Getting doctors to take us seriously

I woke up this morning to news that a friend is in hospital with a burst appendix. This should not have happened.

She developed the characteristic pain associated with appendicitis last week and saw an after hours doctor. She was referred to a hospital for assessment where she was examined by another doctor who decided she didn’t need further treatment. She was not offered either ultrasound or a CT scans. She was sent home.

Her doctor accepted the word of the hospital doctor and continued to work with my friend to determine what was going on. There were tests. There was pain medication and ultimately a burst appendix. All this in spite of my friend repeatedly reporting acute abdominal pain.

I can’t help wondering if women reporting pain are treated differently to men reporting pain. This is not my only recent experience of this apparent bias.

My daughter has an unfortunate history of not being taken seriously by doctors, particularly with regard to pain. As her mother, I know that she is inclined to actually be rather stoic when it comes to pain. She does not exaggerate and she’s likely to wait a while before she resorts to pain medication. I know that if she says she is in pain she means it.

And yet, time and again she has had doctors dismiss her with a shrug of their shoulders and a suggestion that she should ‘just keep an eye on it’. This week she will have surgery on her finger. It has been causing problems for a couple of years now. It is always tender and if she bumps it against anything she experiences strong, stabbing pain on the underside of the nail bed. She has repeatedly told various doctors about the problem.

Finally my daughter encountered a freshly minted doctor, filling in at the practice she regularly attends. The locum was interested enough to send her for an MRI. What it revealed was a tumour. While currently likely to be benign, this type of tumour does have the potential to become cancerous. It needs to be removed.

My daughter is understandably angry. She’s not only had years of pain in the hand, she’s had it while working through a university degree and having to type on a daily basis. She’s had it in spite of several reports to doctors who seem to have just assumed she was over stating her pain, or displaying some kind of hypochondria.

Not only that, but this is just the most recent in a series of similar events where it has taken her two, three or four visits to different doctors before she finally finds someone prepared to take her seriously. In every single case there was a serious underlying medical condition that required treatment.

How does this happen? Are doctors’ surgeries so filled with over-reporting, attention-seeking women that the rest of us get tarred with the same brush?

My daughter wonders if she would have received better treatment if she had been a man, particularly a large, football-playing man. I think she would have. I think a doctor would have assumed that any man attending the surgery and reporting acute pain in his finger had something worthy of further investigation.

If you are a doctor and you are reading this then I would like to offer this piece of advice. Please do not assume. Your opinions about female patients might have some basis in fact and I allow for that. It could be that women actually are more inclined to exaggerate their symptoms or to seek medical attention when some over the counter pain relief and a bit of rest are all that is needed. Personally, I doubt this. It is inconsistent with my own experience but my personal experience is limited and perhaps you know better.

Still, here’s the thing, even if some women (or even most women) are inclined to this type of behaviour, many of us are not. Many of us are the type of people that wait to see a doctor and possibly wait a bit too long. When we arrive at your surgery seeking your help we’ve already given time and Panadol a go. We have already been ‘keeping an eye on it’ and that is why we are now seeking your help.

You might also like to keep in mind that we have a naturally higher pain threshold than men. There’s good science on this. So when we report pain it is likely to be more serious, not less.

I think it’s just possible that there is a long history of characterising women unfairly. We used to be treated for ‘hysteria’, a mysterious condition thought to be caused by our womb roaming our body and creating mood swings. In recent years the assumption that our menstrual cycle will result in strange and irrational behaviour every month has become so widely accepted that it now gets used as a criminal defence. The truth is that most of us manage to live our lives without turning into raging lunatics once a month.

Menopause is characterised by some as an onset of permanent mood swings that are as suddenly changeable as New Zealand weather patterns. Which is odd, given that I now keep company with a circle of post menopausal friends who clearly manage entire days, weeks and months of sensible behaviour.

Enough.

Women are not over emotional. We are not, by nature, moody, unreasonable, attention-seeking drama queens. Most of us are just like men in this regard; capable of experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions and expressing them in appropriate ways. The exceptions are just that. Getting doctors to understand this is not just about better bedside manner. It is about saving lives.

My daughter’s cyst could have become a tumour. My friends appendix has burst and she is now dealing with the risk of long term health consequences because of it. Head to any cancer forum and you will read story after story of women that were told a lump was nothing to worry about only to discover it was a tumour. We’re not making this stuff up!

