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.

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.

Mindfulness 101: You Want Me To Do WHAT in the Middle of Anxiety?

Ah, anxiety. I hate it but it’s such a fixture in my life, although it’s gotten better now that I’ve become more aware of the nuances of my reactions to stress.

That awareness was key, but it took a while for me to figure it out. I had been told to “feel what the response to anxiety feels like in my body”, but lemme tell ya, when you’re in the middle of being really stressed out, the only answer you can give is: “TERRIBLE!”

I think the way this suggestion has been posed is all wrong. It wasn’t until I started mindfulness meditation that I finally understood what was really the point of feeling into body sensations.

First of all, in case you’ve been fortunate enough to never experience severe anxiety, here’s how to imagine it: (1) turn on a really large blender, (2) stick your head in it. That’s about it. Then, when someone asks you to feel what body sensations you have, you answer, “Dunno, my brain is missing.”

If serenity is a clear day, this is anxiety.

Basically, in the midst of anxiety, there is so much that feels out of control that I don’t think it’s possible to lasso down sensations without having a person hold your hands, look into your eyes and say, “Okay, focus on me and do this…”

And that, my friends, is why scratching out even the slightest bit of space for yourself in a stressful situation, just so that you are not 100% caught up in the whirlwind, is so beneficial for getting yourself through it.

Just like you don’t wait until the day of your first marathon to start training for it, you need to prepare for the next tornadic episode of anxiety before you’re in it.

Become your own Professional Stress Manager. That takes practice, primarily when things are peaceful. Just like you don’t wait until the day of your first marathon to start training for it, you need to prepare for the next tornadic episode of anxiety before you’re in it.

Job One is bringing yourself out of the swirling thoughts in your head and that can be hard to do, since they are where your anxiety originates. That’s why you have to re-direct your attention to something outside your mind, and that’s where focusing on body sensations comes into play.

First, find stability and grounding.

First, find yourself an anchor, like the oft-mentioned breath, and start with that. Focusing on the breath gives you a target for your attention when everything else feels crazy. There are a variety of sensations associated with breathing: the rush of air, expansion of the chest, expansion of the belly and whatever else is salient to you.

Pick one that makes sense. It is expected that you won’t be able to maintain your focus on it and your mind will wander off. That’s OK. In fact, the whole point of this is that you DO lose your focus. And once you realize that you have, bring your attention back to your breath.

And that’s it. That’s ALL of it. It doesn’t get more complicated than that.

And when you’ve achieved some sort of stability there, you’ve made yourself some space. Take advantage of that and bring your attention to other parts of your body, with one eye on your breath: is there a tingle in your fingertips? How about your toes? Are you clenching any muscles in your body and what happens if you try to release them?

Ask yourself, “How do I know I’m anxious?” What are the signs? Face feeling hot? Stomach bunched up? Cold feeling in the intestines? Tightness in the chest? Can I take a deeper breath and try to relieve that tightness? Can I send warmth into my gut? Try to define what anxiety means to you on a physical level. The more you do that, the more control you get on your reaction and the experience is not as frightening.

See, the idea is that you need that fingerhold in the crack between your stressor and your reaction to it so that you don’t get swept up in the lack of control. And establishing that will take some practice and time, but as with any exercise, each practice session will benefit you. And then best time to start is now.

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.

Launching into Space: A Visualization for Creating Distance

In my continuing quest to find ways to calm myself and soften anxious thoughts, I often resort to visualizations. They are effective in putting the breaks on distressing thought patterns, creating space and encouraging a broader perspective.

My clinical counselor offered the visualization I’m introducing here. It works similarly to “thought container“, which is a visualization in which you create a container for your stressful thoughts, put them in there, lock the container up and place it on a shelf.

You decide how you’d like your rocket to look. Serious and foreboding or cute and shiny?

However, this one goes a step further. For this visualization, imagine a shiny space capsule on a launch pad, of whatever style and era that suits you. Gather up your troubling thoughts and send them towards the capsule, marching them up the ramp and in through the door. You can wave good-bye as the thoughts enter and settle into comfy seats, safely belted in.

