The 6 Most Unhelpful Myths About Cancer, And How You Can Change Them

MYTH #1 – Cancer is rare.

In fact, cancer is not rare. The odds of getting cancer in your lifetime are the same as being born a boy – latest statistics state one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.* When every second person gets something, that something isn’t rare.

Why this myth is unhelpful – Whilst ever we believe we have a low chance of having a particular thing happening to us, the more unlikely we are to change our behaviours, or change our attitude towards it. However, the most effective way to prevent cancer, and to help those who have it now, is to change our behaviours and attitudes.

Be the change – Acknowledge cancer is no longer a rare occurrence in our society, and perhaps re-examine your attitudes towards your health and well-being in light of this information. Also, think about the way you view people who find themselves diagnosed with cancer, and whether those perceptions are based on the reality – cancer is commonplace and curable – or based on the myth – cancer is rare, and always fatal.

 

MYTH #2 – Cancer will kill you.

For most people, a cancer diagnosis no longer means certain death. Once, a cancer diagnosis was rare, and death was likely. Now, thanks to increased awareness, better health education, high-tech research and improved treatments, it’s cancer fatalities which are becoming rarer and rarer.

Why this myth is unhelpful – A morbid fear of cancer – and anxiety about possible outcomes – can cause as much, if not more, distress for the cancer-diagnosed person, their friends and family than the actual disease, symptoms or treatment. This pervading fear of dying of cancer can also prevent people investigating troubling symptoms and warning signs, despite the fact early diagnosis of cancer dramatically improves treatment outcomes.

Be the change Whilst cancer may lead to an untimely and tragic demise, a diagnosis in no way spells certain death. It simply isn’t true a cancer diagnosis means you will die of cancer. Please, have symptoms or signs checked earlier rather than later. For those troubled by fearful and anxious thoughts after a diagnosis, counselling or support is available via your GP, a social worker or local cancer charity. Call the Cancer Council NSW on 13 11 20 (within Australia) or contact a cancer support service or counsellor in your area.

 

MYTH #3 – Cancer is smarter then we are.

Cancer cells are not smarter than us – it’s just they don’t know when enough is enough. Even a virus is well aware if its host dies, it dies too, and tries to escape well in advance. Compare this rudimentary intelligence with that of cancer cells. No, cancer isn’t clever, or intelligent. It’s just plain old, garden-variety dumb.

We’ve circulated this myth which says cancer has some kind of mind of its own. Certainly, when it defies treatment, it can seem like it’s outwitting us. But it isn’t.

Why this myth is unhelpful – When we have cancer, believing the cancer has a life of it’s own can leave us feeling our body is “out to get us”. This can lend itself to a base distrust of our body, undermining our confidence in our ability to heal or “outwit” the cancer at a time when we can be feeling physically and mentally diminished, weak and vulnerable.

Cancer cells are not smarter than people are – they simply lost the switch which tells them when to turn off. Very clever people continue to work to find out the reasons why, and are also finding ways to turn off those cells or at the very least, think of new ways to get them the hell outta there before they do too much damage.

Be the changeCancer is a sign something in our body is unbalanced and needs immediate attention. It’s when we need to direct our most tender care and compassion towards our body, not treat it with disdain or distrust because it “let us down” or “tried to kill us”.

Rather than making our body the object of anger and suspicion, instead lavish it with tender nurture and respect. You wouldn’t harshly berate a sick child. Affirming the body as able to heal and worthy of ours and others care will both empower and soothe us in a time when we need it the very most.

 

MYTH #4 – Cancer is evil.

We’ve interpreted cancer’s mindless advance through the body as a kind of cunning malevolence, probably because this has helped us see it as “not part of us” or as “the enemy”. However, in reality cancer is merely cells doing what cells do best – multiplying, over and over. Cancer has no mind of it’s own, and has no will or intent towards us.

Why this myth is unhelpful – The mindless advance of cancer can make us think it has some mystical force attached to it.  Imagining ourselves “fighting”against cancer can help us feel strong, and as if we’re “doing something” about the cancer. But metaphors of evil and malevolence can also be incredibly emotionally and mentally debilitating and anxiety producing, and can feed intense feelings of victimisation and helplessness.