As patients I think we also need to be aware that this bias exists. I wish it was as easy as saying to a doctor, ‘Do you think you might take me more seriously if I was a man with these symptoms?’ I am known to be what my husband politely refers to a a ‘forthright’ but even I would find this kind of comment too confrontational. There are gentler ways to achieve the same outcome.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if we enter a doctor’s surgery with a clear idea of what we want and refuse to leave until we get it. Being able to ask for a scan or some other form of diagnostic test can be difficult. We want to trust our medical professionals. We feel rude challenging their diagnosis.

I have found that it can be useful to frame this kind of request as a need for reassurance. This doesn’t challenge your doctor’s expertise. It can also be useful to ask your doctor to consider alternatives. Yes, a second opinion is an option but it is also both time consuming and expensive, and there is no guarantee that you’ll be treated any better by another doctor.

So here, in the interests of better health care, are my suggestions for questions to ask your doctor when you feel like you’re getting the ‘silly woman’ treatment:

I have been worried about this and I would really feel a lot better if I could have an x-ray (ultrasound, bone scan, blood test etc).

I know you don’t recommend having any kind of testing for this but I’d like one anyway.

May I please have a referral for an ultrasound? And if your doctor replies that they do not think you need one: I appreciate that but I would like one anyway.

What should I do if I still have the same symptoms in a couple of days? (Next week? Next month?)

What else might be causing this? 

None of these questions are rude or discourteous in any way. You’re just asking for what you want. Of course asking for what you want can feel like hard work in an environment where you know you might be dismissed as over reacting, simply because of your gender.

Which is precisely why I think we should all get a lot better at doing it.

 

 

Book Reviews!

There’s something mildly terrifying about writing a book.

In the writing phase I was consumed with craft and content. I wanted it to be simple, but not too simple. Useful and not overwhelming. Helpful and not exhausting.

After completing the first draft I put it aside for several weeks, came back to it and was shocked by how much repetition and useless waffle it contained. I edited fiercely.

A couple of people read through the draft for me, including one very generous friend whose a professional writer. The feedback was good. It was time to publish. No reason not to just jump right in and do it. And yet it felt terrifying! It suddenly occurred to me that I was putting myself out there, open to whatever criticism people decided to hurl at me. I metaphorically chewed my nails as I waited for the book reviews to arrive.

First came the friends. How I love my friends! A couple of them found the time to post their comments on the Amazon site. Here’s what they said:

A very valuable resource for everyone, not only those that have had cancer. There is so much knowledge and information within this book for tools with working through freeing yourself from fear. I believe sometimes when we get caught in fear, there is fog, we don’t seem to acknowledge our own values and get lost in the mist. There is so much within this book that draws on many techniques for working through this and with a lovely sense of humour, it shows Meg McGowan has had the life experience to walk the talk. Thank you Meg McGowan.

And this:

If I could pay $5 to avert one hour of meaningless fear, would I spend it? “Of course!” I thought, and bought this book.
It turned out to be full of practical ideas that I can use straight away on myself and the fearful ones around me…thats everyone alive.
Holding hands with the fear-monster is a sweet image, and does it work?
Well, I tested it.
After reading the book I did a suitable amount of scary-monster hand-holding, then went though a list of scary phone calls, scary conversations, procrastinated tasks.
I’m unharmed, and the quality of my future is now better. You don’t need a life-threatening illness for this book to protect and nourish you.
As a bonus, dandelions will forever look more beautiful, after reading this book.

When I checked today I found two reviews from people I don’t know. How exciting! Here’s what they’ve said:

If a cancer diagnosis feels like too much to bear, you’ll find solid comfort here. The exercises are quick and easy to perform. Yet they are profound and will produce lasting results. McGowan’s book is filled with wisdom that can only have come from one intimately familiar with the traumatizing effects of cancer diagnosis and treatment. I strongly urge you to buy this book. You’ll be glad you did and will, like me, refer to it for years to come. This book is a rare find, and the author deserves praise.

And this:

This book ticks all the boxes for handling the fear of recurrence that is part of all cancer patients’ lives after diagnosis.
It is written clearly and cuts through all the fog that surrounds us when we feel overwhelmed.
As a breast cancer survivor, I think Free from Fear should be on everyone’s Important Items list.
It is an exceptional read from someone who has been there, and understands.

Over on the Breast Cancer Network Australia site I’m also getting some really great feedback. Time to exhale.

You see, the thing is, even if I now get negative responses, or even if I never sell another copy of the book, it’s all been worth it.

