I’ve been reflecting on the situation I’m in and somewhat compelled by all the stuff I’m seeing during the pandemic about how difficult things are and how to stay positive. I’m staying optimistic and grateful and enjoying life. I choose to feel good and positive about it.
I’m thriving. That might sound slightly crazy as I have incurable stage 4 cancer. But it’s true and I thought I’d share my thoughts.
In the context of having cancer I hate the word “survivor”. If that’s a word that’s supposed to be powerful and valuable then for me it’s a lousy one. Fact is not everyone will survive cancer and ‘just’ surviving isn’t what I want to do. I want a good quality of life and be enabled to continue doing the things that I enjoy. Things that enable me to flourish.
For me thriving is an attitude and mindset that says, “I am going to accept the possibility that I may not live long but I'm not conceding to it”. I'm not just existing, that's survival. I know I’m resilient, flexible and strong beyond imagination and this perseverance and endurance means I’m intent on being in the team that thrives and to make the absolute most of life in the meantime.
I have not stopped doing what I do normally to succeed and thrive. I’ve always been an advocate for neuro linguistic programming and to live process I’ve always kept a journal – not a diary – and in my journal I reinforce positive experience and set myself personal challenges. It helps me to maintain a positive state of mind. I start everyday with the statement, how and who I can contribute to today and what am I going to achieve.
Ask yourself do you have that mindset or is the stress of having cancer and living in odd times weighing you down. There are methods I use for increasing contentment and life satisfaction enhancing feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure and enthusiasm and that reduces anxiety and stress. You can train your brain to become more positive in just 21 days taking a couple of minutes a day. Just try journaling one positive experience you’ve had over the last 24 hours, allow your brain to relive the experience or random acts of kindness, praising or thanking someone. Research shows in doing these activities we can reverse the formula to happiness and success from negativity. I know it works to set me up to have a good day.
I’ve often said “Attitude is infectious” and I prefer to choose to surround myself with friends who have a positive thriving outlook on life. Research has shown that simply being in a negative environment – which can be as simple as being around rude people – can impact our mindset and what we achieve. I’ve always tried to do that but now I have cancer and have retired I have taken this to a whole new level. I’ve cut out all who have negative attitude that I don’t want to infect me. I’m also paying attention to what I’m ingesting: what I choose to read, the music I listen to, who I’m listening to speaking. I think negativity can seep into our pores so I’ve made some simple choices away from negativity and left some Facebook groups and stopped following some social media posters and news reports and gone toward positivity. Things that make me laugh out loud or warm the heart and soul. Stories of hope.
I’m trying my hardest also to be mindful of what I say out loud. I know that negative language is insidious and that it can be damaging to my sense of thriving to verbalise a thought rather than just think it.
I’m surrounding myself with friends who are energisers. Those who are full of life, that make me smile and laugh and think and lift my spirits. I’ve met some fantastic women who are new friends via Make 2nds Count and Maggies who also have incurable cancer. All have a right to be a little afraid of dying but they sure as hell aren’t afraid to live. They are great support groups who really understand what it’s like to thrive with cancer. In my journal I write down how I plan to adopt a thriving mindset and what I can change in my life to combat any negativity I encounter.
When you’re told “That’s cancer” there’s often no dialogue no preparation. It hits you like a sledgehammer. Just words from someone somewhere that your number is up. Health systems are too often more focused on increasing a person’s length of life rather than addressing quality of life. Improved survival for people with cancer is a medical triumph but I want quality of life based on my priorities and expectations – not just to live longer. That’s where you have to be self reliant and also seek out support groups that are full of positivity and laughter.
I don’t believe things happen by chance or that there’s some divine being that intervenes to determine what has happened and what will happen. I know I shape my own life in the here and now. Because I believe it's the only life I have I want this to be the best life I can possibly make. I make sense of the world through logic, reason, and evidence. I know I can make things happen and change how I feel in a heartbeat if I put effort into that.