Be the changeInstead of focusing on the negative attributes – real, or imagined – of the cancer, focus always on the positive attributes of the person. Use metaphors which depict cancer as “less than” everything the person with cancer is, instead of setting them up against cancer in a mental conflict they may feel unprepared or unwilling to engage in.

 

MYTH #5 – Cancer is a failure or punishment.

People often say things like “God is trying to teach you something” or “The Universe has a lesson in this for you” when someone is diagnosed with cancer, but in reality, few people really believe this. More often its simply something to say when they don’t really know what else to say. However, some folks really do secretly suspect the person with cancer has done “something wrong” somewhere, taken a “wrong turn” in life, or caused their own cancer because of bad thoughts or feelings. The person themselves may feel this is true.

Why this myth is unhelpful – Whenever we believe cancer has occurred because of a particular shortcoming or behaviour on the part of the person who had it – whether it’s a real cause, like smoking, or a more esoteric one, like unforgiveness – we’ll behave or speak in a way (perhaps even inadvertently) which expresses that judgement. Feeling shame because of something we did we think may have caused the cancer will evoke a sense of condemnation and guilt, and perhaps even resignation about the cancer. Whilst cancer can happen because of things we do or do not do, cancer itself is not a failure or punishment. Even if cancer happened because of something a person did or failed to do, no one ever “deserves” it, nor our judgement about why they have it.

Be the change – Ascribing attributes of justice or “deservedness” to cancer is giving it way more power than it deserves – cancer is actually amoral. Instead of wondering why cancer came in the first place, focus on instilling hope in the possibility of a healed, healthy future. Walk beside them in their journey, helping them direct their energy into people and activities which will foster good health, emotionally and relationally, as well as physically .

 

MYTH #6 – Cancer is the winner.

All those metaphors we use around cancer of battles and fights, heroes and victims, inevitably leads us to some less than conducive images of the outcomes.

Why this myth is unhelpful – Every time we say someone “lost their battle with cancer”, we intimate that between the two of them, cancer was the better and the stronger. But how did cancer win when someone dies? Did the cancer not die with them? And what family can cancer leave behind? What wonderful glory trail of paths blazed, adventures enjoyed or stories written did the cancer forge for future generations? What good memories, smiles and laughter did it and will it continue to inspire? How does cancer outshine us, in life, or in death? How can cancer ever win?

Be the change. We can change the language we use around cancer. We can stop talking about it as if it ever wins, even when someone passes away. People do not “lose their battle” with cancer – they die, and when they do the cancer dies with them. We do not grieve the cancer, nor should we.  The cancer ought never outshine the person we loved in life, nor be exalted as the victor over them when they pass away.WCD_Logo_RGB_2012

Unlike the magnificent human being who we loved, and unfortunately, tragically lost, cancer leaves no legacy worth remembering, and we dishonor all our loved ones amazing achievements in life when we speak of cancer as having bettered or conquered them.

Cancer does not deserve the credit we give it when we speak of it this way. Instead say “They died, after having lived a wonderful life, having loved many and achieved much. They died of cancer, but cancer did not win. ”

Feb. 4th is World Cancer Day

 *http://www.cancerinstitute.org.au/publications/cancer-in-nsw-incidence-and-mortality-2008

*****

 

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #22 You’re Going To Make It

This isn’t going to last forever, my friend.

It came from nowhere, didn’t it? It came from inside you, and not from the outside, like scary things are supposed to. They’re supposed to be under the bed, around the corner, in the closet, in that spooky house across the street, with that car careening down the road. Scary things are supposed to be avoidable – don’t look, don’t go there, don’t follow along with that person or do that stupid thing, and there you go – there’s nothing to be scared of. Scary things aren’t supposed to be inside your body. Scary things aren’t supposed to be made of you. The nowhere cancer came from was inside you – how can this be? How could you not know? How could you not stop it? How can you not make it go away by just avoiding it, or crossing the street or closing the closet? How did this come to have its beginning in you?

Tell me, and I’ll stop doing it. Tell me, because everyone keeps asking me “So, do you know what caused it?” I know they want to avoid the scary thing too. How can I tell them where it came from? Just how do you explain that?

