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! ❤

But First, Self-Compassion

If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself, you are not capable of developing compassion for others.

Dalai Lama

As we head deeper into the holiday season, it’s easy to get lost in the hustle of preparations, gift purchases and holiday parties. So often, a time that’s supposed to be “joyous”, “merry” and “bright” becomes dark and stressful as we face the high expectations that we hold for these remaining weeks of 2022.

It’s difficult to welcome the holidays with an open heart if we’re closed off to our own needs.

I think of self-compassion as a rope. If you’re standing at the edge of a lake and see someone in distress you can only throw a rope if you have enough coils on your end. If the rope you hold is too short, it won’t reach the person you’re trying to help. 

And so it is if you’re trying to show care for someone—how can you truly care for them if you don’t care for yourself? Will you even know what sincere care and compassion are?

Self-compassion: acceptance, kindness and the understanding that what you are experiencing is part of being human.

 But the bonus of self-compassion is that the rope you throw is magical — you never give it all away. The rope is endless. Compassion doesn’t hurt, and a compassionate heart opens you up to being more compassionate more easily.

Allowing yourself to have the “less-than-Hallmark” holiday spread, to admit that you’re not feeling particularly jolly, to acknowledge that you need a break from responsibilities…

Take some time to feel into where your tension lies. Stop and listen to yourself breathe. Accept your feelings without judgment. Say “no” to taking on extra responsibilities more often…and then help others in doing the same.

Be compassionate towards yourself and it will be easier to show compassion to everyone else.

How will I show compassion to myself today? By taking stock of what else I can reasonably get done…and therefore end this post right here.

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Ok, I know up there I said I was ending this self-compassion post…but before I go, consider the words of Kristin Neff, PhD, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas and a research pioneer on the topic: “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”

Dr. Neff breaks self-compassion down into three elements:
1. Mindfulness
2. Self-Kindness
3. Connectedness or Common Humanity

Read more about her work at https://self-compassion.org/

Fighting My Way Out of a Paper Bag: An Analogy

I wanted to share a little technique that I’ve been using to give myself perspective. It’s quite simple: I have a small brown paper bag pinned to the wall above my desk.

The bag is there to remind me that most of the things that are upsetting me or stressing me or just taking up headspace in the moment are transient issues that fit into that paper bag. The REST of my world remains outside that bag and unbothered by whatever is going on in there.

The trick for me is to not get sucked into that brown bag. When that happens, and it does, I’m suddenly whirling around with all the daily stressors and emergencies-of-now, and that’s all I see. My entire experience becomes those anxiety-provoking elements and my stress levels skyrocket.

When stress levels are high, it’s easy to get sucked into a space of high anxiety where you see only those stressors, forgetting that the rest of the world is outside.

It takes a lot more effort to fight my way back out of there than to stay outside in the first place.

At the same time, it’s so easy to follow all those stressors right into that bag. For me, that’s the path of least resistance, even a habit.

But when I lean back and take in the entire picture–the time-limited nature of what’s bothering me and the fact that in a couple of weeks it’ll be gone–my view broadens and I am reminded of what else is going around me right now, in this moment.

Right here, where I feel my feet planted on the ground. I smell the scent of lemon wafting up from my diffuser. I’m aware of sounds from the street below and sunshine coming in through my window.

Perspective. All of these things tumbling around inside the bag will pass. And, yes, perhaps more importantly, new ones will bubble up and take their place. I can’t stop that and I have to accept it. But I can take a deep breath and stay in the bright light of the day instead of darkness of that little bag.

Finally, This Is My Real 5-Year Anniversary

I was going to write about something else for this week’s post until I realized that I had another five-year breast cancer anniversary to share: the end of my radiation treatment.

It had run for six weeks, five days a week — going to the cancer center became a daily habit. But on October 23, 2017, I rang the gong signifying the end of treatment, said my good-byes to the radiation oncology staff and left them with baked goodies.

Cancer treatment felt like a never-ending vortex of scary experiences…but it did finally end.

With 2022 being five years since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve had a number of anniversaries to share this year. What makes Oct. 23 significant is that it marked the end of all the “tough stuff” that people scare you with about cancer. By that date, I’d put the diagnosis, surgery, chemo and then radiation behind me.

Because 2017 had been a miserable year, when radiation was done I thought I could finally take a deep breath. I’d waited for this point in my treatment for a long time and decided that I would lose myself in the spirit of the holiday season.

The problem was, you never really get rid of all your concerns. You release some, but others show up to take their place. I finished radiation…but wait, there’s more! Now I was going on tamoxifen and that brought a whole new set of issues, and yes, fears, with it.

