How to Change Your Mind

There was another shooting this week.

This one was in the USA so it got lots of news coverage here. It could have been anywhere. All over the planet there are similar examples of violence and hatred. It feels like a vicious circle; a shooting happens and the response is anger and hatred, and the anger and hatred build and bounce until someone else snaps and the whole cycle starts again.

What to do.

If you’re a caring, compassionate person events like this one can leave you feeling hopeless. What’s to become of our species?

It’s an acute form of the same kind of distress we experience when we’re confronted with selfish, greedy people that don’t care about the planet or the other animals we share it with, or selfish, greedy people that don’t care about other people.

What to do?

I see friends responding with anger towards these types of events. There are cynical posts on Facebook, heart-felt expletives, conversations through teeth ground down by years of frustration.

And then an afternoon spent looking for something entirely different leads me to the work of Tania Singer. I was concerned about the way world events can be deeply distressing to highly empathic people. As an ex-police officer with a history of PTSD I now avoid the news. It’s just too upsetting. There’s so much research about how easy it is for us to ‘catch’ the emotional distress of others. So when I caught sight of this article in an issue of New Scientist I was drawn to it:

How Sharing Other People’s Feelings Can Make You Sick : New Scientist 2016

You’ll need to pay to read the whole article but if you’re the kind of person that’s deeply affected by distressing events I recommend it. Does this resonate with you:

Overdosing on the misfortunes of others is not just a problem for those in high-exposure professions such as nursing. All of us are vulnerable to catching the pain of others, making us angrier, unhappier, and possibly even sicker.

What was really interesting to me about this article was that the research done by Singer and her colleagues provides some great strategies for combating this distress. Teaching people how to meditate on loving kindness, and how to become better at observing their emotional responses to different situations can have a protective and healing impact.

Impressively, these processes can actually change your brain. Singer demonstrates using MRI’s how their program altered the neural activity in their research participants. She and her team have also demonstrated that these changes do more than just improve individual wellbeing; they also change the way we treat each other.

In tests that examine economic modelling and how people behave, Singer’s team established that meditation and other cognitive awareness practices shifted people’s behaviour from selfish to generous, from individualistic to cooperative.

If you’d like to learn more then here’s the link:
Tania Singer: How to Train Your Mind and Your Heart

This work relevant to anyone interested in social change and the evolution of our species beyond our current state. Compassion and extending loving kindness can change our brains and lead us to behave in more compassionate ways.

All those from religious traditions that believe meditation can change humanity are, in fact, correct.

The flip side of this is that a world filled with hate, cynicism and negativity has the potential to hard wire us for competition, greed and cynicism. When we give in to anger we’re doing to opposite of meditating on loving kindness and our brains (and lives) will suffer as a result.

I was on a course recently with a wonderful group of people that genuinely care about humanity and the planet. Even given this strong, positive bias I was surprised by the level of anger and negativity in some people. ‘The one percent’ came in for a lot of hatred, as did individuals seen as belonging to it. There was even some conflict within the group as some people decided who they did and didn’t connect with. Even here, there were the seeds of weeds that become violence.

Is it really as simple as loving everyone? Even the greedy and the violent, even the destructive and the selfish? And is that even possible?

There are reasons to practice meditation in any case. Evidence suggests it can protect your brain from the effects of ageing, provide you with a calmer, happier life and help you to overcome depression and anxiety. There are lots of free meditations available on the internet if you’d like to give it a try, or just do this:

  1. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Hold your body in a neutral position – not too relaxed or too stiff. You want to be comfortable but you want to avoid falling asleep.
  2. You don’t have to close your eyes but many people find it helpful.
  3. Listen. What can you hear. Spend a few moments paying attention to the world around you.
  4. Now focus on your body and how it feels. Feel where it’s in contact with the chair. Feel your clothing against your skin.
  5. Shift your focus to your breathing. Notice that it’s cooler breathing in and warmer breathing out.
  6. Your mind will drift. This is normal. Be relaxed about it. Imagine that your mind is the sky and the thoughts that try to pull you away are like birds that fly across the sky. You can notice the bird and let it fly past. Bring your attention gently back to the sky.
  7. Now cultivate a feeling of loving kindness. Think of someone you love (If you struggle to think of a person then try a loved pet) and feel the emotion build up inside you. Imagine this feeling is like the sun, shining in the sky.
  8. Extend a feeling of loving kindness out into the world. Start with yourself. Bathe yourself in loving kindness. Then extend it to your close friends and family. Wish the very best for them; their health, their happiness and that they should also achieve peaceful and compassionate minds.
  9. Now extend loving kindness beyond the people that you know to the people that you don’t know. Remember this feeling is sunshine and it doesn’t discriminate; just like the sun it shines on everyone. If you struggle to shine loving kindness on some people, imagine them as small children or babies. Cultivate loving kindness towards all humanity.
  10. Now extend loving kindness to all life on earth. To trees and animals and microscopic life. To fungus and whales and chickens and lizards. Everything that lives can experience your loving sunshine.
  11. As you do this, your thoughts will continue to drift. This is normal. Just gently bring them back. You might like to imagine that your loving kindness is a river flowing out into the world and your distracting thoughts are like leaves on top of that water. Just let them float by.