And then there’s what happens when you stop being scared, and you start to get used to the fact you have cancer. There’s what happens when you’ve been all the way through shock and terror and the realisation you could die, and out the other side. When your body decides there’s no point pushing all that energy into emotions any more, and makes up it’s mind that your calories and serotonin would be better used doing other things like keeping you calm, or making healthy cells, or repairing the effects of chemotherapy. And you wonder why you don’t get happy or sad anymore, and why you can’t stay focussed on a movie or an interesting project, and you start to wonder if this what it feels like to start dying.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

And then there’s what happens when you begin to wonder what on earth is real and right and true any more, and what you can trust and what you can’t, and what this means about the way things are in this world, and the kinds of things that can happen to people, even good people. And you think about the future, but you can’t see it the way you used to, in your head or your imagination, or where ever it is that hope is made. And you wonder, “is this a sign?” Does it mean you won’t live to see your graduation, or your wedding, or their graduation or their wedding, because you just don’t dream like that any more? And you wonder, is this what survival means – living the rest of your life with an erased imagination, with shallow dreams, with hope that only extends in minutes and hours and days, and not in years and lifetimes?

This feels like it’s going to last forever, my friend. But it isn’t. You’re reading this because it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been there – and here I am. The flat, dreamless existence you’re dragging yourself through now will one day be a memory. This isn’t going to last forever. You’re going to make it. You’ll make it home. To the graduation and the wedding. To the birth, to the first day of school, to the birthdays and the holidays and the cake and the photos and the laughter. You’ll be there. I promise you. You will be there.

This isn’t going to last forever, my friend. You’re going to make it.

(Dedicated to my little strong, fragile, beautiful friend 🙂 )

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner #21, Curing “Burnt Toast” Syndrome

Before I found out I had cancer, I presented to my local chemist with some puzzling symptoms, one of which was a terrible pain in the ball of my right foot. The pharmacist behind the counter diagnosed me immediately with gout – an accumulation of uric acid crystals in the joint. Horrified at finding out I had something with such an unglamorous name, I asked him what caused it.

“Burnt Toast Syndrome.”

“I beg your pardon?” I imagined I’d contracted a terrible disease caused by too many toxic enzymes in my overcooked breakfast. “What exactly is Burnt Toast Syndrome?”

“Burnt Toast Syndrome” he explained, “is when someone takes responsibility for the happiness of everyone else, and always puts themselves last on the list. In other words, I think you always takes the “burnt piece of toast” so nobody else ever has to feel inconvenienced, disappointed or unhappy. Am I right?”

He was right.

Burnt Toast Syndrome didn’t give me cancer. But after I found out I had cancer, it became pretty clear Burnt Toast Syndrome wasn’t going to help me get better.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

I had to learn it was important for me to take the “freshest piece of toast” more often, and leave the burnt one for someone else, because sometimes others need to learn when to put someone else’s wants and needs before theirs.  I also needed to make my own happiness and comfort a priority as well as that of my family and friends, and stop seeing personal sacrifice and self-denial as noble, or a sign of my love. Teaching others to respect my health and happiness wasn’t wrong, and allowing the people in my life to experience disappointment or inconvenience as I moved myself up my list of personal priorities wasn’t selfish or bad. Having cancer was an opportunity for me to learn to practice self-nurture, because I could hardly expect others to take better care of me than I was prepared to take of myself.

In fact, making martyrs of ourselves may be one of the factors which promote ideal conditions for problems like cancer. If you constantly put yourself at the bottom of the list, you’re bound to become sick – if not physically, then perhaps in some other way.

You don’t get a different result by continuing to make the exact same choices. Today, it’s time to cure yourself of “Burnt Toast Syndrome”. Looking after yourself properly and partaking of good food and healthy, fulfilling activity isn’t wrong, selfish or bad. Listen to what your body is telling you. Something you’ve been doing isn’t working. Time for a change.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #19 We Feel It All

When you’ve had cancer, people assume you’re tougher than most.

Or at the very least, tougher than you were.

“You’re amazing. You’re so strong. I could never go through what you’ve been through.”

But people do go through it. All kinds of people go through cancer. Strong, weak, ready, or not – everyone diagnosed must go through it. We don’t have a choice.

iStock_000011027500XSmall
image credit: iStockphoto

Folks who haven’t been through cancer can only imagine what kinds of things we actually have to experience. Knowing you have cancer and could die is scary and often painful, for sure. But some of the things they have to do to you to get rid of it are even scarier, and more painful.

