Just over a year ago I posted Loving the Hills intending it to be a full stop to the my blog series on breast cancer which is about to be released as a book – My Big Breast Adventure or How I Found the Dalai Lama in My Letterbox. The over-arching message of this last post is acceptance of everything that life throws at us – not just the good stuff, but the stuff that’s not so pleasant or downright awful as well. In the past few weeks, having launched the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to fund the production of my book while continuing to face the many obstacles that seem to spring up daily when one is trying to run a start up publishing enterprise, I confess that I’d all but forgotten this message. So I repost this blog now, dear readers, mostly for my own benefit but with the ardent hope that the message of acceptance may be just what you need to hear too right about now. There’s nine days left on my crowdfunding campaign to cover the expenses of producing the book. I’d sure appreciate your comments, shares and likes and any other contribution you feel you’d like to make in order to get My Big Breast Adventure out there! Thank you, thank you for being my dear readers and for all of your support on this adventure to date.
About a week before I was diagnosed in December 2013 I had the privilege of seeing Janine Shepherd speak at a SHE Business event in Sydney. You may recall that Janine was a member of the Australian cross-country ski team, training for the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1986, when she was hit from behind by a speeding utility truck while on a bike ride. Janine sustained multiple life-threatening injuries, including but not exclusive to a broken neck, back and massive internal damage.
What followed for this amazing woman was one massive obstacle after another – learning to walk again (when told she wouldn’t); getting a commercial pilot’s license; marrying and having three children (when told she probably couldn’t); becoming a best selling author and a truly inspirational speaker. And her story didn’t end there. At this event she bravely spoke of a divorce and significant financial hardship from the GFC. At the time I was completely unaware that a cancer sh!t-storm was about to break over my head, and yet it still felt as if Janine was talking directly to me when she explained her mantra of ‘loving the hills’.
Powering up hills over and over again had, of course, been a feature of her training. Funny thing about hills though – they seem to congregate. Once you’ve gotten to the top of one you usually find another hill, often larger, behind it. Janine said she’d had to teach herself to ‘love the hills’ while training because each one made her stronger than the last. When she was recovering from her injuries and trying to put her life back together ‘loving the hills’ became more than a throwaway platitude to get her through training sessions – it became a mantra for survival and ultimately, a new life.
Two big things struck me about Janine Shepherd’s concept of hills – that they’re never ending and each one has a precious truth to impart. Here are some big lessons I’ve learned and am still learning from climbing my own mountain-side:
When in doubt, check out the metaphysical – Many posts ago I was asking the questions ‘why breast cancer?’ when there’s none in our family and ‘why me?’ when I have three sisters (not that I’d wish it on any of them, you understand). I’ve settled on metaphysical causes as the predominant reasons for my disease. This has invariably led me to uncover beliefs and behaviours that I need to recognise and correct if I want to shake this sucker off.
Cancer is a disease of resentment and I’ve certainly had a lot of that in my life – resentment about how hard you have to work to earn a buck as a small business-person, resentful that people you’ve sacrificed taking a salary for in order to employ are so ungrateful, and resentment towards clients who have no idea of the value of what they’re getting nor the emotional toll their demands and behaviour take on you. The last one is a real kick in the pants because, while trying to be perfect for my clients and forgiving them their trespasses because they were paying me, I was at the same time resentful towards my two beautiful children, when they made demands and appeared ungrateful for all I was doing for them. They’re kids – that’s their job! But boy, did it take me a long time to see what was wrong with that picture of me cutting ungrateful clients a lot of slack and cutting my own children none at all. I’m not proud of that, I can assure you.
A lot of people have said this but the first time I heard it was out of the mouth of Carrie Fisher, the famous actress (Star Wars and When Harry Met Sally) and author (Postcards from the Edge) – “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” After my own experience I need no convincing whatsoever that resentment was a major contributor to my cancer.
Another thumping metaphysical cause of cancer is the ‘inability to create and maintain boundaries’. During her talk Janine Shepherd joked that before her accident, her team-mates referred to her as Janine the Machine – always up for a challenge, leading the pack, the Queen of ‘push through’. My own inability to say no and to turn off the get-it-done-and-do-it-perfectly voice in my head qualifies me as a kindred cyborg, I think. I’m pretty sure that the driven, perfection-seeking, self-denigrating, fearful and workaholic nature of mine pretty much took me by the hand and led me to the chemo circle.