You only need to set aside five or ten minutes a day to do this. After a while it becomes like cleaning your teeth. It’s just part of your routine. There are other ‘mindfulness’ practices like yoga and tai chi that will also help you to develop your meditation skill, but remember that it’s specifically a meditation on loving kindness and the practice of extending compassion to others that will have measurable benefits for you.

From personal experience, this practice has been extremely beneficial in helping me to live with post traumatic stress disorder. Part of my policing career involved child protection work, so you can imagine the challenges I face when it comes to extending loving kindness to all human beings.

But I do. Even to the offenders I’ve arrested. They were once children too.

Perhaps my greatest challenge has been to move beyond the anger and hatred that I used to feel for these people. They are not monsters, and treating them as monsters is only feeding the creature. I sometimes laugh at the realisation that The Beatles knew the answer and I’ve been hearing it all my life; Love really IS all you need.

I’m not saying it’s easy to avoid being pulled back into old patterns. When a shooting happens or I hear that the Great Barrier Reef is dying or I read that a politician has acted in a greedy, selfish way it’s simpler to just get angry and to launch into a rant. And then I remember that hate makes me part of the problem.

I sometimes wonder why adults that would not allow their children to bully other children with name-calling are perfectly okay with doing exactly the same thing to other adults via social media. Does calling Donald Trump a dickhead really make a difference? Or does it feed into the dynamic that allows him to exist at all.

One of the most common despairs of anyone passionate about the planet and the people on it is this: How do we change the minds of the destructive and selfish? It turns out that the answer was in our question the whole time: by changing their minds. Perhaps we need to focus on finding ways to engage these people in compassionate meditation. The research suggests it could shift their behaviour.

In the mean time, we can be the change we want in the world and work on refraining from the kind of behaviour that will make our brains like their brains. Could it be that simple? Maybe the next time you’re tempted to share an insulting thought or denigrate a public figure, pause and give thought to what you’re cultivating.

What’s most interesting to me about all of this new research is the extent to which it validates some very old philosophy. Buddhists have been teaching compassionate meditation for generations. The minds of Buddhist monks look very different under MRI analysis. They have changed their minds.

When events like mass shootings happen I am now able to avoid the anger and depression, not least of all because I recognise that these emotions feed the creature. Change is possible. We have the means for our own evolution. Spread the word.

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Funeral for a Friend

Anyone who was at our wedding remembers a very special moment when my husband and four of his childhood friends posed for a group photo. In their forties, they were still great mates. One of them, Nick, had flown in from New Zealand to surprise the others. He died suddenly doing what he loved a few years back.

This week we received the sad news that another of the five, Philip, had also passed. Philip was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in his late teens and told he wouldn’t live to see his 21st birthday. Tomorrow we’ll attend his funeral. He was 59.

Philip and his wife, Kathy, are a testament to the power of faith. Both deeply religious, they built a successful dental business and raised two beautiful children to be competent and compassionate adults. A good portion of Philip’s life was spent undergoing difficult and painful medical treatments. They prayed. They went to church. They believed that God would help him through.

I do not belive in God but in recent years I have come to believe in belief. Science keeps proving that state of mind can have a positive impact on longevity, quality of life and recovery from serious illness. For many people, religion helps them to find and maintain that positive state of mind.

I had a great conversation with an elderly friend recently. She’s been religious her whole life, and she’s also a great thinker and academic. The two seemed incongruous to me so I asked her about the paradox; how does such an intelligent person place so much faith in an imaginary being?
This is what she said.

“The biggest mistake that atheists make is assuming that people of faith are simple minded or delusional. Logically, I accept that there is no mythical being with a long beard that watches my every move and grants wishes to people that pray to him. I’m not a fool. God, for me, is a word that represents love and hope and all those intangible things that connect us to every living thing. My belief is a choice. I choose to believe because my life is better with these beliefs and I am a better person because of them. Every week I spend time with other people, thinking about how well my behaviour matches my values and being grateful for everything I have. Churches are full of people that don’t literally believe in God.”