So I spent Christmas season doing my best to enjoy myself but the holidays passed by and left me feeling a little empty. I’d expected a lot out of them and they didn’t deliver.

I had wanted to be free of all my worries but that’s not how cancer works. In fact, that’s not how life works either. It took me five years to figure out that I couldn’t get what I wanted, but what I could make of it was beautiful in its own way.

Admittedly, it was a tall order. After cancer, I tought the world would shine with joy, but that wasn’t realistic. Cancer isn’t the kind of disease you say to, “done!”, brush your hands off and walk out the door. It tags along behind you, if not as the disease, then as its shadow.

Fast forward five years to now…ok, ok, I know what I got wrong back then.

I had felt like life owed me something amazing because it had put me through cancer. I thought I deserved a post-cancer life that was perfect. Of course, it wasn’t. And it still isn’t.

So if there’s something to celebrate, it’s that I learned a few things over the past five years.

This holiday season I’m not going to be expecting things to wow me. But I am going to be enjoying the fact that I am still physically active and working the same university job, expanding my horizons as a new yoga teacher and finding fun ways to spend my time. And mostly, that I have moved past the feeling of anger that I felt about cancer and found some gratitude to fill its space.

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I know I keep going on and on about how much better life is when you’re not carrying the burden of anger, but honestly, if I’d known that acceptance would lighten me up this much, I would have done it sooner!

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.

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.

Four Minutes of Hovering

Last week I had a 3-D mammogram. This scan marks a bit over five years since the diagnostic test that indicated I had a solid tumor on the outside of my left breast.

Heading into this appointment, I wasn’t particularly worried. Yes, I admit to having little heartbeat skips over “lumps” in my breast that aren’t really lumps: if you recall, I had felt something before my last oncologist visit; my doctor reassured me it was nothing.

I will never again hear the word “lump” and NOT think of cancer.

And because last August I’d had a chest MRI, a more sensitive scan than even a 3-D mammogram, it was HIGHLY unlikely that there was anything to be found in this mammogram.

But still, after the pictures were taken and the mammography technician left the room to consult with the radiologist, I got that all-too-familiar uneasy feeling.

WHY? I knew that the radiologist wouldn’t find anything. The technician practically said that out loud, since she was aware of my recent MRI.

But still.

I sat alone in the mammography room, breathing, looking at the clock on the wall and simply hovering. My attention was like a butterfly looking for a place to alight. I wasn’t holding my breath…but mentally, I had put the rest of my life on hold when the tech stepped out the door.

It took all of four minutes and the mammographer returned and gave me two thumbs up.

For four minutes, I had no plans for anything outside of the room I was in.

I breathed a sigh even though I had expected the good news. And while I wasn’t “freaking out” waiting for the response, it became apparent to me that I might always feel uneasy during that period of uncertainty.

I didn’t want that. I wanted to be completely unaffected, as if I had never had a bad experience and my heart was calm.

But hovering it was, because there are no guarantees. And as the gears of my life started turning once again, I remembered that there was no going back. All the negatives that have happened have happened and I can’t change that.

Eventually, years from now, my emotions may soften, but in the meantime, I’m just going to have to be okay with hovering for a few minutes.

When a Little Is Great but More Might Be Better: Exploring Longer Meditation Sessions

I am a believer in the idea that, for developing proficiency in an undertaking, consistency is more importat than what you do on any given day. It is true for workouts and it certainly holds true with meditation too. Exercises, whether physical or mental, need time to show beneficial effects and that requires patience and persistence on the part of the practitioner.

However, there comes a point where maybe what you’re doing, consistently, might need to increase in order to enable you to progress.

Consistency is key when it comes to exercise, both physical and mental.

When I started out with meditation, I had very little guidance outside that from the Calm app on my phone. The curated daily meditations there lasted about 10 minutes, so that’s how long I meditated. I did so ever single day, true to my perfectionist nature. I earned a gold star for consistency.

At that time, my life was in turmoil–I was only a few weeks out from a cancer diagnosis. Meditation helped me breathe through the early sleepless hours of the morning, when I would wake, feeling frightened, alone and angry.

But it wasn’t until almost a year later, when I started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Management (MBSR) course originally developed at the UMass Medical Center, that I learned how much meditation could do for me. Our “homework” was 45-60 minutes of meditation a day, no joke when you’re used to 10-minute stints.

But during that time, something unexpected happened. As I meditated, somewhere around the 20-30 minute mark, I felt myself settling in and releasing. This, for a bundle of nerves like me, was a novel experience. I don’t think I could have gotten that with 10 minutes a day. But a glorious hour? It was transformative.

