Thrust Into The Present

One of the major causes of spin out when diagnosed with cancer is realising how out of our control our own lives really are.  The best made plans count for nothing when you are steamrolled by cancer.  Everything changes.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was 26 years old, had a new baby and had just bought a piece of land to build our home on.  Suddenly, everything that I assumed about my life was no longer true.  The illusion of safety and a long future in which I save my greatest dreams for retirement had been taken and I was immediately thrust into the present.

Since I'm a total control freak, I searched frantically to find what, if any, elements of this new life trajectory I could control.  I had this sense of spinning out of control and I felt desperate to find something concrete to grasp onto, something that was mine, something that was still me but was not my cancer.  After boiling it all down, I realised I had really only ever had control of ONE thing - my reaction.

No matter what happened, no matter how sci-fi my body looked or how nightmarish the treatment, I clung to this realisation.  This became so empowering and slowly, over time, an internal shifting of ideas and priorities began which I cannot come back from, nor would I want to.  

This realisation, coupled with meditation, became the foundation for me to build an awareness of myself in the present moment.  I no longer let myself run away with a moment of anger or frustration, instead chose to step back and make a conscious decision about whether it was worth my energy or not.  I no longer chose to worry about money or having 'things' but instead chose to invest in time with family and the people I loved.  I gave more to charity even though my illness meant we had less.  And I chose to look at the good in everyday with gratitude.

It turns out the happiness experts have a name for this: Resilience.  And psychologists have studied this phenomenon and given it the title 'Post-Traumatic Growth'.  I've seen it time and time again in young people who have been diagnosed with cancer.  It takes some time and it doesn't always happen in the same way, but an incredible shift can take place after a traumatic event.

Resilience isn't about removing the bad from your life, its about finding new ways of coping.  Nor is it about saying being diagnosed with cancer or some other trauma is a good thing - it most definitely is not.  But what research has confirmed is that most people find their way out the other side of a traumatic event wiser and with a deeper appreciation for life.

Resilience is not a characteristic that you are either born with or have to go without, resilience is something you can cultivate.

“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.”

— ― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

8 Key Tips For Building Resilience

  1. Create Positive Beliefs About Yourself.  It turns out self esteem is mucho important when it comes to dealing with stress so take some time to tell yourself that you're awesome!  Put a love note to yourself on your mirror.  Make a list of all the things you're good at.  Pick a positive statement "I am worth it" and repeat it thoughout the week, you can pick a new statement each week.
  2. Create or Continue With Your Purpose.  Giving back or giving to others is a practice that can be a key role in recovery and bring a sense of meaning and purpose to our lives. You can volunteer for your favourite charity, join a community group, or develop your spirituality. 
  3. Hold onto Hope.  Being optimistic doesn't mean ignoring the problem, or pretending it doesn't exist, it means acknowledging that hardships are temporary and that you have within yourself the tools you need to deal with it and get through.  
  4. Create an Action Plan.  Facing a large crisis can seem completely overwhelming.  Take a mental step back and assess the situation.  Break it up into small parts and assign actions to overcoming the individual parts.  ie, problem: having cancer.  parts: anxiety attacks, financial stress, compromised fertility.
  5. Action Plan: One Step at a Time.  By taking small steps towards dealing with whatever challenge you are dealing with means you can focus on how far you've come and stay looking forward towards what you can achieve next.
  6. Make Friends.  Find other young cancer survivors/thrivers who can relate to your situation.  This will help remove the feelings of isolation.  Talking with friends might not make our problems go away but it helps us to feel supported and they can be a great sounding board for problem-solving.  They may have overcome the problem themselves, so remember to lean on your friends!
  7. Nurture Yourself.  Easier said than done sometimes!  The better you look after yourself (think sleep, exercise, nutrition), the better able you are to cope with stress.  Don't wait for disaster to strike before you look after yourself, start now.  You'll find you're better prepared for when disaster does strike.
  8. Bend don't Break.  While undergoing a challenge like a cancer diagnosis, rather than focusing on everything that is changing, look for the opportunities.  As much as you would never wish a cancer diagnosis on anyone, once immersed in it, you can't choose to get out but you can choose your response.   Flexibility is a key part of being resilient.