How to Have a Really Happy New Year

It’s New Year’s Eve and friends are planning everything from full scale public events to quiet nights at home. We’re still not sure what we’re doing but the offer of something in between sounds appealing. A stroll to the waterfront to watch the local fireworks followed by a wander back to a nearby home for the Sydney edition on television.

I suppose at some point in the evening, whatever we decide to do, there will be inevitable question about New Year’s resolutions. I don’t usually make them. Research shows that they’re a waste of time and that most people have broken them before the end of January. It’s not that we don’t want to break bad habits, it’s just that it takes more than one commitment on one night every year to do it.

I’ve been thinking about successful alternatives to the resolution ritual. I like to pick a theme for the year. Last year (not surprisingly) I chose ‘health’ and I regularly revisited that goal, thinking about how I might incrementally improve on what I’d already done. This works well for me. It’s not a daily obsession. More a thread that runs through the year that I come back to on a regular basis.

My beautiful yoga teacher, Emma, held a class today and reminded all of us that in yoga, we make resolutions (or ‘set intentions’) every time we come on to the mat. Yoga also teaches that we should be kind to ourselves and to not push ourselves beyond our intelligent edge. That brought me all the way back to resolutions and the kinds of intentions that are usually behind them.

It seems to me that a lot of New Year’s resolutions are a mild form of self-bullying. We hunt for our deficiencies, give ourselves a good talking to and commit to doing better. No wonder we fail. Why does being healthy have to involve attempts to leverage guilt and shame? When did guilt and shame ever reliably motivate us to do anything?

What if, instead of beating ourselves up, we saw our new habits and practices as gifts we give ourselves.

The key for every new habit I’ve formed has been the joy it gives me. I love yoga, massage, my weekly gratitude posts, my connection to what I value and my commitment to building on my strengths rather than focusing on my weaknesses.

I am human and therefore fallible. I don’t always eat as much salad as I would like to, and I sometimes have too much refined or processed food although to be honest, this happens less and less as I become more aware of how unwell it makes me feel, but you see, that’s the critical difference. I’m not carrying around a list of things I’m ‘not allowed’ and calling myself a failure if I eat them. I could eat anything. I choose to eat well most of the time.

I’ve even come to enjoy my two fast days every week. Seems crazy, I know, but I enjoy a whole day without cooking and cleaning up afterwards and I love that I’m doing something proactive to prevent cancer from ever coming back.

It’s the same with exercise, drinking much less, building good relationships with friends and family, forgiving those that have upset me, doing all of the little things that add up to a joyful and happy life for me. I choose them.

I choose them because it took cancer for me to really understand that I am limited, time is limited and this is the only body I will ever have. (Thanks again, cancer). It also took cancer for me to understand that the greatest gift I can give to the people that love me is to take action that contributes to my health and happiness.

And that’s all I want from them too. I want them to joyfully make choices that help them to have a healthier life. To give themselves the gift of good health.

It’s also what I wish for all of you.

Thank you to all of you for continuing to read and share my blog. I got an annual report from WordPress telling me that enough people visited my blog this year to fill three concert halls. That’s amazing! It’s also very humbling.

So here’s my wish for everyone this New Year; please consider dispensing with the resolutions and deciding what gifts you might give yourself. You deserve to be healthy. Please shift your focus to being healthier and happier all through 2016 and leave the resolutions alone.

Happy New Year.

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One Year Post Mastectomy

Fanfare please!

It’s been one year since my bilateral mastectomy.

It seems like an appropriate time to post an update on my recovery and to reflect on what’s helped, what’s hindered and what needs to happen during the next year.

There will be photos, so if you’re squeamish about scars then best skip this one.

The short version; I feel great. Lately I’ve actually been feeling well, really well, for the first time since my surgery. I’m amazed by the body’s ability to heal and surprised at how long it’s taking.

If you’d asked me just after surgery how long I thought my recovery would take I would have guessed three months or so. Even one whole year later there’s still a little way to go before my body is done.

This is important.

There have been times during the last year when I’ve thought, ‘Is this as good as it gets?’ It seems to me that healing will happen for a while and then there will be a plateau where nothing much changes. I’ve come to think of these plateaus as the body taking a rest from the hard work of healing.

The whole experience has been an opportunity for me to take a hard look at my life and my habits. I suspect there are people whose recovery is passive. They wait and hope, trusting that whatever medical treatment they received will do all the work for them.

It’s been my long experience that recovery from anything needs to be active. We can support or hinder our recovery with some very simple choices, like what we put in our bodies, how much sleep we get and how much stress we’re prepared to tolerate.