I’ve spent time since diagnosis learning how to slow down, to listen to my body and allow it to rest rather than to drive it on. To accept the physical and mental challenges and consequences of cancer and massive spinal surgery. I now manage my energy and physical effort and, going back to that journal , I write down what I hope to do and what I’ve managed to do and how it made me feel. I know that poor sleep and rest is important and lack of it is linked to anxiety and hostility and produce negativity. Like so many who have become more sedentary I’ve struggled to have a good night’s sleep so I’ve accepted it is what it is. I’ve gone back to basics with a bedtime routine of a relaxing bath with lavender candles, lavender sleep easy pillow mist sprayed and a sleep app of the soothing noise of waves on a sea shore and gentle piano music so I can just close my eyes and regulate my breathing and drift off visualising that lovely beach. I’ve removed all pressure I put on myself to get up early and make the most of the day. Heck I’m retired. I don’t need to charge around.
When I was first diagnosed I didn’t want to know about prognosis and life expectancy. I know that’s all meaningless. My partner Tom has leukaemia and 28 years ago he was told he wouldn’t see a month out. However he went into clinical trial and 28 years later and several revised prognosis, he is now the world’s longest survivor of the leukaemia he had. As part of his treatment he trialled the very first game changer targeted chemotherapy tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI). I’m on the 3rd or 4th generation palbociclib as part of my treatment. I know the statistics and the average longevity but I know better than that. The treatment we’re on is new and ground breaking, we’re making the statistics. So as far as I’m concerned they’re not accurate and I’m not going to have a number in my head. I’m intent on celebrating each and every day and that allows me to live a life day by day without any concern of statistics. We joke that Tom was the trial run for living and thriving with cancer and now it’s my turn to see what we learned and to do it even better. Practice does indeed make you better at doing something. The more you practice the better you get.
I’m not in denial about the seriousness of my condition and evidence to that is that before I’d left hospital having had my spinal trauma surgery I made contact with a lawyer and ensured my will was up to date and got legal medical and financial powers of attorneys in place. When I got home and was well enough I also had a huge sort out of what was important and where things were like bank accounts and pensions with addresses, phone numbers and values all in the plastic wallet with the wills. It was a “We’ll do it now and need never talk or think about it again”.
My preferred behaviour is to be optimistic and have an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude makes me feel happier and reduces stress. I’ve never once thought “why me”. Indeed I think “why not me”. After all 1 in 2 people will get cancer and a heck of a lot are much worse off than I’ll ever be. We’re safe, have a warm home and food. I’m very grateful that I live in a beautiful place surrounded by fantastic countryside. I’ll never take that for granted. That in itself helps to maintain a positive mindset especially when the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the countryside looks so fabulous and I can watch otters, red squirrels, deer and the little hedgehogs that visit or even the Northern Lights and all from a window I’ve found new things to do that I never had time or inclination to do before because I was so busy rushing round doing everything. I’ve mastered “pottering about” whereby I’ve a very loose plan to do a bit of reading which I always enjoyed. A bit of tapestry – never done that before and I never thought I’d be so content just seeing the finished article developing. I’ve got some chickens this year which enable me to have a routine of seeing to them every morning and evening and a little more physical activity cleaning out the coop. I go out for a little walk and use my exercise bike most days. Though my physical ability is significantly impaired, I am grateful I can still do things. That’s good for my mental and physical health and I know has really helped me to make phenomenal progress with my mobility and balance and it also helps with things like getting a good night’s sleep.
You may not be able to stop the flow of negativity in your life, especially right now, but you can resist its toxic effects by making smart choices about who and what you surround yourself with, the mindset you adapt, and the information you consume. Not only will you be better off because of these choices — those around you will too.
Sitting typing this blog today makes me realise I’ve achieved that challenge. I’ve accepted the way it is. Accepted what’s happening and I choose to feel good and positive about it. Even though we’re all living in very odd times.