It seems for some people that faith is not just about belief. It’s also about suspending disbelief.

I didn’t know Philip well enough to ever ask him if he literally believed in God. It doesn’t matter. On the few occasions that I met him and Kathy I was impressed by the depth of their faith and the significant impact it had made to the quality of their lives. They were better humans because of it.

There have been times in my life when I’ve been cynical about all religions, convinced that they were responsible for war and persecution. I now believe that this argument confuses cause and effect. Some humans will use religion as an excuse to behave badly and to incite others to do the same. But in the absence of religion, wouldn’t the same people simply find another excuse? Would a world full of atheists be a kinder and less violent world? I sincerely don’t think so.

I’m a skeptic. Most people confuse that word with ‘cynic’. A skeptic is someone that believes something based on evidence. I also think it includes being open to the possibility that something might be true where there is insufficient evidence to prove it either way. This is very different to the flawed argument I often see in relation to things unproven; that what is unproven is false, ineffective or useless. Something unproven may be all these things but it may also not be all these things. We just won’t know until there’s evidence.

Having seen the movie, The Connection; Mind Your Body, with expert after expert citing research into what’s known as ‘the mind-body connection’ I no longer doubt the significance of belief. The evidence is there. Our state of mind influences everything. It can switch dangerous parts of our DNA off and it can help us to defy the predictions of doctors.

That’s why I think we should support anyone’s decision to participate in religion.

I do have concerns about some of the dogma in most major religions but I also notice that many of them are evolving. There are now female clergy in previously all male positions. There are people of faith prepared to openly acknowledge that the texts upon which their religions are based are archaic and should be the starting point for discussion rather than than a rule book.

I don’t think it’s okay the threaten children with burning forever if they don’t comply and I do think young people should be taught to behave ethically for its own sake, and not because they fear the consequences.

And yet, when I spend time with adult friends whose faith is significant to them I am struck by a common theme. Regardless of which faith they belong to (and I have friends in most of them) their faith is a source of inspiration, comfort, guidance and community.

Tomorrow my husband will help to carry the coffin of one of his dearest friends. It will be deeply sad for him. Philip’s friends and family will take great comfort in the idea that he is now in a better place and finally free from all the pain and suffering that plagued his life. There will be a service. They will thank God for the long and happy life that Philip shared with his wonderful wife and children.

Credit where credit is due. Regardless of the beliefs of anyone else in the church, there can be no doubt that Philip’s faith, and the faith of his family, have kept him alive for many, many years beyond expectations. It will also be apparent that faith will provide those that loved him with deep consolation during their grief. It seems to me that these benefits make faith a very powerful force in our lives.

Farewell, Philip and thank you for being such a true friend to my husband. You will be greatly missed. Thank you for teaching me, through your undeniable example, about the power of faith.

I am not likely to join any organised religion. All of them have elements that I find difficult to reconcile with my own values. That doesn’t stop me from recognising that faith is powerful force. I believe in belief.

I will keep working on living a life of kindness, gratitude and being the best person I can be. I will keep being inspired by the natural world and the breathtaking spirituality I feel in a rainforest. I like A. C. Grayling’s observation that you don’t need to believe in a god to have a spiritual life.

I know that having this spiritual aspect to my life helps me to be well and helps me to continue to evolve, to test my behaviour against my values, to make mistakes and learn from them. I suspect this is what is supposed to be at the core of all religions.

Perhaps the final word goes to another religious friend who told me this when I asked her about her faith:

“God is another word for love. When you hear god just replace it with love. That’s how you can understand my religion.”

I’ll be doing that tomorrow during Philip’s funeral service. I’ll replace the word ‘god’ with ‘love’ because, when it comes right down to it (and at funerals, it really does come right down to it), love really is what it’s all about.

I will also spend time reflecting upon the power of faith and the benefits of religion. There can be no doubt that it’s a source of comfort, inspiration and love for many, many people.

Play

I usually start the new year with a very clear idea of what my theme is going to be. I wrote about this back at the beginning of January. Usually it comes to me as an obvious choice; last year it was ‘health’. A bit of a no-brainer really.

This year I was throwing around ideas about learning, creativity, listening, paying more attention to the people I love…….and while all of these seemed like good ideas, nothing really jumped out at me. When this sort of situation emerges, as it does from time to time, I think it’s best to trust the process and wait. Yes, it can feel a bit drifty for a while but then, as surely as the sun appears to rise, I move towards the place I need to be and it’s suddenly there on the horizon.