Shame researcher and author of The Power of Vulnerability, Dr Brene Brown, cites the inability to set boundaries and live within them is a major stumbling block to living an authentic, peaceful and happy life – the kind most of us feel is but a dream. Dr Brown even has a fab little mantra which she recites to herself before committing to anything from a speaking engagement in another part of the world to making dozens of brownies for the school fund-raiser – “Choose discomfort over resentment”. The discomfort part is what I and probably all of us feel at the moment of saying ‘no’. If I say ‘no’ my internal shame voice usually snaps back with something like ‘you’re lazy, stupid, or add-your-own-slur-of-choice-here’ or ‘doing this would make the person who’s asking sooo happy’ (which, by the way, is a crock most of the time). Resentment, however, is the toxic side effect of saying yes too often – doing things that don’t feel right just for kudos, the money or because you’re worried what people will think of you.
This is HUGE for me. Saying no to others who want, want, want from me, knowing they’ll be put out and perhaps even call me names, is a skill I’ve yet to master. And the even bigger hill behind that one is the ability to say no to myself. Actually, it’s saying no to the voice in my head that I like to call ‘Mrs Driver’, a working-mother-warrior who’s always judgmental, perpetually in a bad mood and consistently clenching her jaw or gripping the steering wheel of her car, as if she could part traffic or bend the course of history by the sheer force of her own iron will. Neither I nor anyone else is good enough for Mrs Driver, clearly, but from now on I pledge to teach myself to say no to her, mix her a gin and tonic and ever so gently ask her to go somewhere and chill out for a spell. Wish me luck!
And while we’re on the topic of speaking quietly and fixing gin and tonics, the other big metaphysical cause of breast ailments is an inability to care for one’s own good self. You’re always doing for someone else – partners, children, parents, employees, colleagues, even your accountant! Somewhere in the big life I’ve had I lost sight of what it is I need to keep myself afloat. In fact I don’t believe I’ve ever known what that was until forced to consider it by my current circumstances. This is a work in progress.
Accept, and that means everything – Whether you perceive it to be good or bad, whether you are happy or unhappy about it – accept, accept, accept. I’ve found acceptance brings relief to my mind (by slowing and quietening it down), my soul (by lightening it up and perhaps even allowing in a laugh) and my physical state (by coaxing my tense shoulders away from my ear lobes when I’m in the thick of it). Firstly, though, I had to come to terms with the fact that accepting is not condoning – I don’t have to like what’s going on but I need to accept what’s happening as struggling against reality doesn’t help one iota. Janine Shepherd goes a step further when she exhorts us to ‘love the hills’. Among her other astonishing achievements Janine has also written a fabulous little book called The Gift of Acceptance a collection of quotes, one of which is, “In accepting….. I welcome the sorrows as well as the joys. I see them as polarities of a balanced life.”
The Sufi mystic Rumi suggests something even more radical in his poignant poem, The Guest House. I published this in a post many moons ago called Welcome Mat and at the risk of repeating myself, it appears again here because the sentiment is just so darned relevant:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Gratitude is Acceptance’s flatmate – Regular dear readers will know that being grateful is something I’ve previously banged on about many times. Janine is onto something with her mantra of ‘love the hills’ – not barely tolerating or merely accepting them, but loving them and being grateful for them. I was already switched onto gratitude before the Big Breast Adventure i.e. recognising the good in my life and saying thank you for it. What I’ve learned in the intervening period, however, is to be grateful for the things that don’t present as ‘good’ or even vaguely pleasant. Like the hot flashes straight from hell courtesy of the daily tamoxifen tablet, for example.
My tamoxifen-induced hot flashes started with a vengeance last summer, the most humid summer any of us can recall in Sydney at least. I spent a lot of time complaining about them, gleaning whatever sympathy I could from my long-suffering family while sliding the balcony doors wide open to catch a breeze, thereby letting in a legion of mosquitoes. It wasn’t until my Oncologist told me that these flashes are proof tamoxifen is doing it’s job (i.e. protecting me from a relapse) that I started to ease up on them a bit in the complaint stakes. I even started blessing the little white tablet I have to put in my mouth each evening, thanking it for the good it was doing in my body and asking, respectfully, if it could cut me a break on all the side effects.