Your thoughts are not “bad”. They simply elicit negative reactions in your body. And right now you want to loosen their grip on you.

When all those stressful images are inside, close the airlock/door. It’s up to you how that’s going to look. Perhaps it’s a high-tech electronic door that shuts and locks remotely so you don’t have to be close by. Or maybe it looks like a massive bulkhead, with a wheel that you yourself physically crank shut and secure so that you can be sure that nothing slips out.

When the capsule is secured. Start the countdown to launch. Or just press a button and shoot it off into space immediately. You have full control here.

But here’s the thing: this is a visualization to create distance, not to completely eradicate those thoughts. Because that’s impossible. They will not simply disappear. However, you can give yourself a little break from them, which is what this lauch is about.

Your stressors are still there, but it’s easier to learn to deal with them from down here. Give yourself some space.

Where does the capsule go? To the Moon. It will rocket off the Earth and land on our satellite neighbor. Point your telescope at the Moon at night and you’ll see the capsule, knowing that those thoughts are there but far enough away that they don’t torment you. You’re not trying to forget about them completely. Instead, practice dealing with them where they’re not an in-your-face threat.

In this way, you don’t repress or avoid, you give yourself breathing space and the opportunity for calm.

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I admit that if you’ve been particularly beleaguered by stressors, it would be very tempting to treat the rocket like a clay pigeon and blast the whole thing to bits…and maybe there’s a great idea for a video game there. But truly, it may be easiest to handle them by releasing the thoughts into the ether.

Yes, they’ll be back. And so will the chance to take a deep breath and send them off again.

Permission to Grieve

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.

Cancer is complicated because it can bring on a huge 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.

Forgo the cheerleading and simply offer an ear and a shoulder.

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.

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Ok, ok, the “loss of body odor” is one loss that’s not so bad!

Making Space Through Breath: A Visualization

I’ve posted previously about the sensations I’ve experienced in the midst of anxiety, as if the stressor is right in my face, raw and unescapable.

Combatting this feeling has been my number one priority, since anxiety overtakes me before I even know it, triggering my fight-or-flight response. Once my sympathetic nervous system gets going, getting it “back in the box” can be difficult, possibly taking days, depending on the intensity of the stressor.

Anxiety can make us feel like we’re trapped and suffocating.

My current strategy is to create protective distance for myself in a very simple way. And it consists of visualizing an expansion of the space around my body.

It goes something like this: Imagine you are inside a deflated balloon. If you are experiencing tighteness in your head or chest, this serves as an effective analogy, particularly if your balloon is constricting you. Without letting your mind be consumed by the tightness, allow yourself to acknowledge the stressor that surrounds you.

Then, taking a deep breath in, exhale through pursed lips and inflate that space around you. Imagine how it feels to expand the balloon and release that clinging sensation. Feel the fresh air moving against your skin as the space around you continues to broaden.

Maybe you begin with the area around your head first, as if creating a bubble around it allows oxygen to flow freely, then move the expansion towards the torso, protecting and releasing the heart, lungs and other vital organs.

Or perhaps begin with the chest if that’s where the constriction feels greatest. Anxiety can squeeze your breath, so focus on mentally removing that weight from your sternum and ribs, visualizing an expansion of the free space around your chest with a deliberate slowing of breath. This takes some work, a back-and-forth between imagining space expanding around you and your breath taking advantage of the room that it has.

Breathe, expand and feel the space!

If your chest is mired too deeply in anxiety, turn your attention to your extremities, starting with the feet and hands, getting a foothold there and allowing the sensation of space to move slowly towards the center of your body.

The idea is to E-X-P-A-N-D the space around you, dispelling the feeling of closeness and suffocation that results in the wild urge to flee. Note that this is not avoidance of the stressful situation. You are acknowledging its existence…and then creating room so that your brain has space and time in which to think, to know that it’s protected from words and sensations and fearful possibilities. To know that it’s safe in the “now”.