This week a woman I admire but do not know well sent me this video. She’s an amazing artist and was advertising workshops for the coming year. She attached this half hour piece by John Cleese on creativity:

Creativity; making the time and space for it.

If you have the time to watch it I highly recommend it. If not, here’s the short summary. Creativity happens when we make space for it and when we recognise that it’s a particular mode. We have our day to day mode of operating in the real world but to be creative we need to shift into a mode where we are free to explore the new and the unusual. Cleese suggests that it’s worth timetabling this, actually setting aside a half hour or an hour just to see what emerges.

Importantly he recommends play as the great generator of creativity. The solemn and the serious are the enemies of creativity. Play frees us of our usual constraining thought patterns and allows the new and unusual to emerge.

It’s also just fun.

This was the word I’d been looking for: Play.

I’m going to spend more time this year being playful. I’m going to approach everyday things with a sense of play. I’m going to laugh more and play with the people I love for the joy of it, without expectation or purpose, just for the fun of it.

Already I’m noticing the difference this single word can make to my day. I was heading out to have lunch with a friend on Monday and before I left the house I reminded myself: Play. My friend is always wonderful company but I suspect I was better company for being so light hearted.

I’m inclined to be serious, judgemental, argumentative and stern. It’s almost certainly a hangover from my policing career. I’m likely to be the wet blanket that worries about personal injury or gives you unsolicited advice about leaching chemicals in plastics or oxalic acid in kale. It’s not a lot of fun. It doesn’t make me fun to be around.

This year will be about shifting that default setting. I’ve had a couple of years of some very stern and serious stuff. I need a break and so does everyone close to me. Actually, I need a permanent shift towards playfulness.

I sometimes wonder if the great joy experienced by new grandparents is partly to do with the fact that babies give you permission to play again. We can make silly noises, pull funny faces and roll about on the floor. Why should we need babies to give ourselves permission to do that?

I’ve always balked at those memes that advocate never growing up. To my mind, being a grown up is just about taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions. It doesn’t mean you can’t be joyful or silly or playful. I sometimes wonder if what the authors of these memes are really saying is that we all need a bit more play in our lives. We shouldn’t see it as childish or immature (or perhaps we shouldn’t see ‘childish’ as insulting!). We should consider it one of the great joys of life.

When I watch dolphins leaping for the sheer joy of it, or dogs playing tag with each other, or cats wrestling but not hurting each other it occurs to me that play is natural, normal and probably essential.

John Cleese suggests that humour and play are the space that make creativity possible. We don’t latch on to the first solution we think of. We don’t rely upon the best known way. Play throws up unusual combinations and possibilities. It relieves us of the everyday pressures of life and makes space for something new.

I think it’s great advice when approaching any kind of creative pursuit. I like to paint and I know my painting improves when I just let it happen and don’t think about it too much. Start getting too analytical and it all falls apart. I’m going to try intentional playfulness with anything creative to see what happens.

I also think that play is worthwhile for its own sake. We should set aside some time to be joyful just to be joyful. If we solve world hunger or invent a better mousetrap in the process then that’s an wonderful product of our play, but I don’t think it should be our goal. Play for the fun of it. Approach ordinary activities with a sense of play. Set aside time to play with people you care about.

That’s what I’ll be doing this year.

 

My Top 13 Surprising Things About The Fast Diet

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Regular readers will know that I’ve been following The Fast Diet for some time now. Here’s the original post I wrote about it back in January.

https://positive3neg.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/is-there-a-fast-way-to-reduce-cancer-risk/

I’m all for people feeling comfortable in their own skin, whatever their size, and I think the whole diet industry conveniently ignores the data that says it’s your fitness that makes the most difference to your overall longevity, not your weight. I have friends that easily fit a size 14-16 who are very fit and healthy.

The problem for those of us with a high risk of breast cancer is that being overweight HAS been conclusively linked to higher risk. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things we can do for our bodies. For those of us in the triple negative category it’s one of the best preventative steps we can take. There are no preventative medications available to us.

The trouble is that most diets are so misery-inducing you’d rather just eat what you want, be happy and carry the weight. I used to feel that way. I was never seriously overweight but I was carrying about 16 kilos more than I needed. Like most people I’d go through that cycle of deciding to diet, watching the weight creep off and then deciding that if I had to live that way I would rather be dead. (Of course I wouldn’t REALLY rather be dead! I smile now at how frequently I used to use that expression without really understanding what I was saying.)

Enter The Fast Diet. It’s based on good science, it’s become popular all over the planet, and it’s helped me to lose all of the weight I want and to keep it off. I thought it was time to give you all an update on the really surprising things about this way of eating.