Maybe I should write another one 😀

Here’s the Australian link (Kindle only)
Free From Fear on Amazon.au

Here’s the US site where you can also get the paperback.
Free From Fear on Amazon

There’s a promotion coming up on the 19th of June when the Kindle version will be available for free for three days. I’m celebrating four years since that visit to Breastscreen found three triple negative tumours, so it seemed like a good way to celebrate.

Thanks so much to everyone for all of your support. I couldn’t have done it without you. ❤

Falling in Love Again

Cancer makes you question everything.

You realise your days are numbered. You realise your days have always been numbered and you’ve been ignoring that universal and obvious fact for most of your life. Oh sure, at some level you’ve known you were ultimately going to die, but it always seemed like an event that was so far away it didn’t register as important.

Then cancer.

Then the possibility that death might be closer than you think.

Suddenly, your life so far gets thrown into sharp focus. What have you done with it? What can you mark up as achievements? What dreams did you realise and what got lost along the way?

Perhaps the most important question of all finally occurs to you: Is this how you want to spend the rest of your life?

Some people are transformed by cancer. They walk away from boring jobs, leave abusive or uncaring partners or abandon a life they inherited rather than created. Some finally find the courage to take big risks. That might involve jumping out of a plane or finally having an honest conversation.

There’s not much about cancer you’d call wonderful, and yet…

It is wonderful to have the opportunity to take an honest inventory of your life so far, to acknowledge the achievements and the joys, to mark the disappointments and the failures. It’s very reassuring to be in a place where we understand that our lives have been very much like every other person’s life. The colours and the flavours of our experiences are different but the ebb and flow of joy and sorrow is common to all of us.

It’s an opportunity for deep conversations about what has been and what will be and how it will all be evaluated. My husband asked me, ‘Is there anything on your bucket list?’

I’m one of those people that’s found ways to do the things that were important to me as I went along. I don’t have a burning need to hang glide (did it), or parachute (not doing it). I can look back over the last 50 years and be proud of some of my achievements and embarrassed by some of my behaviour, just like everyone else. So this was the answer to my husband’s question.

“I’d like to fall in love again.”

It was a punch to the heart. He looked away. He sighed. He curled his lips in and waited, with that look he gets when he’s about to say something difficult. Then he said this.

“I can understand that. I ………..”

He hates it when I cut him off mid sentence but I really had to.

“Oh Sweetheart! I didn’t mean with someone else! I meant I’d really like to fall in love with YOU again!”

We’ve been together a long time. Like most couples, we’d settled into a routine where our patterns were well known and predictable. We were comfortable. We were both content. But faced with the sudden possibility that I might not be around much longer I’d taken to contemplating what really mattered to me. What really matters to me is connection, intimacy and love.

Stuff is just stuff. You buy it. You enjoy it for a while. Then you have to maintain it. You give it away. You buy more stuff. It will never make you happy.

Achievement is a little more rewarding but ultimately no less fleeting. Who will remember what I did during my working life? Or the art or the writing or anything else I produced? Most of us will not have any impact beyond our circle of friends, and perhaps some of the people they know.

But love? Ah, what is there that compares to it. It’s no surprise that research into human contentment keeps turning up intimacy and connection to others as the main precursors to a good life. There’s also our personal experience. Think back to the times in your life that brought you the greatest joy and they’re probably about love.

So how to fall in love again? With the same person?

I started with a New York Times article that’s become so well known it turns up in television shows (most recently Big Bang Theory). It reported on a piece of research where strangers asked each other a series of questions and many of them fell in love. Here’s the link:

The 36 questions that make you fall in love

We spent a few evenings working through these questions. It was fun. We had some great conversations and were surprised to find that we still had so much unknown territory to explore. I think part of the reason we fall in love is that the early stages of a relationship, when we are getting to know each other, are so fascinating. We are not just fascinated by our new friend, we recognise that they find us fascinating in return. Is there anything more attractive?

I started thinking that perhaps the reason the 36 questions worked so well was less to do with the content of the questions, and more to do with the process. When you’ve been married for a while you stop being fascinated with each other. You also stop having that experience of your partner finding you fascinating. Questions that give you the opportunity to get back there could be about almost anything.

I spent some time researching similar ideas. It turns out that there are a lot of lists that people have put together. Some of them are about building greater intimacy, having better sex, building commitment, having interesting conversations or just getting through a party where you don’t know anyone. Working on the basis that the process of setting aside time to ask each other questions and to listen to the answers was more important than the actual questions, I bought a few packs of blank playing cards and copied out anything even remotely interesting.

