people, neglecting the needs of the person you are.

Through self-compassion, find your reasons to show yourself the love that you deserve.

You need the freedom to breathe deeply, be nourished and allowed to stretch out your limbs. To close your eyes and be still, to take a break from harsh lights and electronic screens. To move, whether it’s a jog-walk to the park or dancing in your living room.

Consider how you can do something supportive of yourself and the world in which you live, out of love. Those changes that you want to make, do they nuture your body? Do they lift up others or help care for your surroundings? That challenge that you wish to undertake, will it help you grow, or just mindlessly try to hammer you into something that you are not?

And once you’ve accepted where you are now, can you find a way to love and guide yourself through establishing new behaviors — because it is your choice to do so — and *not* fight the things that will contribute to your health and well-being?

Take some time to think about all of this…and proceed from there.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! ❤

Remember: You’re in the Driver’s Seat

Since we’re halfway through October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – this is a good opportunity to remind everyone who’s had a cancer diagnosis that you’re still in control.

That might be very different from what you’re feeling. The whole thing with cancer is the sense that your life is out of control. Even your most faithful ally, your body, seems to be out to get you, growing a tumor behind your back.

Does it feel like someone else is controlling everything in your life?

That’s to say nothing of how your weekly schedule gets highjacked with oncological appointments, radiation treatments and days recovering from chemo. Then there’s the onslaught of new medical terms, the many pills that you’re supposed to take, even the practically unpronounceable chemotherapy drug names (what kind of a suffix is “-ib”???).

If anything, this might feel like the most out-of-control time of your life. When you’re slapped with a difficult treatment plan, you want it all to stop, but your oncologist tells you, “we won’t let you skip an infusion or stop taking your medication.”

That sense of being forced to do something (especially when it’s unpleasant) can open the floodgates to a deluge of anxiety on top of the fear and frustration that you might already feel about your cancer treatment. No one wants to feel like they have no say in a matter that affects them so deeply and personally.

This life is yours…and so are decisions about your cancer treatment.

But remember this: you always have a choice. Even though your medical team might not be phrasing it that way, you are still in control.

Perhaps this tiny acknowledgement may relax some of that perceived pressure and actually make it easier to continue. Your cancer treatment choices remain yours to make, so allow that realization to help you to step back, get perspective and weigh your options. When you demand space for yourself, you have room to think and it’s easier to act in your own best interest.

So, breathe. You’re still calling all the shots.

And, hey, medical team: maybe stop being so pushy and remind those cancer patients that they get to make the decisions about their treatment and their lives. It would go a long way towards helping your patients feel better about their treatment plans, like they’re part of the team instead of a prisoner of their situation.

It’s Time to Ease Off Ourselves

You’ve probably heard this phrase in a commercial somewhere: “If I can do it, so can you!” It’s meant to make difficult goals seem attainable. 

Some people may find this very motivating. And it certainly can be. Sometimes all we need is a little spark of hope to push us into achieving great things.

But it can also be used as an instrument to shame people into thinking that they’re not trying hard enough. That there’s something wrong with them. 

Just because you’re not getting the results that someone else did does not mean that you lack a good work ethic.

From a marketing standpoint, the idea is that you push responsibility off the item or program or whatever it is you’re selling, and onto the person buying into it. Because obviously, there’s “proof” that it works. I mean, it worked for someone. So if you’re not getting the same results, it’s an issue that you have.

I’ve also seen this used with cancer patients. An exceptional individual who has defied the odds and still accomplished so much under negative circumstances is held up as an example of what is possible. They’re called an inspiration. 

And it’s true, what they did was possible. For them. But we know very little about what else was going on in their lives to support their endeavors.

It’s admirable that these people are able to achieve what they have, but it’s unreasonable to expect that from everyone. And sometimes obstacles that no one else can see (emotional pain, underlying fears, mental illnesses) may hinder us, and the best that we can do is get through the day. Or sometimes, just manage to crawl out of bed.

We may know this and yet still hold ourselves to those standards, and as a result, reap disappointment.

Why am I bringing this up now?

Maybe it wasn’t that you didn’t try hard enough. Maybe it’s because the goal was not the right goal for you.

Because as a cancer survivor, I’ve expected things of myself that I simply cannot do anymore and then became frustrated with my inability to fulfill my unrealistic expectations.

And hated myself for it.