Try this the next time you have a quiet moment. As with many of these techniques, it is helpful to practice in times of calm, to feel into what that sensation of space feels like. The more we practice, the clearer and more familiar that sensation becomes, and we can draw upon that feeling during stressful times.

Lovingkindness When It’s Hard

Lovingkindness (n.): a tenderness and consideration towards others (Oxford Languages)

Sonder (n.): the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)

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One of my goals for 2022 is softening my views of difficult people.

This takes some mental calisthenics. There have been individuals in my life that have impacted me in negative ways, and trying to see around that is usually met with a great deal of internal resistance on my part.

But when we hold onto hurt, we sully ourselves, not to mention completely (and possibly unfairly) writing off the person whom we view as the cause of our pain.

There have been people in my life who seem to go out of their way to be cruel.

I need to stress that giving difficult individuals a second look to examine their internal motivations does not mean absolving them of all responsibility for their actions. What they did or said remains that and their role in your pain is not diminished. But in letting go and softening our own reactions, we heal ourselves and decrease the impact that the individual’s actions have on us.

What has been working for me is one simple thing: to pause and imagine what pushes people to be uncharitable. In my experience one of the main motivators seems to be fear. We all have our own ways of dealing with this emotional state, some of us may retreat and tremble (this would be me), others may lash out and attempt to control the situation that way.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that many of those in our lives that we perceive as “evil” may be running away from something. And their inability to deal with their fears and shortcomings makes them very pitiful indeed. The more thoughtless and controlling and misery-inducing an individual seems to be, the more fear they may well have bubbling under the surface.

If we can step back a bit, we can mitigate their power to upset us, because that’s when we see their behavior in a different context.

Let me offer an example: One of the most toxic bosses I ever had would go into “tyrant” mode, judging immediately and harshly, seemingly unable to manage her employees without bullying them. There was intense tension when she was around and I felt like I was never good enough, something that affected me deeply.

Difficult people may be fighting their own inner demons.

But I soon learned that she made everyone feel that way…and also that she was locked in an unhappy marriage and had little control over her personal life. So she established (and overestablished) control where she could. She hired young employees who would work for lower wages and greatly increased her profits, although it also resulted in a significant turnover because the conditions were psychologically distressing.

I dreaded work so much that it was only a matter of months before I resigned my position. I got myself out of there, a decision I never regretted. And I stress this because if a situation is bad, even if you can find some sympathy for the perpetrator, it never means you should stay there and take the abuse.

But understanding what a difficult person is going through can offer some balm for your soul as you shake off the effects of the negativity. Naturally, this is far easier to do from a distance, but it can also help create some emotional space for you if you cannot put physical space between the two of you just yet.

And in the context of a lovingkindness meditation, this makes it much easier to bring that individual into focus and offer them kindness and compassion for what they are experiencing.

It may help to consider this: true power comes not from expressing your dominion over others; it comes from understanding the reality of the situation and making the choice to respond with compassion.

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In the case of my former boss, upon searching for her recently, I was shocked to learn that she had founded a charitable organization to help children in need. All those profits that she had amassed had gone to a very good cause, as she now worked exclusively on a volunteer basis.

I’m so happy to have seen this giving, caring side of her. Wish she’d been able to show it to us.

And I sat there, staring at her photograph on my computer screen. That was her, certainly decades older, but different from the way that I had remembered her. So much more complex a human being. And instead of scoffing at the “old person trying to get into heaven”, I was filled with joy. Inside that being that I had only known as a tyrannical boss was a genuine caring person who was finally able to express her true loving nature.

Nothing could have made me happier.

Making Space for Cancer Emotions

While I myself am celebrating three years since the summer of my chemo for breast cancer, I was shocked to hear of actor Kelly Preston’s death from the disease. It’s a reminder that in an egalitarian way, cancer doesn’t care how famous you are.

I’ve been reading about those who are dealing with late-stage cancer. Most notable for me is actor Shannen Doherty, whom those of my generation remember from “Beverly Hills 90210” (although, admittedly, I didn’t watch the series).