The challenge here was not to edit too savagely. As you’ll see from the 36 questions, something surprisingly inane might lead to a really great discussion. When it comes to your partner, you don’t know what you don’t know and you shouldn’t make assumptions.

I put the cards into a little decorative box that I picked up at the discount store. It’s now part of our lives for one of us to suggest that we ‘do cards’. About once a week we’ll sit in the family room and take turns drawing a card and answering the question on it. Sometimes we’ll both answer the same question and sometimes we’ll just stick to our own card. Sometimes we’ll get through several cards and sometimes a single card will prompt and entire conversation.

The cards help us to ask each other questions that would be difficult without a third party. Drawing a card that starts, “Do you think……….” allows for an open discussion, where asking the same question directly can get caught up in assumptions, hidden subtext and anxiety. There are definitely questions in this stack that would unnerve me if my husband had asked them directly (Where is he coming from with that? What’s the point of that question? Is he trying to tell me something?) but the card makes it neutral. And either of us is allowed to decline to answer. We just put the card on the bottom of the pack and draw another one.

It’s a fun game. The result is that we’re now connecting the way we did when we were first dating. My husband continues to surprise me with his wisdom, insight, humour and kindness. The cards provide me with the joy of his undivided attention, and an opportunity to talk deeply about things that really matter to us, rather than the functional conversations we have everyday.

At one point, Graham suggested marketing the cards. Proving that most great ideas have already occurred to someone else, I found a sight called The School of Life. Guess what they sell. Yep, cards with questions on them.

The Game of Life Shop

We’re not through my home made cards yet, and we could probably work through the pack a few times and have several different conversations, but when we’ve exhausted them I’ll be buying some of these.

As a consequence of spending time together, talking about a huge range of things and sharing our feelings and opinions, we’ve found that we feel closer than ever. This has carried over into other parts of our lives. We’re enjoying each other’s company and looking for events to share together. I’m remembering what it is that made me want to marry this man.

It’s also helping me to understand that, post surgery and without breasts, my body matters less to my husband than my mind and my heart. We will both get old. I’m hoping we both get really old! Our bodies will continue to be less attractive to anyone else. This has nothing to do with our deep connection to each other. We still love to touch and hold each other. We will never stop discovering things about each other. To the rest of the world we are just ordinary people, but to each other we are fascinating.

Have I fallen in love again?

What do you think.

 

 

 

 

A Day of Rest

I might be about to officially enter the ranks of ‘old person’. I’m going to write about something we used to do when I was young that doesn’t happen anymore. ‘In my day…..’

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m generally not sentimental about the past. I think our species has come a long way in the last fifty or so years. We are, on the whole, less violent, more tolerant and more interested in family and community than we are in power or the accumulation of personal possessions.

But I miss Sundays.

When I was a kid the shops were closed on Sunday. Saturday was the day you went shopping. If you were fortunate enough to live in a country town you also spent a lot of time saying hello to other people, stopping for a polite chat with those that weren’t close friends, but were part of your community. A lot of people also relegated time on Saturdays to cleaning the house or mowing the lawn.

Sundays were for resting.

For those that were members of a church or other religious congregation, Sundays were a day of gathering and worship. For everyone else there were the secular traditions; a Sunday roast with immediate or extended family, a walk or a nap after lunch, a quiet corner with a good book and an early night so we were all well rested for the week to come.

I wonder to what extent the chronic stress, anxiety and depression that now plagues us can be traced to the introduction of Sunday trading. You can now shop seven days a week. Thanks to online shopping, you can now shop 24 hours a day.

Marketing has always played with human psychology. It’s designed to make us want what we didn’t know we wanted. Its primary weapons are greed and anxiety. It seeks to convince us that more stuff will make us happier, more attractive, more successful. Even though we know in our hearts that this is untrue, we buy anyway.

This week three things bubbled to the surface of my world. The first was a piece about two studies into human behaviour that have been running for around 70 years. They’ve been tracking participants since they were kids at college in the USA. They can now tell us what it is that leads to people declaring their lives successful and happy. It’s connection to other people. Imagine! Not wealth or power or fame. It’s all about the quality of your relationships with others.

The next bubble was an article about resilience. Researchers are recommending that all the techniques for dealing with trauma and stress are of little benefit to us if we don’t take time to rest and recharge. It’s the quality of our time out that makes the difference.

How interesting that both pieces of research seem to be stating the glaringly obvious.