So this is a little reminder to consider what is right for you. Definitely, set goals and seek higher heights! But make sure they are your goals and they fit your life and abilities. That they are meaningful for you. This may require you to adjust your expectations in a way that demonstrates respect for yourself.

Because if someone is trying to amaze you with whatever they’ve done that they’re trying to convince you to do, consider that they might be getting far more out of your willingness to try to live up to their standards than you’ll get out if it yourself.

Weighing on My Mind: Not the Scale Again!

Anyone who’s been through cancer knows that the experience is not just about the cancer. The entire journey involves much more, revealing even the little anxieties that had been tucked away in dark corners.

One of those for me was that I was constantly put on scales. EVERY single doctor’s visit, I was weighed. And I hated it.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t have what most people refer to as a “weight problem”. Unless, that is, you mean being exceptionally diligent that I not put on weight. For me, weight was tied to self-worth, and in my perfectionist view, I was driven by fear of shame to keep my weight down.

At every single (frequent!) oncologist visit: “Step on the scale and I’ll get your weight.”

Ironically, the positive side effect of this was that I became very interested in exercise and healthy eating, and that has served me well. But of course, it took a long while for all of this to shake out into a truly healthy mentality, and particularly in my teens and early 20s, my mindset was not the healthiest.

By my 50s, however, I had a great relationship with my active, healthy lifestyle.

And then I got cancer.

And all of a sudden, hospital scales were all over the place, and even not being overweight, I sweated the weigh-ins. I sweated them when I first went to see my doc about the lump, when my weight started plummeting even before my first chemo infusion (hello, uncontrolled anxiety) and when post-infusion I was retaining water and my weight crept up.

I could write an entire post (or several!) about how, while I religiously weighed myself twice a week at home, I had intentionally put off several doctor’s visits over the years NOT because I was 10-20 pounds over a reasonably healthy weight…but because I was about three pounds higher than I felt I should be. Those three or four pounds would have disappeared on my 5’11” athletic frame, but that was beside the point.

There was an “acceptable” number and I wanted to make sure I was there before heading to the doctor.

The number of cancer visit weigh-ins was staggering. Every.single.time I saw the doctor (which was a lot), I had to hop on the scale. I would purposefully not drink very much water or eat less beforehand. It DID NOT EVEN MATTER that we were dealing with a life threatening illness. I absolutely hated getting weighed in a doctor’s office and I hated what the scale meant to me – that I was somehow never good enough.

Since adopting a spirit of mindfulness, my perfectionism has softened and I no longer abhore the weigh-ins like I used to.

I had internalized that belief.

Gradually, the number of weigh-ins decreased. It was as if a pot that was at full boil slowly simmered down. My mindfulness practice showed me not only that anxiety was not a helpful reaction to a stressful situation, but that the slight weight fluctuations that I obsessed about weren’t apparent to anyone else. Nonetheless, I had taken them to be indicative of yet another way that I felt I had fallen short of the person I “should have” been.

And that helped me understand and begin to deal with those unreasonable and even meaningless expectations I had of myself that were still lurking in the shadows.

So now, when it’s time to go to the doctor, do I fret the scale?

Well, I still feel that twinge because it’s a deeply-ingrained habit, but now I understand where that twinge comes from. And once I get off the scale, I forget about it and go on with my day.

Another Oncology Appointment…and What’s Up With That Smell?

My oncologist appointment last week marked five years since completing my final chemo infusion (and for those of you keeping track, since I had that nasty chemo nail infection).

Lately, my oncological appointments run like this: my onc asks how things are going, I air all my grievances and we spend the rest of the visit agreeing that there’s no way to determine whether what I’m experiencing is chemo-related, menopause-related, or something that I was dealing with before but hadn’t paid attention to back before cancer.

Because there’s nothing like cancer to make you acutely aware of every twinge and creak in your body.

But that’s about it. We are running out of things to talk about. In this context that’s a good thing.

I used to lament “what could have been” had I not gotten cancer, not experienced chemo, not been pushed into menopause chemically and artificially had my estrogen levels squashed. But now, I know better. What happened, happened. And “what could have been” is pointless to ponder because it simply isn’t reality.

It took me a while to get to that place and I’m finally okay with it .

