My Cancer Philosophy
by Liora Hess
In the spring of 2007, about a month before my 39th birthday, my reading shifted to spiritual topics. I started meditating daily and began a serious effort to de-clutter my home and simplify my life. Looking back now, I see that I was anticipating something, though I didn’t know it at the time.
A month later, I discovered a lump in my right breast. What followed was a series of new experiences: my first mammogram, breast biopsy, and diagnosis of breast cancer. I moved through most days feeling numb and detached from the reality of my diagnosis. However, the fog was occasionally perforated by intense fear. Was I going to live? Would I be able to continue working full time through treatment? How would I be able to pay my bills? Would I lose my independence? Unchecked, these thoughts could become overwhelming.
On one of my most trying days, I found an online support group for young women with breast cancer. There, I met women who were thriving despite their diagnoses. Reading their stories gave me hope.
Choosing to be an optimist was a turning point for me.
After my lumpectomy, I had to wait several days for the results. I already knew I had breast cancer, but I didn’t know the staging. The wait was agonizing as my fears flooded me. I took a legal pad and tried to work through my thoughts. At the top, I wrote the question, “What is my cancer philosophy?”
I decided I had two choices: to believe I was powerless or to believe I always hold some power. If I was powerless, then I had no choice but to succumb to fear. If I had power, I always had options. I could believe I had the power to influence my well-being and my situation. I could choose to be an optimist.
Choosing to be an optimist was a turning point for me. The decision to thrive meant I needed to get busy. I tried to employ every mind and body technique that would be proactive in my fight against what I called the Alien. I attended a healing meditation class. I worked to improve my diet. I began cross-stitching a dragonfly, a symbol of transformation and rebirth. I drew images of the Alien being bombarded by treatment. In the drawings, he was always a little monster that looked like he had more bark than bite. I drew a final image of him appearing wilted and defeated.
Cancer was enough to deal with without worrying excessively.
Believing I held power led to a decision to be comfortable in my own skin. I decided cancer was enough to deal with without worrying excessively about what others thought or whether I was doing things the right way. In whatever way my mind and body wanted to react in the moment – laughing, crying, or just feeling numb – that was the right way. Being comfortable meant I could also choose to go bald in public without worrying about how I looked. I tried to view cancer as a series of new, finite experiences instead of a tragedy.
Being proactive in fighting cancer produced its own challenges, however. I experienced pressure to be the ideal cancer survivor. Eventually, I had to revisit what it meant to be comfortable in my own skin. Besides the physical aspects, it meant that there was no obligation to be an example or an inspiration. Rather, the goal was to experience everything and then let it go. Let go of pressures to be the perfect survivor, the one who exercises every day of treatment and never misses a day of work.
Deciding to be imperfect and vulnerable led to an unexpected feeling of great joy. People asked how they could help. The truth was I desperately needed help. I created a Web page and used it to share all the ways people could help. I sent the link to everyone I thought would care. The response amazed me. People brought me food, cleaned my home, called, wrote, and gave financial support. I learned firsthand how kind people could be. I also learned that others needed to offer help as much as I needed to accept it.
I finished my treatment in December 2007. The challenge now is to remember the lessons and build on them. To choose to live proactively means to do more than just dream. To be comfortable in my own skin is to be authentic without self-judgment. And to allow myself to be vulnerable is to open myself to experience and, ultimately, life itself. After all, that’s what it’s all about.
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Liora Hess writes from Atlanta, GA. Visit her at www.liorahess.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2008.