Shannen, along with well-known names like Alex Trebek, Olivia Newton-John, Congressman John Lewis and others have been interviewed by the press. We hear about daunting odds and their strength of character. Anyone battling the late-stages of cancer shows a lot of bravery.

They speak of gratitude, perseverance, patience, a forward-thinking mentality. But as anyone with cancer can tell you, they would rather not be fighting this fight. Yes, there are “bright moments” (and I use that term loosely) that come with learning you have a “serious” cancer diagnosis, but that’s because you find those breaks in the darkness.

Cancer brings powerful emotions, often negative ones. And that’s perfectly okay.

However, I think it’s critical that cancer patients be given the uninterrupted space to talk about the fear and anxiety associated with this situation. It’s not all happy trips to the infusion room as everyone cheers you on. Shannen is quoted as saying, “The unknown is always the scariest part…Is the chemo going to work? Is the radiation going to work? You know, am I going to have to go through this again, or am I going to get secondary cancer? Everything else is manageable. Pain is manageable, you know living without a breast is manageable, it’s the worry of your future and how your future is going to affect the people that you love.”

This is something that must be addressed. When others call you a warrior, they need to understand that you’ve not been given a choice in the matter. And you yourself have a right to feel all the emotions that you feel, whether it’s anger, fear, helplessness or numbness. That must be allowed because it’s real.

Most importantly, no one should tell a patient that they need to only think positive. That is telling them that they shouldn’t feel what they feel. And that’s never a good thing.

So just as Shannen has done and others continue to do, we must accept the weight of the emotions felt by cancer patients, not diminish it. We should hold space for them to express everything they’re feeling. And then actively offer all the support and love that they need.

Releasing Stress Bubbles

I’m constantly working to keep anxiety under control. For me, one of the most common feelings associated with stress is that of it being “in your face”. There is no buffer and therefore no easy way to give yourself time to pause. Emotions rush at you.

I’ve developed visualizations to give me some space. I’ve already written about getting perspective and keeping anxiety at arm’s length, but sometimes I need another way of freeing myself from stressful thoughts. So I use bubbles!

Oooo, bubbles!

When I get caught up in thoughts of a stressful situation and I feel like the images are right in front of me, I imagine pulling back from the scene. What is transpiring before me continues, but I slowly move away, and as I do, the periphery of my vision starts bending inward. As I pull back, I realize that I am inside a bubble with finite edges.

I keep moving backwards through the wall of the bubble until I’m standing outside it. The actions within are still taking place, but they’re no longer coming at me. I watch from a safe distance, feeling secure.

I may allow the bubble to float away or I can pop it if I choose. Or I may stay with it for a while, observing without getting drawn back in.

Sometimes this becomes a game, particularly if I wake in the middle of the night and find myself in the grip of fearful thoughts. It’s usually not enough for me to back out of one bubble. There may be many. Sometimes I leave a bubble and then realize that I’m standing in another, even bigger one.

When my mind is particularly active, the bubbles keep coming.

But eventually, I get to the point where I am standing outside of all the bubbles, watching them floating before me, the figures or events looking small and not menacing at all. That is the perspective that I need to create myself breathing space.

The metaphor of a bubble is a lovely one because bubbles by themselves are playful, beautiful and, of course, ephemeral. Just as the bubble does not last forever, the events in our lives, no matter how stressful, don’t last forever either. The bubble reminds me that all things pass.

I’ve even brought a little container of soapy water with a bubble wand to work. Blowing bubbles (when no one’s looking) in my office slows my breathing and requires some focus. A controlled exhalation is needed to not pop the prismatic ball of soap-water before I can send it on its way, taking my worries along with it.

A stressful event taking place inside a bubble seems less frightening.

When I cannot do this indoors, I may take a break and head outside, letting the bubbles float off into the breeze. I might make someone else smile in the the process and that gladdens my heart.

It’s silly and fun and reminds me not to take everything so seriously. And if I can send my cares off in bubbles, giving me even a temporary reprieve from anxiety, then perhaps what might have seemed like an overwhelming crisis may feel more manageable.