But there was something else different about this oncology visit…

I walked into the cancer center for my appointment and was hit with “the smell”. There is a distinct scent in the building, possibly the cleaning solutions used to disinfect the place or maybe a fragrance that is purposefully pumped in. I had mentioned it to my clinical counselor several years ago and she admitted that a number of people have said the same thing. The smell is familiar, given that after multiple appointments and infusions and radiation sessions, I’ve experienced it a lot and have made many associations with it.

But for some reason, this time it hit me hard and a wave of sensations washed over me. Not sure why my reaction was so strong, but I’d like to think that between my last onc appointment and this one, I’ve made the most progress in distancing myself from the frustrations of getting cancer and have actually moved on with my life.

However, that rush of emotions served as a reminder of everything that I’ve been through over these past five years. I thought that chemo was going to be the hard part. Turns out, it was the most predictable part: six trying infusions, but they came with an end date. The rest of treatment brought uncertainty and unexpected difficulties. I thought I was done after radiation…but the pills continued.

Looking back at this, while I’m technically not “out of the woods” and may never be, these last six months have felt different. Yes, I still have another onc appointment half a year from now, but I’m finally turning my face forward to the future instead of constantly looking back at the past, worried that those frights will catch me again.

What Would You Like to Think About? – Visualizing a Positive Headspace

Some time back, I listened to a lovely guided meditation on the Insight Timer app by Emma Polette in which she instructed the listener to “feel how you want to feel”. I wrote a post about this because I thought it was a perfect morning exercise, one that helps train you to establish a sense of awareness of how much control you yourself have in how you feel.

Well, I wanted to revisit this concept but with a focus on thoughts, since so many of us deal with overactive minds.

Take a comfortable seat and think…what would you like to fill your head up with?

Find yourself a quiet spot and turn your attention to your thoughts. Regardless of how much brain chatter you’re currently experiencing, consider what you would like to be thinking about.

That’s it. Your mind may be cluttered with worries, but IF you could think about something pleasant and calming, IF that’s where your mind’s focus could be, what you be thinking about?

Allow yourself to sink into this. Maybe your mind would be focused on potential successes in your career, troubleshooting a problem that you haven’t had time to devote attention to? Maybe you would simply focus on the task at hand, without intrusive thoughts invading your headspace? Maybe you would sit quietly without feelings of self-blame or incompetence? Or imagine yourself breezing through a situation with a difficult individual?

Ah, headspace! There’s nothing more delicious than getting a nice big helping of perspective.

The act of asking ourselves what we would like to be thinking about requires us to take a step back and make space for it. The realization that we have the ability to decide what to think about unshackles us from our thoughts. The more we do this, the more we widen the gap between what we think and our concept of ourselves, making it easier to observe the thoughts before us rather than to be sucked into the torrent of images and feelings that course through our minds.

What we fill our minds with is so powerful in terms of affecting certain wanted outcomes. It is often during periods of mindfulness meditation that things I’ve forgotten come back to me, I realize solutions to problems or come up with useful ideas. That’s what a calm mind is perfect for.

And so often, people lament that things are not they way they want them to be. So why not use that opportunity to truly feel into and savor what your mindset would be if things felt good? And then, if it’s available to you, maintain that mindset.

What would you be thinking…and how would that feel? A sense of peace and self-confidence? Perhaps space, distance from negative thoughts.

Give it a try and see how it feels.

The “Side Effects” of Yoga Teacher Training

I’ve shared that I recently completed a three-month, 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT).

My main motivation for entering YTT revolved around yoga’s role in my emotional recovery from cancer. My teaching goal is to make yoga accessible to more cancer patients and survivors. Sadly, the view that many have of yoga in the USA is that it’s mainly for young, white, flexible, affluent women.

That means that the benefits of yoga are not reaching many of the populations that need it most.

Sadly, yoga in the USA is not associated with a diverse clientele.

In YTT, I expected to deepen my own practice, immerse myself in the roots of yoga and gain experience in sequencing and teaching among other things. And we did that. The program was well-rounded and paid homage to yogic philosophy, in addition to covering a broad range of relevant topics such as anatomy, meditation, sound healing and creating an inclusive atmosphere.

What I didn’t expect was what I learned about myself. Now, in the course of cancer treatment I gained access to counseling at my cancer center with an excellent therapist. And prior to that, I had sought help for anxiety. I’d explored talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and had gone through a lot of introspection. Basically, I thought I’d covered my bases and knew what’s what when it came to my inner workings.

