This blog has been going around in my head for a couple of weeks – from 1st of February to be precise. How can I be so specific about the date you might wonder?
Well, as I was growing up, I kept a diary, all the usual teenage angst but at some point, I decided that 1st of February would be a key day. I planned to write in my diary on that day for milestone years, 21, 30, 40 and so on.
As it happened, the 1st of February 2015 (my 40th year) was when I found the lump which turned out to be cancer.
This blog isn’t really about the cancer, but it’s where it starts. In short, after having surgery to remove the cancer and 4 weeks of radiotherapy, it was time to get back on with life. But was it as simple as that?
For anyone who has had a health issue, relationship breakdown, suffered a bereavement, been made redundant or faced any number of other major life changes that you can think of, getting on with life can be a real challenge.
From the outside, you might look just the same but inside, it could be another story. For me, I felt like a completely different person. My perspective on things was turned on its head and it gave my priorities a good shake up. A clarity of vision descended, no longer would I put work issues ahead of my family and friends and spending time with them. It was as if a grate had opened and all the clutter of unimportant stuff just fell away through it and disappeared into the ether.
So, what about the day to day stuff? Once you’ve been touched by something like that, the “it’ll never happen to me” approach just doesn’t work anymore. So, what do you do instead?
Especially in the early days, some were easier than others and I threw myself into the daily routine of school runs, work, washing, cooking, anything really to keep me from thinking “What if….”
But other days I would notice my arm was sore, I had a headache, back pain, bit of a sniffle or any number of other ailments and whereas they would have previously been dismissed as one of those things, you start to wonder…. is it back?
I’ve always been a cup half full kind of a person but I realised I needed some additional tools and support to help keep my cup topped up. Having loved psychology since studying it at uni, and particularly the idea of positive psychology, I decided to head back to my roots, signing up for a Practitioner course in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).
It was such an inspirational week. The thing that particularly stood out for me was that you can’t control the world but you can control your response to it – I started to understand how I was thinking and processing things I’d been through and how I could take control of my emotional state (e.g. calm, stressed, happy or motivated) by bringing into awareness what was going on in my head. What a revelation, I had a choice about how I felt!
Each February, I have a mammogram to check all is well. Last year was the first and as it got closer I started to recognise the signs of stress in my body I’d experienced the previous year – specifically I feel it most in my wrists and my hands – it’s a strange feeling.
As the date approached, I was busy trying not to think about the forthcoming appointment when, fortuitously, a friend of mine, Ian, rang to have a chat. He helped me realise that by actively not thinking about the appointment, I was still giving negative energy to it and it would be better to concentrate on staying in the present moment, where everything was ok.
It took practice, but each time I found my mind wandering towards the future, I’d bring it back to the current time. It helped to keep the appointment in perspective and not to waste unnecessary energy worrying about it before it arrived.
It also helped me realise that although I’d considered myself somewhat of an expert in breathing, given that I’d been doing it regularly for 40+ years, that I needed to learn a variety of new methods to help me relax and stay calm.
This is where the Mindfulness came in. I started with a book on the basics and then completed an 8-week course (including a day long silent retreat, which was an interesting challenge for me, as I’m sure some of you can appreciate!). During the course, I learnt lots of techniques, all of which added to my self-care toolkit.
So, as my second annual checkup approaches, how am I doing? Pretty good. Some days I do absolutely have to work hard to stay in the present and not let my mind race ahead to the forthcoming appointment. But by a mixture of positive thought processes, controlling my breathing, gratitude and drawing my focus back to the current moment, I can keep a calm head and my cup of positivity flowing.
Finally, if all else fails, I can always feel thankful for the opportunity the appointments bring me to practice controlling my responses and emotional state – that’s a good old bit of NLP reframing for you!