The final bubble in this week’s mix was a tiny purple flower that appeared on Facebook. It allowed us to express our gratitude. In addition to indicating that we liked or loved something, or were amused, amazed or angered by it, we could show our gratitude. A few days after it was introduced it was gone. There’s a petition to bring it back. I loved it. So did a lot of other people.

The research into expressing gratitude shows us that doing it regularly is good for us. It helps us to be happier with what we have. It pushes back against the marketing onslaught and allows us to look around our existing environment and appreciate that, for most of us, we already have enough. Gratitude also reminds us that the things that matter most to us are our relationships with other people, the opportunities we have to connect with nature and fun we have when we take time out from work.

I wonder if there’s a group of highly paid psychologists somewhere, recommending the Facebook owners avoid anything that encourages people to express gratitude. It can’t be good for business. If we are focusing on what we have and the importance of relationships and experiences over things, we are surely much less likely to want to spend money on things we didn’t need in the first place. We might even decide to spend less time on Facebook.

For my part, I’m signing the petition to bring back the grateful flower, I’m continuing to limit Facebook to no more than an hour in the morning and I’m spending time each Sunday recording seven things I’m grateful for.

I’m also reinstating a commitment to Sunday as a day of rest. That might mean lunch on the verandah with good friends or just going for a relaxing walk with my husband. There will definitely be more reading and the occasional trip to the movies. I also want to spend more time sitting in the garden and just enjoying it, rather than planting, weeding and mulching. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the gardening. It’s that I want to stop and appreciate the outcome.

I hope this week you’ll find some time to rest and recover. Maybe it’s time to reflect on your achievements or the quality of your close relationships. Maybe it’s escaping into a book or a movie. Whatever you decide to do, know that you’re doing your mind, your body and your spirit a favour. Rest is undervalued. I think it’s time we turned that around.

Do we get what we expect?

I’m in the void between writing and publishing; that place where you send your baby book out to a few trusted people for what you hope are some minor corrections and constructive feedback.

And then you wait.

Early indications are that it’s readable and useful. I’m still on track to publish either late April or early March. I still don’t have a name I like. I started with ‘What if the Cancer Comes Back?’ but figured most people wouldn’t want to buy it. I moved on to ‘Worried Sick by Cancer’. Same problem. I really want a title that’s focused on what the book will help you to achieve, rather than the problem it’s trying to address.

Having said that, popular wisdom is that it needs the word ‘cancer’ in the title. Something to do with algorithms and search engines and online potential. I really like ‘Fear + Less’.
It’s a book about fearing less. But is this too obscure? And it doesn’t contain the word ‘cancer’. All thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

In the meantime, I’m contemplating the extent to which we get what we expect. I had coffee with a friend that hasn’t been to yoga for a few months. She hurt her foot and ended up in one of those ski boot looking things that they use instead of a cast. She was telling me that when it came off, her whole leg was wasted and that she’s still regaining strength.

Then she said this: “It will never be the same. I’m always going to walk with a limp.”

Hold on a minute. You’ve only had the boot off for a couple of weeks and you’ve already decided that you’ve got a permanent disability. When I asked her why she thought this she replied that her doctor had delivered this miserable diagnosis and that it reflected her own fears, so she saw no reason to reject it.

I reminded her that post-mastectomy I was told I’d be likely to experience some permanent restriction to my range of movement. It was likely that taking two F cup breasts from my body, and the subsequent scars running under my arms, would mean that my arms just wouldn’t be able to do what I was used to them doing. A combination of scar tissue and nerve damage would see to that.

When I put my hands above my head I still need to slightly adjust my left hand to bring it to the same height as my right. That’s it. Oh, I sometimes have some tightness to the left side if I twist. I can also put my hands into a reasonable ‘reverse prayer’ (put your hands into prayer position and now see if you can do the same thing behind your back), and a couple of weeks ago I held something called ‘crow pose’ for a good five seconds.

Crow pose involves crouching forward with your hands on the ground, putting your knees on the backs of your upper arms and then lifting your feet. Google for impressive pictures. Essentially, I can support my entire body weight on my upper arms.

I’m a 55 year old woman whose had a bilateral mastectomy.

I’m also close to four years since my diagnosis and a few months further away from three since my surgery. Recovery did not happen quickly. I still have some issues with my hands and my feet thanks to the nerve damage from chemotherapy and I also get annoying pain across various parts of my chest on a regular basis. It turns out that this is common post-mastectomy. I don’t accept that either condition is permanent.