To say the hot flashes have reduced in intensity or frequency would be a lie. What I can tell you is that I’m coping with them a lot better than previously. I allow them to happen and I don’t struggle while they are happening. I drink lots of water and I breathe deeply, particularly when I feel a flash coming on. I always carry a hanky or wear a cotton scarf for mopping up purposes, and I’ve invested in a few hand held fans on Etsy to provide my own personal breeze when nothing else is on offer. Now, I’ve started to say thank you when I am ‘having a moment’, which at the very least gives me something else to think about instead of focusing on the voice of complaint in my head. This is a thumping big lesson for me – to be grateful not only for all the good in my life, but to say thank you for the things I’m not so thrilled about as well. This one’s a work in progress too but that’s the thing about life, right? It’s a journey, not a destination, so you might as well settle in and find some enjoyment in the ride.
And this brings us to surrendering – I’ve recently turned onto two fabulous books by Tosha Silver – Outrageous Openness and Change Me Prayers. Outrageous Openness is a collection of short stories with examples of ‘leaning into the Divine’, asking for guidance, hearing it when it is given, and just being open to the whole process of life. It’s an amazingly compelling book, one I am sure will grace my bedside for years to come, ready for opening at random when I need clarity or comfort in the future. The second book, Change Me Prayers, comprises more stories and accompanying practical prayers for any occasion that vexes you. As principal of a start up publishing company, while also overseeing the financials of a PR firm run by my husband, it seems I spend a lot of time ruminating on things like book sales, cashflow or lack of it in many cases.
I was particularly drawn to one entry in Change Me Prayers entitled ‘When Begging Ends’ where Tosha recounts her own story of going bookstore to bookstore to sell this very same book. (Yes, dear reader, the irony of this story being about sales of books in the retail environment has not escaped me!) At one store the manager told her to leave a copy on the ‘mile-high pile’ and then continue to hassle them with visits and by phone in a bid to cajole them into stocking it. Tosha took a leaf out of her own book, literally, saying that instead of “twisting your arm” to stock the book in his store that other bookstores would know immediately if Change Me Prayers was for them. The manager looked stunned as she smiled, thanked him and left. Sure enough, other bookstore owners and managers were much more receptive, one virtually grabbing the book out of her hands as soon as she walked in the door. Tosha concluded this little story by saying, “What is meant for you will always, always find you.” The ‘change me’ prayer that followed was a fair dinkum humdinger – just what I needed to read in that moment:
“Change me, Divine Beloved, into One who knows that You alone are my Source. Let me trust that You fling open every door at the right time. Free me from the illusion of rejection, competition, and scarcity. Fill me with confidence and faith, knowing I never have to beg, just gratefully receive.”
Which brings me to that funny scene in the first Toy Story movie when Buzz Lightyear makes his way into a rocket-shaped, coin-operated booth filled with little alien toys ready for the plucking by a remote controlled claw. No doubt trying to make sense of their circumstances inside the rocket-booth the little green guys inform Buzz that, “The claw is our master. The claw chooses who will stay and who will go.” And when the claw actually does collect one of the little alien critters out of the pack, the chosen one calls back to his cohorts as he is hoisted skywards, “Farewell my friends. I go onto a better place.”
And where might that better place be exactly? The ‘Ong Tour, of course! And well might you ask what the FEC is an ‘Ong Tour? It’s the brain child of my older sister, Marg, who’s drawn up an itinerary of places in a geographical arc around Sydney that have ‘ong in the name – Wyong, Gulgong, Mittagong, Gerringong, Wollongong – you get the picture. We plan to visit as many as we can in a 10 day period starting from 14 October. My nursing sister sister (Mary Anne) and I are joining Madge on this caper and the joke’s on us, really. Marg’s been talking about a tour of the ‘Ongs for at least five years. Mary Anne and I agreed to join the tour thinking it would probably never happen. We were wr’Ong (get it?). I’ll be blogging, tweeting and Facebooking from the road on a daily basis or as long as my credit with Telstra holds out, and I hope you can join us.