This week, I was listening to a twelve year-old cancer coaching client tell me what for him was the scariest parts.

“Hearing it was cancer was scary. But the worst parts were when they gave me a bone marrow biopsy, and when they put in my central line (the tube in his chest through which chemotherapy goes). Mum, they’ll knock me out when they take out the central line, won’t they?”

I remember my bone marrow biopsy. “This won’t hurt” the technician assured me as she pushed the needle with all her might into my hipbone. I felt a grinding sensation, and it hurt.

I remember after I’d been in remission for twelve months and some of my CT scan results came back with a report contradicting the scans. My oncologist rang to clarify. “I need to know if you made a mistake on this report before I send this woman back to hospital and they stick a foot long needle into her chest to find out if you made a mistake or not.” I closed my eyes, nausea and panic chasing each other up my throat. They’d stuck a foot long needle into my chest before, twice. Both times I was fully conscious. They never told me I’d feel like the people who were there to fix me were trying to murder me.

I now have a letter from my doctor which says if they need to stick a foot-long needle into my chest again, I need to be unconscious when they do it.

We seem tougher, we folks who’ve had cancer. Perhaps we don’t get as scared by roller coasters or as upset when people do stupid things to us as we used to. It looks like strength, but it’s more likely to be distraction. We’re not frightened by the prospect of hanging upside down strapped into an amusement park ride, because our particular universe now includes the possibility of having foot long needles driven into various parts of our body whilst we’re told to hold still and this won’t hurt, by people who claim to be helping us and not actually murdering us. Our particular reality encompasses now the greatest threat to our life coming from inside our own cells, not from being hit by a buses or bitten by sharks. What looks like strength is really just an expanded view of the terrible things which can really happen to people, and realising they can come from places that are very, very close by, and from people you like and trust who will smile and say “this won’t hurt.”

With and after cancer, we’re still terrified. Sometimes even more terrified than we were before. Terrified by the possibility of things happening most people cannot even conceive of.

“But you could be hit by a bus tomorrow”, folks say, trying to allay what they consider to be our unfounded fears of the illness recurring, or the very painful, intrusive things which we must permit to be done to us as we’re trying to make cancer go away . They say this because being afraid of being hit by a bus is, in their mind, an unjustifiable fear. I imagine this fear is a little more justifiable for someone who has actually been hit by a bus.

It looks like a phobia, but its not a phobia if it’s actually happened, and there is any probability it could happen again.

What happens when the bus, the road and the accident are inside your own body?

People often assume because we’ve had cancer, we’re stronger and tougher than we were. The truth is we may be more resilient in some areas, but may actually be more scared and much weaker in others. Our confidence in our body, and our ability to simply assume bad things just won’t happen to us, may be shaken and never return, but our confidence to ride roller coasters and our resilience in inclement circumstances may be increased.

“My body let me down. It may do again. If it does, scary things will happen to me, and I won’t be able to control those. But time is short, and roller coasters are fun.”

Our tolerance for crap may be decreased. Our willingness to allow ourselves to be subject to pain, abuse and attack may be diminished. This can look like weakness, and it can look like strength, and it’s probably both. It’s also self-preservation.

“My marriage is just bloody hard work. It shouldn’t be this hard. I’m worth better than this.”

Once you’ve felt pain right through to your marrow, you’ll do anything to avoid that kind of pain ever happening again.

We who’ve had cancer look tough. We seem tough. But trust me – we feel it all.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #18 Cancer Winners and Losers, Fighters and Survivors

One of the hardest things about surviving cancer is realising you can’t actually take much credit for it.

I know this flies directly in the face of the “cancer hero” myth, but it’s true. Let’s just be honest – when it comes to cancer there are only two possible outcomes, and cancer survivors by default end up with the only outcome which ever requires an explanation.

And survivors are asked for the explanation for how we survived cancer whether we have one or not.

And if we don’t have one, someone else is sure to provide us with one they just happen to have handy.

Because it’s assumed we “won our fight against cancer” just because we’re still alive and didn’t die.

And the ones who aren’t here to provide an explanation are said to have “lost their battle”.