YTT proved me wrong. I learned that I still struggle with competitiveness, perfectionism and a host of little insecurities. Wow, that was an eye-opener, even after all the “head work” that I’d done! In addition to coursework, YTT had a requirement of attending a number of yoga classes. Due to the limitations on my time given my work and family schedule, I was forced to take the heated (~95F) Level 2 classes, which happened to be most convenient. They emphasized balance and flexibility, while my non-yoga fitness focus has been strength and endurance.

*ahem* This is NOT me.

Balance and flexibility against the backdrop of neuropathy, menopause and vestiges of cancer treatment effects did not allow me to show my “best side.”

Not a big deal, I thought, since yoga for me is a mental “work-in”, not a workout. I’ve felt that holds truer to the traditional purpose of yoga and respects its roots. But in a crowded yoga studio where I was usually the oldest class member, I struggled to maintain my composure. Many of the other students could have been my offspring. The Level 2 classes made me look, I felt, like I didn’t belong.

And that feeling got worse as the classes went on. By the last weekend, I was the only teacher trainee who showed up (others trainees had more flexible schedules that allowed them to take other classes). After weeks of taking Level 2 classes, feelings of dejection had built up.

I should be over this, right? I should have been able to hold my head high and do what I could, knowing that my fitness stemmed from other activities and yoga served a different purpose for me than for “the youngsters”.

But nope.

The YTT itself was exceptional and the teacher trainers were amazingly supportive and knowledgable. The other members of my class were (no surprise) all white, all female and all younger than me. But they were generous and sweet and each one had been through her share of hardships. I felt only love from them. I just didn’t feel it from myself.

This is my preference for yoga: slow , mindful movements performed with intention. No contortions.

And with fitness being so important to me, I was frustrated that yet again I managed to find a situation where I showed myself to be “less than”. That was painful.

Yet, this peek into my current state was invaluable. Being in the midst of all those younger bodies strengthened my resolve to create classes that are more suitable for not only cancer folk, but also for other special and older populations.

YTT taught me that I don’t have it all figured out yet. However, it also gifted the awareness of what was really going on. Just as in mindfulness meditation, once I became aware of where my mind was leading me, I could take action to return to a place of peace and acceptance. That advanced my emotional evolution by lightyears!

Experiencing classes at a yoga studio also drove home the necessity of offering yoga to people who would benefit from the practice but are often forgotten when classes are planned. There are populations for whom studios are simply inaccessible financially, physically and even psychologically.

Ultimately, this next-level awareness showed me that what I had been doing on my own over the years still counted as yoga, even when I didn’t look like the other class members. It was the yoga I needed. And that was enough.

A Reflection on “Chemo Fatigue”

After posting videos from my final infusion where I described chemo fatigue, I felt it important to follow up with a debriefing.

I was not in a good headspace during that time. I had started a mindfulness meditation practice five months earlier but had too little experience and not enough training for it to significantly affect my mindset, 50+ years in the making.

When I write a cancer-related post, I straddle a line. On the one hand, I want to provide an admittedly subjective and honest account of what I experienced during treatment; on the other hand, understanding that we all come from different backgrounds and may have vastly different perceptions of what cancer means to us, I don’t want to color the reader’s view of what their experience might be like.

Cancer revealed a lot more about myself than I expected to find.

There have been times that I held back on projecting too much of my own personal state. I waited five years to post my videos on Chemo Fatigue because I didn’t know whether it was appropriate to do so. They remain some of the rawest and truest representations of the despair that I felt at the time. I was still very angry and frustrated, feeling what I recognize now as a deep sense of betrayal.

It was mindfulness meditation along with deep reflection, expert counseling and simply the passage of time that ended up bringing me out of the anger. That process took a lot longer than I ever expected. It also showed me aspects of my personality that I hadn’t understood before because I’d never had to confront them.

So while I still would never say that cancer had a positive effect on me, just as with many heavy life experiences, it took me to a new level of maturity and self-awareness. I am very thankful to be on this side of treatment, although I’m acutely aware that everything may change with the next scan. That makes every moment all the more precious.

Cancer, “Why Me?” and Mustard Seeds: The Path to Acceptance

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.

I clung to the same ride, unhappy but not wanting to get off.

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.

Never seen mustard seeds? Here they are. Kisa, however, came up empty-handed.

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.

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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.