I’ve been actively participating in my recovery.

I’ve cared for my skin, particularly the site of my surgery, by using a body oil after my shower. I’ve also taken care of lymphatic drainage from my left side by using gentle massage throughout the day. This area has had a lot of damage following three surgeries and radiation. While I haven’t had any signs of lymphodema, I see regular lymph drainage as an important preventative measure. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.

I’ve lost weight using The Fast Diet. My doctor recommended this because there are statistics showing that excess weight can contribute to breast cancer risk. Fasting also triggers autophagy, the body’s natural mechanism for cleaning up dead and damaged cells. Anyone whose experienced triple negative breast cancer knows that we don’t have any of the new ‘wonder drugs’ available to us. Fasting seems like the best thing I can do to prevent recurrence. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.

Yoga has probably made the single greatest contribution to my recovery. I do at least one class a week (two when my husband joins me) and I practice at home every day. When I wake up in the morning I get dressed in my yoga gear. I have coffee and check my messages and daily schedule and then it’s straight into yoga before breakfast. I’m able to do things with my body that I couldn’t do before I was diagnosed. Of course the point of yoga is not to twist your body into increasingly difficult poses. Yoga is about integrating the mind, the body, the spirit and the breath. Yoga has helped me to love my post-cancer body and to feel strong and flexible, mentally and physically. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.

Massage has also been a big part of my recovery. I found a local massage therapist with specialist oncology training. As well as regularly helping me to move back into my own body she’s gently massaged my surgery site and this has greatly assisted in settling all of the nerve pain and helping me to regain sensation in that part of my body. It’s also deeply relaxing.

I was eating fairly well before diagnosis and treatment has been an opportunity to review what goes on my plate. We’re shifting towards more and more vegetarian meals. I rarely eat gluten any more and I feel better for it. I’m naturally eating less food thanks to The Fast Diet and the impact on my appetite. We’ve adopted the SLOW principles as much as possible; Seasonal, Local, Organic, Wholefoods.

I’m eating much less sugar and finding that I can’t eat anything really sweet anymore. I suspect this is because fasting has killed off the gut bacteria that trick my brain into wanting more sugar. The recent discoveries in relation to the gut biome continue to fascinate me. I’m sure we’re only just beginning to understand how important this work is for our future health. It’s certainly a strong motivator to avoid processed foods with all their additives and preservatives that prevent bacterial growth.

Thanks to a couple of visits with a psychologist with ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) training and Russ Harris’s books on the subject, I’m now very clear about what’s important to me, what I value and what I want my life to stand for. To celebrate my one year anniversary I’ve enrolled in a permaculture course. There are those that would argue I don’t need this training because I’ve been practicing permaculture all of my adult life.

My friend Cecilia challenged me to ‘become a world famous permaculture teacher’ which is what motivated me to finally enrol. She’s clever. I don’t really need to become famous (nor do I want to) but I really do want to teach the skills I’ve been practicing for so many years. Permaculture is simply the best way to be human and the map for the survival of our species.

One of my favourite quotes has always been ‘Be the change you want in the world’. When I was a teenager I looked at a photograph of the planet from space showing all of the lights of civilisation and spontaneously thought ‘human cancer’. I was distressed by the damage we were doing to the planet and a sense of helplessness. For me, permaculture holds the key to healing humanity’s cancerous impact on the planet. It’s probably going to keep me well too.

So here’s my latest photos.

As you can see, I’ve come a long way since surgery.

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My chest has gone from being almost completely numb to almost completely recovering sensation. I still have numbness along the scar lines and there’s an area of nerve damage above my original surgery scar (that’s the little arc high on my left side). Nerve damage feels like electricity under the skin. It’s continued to improve with massage and I’m hopeful that it will eventually disappear.

My chest still feels a little tight, as if I’ve got a large sticking plaster on it, but this has improved and I believe it will also vanish in time. For most of last year I felt like I was wearing an undersized bra (how ironic) and the tightness extended all the way across my back. That’s resolved now and I only have my chest to deal with. Yoga and massage both help with this.

I still need to remember to keep my shoulders back and to hold my body up. My doctor tells me it’s common for mastectomy patients to develop a stooped back and rounded shoulders. I suspect this is a combination of relieving that sensation of tightness and, perhaps, embarrassment at having no breasts. I regularly roll my shoulders up and back, particularly when I’m at the computer.

