I’m a huge fan of yours and I send my heartfelt wishes for good health and a complete recovery. I myself just finished up surgery, chemo, radiation and reconstruction after the positive diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. I’m sure the irony is not lost on you that our diagnosis could be associated with the word “positive.” Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel, in the tunnel and before the tunnel, if you can learn to adjust your thinking. I hope you are helped by the following “happiness tips” from someone who’s been there/done that, and who was brought onto RWJBarnabus Health System’s “Women’s Health Initiative” as their optimist expert.
The very first thing I struggled with when the docs told me I had breast cancer was figuring out where to put my mind. I was frightened, upset, disoriented, sad, overwhelmed, and I couldn’t seem to think straight.
I’m trained as an attorney; that was a weird mental space.
A brilliant man once told me that he doesn’t like to think too much, because when he does, he goes behind enemy lines. That’s just not me. I am by nature a happy person. I call myself a non-recovering laughaholic. I didn’t want that to change. I was terrified it would. My dear father used to joke that “everything in life is mind over matter. I don’t mind and it don’t matter.” This time, however, things really did matter.
I knew that the key to mentally surviving this ordeal was to find a way to change my perspective about what was happening to me from something negative to something positive. I might still mind, it might still matter, but I was going to have to “give a shift.”
KEY ONE: Give yourself permission to be happy! I realized that even though I was given a life-threatening diagnosis, if I let cancer steal my joy… then I’ve died while I’m still alive! And I didn’t want to die while I was still alive. If I lost my happiness mojo, that’s exactly what would have happened. I’m allowed to be happy! I’m allowed to laugh. I’m still alive! And while I’m still alive, I’m going to be alive! I came back to this thought a lot. It always helped me when fear gripped my innards and twisted me inside out. I won’t let cancer steal my joy.
But you say, Princess Diane Von Brainisfried, how can I be happy when no-one can give me a guarantee that I’m safe, that I’ll be cured? That’s what I was thinking, until it dawned on me that in asking the universe (and the doctors) for a guarantee that I would live, I was asking for something that didn’t exist…for anyone! No-one has a lockdown on tomorrow. The proverbial car crashing, the errant branch falling, the glamorous elephant stampeding, there are a thousand ways to check out unexpectedly. Guarantees are for April Fools.
It dawned on me that even with my diagnosis, I still have everything everyone else has. I have this moment. Nothing less, nothing more. Wait, I have more! I have a new reality that has seeped into my head and my heart. I understand on a profound level what it means that time is seriously precious, and that I truly must make my moments and my relationships count.
KEY TWO: Give yourself permission to be healthy. I’ve always been a healthy person. I eat well, exercise, and keep a positive attitude. So when this cancer thing came along, I didn’t know how to view myself. For me, the paradigm of a cancer patient was someone who is sick. But by the grace of G-d I didn’t feel sick, I didn’t look sick, and I didn’t want to “be” sick. My brain was having major cognitive dissonance. I decided that I was still going to consider myself a healthy person.
It took some mindful moxie to call myself healthy, especially after I started chemo. My “monkey mind” was taunting me, asking me how could I possibly consider myself healthy, when I had more ports than a horny sailor, one to deliver the Red Devil and two for expanders. How could I call myself healthy when my bald head made me a dead ringer for Elmer Fudd, and my once voluptuous chest had been reduced to a short stack. I’ll tell you how I called myself healthy; I gave myself permission!
The first step was to recognize that other than cancer, I was healthy. I was “otherwise” healthy. This line of thinking gave me a laugh. It reminded me of that old riff, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” Truth is, other than cancer, I am healthy. When I get a cold, I don’t see myself as a sick person, I see myself as a healthy person with a cold. When I had IBS in college, every emergency trip to the loo didn’t make me think of myself as a sick person. I saw myself as a healthy person who had these inconvenient incidents. I decided to view cancer the same way. Thus, I learned not to say that I have breast cancer. Instead, I say that I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. Don’t claim it. Don’t own it.
KEY THREE: Give yourself permission to see this as an adventure! The philosopher Goethe famously stated, “The journey of discovery is not going to new places, but seeing with new eyes.” A yoga teacher of mine once said, “It’s not what’s happening to you that’s important, it’s what you tell yourself is happening.” Positive psychologists talk about reframing. I searched my mind to find a way to look at the situation with new eyes and to reframe what was happening to me in a positive way. I decided to look at it as an adventure!
An adventure carries with it the possibility of excitement! What was I going to find out about myself on this new journey? What wonderful people would I meet? What new experiences would I encounter? Seeing my circumstances as an adventure and not a curse immediately shifted me from a victim to a victor mentality. It changed my energy. Hopeful! Expectant! It was a chance to up my learning curve and go up the next rung of my evolutionary path, which, by the way, I’m farther along than most people, having never received my wisdom teeth. But I do have an L-6, which is kind of akin to a tail. So that’s a wash.
By seeing my breast cancer diagnosis as an adventure, I was borrowing a page from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning by finding meaning and purpose in the ordeal. I was also ripping a page from Pollyanna’s playbook and doing her “Glad Game.” I was in good company with these two.
I now look upon breast cancer as a beautiful gift bequeathed to me from the universe. Through it, I’ve been graced with the opportunity to help others find a positive and optimistic way of adjusting and coping with breast cancer. I’ve had the gift of modeling for my kids that life can hand you a curve ball and you don’t have to fall to pieces. I’ve felt the love and caring of family and friends. I’ve learned, like the line in the beautiful poem Alicante by Jacques Prevert, “the present of the present.” I’ve learned to savor moments deeply. I’ve learned the sustaining nature of passionate dreams and goals. I’ve learned the depth and breadth of my resilience, and the understanding that no matter what comes at me in the future, I’m gonna deal. And so will you! Cause that’s just how the girls in our club roll!
To our health! To life! To the gift!