Because folks generally assume we who get well again are the winners, and the ones who didn’t are – losers?

Despite the cliche, it just doesn’t work that way.

We all go in determined to fight cancer. But not all the fighters survive.

And not everyone who starts out fighting keeps on fighting, and not all the ones who stop fighting die when they do.

Not everyone who gets well again did so because they fought harder than someone who died. Some give up fighting, and live to tell about it.

Some fight and fight and fight, and go down fighting, and don’t get up again.

And just as many die fighting as live having given up fighting.

Fighting cancer, as it turns out, doesn’t really make a lot of difference to the outcomes. You still only get one of the two regardless of how much fighting you do, and how hard you do it.

Despite this, we still we talk about people who survived cancer as having done something clever or praiseworthy, and people who die from cancer as having given in, been defeated, or just plain old lost their battle with cancer.

—–

So as a survivor, people ask me a lot “So, what did you do?”

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

They want to know what I did to survive cancer, because I’m still alive, so clearly whatever I did worked. Naturally, everyone wants a solution to cancer that works.

Truth is, I don’t take any credit for getting physically well again. I did what I was told. I gave up fighting, because I didn’t understand what fighting cancer actually meant, when all I did was lay around and do what others told me and allowed people to do things to me they said would get rid of cancer. I don’t think I did fight cancer, and yet, here I am. I do, however, consider myself a cancer survivor.

Surviving cancer for me wasn’t about not dying, although I certainly didn’t want to die – surviving was about not letting cancer kill me in all the other ways it had the potential to, other ways which had not much to do with whether I would stay in this world or leave it. I figured when it came to actually dying, I’d just cross that bridge when I came to it.

Surviving is something completely different from not dying of cancer.

Surviving for me means having the courage to change the way I was living my life, because I believed cancer came about as a result of choices I’d made I had no business choosing, and paths I’d walked down I had no business walking down. Nothing to do with not dying.

Surviving means getting help for my crippling fear and anxiety – the legacy of being misdiagnosed for seven months then thrown into treatment four hundred kilometres away from my home and family less than a week after I was diagnosed. Again, not not dying.

Surviving means acknowledging my marriage wasn’t going to do likewise, and reminding myself I’d been alone and in pain before, and I could damn-well do it again if I had to.

Surviving means watching almost everyone I met while I was sick, and many, many more in the years that followed, fight, and not live while I lived on.

Surviving means being absolutely determined not to allow the thing which almost killed me define me, or be the most interesting thing which ever happened to me.

Surviving means making sure people don’t consider me a winner just because I didn’t die of cancer.

Surviving also means making sure people don’t talk about all my friends who died from cancer as losers just because they aren’t here to talk about all the ways they fought and survived and won.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #17 Your Burning, Broken, Beautiful Story

Talking about yourself is hard.

Talking about the worst thing that ever happened to you is even harder.

Talking about yourself, and the worst thing that ever happened to you, which also happens to be the one thing the mere mention of which generally sends people crashing backwards across the room, out the door and halfway down the street is the hardest. I don’t care who you are, it just is.

This is why an awful lot of people – probably more than you realise – will never tell anyone they’ve had cancer. Maybe not even when it’s happening.

Cancer and treatment can be lonely, difficult and stressful. It’s stressful for others around us as well. Often, the reason we don’t want to talk about cancer is because it upsets the people who care about us. Even if we managed to cope quite well with the experience, our having cancer may be the worst thing that ever happened to our friends or family, and they may never want to hear about it again. Not talking about cancer may be our way of assuring folks everything is all right again, and normal life has returned.

Not telling anyone about your having cancer, even when you have it, can have its benefits. But there are times when telling people your story is going to be worth the trouble, if not for you, then for the person you’re telling your story to.

There is more than one way for cancer to make us  “sick.” We can be heart sick. Soul sick. Brain sick. Friend sick. Cancer can hurt us in a plethora of ways, other than the obvious physical ones. I know, because I got all these kinds of sick when I had cancer, and more besides.