My neck has taken a while to adjust to the absence of two F cup breasts. Removing close to two kilos of weight left my neck and shoulders in a state of shock and once again, yoga and massage have helped. A friend showed me this neat trick; point your index finger at the sky; now bring your finger so it touches your chin and the tip of your nose; push back until you feel your neck is back in alignment. You can also push your head back firmly into a pillow when you’re in bed, or the head rest when you’re in a car. This simple exercise has had more impact on my neck pain than anything else.

As for the other side effects from treatment, I’ve also seen big improvement. I rarely experience any peripheral neuropathy in my feet. I still wake with sore hands but they warm up quickly. I need to be careful with any activity where I hold my hand in the same position for any length of time, such as drawing or sewing. My hands tends to cramp up and become painful. I haven’t given up on my body’s ability to regrow nerves. While one doctor told me I’d probably be stuck with whatever I had at twelve months post chemo, another said it can take six years for nerves to regrow. I’ve already had improvement since my twelve month mark so I’m going with option B.

I have a mild hum in my ears. This is probably also chemo related nerve damage but it could just be age. My Mum has age related hearing loss. It’s important to remember that not everything going on with our bodies is related to treatment. I don’t have that awful metallic taste in my mouth any more and I think this is also a form of peripheral neuropathy. Food tastes wonderful again, particularly straight after fasting.

I wonder to what extent the fasting has promoted healing. The science indicates that it should make a difference. In early days, I certainly noticed more rapid healing following a fast. I’ve observed that if I have any kind of skin blemish it’s usually completely healed after fast day.

As you can see from the photos, the radiation damage to my skin has greatly improved. As well as the circulatory benefits of massage, I think the regular application of rose hip oil has made a huge difference.

As you’ve probably already guessed, my mental state is great. People recovering from mastectomy are, not surprisingly, at high risk of depression. I’m very grateful that the care I’ve received and the work that I’ve done have helped me to avoid that particular complication. In many ways, depression is a worse disease than cancer and certainly at least as deadly. I think avoiding depression has involved a combination of things but particularly the information about ACT, practicing ACT and the benefits of yoga.

The most significant contribution to my state of mind has been the love and support I’ve received from so many people. Special mention must go to my beautiful husband who has continued to love and cherish me through all of this. I’m still beautiful to him. It’s an enormous advantage to have someone like that in my life and I grieve for those women that go through this on their own, or whose partners leave them during treatment.

I no longer experience ‘chemo brain’. I feel as mentally alert as I ever did. I’m also calmer, happier and less stressed than at any other time in my life.

I’m now taking stock and asking ‘What else can I do to continue with my recovery and to improve my health?’ I’ll also be doing this for the rest of my life. I believe that there is no upper limit to how well I can be. To put it another way, no matter how well recovered our bodies seems to be, there is always more we can do to improve our health.

Thanks to everyone that’s been following the blog and the accompanying Facebook page. Special thanks to those that have taken the time to let me know that something they’ve read has helped them with their own recovery. You’re the reason I keep writing.

Go well. Live well. My best wishes for your continuing recovery.

Don’t Say Don’t And Ban The Bullies

Sometimes there’s a confluence, an influx of information that all seems to resonate. I’ve had one of those weeks.

It started with this thought:

What if, the next time you went to see your doctor, they told you that no matter what you did you would never weigh less than you do today? What if your doctor said you had some rare metabolic condition, so it was possible for you to gain weight but not to lose it. Ever. You could become fitter and better toned through exercise. You could improve your health and the appearance of your skin, hair and eyes with diet, but you could never, ever lose weight.

What would change?

My thinking around this issue started with last week’s post about The Fast Diet. While I’ve had great success with it, I think the key to sticking with it started before I read the book. I decided to love my body exactly as it was. I decided to abandon negative self-talk and criticism and to focus on what I loved about my body. At the time I was dealing with an extra six kilos as a consequence of treatment. Contrary to popular belief, cancer treatment doesn’t make everyone thin! I was also carrying the same ten kilos that I gained during my pregnancy over twenty years ago.

I can remember what triggered my shift in attitude. I saw photographs of myself from a night out with my family. I thought, “Oh no! Look how fat I am!” I had gone out feeling great and thinking I looked stylish and when I looked at these images all I could see was a huge, middle aged fat lady in a sequinned top. I cried. Then my daughter said, “Oh Mum! Please stop being so hard on yourself. Your body is fighting cancer! That’s enough for now. You can worry about your weight later.”

My daughter is very wise. This isn’t the first time she’s shifted my thinking. I realised that I’d been indulging in the worst kind of bullying. I had been speaking to myself in a way that I would never, ever speak to someone else.