Any meditation will do you good, but take advantage of those times that you can engage in a longer session.

Giving myself permission to simply BE for the entire length of time was not easy. There was guilt involved in being “unproductive” for so long, not to mention the difficulty of dealing with intrusive thoughts. But once my monkey mind accepted the fact that all I was going to do for the entire hour was feel into my breath or pay attention to bodily sensations, it started settling down, gifting me with a stillness that I hadn’t experienced during the shorter meditations.

It was the most soothing act of self-care that I had ever allowed myself to do.

So right now I want to clear the air of the “never good enough” idea, by which I mean the concept of, “Oh, you’re only meditating for 10 minutes? You should be doing it longer.” That is a total motivation killer and goes completely against the acceptance that mindfulness teaches. And that’s not what I’m suggesting at all.

There are great benefits to short meditation stints, one of which being that when you “drop and give 2 minutes” of deep breathing, or however else you choose to express your mindful self, you are actually doing a great job of integrating mindfulness into your everyday experience. Remembering to ground yourself in the middle of a hectic moment allows for a respite from the busyness of the day and helps build a mindful life.

But if you find yourself with extra time, such as a day of travel (where you’re the passenger!) or a prolonged sit in a waiting room–jury duty, anyone?–or even the decision to turn off the electronics and retire to bed early, it is well worth giving yourself a nice chunk of extended time to engage in the self-care of turning inward and being still.

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Tip: If you’re not used to prolonged meditation sessions, start with an extended guided body scan meditation, readily available free online through YouTube, MBSR websites and apps such as Insight Timer, for a few examples. It will give your monkey mind enough to do so that your thoughts don’t completely wander off, and yet little enough so that you can feel completely into each body part.

Releasing Rigidity

I wanted to revisit the issue of having an important thought pop into my mind in the midst of a meditation session, and how I’ve ultimately allowed myself to deal with it.

For some background: in mindfulness meditation, we are taught to let go of thoughts and focus on the breath. But with all the cancer treatments that I’ve had, memory is collateral damage. During the course of a regular day, I have thoughts go POUF in the ether — and sometimes they’re important things that I really should remember. Ironically, I’ve had them return to me while my mind is still and uncluttered, as during meditation.

I’ve been told that during meditation if a thought that you need to remember comes up, you should make a “mental note” and release it, and then come back to it once your meditation is over.

If an important thought comes up during meditation, you better believe I’m writing it down!

Well, lemme tell ya, that simply no longer works for me since there’s no guarantee that a “mental note” will work. When that thought pops into my head, I’ve decided to pause my session and write it down.

You could say that I’m not supposed to do this, but I know that this is the only thing that works for me — I can record the thought and not spend the rest of the session worrying that I’m going to forget it, which might otherwise consume the remainder of my meditation.

I feel that mindfulness teachers would agree with me that mindfulness should flow out of your situation. It works with what you need, allowing you to appreciate this moment. In the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes that I took, we were always told to take care of ourselves, to make sure that we were comfortable and secure.

It became apparent to me that I wasn’t going to look like the meditators that we see when we google an image of one: seated in lotus position, palms up with thumb and forefinger touching. That wouldn’t be conducive to a prolonged session for me.

This will not be me anytime soon.

While I do own a meditation cushion, I prefer to sit in a chair during MBSR workshops, since my joints ache and legs go numb if they’re crossed for too long. And when I’m home, sometimes I’ll lie on my back during meditation with my legs up a wall in the pose called Viparita Karani. This is very soothing for me because, again, I have problems with my feet, and this not only helps with the weird numbness but also lessens the chance that I’ll experience restless leg syndrome.

I believe that mindfulness is not about living up to someone else’s idea of perfection. Nor is it a competition to see who can meditate in the most uncomfortable position. It is staying present, noticing what is happening right now, in this moment. I can do this much better if I’m not fighting pain.

So I don’t focus on the concepts of “right or wrong”. Getting to this point took some doing because I am by nature a perfectionist. But part of my mindfulness journey has been simply releasing that rigidity of what I think I “should” do and finding peace in doing what is best for me.

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I remember as a young child listening to a missionary priest talk about his travels. He spoke of a little boy tending sheep in a field who had come up with his own prayer: he had a handful of pebbles and was talking to God, saying “one for you, one for me, one for you, one for me” as he made two little piles.

That was the way he prayed, and the priest said that it was exactly the way that suited him. He might not have been doing it “right” according to the teachings of the Church, but he was praying sincerely and lovingly, and that was what really mattered.