I think of all the various aches and pains I’ve had during treatment, and all the way back throughout my life. What an amazing capacity our bodies have to heal. I also recognise that some recovery takes much longer. I think we have a mindset that a few weeks is a reasonable healing time because that’s about how long it takes for a cut to heal.

Here’s the thing. Skin heals quickly. It has to. It’s the outside, protective coating for our bodies. Other things heal more slowly.

I was told by my oncologist that whatever nerve damage I had at the end of twelve months was probably my ground zero. Things weren’t going to get any better. Then the radiation oncologist told me that nerves can take up to eight years to regrow. Eight years! So let’s wait until then before writing off my healing capability. Certainly things have improved slowly but if I’d accepted the first diagnosis I’d be focusing on the pain and discomfort and not bothering with physiotherapy to improve my condition.

I’ve recently read about some interesting research into chronic pain. People that experience it have a different kind of brain. Researchers can put 100 people through an MRI and detect which ones experience chronic pain by looking at the architecture of their brain. Here’s what’s really interesting; they can also predict which people will develop chronic pain using the same techniques.

It turns out that to some extent, pain really is all in our minds! At least, it’s more likely in those of us with a particular kind of mind.

This is huge. About one in five people report either chronic or sever pain. It’s the reason pharmaceutical companies invest so much money in pain relief. It also explains why so many of these medications affect brain chemistry.

This might sound like your propensity to experience chronic pain is just some kind of genetic lottery, but it’s more complex than that. A whole range of things directly impact the way our brain functions. It’s no surprise that chronic stress can cause exactly the kind of changes that result in chronic pain. People with higher levels of anxiety or depression are also at risk. Some recreational drugs, including alcohol, are also linked to the same kinds of changes in the brain that result in chronic pain.

So what about the brains of people that are less prone? Of course those with a calm disposition, and good techniques for coping with anxiety and stress do well. (Don’t ever let anyone try to tell you that there’s a human being on the planet that never experiences anxiety, stress, grief or anger.)

The robust mind might also belong to someone that used to be prone to chronic pain. These people have usually altered the way they live their lives to reduce stress and anxiety. They probably practice meditation regularly and may also use yoga, tai chi, qigong or some other form of calming exercise routine. Track these people over time and their MRI’s will show physical changes to their brains. They don’t cope with a pain-prone brain by soothing it, they actually change the architecture of their brains to something less likely to experience chronic pain.

Of course, what this means is that even my ‘permanent chronic pain’ diagnosis is now up for argument. It’s just possible that with yoga and meditation I can overcome pain. It’s certainly highly likely that I can reduce it.

I noticed a few months back when a visitor complained of a headache that our medicine chest was full of pain relief medication. I had stocked up on it, having been told I’d probably be taking it for the rest of my life. I couldn’t be sure about the last time I took anything but it was certainly months ago. I didn’t decide not to take the pills, or to endure serious pain. My pain just hadn’t been strong enough for me to want a pill.

There are still times when I consider medication, and still very rare times when I take something, but that’s a long way from six tablets a day. I think my progress is due, to a very large extent, to my daily yoga and meditation.

I also think that part of it is due to my expectation that we can always improve our health. There’s no upper limit to how well we can be. Ultimately, a doctor’s diagnosis is just an educated guess, an opinion based on what they thing other patients in similar circumstances have experienced.

Personally, I’d like to see doctors trained to talk about possibilities rather than absolutes. This isn’t about putting a shine on a bad situation. It’s about being accurate. I’d like to hear them use language like this:

Based on what we know about your condition there’s a possibility that you may have permanent pain or physical restriction and there’s also a possibility that you may not. The body has an amazing capacity for healing and it can sometimes take years before it’s finished the job of recovery. There’s a lot you can do to improve your health and there’s no upper limit to how well you can be.

I suppose we’re still years away from meditation being recommended, in spite of the overwhelming research that proves it’s more beneficial and more effective than any pharmaceutical your doctor can prescribe. Ideally, I’d like to see practices that included a psychologist to teach people the techniques they need to live a fulfilling life. I’m sure that would have more impact on public health than all the pills in the world.

Regardless of where you are with your own recovery, please know that nobody has the right to steal your hope. Doctors that make proclamations about your limits are sharing their opinions, and while they are very well informed opinions they are not a sentence. When it comes to recovery it’s best to keep an open mind. We may be capable of more than we think. Certainly we will never get more than we expect.

