When Life Hands You Lemons

If you doubt the power of your imagination to have a direct influence on your body, try this quick experiment:

Imagine you have a big bowl of fresh lemons. Their tangy aroma fills the air and you admire their waxy, dimpled skin. You get a knife and a cutting board and start cutting the lemons in half. As you cut them you release the juice on to the board and you see the oil from the skin vaporise into the air. You cut the lemons length wise, into wedges. You pick up a wedge of lemon and put it in your mouth, sucking out the tart juice and enjoying that combination of sweet and sour. Your mouth puckers. You reach for another wedge of lemon……

If your imagination is fully functional you should be salivating.

How is that possible? You know you’re not actually eating a wedge of lemon. You’re just reading about it on a screen. But your body has had a measurable, physical reaction triggered only by your imagination. You have not abandoned logic and reason. If I ask you, you will not claim to have actually eaten a lemon. You will know that this is the power of your imagination.

When you stop and think about it, we’re setting off reactions in our body every day using our minds. When we cry or laugh or experience the emotions of characters in a movie our imagination activates our empathy, our ability to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

We can use anticipation to feel excited about something we’ve got planned in the future. We can also use it to ruminate about something we dread. Both states are entirely generated by our imagination and both involve a quick trip into the future, but the physical effects are very different.

Using our imagination comes easily. Controlling the way we use it takes practice.

When you’re waiting to start chemotherapy it’s very easy to obsess about possible side effects, worry about the blood test and heart test before hand, and recoil at the idea of bags of highly toxic chemicals going into your arm via a catheter. Just the catheter is enough to send some people into a spin.

In the lead up to chemotherapy I worked on using my imagination to overcome my fears and to prepare to battle cancer. Hooray! Retail therapy!

Some time soon I’ll put up my shopping list for anyone preparing for chemo. For those of you lucky enough to not have cancer the principle is easy to understand. When something potentially frightening is looming it’s possible to use your imagination to flip it over into something positive.

I really wanted chemotherapy. I read as much as I could about how cancer grows and spreads as well as how chemotherapy kills it. This was part of developing my battle strategy and providing my imagination with some useful information for creative visualisations.

I purchased lots of things I knew I would need and imagined that I was collecting an arsenal of weapons and ground support. I hummed Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries (google it; great battle music), and used all my warrior poses in yoga to prepare my body for the fight of my life. I shaved my head again while thinking “Bring it on! I’m coming to get you, cancer!”

My beautiful friend, Jo, made a flying visit to talk to me about her strategies and choices when she fought her own battle. She reminded me that the most important thing was to be clear and strong in my own choices. She bravely discussed her double mastectomy, her post-surgical issues and her absolute delight at being alive. I am so grateful to have her in my life. If you can make contact with someone like Jo, someone that has already climbed the mountain and killed the beast, they are are wonderful source of inspiration. People do survive this disease. These days you are much more likely to survive it than not. Jo is my constant reminder of this fact.

Next I recruited my army. I used to be the kind of person that was reluctant to ask others for help. Someone pointed out to me how much I like it when that shoe is on the other foot. I love helping other people.

Nobody likes to feel useless, particularly when someone they care about is facing a life threatening illness. I let friends know that the most important thing they could do would be to stay in contact and to keep sending me their messages of love and support. Day by day their love and kindness has been my greatest ammunition against this disease. Cancer doesn’t stand a chance against these people. Facebook has been a wonderful tool for staying in touch.

Of course, some of them offered practical support. Our freezer filled up with individual serves of home cooked massaman curry, we had offers of drivers for treatment, help with the garden and people that gave up the day to come and take me out somewhere beautiful to sit and look at the ocean and feel peaceful. My Mum found beautiful plants and books for me and a wonderful juicer. Several people arrived with thoughtful gifts including home made cookies for guests (we ate them all) and a whimsical coffee set that makes me smile every morning.

If you have cancer it’s important to learn how to ask for help. Your battle will be so much easier with an army behind you.

My right and left flank were my husband and my daughter. Both of them stepped in to take over chores for me, found ways to make my life easier and wrapped me in their unconditional love and support. Although they both wanted to make my recovery the major focus of our family life I’ve asked for balance. Their own lives are important too and shouldn’t stop because of my illness.

My daughter is finishing her first degree and enjoying the first year of living with her boyfriend. My husband has a stressful IT job and enjoys playing in two bands and his volunteering with the local Rural Fire Service. I’m aware that my health is a major source of stress and concern for them. I am grateful to be this side of it. My worst nightmare would be to watch either of them go through it. I want them to know that their help is invaluable to me, and that one of the most important things they can do for me is to take good care of their own health, to keep doing the things that they enjoy and to not let my cancer become a vortex that sucks the life out of our family. They need to keep doing the things they love as well as helping me fight cancer. Balance.

I was admitted to the ward for my first chemotherapy treatment. Usually you would go to their cottage but being on the ward meant I could start earlier, and by now this was my priority. I arrived in a great mood with one of my dearest friends by my side saying, “Is this the place that has the excellent cancer killing drugs?” I entertained the nurse by telling her I didn’t want suppositories because I’d had them before and they were useless; I may as well have put them up my bum! To my amazement she hadn’t heard this very old joke before. I commented to the staff that it must be very satisfying to work in a job where you were literally saving lives. My adrenaline was pumping but I channelled it into humour and excitement over finally starting treatment.

I used deep breathing to relax my arm as the doctor inserted the catheter. Thanks to Jo’s advice, I drank lots of water and ate the crushed ice they gave me. She had recommended this as an important factor in fighting nausea. Another friend that lives near the hospital called in to give me a hug and distract me for a while. After my visitors had left I relaxed and put my iPod on, lay back and listened to yoga music and meditation. I imagined the drugs heading straight for the cancer, seeping into it and melting it. The battle had begun.

We’ve all heard the saying, when life hands you lemons make lemonade. I also think that when life hands you shit you should plant roses.

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