When I had these ten kinds of sick because of cancer, I really needed contact with another human being who understood what I was going through. More than I needed to hear the cliche’s like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”, more than I needed to stay positive or know how much longer I could expect to live beyond my treatment , I really needed someone who would sit with me and tell me I wasn’t broken because of my thoughts and feelings – someone who could say “I know”, and mean it. It was hard for me to find that kind of help, because many of the folks who’d been where I was had kicked out running and never looked back. Many folks who’d been through cancer didn’t want to go back in to that world, because getting better for them meant leaving it behind. But I knew I needed someone who didn’t just read about the ten kinds of sick I had in a book. I needed someone who truly understood, who spoke the language and recognised the landscape. I needed someone who’d been there.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

Now, even though I’ve been through cancer and treatment, I can’t know exactly what you’ve been through. But I do know this. At some stage, someone is going to ask you about it. Someone is going to want to know what you did when you had cancer and how you did it, and it won’t just be a morbid fascination. It’ll be because this one feels as though they’ve just returned from a foreign land, and they just heard you speak a few words of the language. It’ll be because they’re frightened and feel desperately alone, and all the folks they love look so terrified and helpless whenever they try to talk to them about how they feel. It will be because you represent something they desperately want to believe exists.

The future.

You’ll become a symbol of hope.

And one day, somebody’s eyes will swing around to meet yours, and you’ll see there the familiar fear you’ve faced before, and you’ll want to run away, but your heart will remember that loneliness and terror, and compassion will overcome you. And someone will ask you if you’d mind having your picture taken for the local paper, because they’d like to run a story about cancer to raise awareness, or raise money. Count on it. And one day, you’ll find out that people with cancer in your town can no longer have access to a treatment you were given because someone changed the rules, or someone decided to pull funding, and you’ll become hot with anger and indignation about it, and you’ll want to go and give someone a piece of your mind. And you’ll think about how talking about yourself is hard, and talking about the worst thing which ever happened to you is harder, and talking about yourself and cancer in the same sentence may well be the hardest thing you could ever do. But then you’ll realise you probably already did the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And you’ll know then in that moment, telling your story is just what you need to do.

You survived, you’re surviving, you are a survivor. You did and are doing something very, very hard. People need help, and they also need hope. You don’t learn about how to give people hope out of a book, in a class or from an expert. You learn to give others hope by very almost losing it, and then getting it back again.

You can give people hope. Your story matters. Tell your story.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #15 Your Story Matters

People love stories.

There are many reasons why. Stories connect us. They inform us. They help us feel like we’re okay. They excite us. Inspire us. They comfort us, and illuminate the past and the future. They make us feel special. They help us realise we’re not alone.

What happened to me happened to them.

That’s just like me.

I feel that way.

I want to do that.

That’ll be me one day.

I know what that’s like.

This is who I am.

This is where I belong.

Stories connect us – to place, to people, to experience, to culture, history and to each other.

Indigenous cultures understand the vitality and importance of story. And not just the individual story, the collective story.

The story of me, and the story of us.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

There is an intrinsic power in story we can access and use, but we must overcome any beliefs we hold which dictate telling others about ourselves is something resembling pride, conceit, narcissism, self-centredness or ego.

Those mediocrity-maintaining, self-preserving habits may have served us well in the playground or the classroom, or some other hostile environment, but our story may turn out to be far more powerful than we can imagine.

Your story is important, significant, and infinitely interesting.

People are hurting. We are hurting. We need each others stories.

Someone needs your story.

Yes, your story matters.

*****

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Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #11 You’re Okay.

A few days after I was diagnosed with stage 3B Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, we gathered our four kids around my hospital bed and tried to explain that mum had cancer, as best as you can explain to a 15 year old, 11 year old, 9 year old and 3 year old. As our youngest rolled with glee across the blanket, we solemnly explained that mum was very sick, but we were going to do everything we could to get me well again. We also explained how it might be mummy didn’t get better, or get to come home again, but we weren’t going to think about that right now. We would just do today, and we’d just do today every day. And no matter what happened – no matter what happened  – everything was going to be okay.

Years later, I asked my eldest about what he was thinking around that time. “I was fine. I knew whatever happened, no matter how afraid I was, even if you died, everything was, and was going to be, okay.”

Was our response to my diagnosis normal? Was their reaction normal? Normal? Mum having cancer and possibly going to die? Never. There was nothing normal about our children being put through that.

But were they okay?

We told them whatever happened, whatever they felt, wanted to do, needed to express, pulled closer to or let go of, that was okay.