A bit of a book

Hi everyone,
As most of you know, I’m busy working on a book about dealing with fear of recurrence. It’s a huge problem for most people that have survived cancer and the one I get asked about the most.

I’m still playing around with what to call it but at this stage the working title is ‘Worried Sick by Cancer’. I thought you might like a bit of a sample from the opening chapters, so here’s a taster:

The downward spiral of distraction

Just about everything I’ve read about dealing with fear of recurrence recommends distraction as a strategy. We’re told to go for a walk, watch a movie, play with the dog or bury our attention in a new hobby.

Some people distract themselves with healthy activities and others use food or drugs or risk taking to try and conquer their fears. Distraction is a ‘flight’ response to our fear.

All forms of distraction will work some of the time and there are some particular types of distraction that are really useful (more on that later) but for the most part, distraction isn’t a reliable response to fear.

Let’s go through this step-by-step.

You’re facing the fear that your cancer will come back and so you try to distract yourself. You go for a walk, watch some television, maybe phone a friend. If you’re like most people the fear comes with you.

You find yourself experiencing a cycle; a little bit of distraction followed by a little bit of fear. You notice the distraction isn’t working. This makes you even more anxious. You don’t want to be fearful and now you’re anxious about being fearful.

You stick with distraction and perhaps even change activities in the hope of stopping yourself from being frightened. It doesn’t work. Or it works just a little bit and then it doesn’t work. Pushing your fear away is like trying to hold it at arms length. It takes strength and effort and it makes your arm tired.

Sooner or later you need to stop trying to push that fear away and then it’s right back in your face again. So you have another go at trying to push the fear away. This is a bit like trying to hold it above your head or behind your back but you know you’re still going to get tired. You’re aware of the tension in your body as you try not to feel your fear.

Now you notice that the activity you’re using to distract yourself is not a source of pleasure. Using it as a distraction has sucked the joy from it. It’s as if you’re doing it with one hand while you use the other hand to push away the fear. You can’t give the activity in front of you your full attention because you need to make sure you keep that fear at arms length.

You notice that even though you’re trying really hard to distract yourself, the fear keeps creeping back into everything you do. Sometimes you get short bursts of time when you stop thinking about the fear, and then you notice you’re not thinking about the fear, which makes you think about the fear again.

You’re frustrated. You’re anxious about being frustrated and fearful about being anxious. The thought occurs to you that feeling this way isn’t good for your health and now you’re really upset! What if the fear of cancer is actually contributing to the risk of cancer!

At this point your fear might escalate, or it might shift into one of the many emotions that grow out of fear. These include the evil twins, worry and anxiety. Both recruit the phrase ‘what if’ to amplify your fear. You might also find yourself feeling angry, frustrated or annoyed. These emotions are a reaction to feeling out of control and fear is their foundation.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Most of us find distraction somewhat useful some of the time. You might be one of those lucky people that can just switch off, but for most of us, distraction is not an effective way to respond to fear.

Distraction is a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time. With practice, you can do it, but it’s not going to become easy or fun. You might develop some pride in your ability to do two things at once. That’s understandable. But you’re still caught in a slow, downward spiral.

Here’s why I think distraction doesn’t work for most people; Remember what I said about your mind trying to keep you safe? Distraction means you’re not listening. Your mind is sending you an important message about staying alive and you’re ignoring it. What does your mind do? It gets louder!

It’s possible that some of our ancestors never felt fear but they almost certainly got killed and eaten. The nervous and frightened ancestors had much better survival odds. We’ve evolved to feel fear and to pay attention to it. When we try to use distraction to avoid our fear it’s only reasonable that our very clever brain will keep ramping up the fear factor to get out attention. After all, it’s the reason our ancestors survived.

The most important thing to remember about your fear that the cancer will come back is this; your fears are not irrational.

You’ve had one of the biggest frights of your life. It was not imaginary. It was real. You’ve had several more frights along the way, probably involving test results, medical procedures and even the unexpected reactions of people. You have had a really, really big fright!

Your highly evolved brain wants to stop you from ever being that frightened again. It wants to make sure you never put your precious life in that much danger again. You’ve correctly identified a major risk to your survival and your mind wants you to pay attention.

Instead of helping you to deal with your fear of recurrence, distraction does exactly what it has always done. It momentarily takes your mind off something. But your mind doesn’t want to forget about cancer. Your mind wants to warn you. So eventually that fear is back up in your face.

Many people describe this as feeling like they are stuck. They get periods of time when things seem almost back to normal and then the fear sneaks up on them, or ambushes them when they’re not expecting it. The methods I’m going to teach you will help you to overcome this pattern.