I stopped beating myself up. I started noticing what I liked about my body. What I liked most of all was how aggressively my body pushed back against the cancer. During chemotherapy my doctor was amazed by my blood work. During radiation my skin held up under the onslaught and my mind pushed back against the overwhelming sense that I was now a commodity to be farmed, like a sack of potatoes on a conveyor belt. (The barcode they gave me at the clinic didn’t help.)

I kept up my yoga all through treatment and noticed the difference in my energy levels when ever I would spend time on my mat. Slowly, slowly as I recovered from treatment I found a new strength and flexibility. My yoga teacher, Emma, reminds me to “be in the body you have today” and to recognise that the body I am in tomorrow will be a different body. This was a powerful message to me when I was dealing with the long term side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and surgical removal of both breasts.

This week, Emma and I had a coffee together and she remarked on how far I’d come. I was told I’d have permanently compromised range of movement in my arms. I don’t. I was told that the arthritis they picked up in my bone scans would mean a life-long requirement for daily pain relief. It doesn’t. Lately I’m noticing how well I’m feeling.

People sometimes comment on how well I coped with the mastectomy. I suppose I just accepted it. I grieved. And then I moved on. It is what it is. I don’t look in the mirror and wish I had breasts. I look in the mirror and think about how amazing it is that I’m still alive. I think about all that my body has been through and how amazing it is that, in spite of all that, the body wants to heal. We are all programmed for good health. I will never have breasts again by my body has done everything possible to work around this massive surgery.

This week I’ve been reading articles about climate change and how, if we want people to understand that crisis, we need to talk about the kind of future we could have in a positive way. Scare tactics just send people in the opposite direction. Nobody wants to bullied or terrified.

I’ve also read an article about the sub-conscious mind and an author’s theory that it can’t understand a negative statement. His theory, essentially, is that when you say “don’t eat chocolate!” your subconscious hears “Eat chocolate!”. His cure for insomnia is to stop saying “I can’t sleep” and to start saying “When I go to bed tonight I’m going to have a deep and restful sleep” because your subconscious will agree with either statement. So if you say “I can’t sleep” your subconscious says, “Okay.”

It’s an interesting theory. Perhaps it’s even simpler. Perhaps it’s just that we all respond the same way to negativity, bullying and catastrophising. We push back.

When I made the decision to love my body exactly the way it is, it naturally followed that I wanted to feed my body well. I wanted to make sure I ate healthy food, avoided alcohol and looked for ways to maximise my chances of living a long and healthy life. I didn’t start The Fast Diet to lose weight or because I was ashamed of the way I looked. I started it because I was convinced by the research that it would help me to prevent cancer.

I’ve always considered myself a work in progress. Over the years I’ve broken bad habits (even that language is interesting), I’ve improved my mind, I’ve become more tolerant and compassionate and I’ve come to feel more and more comfortable in my own skin. Looking back, I can see that change usually happened because an idea was compelling, a truth was apparent or because someone close to me kindly and gently invited me to change. My failures have all included attempts at bullying, either internally or externally.

Nobody likes to give a bully what they want, even when they are the bully.

So I’m heading off to a yoga retreat for some self-nurturing and some time with one of the wisest people I know. We’ll eat healthy food, stretch and breathe and delight in our bodies and return home refreshed and recharged.

It seems to me that being positive has a much deeper meaning than the way it is commonly understood. If we’re going to achieve any lasting change we need to frame it in a positive way. “I will eat nourishing food” is far more powerful than “I won’t eat sugar”. “I will devote some time each day to being physically fitter” is far more powerful than “I will lose weight.” It’s a lot more enjoyable to achieve something than to avoid it.

So back to my original proposition. What if your doctor told you that you could never lose weight? I think the answer for most of us is that we would accept the diagnosis and start focusing on what we COULD do. We’d eat well and enjoy our food without self-recrimination. We’d abandon self-bullying diets and adopt the kind of eating pattern that included a few treats while emphasising sound nutrition. We’d exercise for the pleasure of it, enjoying it for its own sake without jumping on the scales to see if we’d dropped weight.

This is just a thought exercise but a lot of us have already had some practice. My breasts aren’t growing back. I have chosen not to have reconstruction, but those that have chosen it tell me that they still need to accept that their bodies will not be the same. We know that if we’re going to overcome what cancer has done to us, then acceptance and loving the body we have right now is part of it.

So this is my invitation to love your amazing, wonderful body. Think about all of the extraordinary things your body achieves every single day. Listen to the way you talk to yourself and apply this simple test; if you said that out loud to someone else, how would they respond?