Even if I never came home again, they were going to be okay.

The situation was not normal, and thinking about whether it was normal, right or fair wasn’t going to help any of us. So instead, we told our kids they would be afraid and there was nothing wrong with that, and no matter what happened to mum, we would find a way to help them feel safe again.

They would feel safe again.

They were okay.

 —–

Here are some of the things I am asked most frequently by people who have cancer, or had cancer –

“I don’t think I can ever go back to the way things were before cancer. Is this normal?”

“It’s difficult for me to trust my body now, after all, I feel it let me down. Is this normal?”

“My friends seem to be over my having cancer, and I know I’m not. Is this normal?”

“I sometimes wake up in the night so anxious and scared I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m going to die. Is this normal?”

“My friends tell me I’ve changed. I’m just not interested in doing the things we used to enjoy. Is this normal?”

“I just want to forget cancer ever happened. Is this normal?”

“I’m a wreck. Is this normal?”

“I’m perfectly okay. Is this normal?”

And I say “Normal? Probably not. But is it okay? Absolutely.”

When it comes to cancer, and the other traumas and terrible things which can happen to us, there is no such thing as “normal”, old, new, or otherwise. But there is such a thing as “okay”.

There is no use me telling you your feelings are abnormal and you need to correct them. There is no benefit to you in me trying to make you into the same person you were before cancer. Judging certain thoughts and emotions as good or bad isn’t going to help you cope, or change the past. There is no “getting back to normal.” How will you know if you ever get there?

But it’s completely different when we talk about being okay. When I say “you’re okay”, what I mean is I’m not judging the way you live your life, your thoughts and emotions or your choices as good or bad. They are what they are. They’re all yours, and they’re all valid.

What you’re feeling is okay. What you want and don’t want are also okay. What you feel you can’t do is okay, and what you want to do is also okay. There will be things you do you regret, and things you don’t do you regret, but it’s all okay. It really is. Forget about normal. What’s normal anyway? If you abide by statistics, then something which happens to every second person in the general population – like cancer – could be said to be “normal.”

Is cancer normal?

Did it feel anything like what normal is supposed to feel like to you?

Let’s just forget the concept of normal, and let’s go for okay instead, okay?

Is cancer okay? Is having cancer okay? Absolutely not.

Are you okay? Yes, you are. Is everything you think and feel because of cancer okay? Sure is. Will everything be okay, regardless of what happens, or whether everything goes back to how it was before?

I believe so.

When it comes down to it, you’re probably not normal.

But you are okay.

*****

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Soul Letters For The Cancer Sojourner #6 – Letting Other People Be Part Of Your Story When You Have Cancer

It can be challenging including others in a cancer experience.

When things are at their worst, we want to protect the people we love from feeling the same anxiety and confusion we are. So we smile when we feel like crying. We hide behind a locked door, telling folks it’s “not a good day”. We stay in when we could go out. We change the subject, force a laugh, literally put on a brave face as they walk in the room – and take it off again when they go, collapsing from the exhaustion of trying to be one of those ones everybody brags on who “never complains”.

And then there are the times when we just want to punch people in the head for being so nice.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

Sometimes, being a cancer hero is just bloody hard work.

Nobody wants to be a cancer whiner. We don’t even want to hear about it any more, so why would anyone else? Cancer isn’t very exciting, not nearly as exciting and interesting as others seem to think. Can’t we just change the subject?

“Can I come around and see you?” Can you come around and look at me, you mean. Sure! Bring your friends! You can all go out to lunch afterwards and have something interesting to talk about! OR NOT.

Yep, it’s challenging, knowing how to include others in a cancer experience.

There’s not many things worse than feeling patronised, placated and pussy-footed around. But as someone with a scary disease,  allowing others to come around you and give their little offerings to you in the ways they know how is really important for them. It lets them know they have power against cancer too, because they are shit-scared and feel inadequate and intimidated, just like you. Allowing others near you gives meaning and purpose to them in the cancer, at a time when they may be feeling completely useless and powerless.

They’ll tell you later, “Do you remember when I….”, and you may not even remember what they did and when they did it, but they will. And that matters.

Let go, and let others. Even if it’s only sometimes. There ain’t no medals for this, you know.

*****

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