For some, fear becomes a downward spiral. Each time they experience fear and an inability to cope with it, they repeat a pattern of behaviour. It might be that they reach for drugs or alcohol, experience a panic attack or find themselves feeling tearful or angry. Each experience of fear sends them back around in a circle.

Their mind establishes a kind of neural loop, and this pattern becomes a well-worn track. They now have a one-track mind when it comes to responding to fear and that track leads them to an increasingly frightening place. If this is you, I can show you how to fix this.

Please take some time to think about the extent to which you’ve used distraction to deal with your fears. How has that worked for you? Is it a reliable way to deal with worry or do you find yourself cycling back through fear again?

There’s nothing wrong with using distraction if you’ve found it effective. It’s just that most people don’t. I’ll teach you a better way of dealing with your fears so that you can return to the activities you enjoy for their own sake, and not as an escape for your mind’s legitimate concerns for your safety.

* * * *

(c)2017
M J McGowan

 

A Very Gentle New Year

We spent New Year with a group of friends, relaxing on the verandah. There were no fireworks and no resolutions. Just good company and tasty food.

The following Thursday I headed off to my regular yoga class to find the room crammed full of people I’ve never seen before. This happens every year. Lots of people give themselves a good talking to over their diet, fitness, drinking, smoking or other bad habits and then push themselves to change.

By February our class will be back to normal. There’s usually one or two new regulars, but most of the January attendees will have abandoned yoga and retreated to their regular patterns.

I’ve been thinking about why.

Why does this pattern happen every year? People with the very best of intentions make a serious commitment to change and then find themselves breaking their own promises, often within days of making them. I suspect a big part of the problem is the all-or-nothing approach. We try to do too much too quickly.

Perhaps instead of committing to giving something up we should just try reducing it over time. Maybe we could create a series of smaller goals and gradually head towards total abstinence.

There’s good science behind this. It’s the reason computer games are so appealing; they set small, achievable challenges that progressively get slightly harder. We not only find this type of model much easier to stick with, we actually enjoy it.

Computer games have something else going for them. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s not just okay, it’s essential. Mistakes are part of the learning process. You don’t see them as failures, but as a source of information that ultimately helps you to win the game.

So let’s apply this idea to a really common New Year’s resolution:

Improving physical fitness

Level one: increase the amount of incidental activity in your life. Park a bit further away from your destination. Use the stairs where you can. Make two or three trips to the clothesline instead of one. Continue until this becomes a regular part of your day (and skip to the next level if you already do this). Congratulate yourself on your achievements.

Level two: add in five minutes a day of exercise. It can be anything you like. Go for a five minute walk. Do five minutes of stretches. Lift some hand weights for five minutes. Do this at the same time every day until it’s part of your routine (and skip to the next level if you already do this). Congratulate yourself on your achievements and remember, it’s not failure if you miss a day. Learn from it. Figure out what happened and recommit. Maybe you need to change the type of exercise or the time of day.

Level three: find a gym class, dance class, rowing club, soccer team or any other kind of activity you enjoy that will help build fitness and sign up. Bonus points if you sign up with a friend (this helps keep you motivated) or make friends after you join. Go every week until it’s part of your routine. Level up by increasing your five minutes a day to ten minutes.

Level four: This can be your top level and your ultimate goal or you can add in as many intermediary levels as you like. It’s up to you. Perhaps your goal is three regular gym sessions a week, or cycling a particular distance, or competing in a marathon. Maybe it’s just integrating a daily yoga practice and a regular class into your life. It doesn’t matter how ambitious the goal is, but that you give yourself challenging yet achievable steps to get there. It’s also important to build in failure. It’s how we learn, not a reason to give up.

I love this approach to change. I love the human-ness of it, and the way it plays to our strengths as well as our weaknesses. I enjoy making a game out of anything I want to change because playfulness keeps it light hearted and makes it a source of fun rather than a chore. I enjoy thinking of myself as an avatar in a computer game, trying to get to the next level.

Most of all I enjoy the gentleness of this approach. No self-bullying. No ultimatums. Just incremental progress towards an achievable goal. We can conquer bad habits by simply doing less rather than obliterating them, and then continuing to do less over time. We can build new, healthy habits by just adding in a little more, and then continuing to add more when we’re ready. Simple. Effective.

So here’s to a very gentle new year. May your goals be realistic and achievable and may your transformation towards a better you be playful and joyful.

Happy 2017!