I tried to limit this to ten things but I couldn’t.

So here’s the my top 13 surprising things about The Fast Diet:

1. It’s easy
Every other diet I’ve ever been on has been hard work. I’d be measuring portions or counting points or keeping diaries or craving ‘forbidden’ foods for months and months. I’d feel deprived and resentful. There are no banned foods on The Fast Diet and you only count calories on two days each week. The rest of the time you just eat a healthy diet with the occasional treat. Truth be told the first two weeks were hard work, but only on the two fast days. By week three it was just my new normal.

2. I can eat pizza!
I love pizza. I love melted cheese and crunchy pizza bases and everything that goes with it. I don’t want pizza every night but every so often I really want pizza. No problem. I’ve bought it. I’ve eaten it. I’ve still lost weight. We also love to eat out at fine dining restaurants and cheap, cheerful cafes. No problem. I can see why they call this ‘the foodies diet’. I have still eaten a healthy diet most days of the week but its so wonderful to enjoy good food without worrying about my weight.

3. I can’t eat pizza!
Well, I can, but I can’t finish it. One of the surprising things about this diet is that my appetite has been reduced on all seven days of the week. I’m just not as hungry as I used to be. I don’t know if this is because fasting teaches you that hunger is not life-threatening (and I suspect there’s some part of our lizard brain that makes us panic when we’re hungry), or because our stomach gets smaller and feels fuller with less food. I used to devour a medium sized pizza without a second thought. Now I really want to stop at half that amount. The great thing is that this is a choice. I’m full and I don’t want any more. It’s not because someone else is telling me I can’t have it. Bliss.

4. I don’t crave sugar or bread or biscuits….
I’m one of those people that used to get huge carbohydrate cravings. There’s been some recent research into the gut biome that’s discovered a bacteria that thrives on sugar. It can signal our brains and trick us into thinking we’re hungry, and that, in particular, we are hungry for the food it needs to survive. I suspect fasting either kills or reduces this bacteria. In any case, I no longer get cravings and I actually find myself not wanting sweet things. I know, right! I can walk past a packet of Tim Tams without a second thought. It’s a miracle!

5. I have more energy on fast days
I had expected to feel a bit lethargic on fast days and I’ve been really surprised by how energetic I feel. Once again, the first couple of weeks were hard work and I did feel weary. I had a headache and even some low level anxiety. But it passed. Now I find I have so much energy on a fast day that I need to plan to go to the gym or do some heavy work in the garden, or I’ll have trouble getting to sleep.

6. I need to drink a lot more water on fast days
I’m pretty sure the headaches in the first couple of weeks were at least partly due to dehydration. I also suspect that those sugar-eating bacteria were ramping up the chemicals as the fasting killed them off. I’ve realised that we get a good portion of our hydration from the food we eat, so on fast days I need to drink a lot more water. It’s also a great way to deal with hunger.

7. Hunger has an upper limit 
I thought that fasting would mean getting progressively hungrier as the day went on. I’m surprised to find that my hunger hits a peak at around 10.00am and then just hovers there for most of the day. I have a bit of a spike around 3.00pm to 4.00pm and if that’s really bad I’ll eat an apple and deduct those calories from my evening meal. Most of the time a drink of water and something to distract me will see the hunger pass really quickly.

8. There is no failure
If you’ve ever ‘been on a diet’ then you’ve also been off a diet. They’re notorious for making us feel like we’ve failed. I think the key to a lot of weight loss programs is that they get the credit for all the weight you lose and you get the blame for all the weight you don’t. The Fast Diet means eating normally for five days a week and just restricting your calories for two (or some other combination; see below). Unless you’re prone to binging or your diet is always unhealthy then I really think you can just eat normally for five days a week. Your appetite will naturally reduce over time. The best thing for me is that if I ‘come off’ the diet today I can just start my fast again tomorrow. And there’s always next week. I tend to bank fast days if I know I’m going to lunch with friends on a day when I’d usually fast but you can just as easily move the fast to one day later.

9. It’s really flexible
Once you understand the basic principles of fasting you can adapt it to suit what works best for you. My mum has lost a lot of weight just by eating her breakfast later each day and making sure she has nothing after her dinner. By narrowing the window of time during which she eats she’s effectively fasting each night. I’ve sometimes done two days in a row because the research on the anti-cancer benefits has focused on this type of fasting. Some people prefer to eat most of their calories in the morning and some prefer to eat them at night. Some split them into two meals. The surprising thing is how flexible this style of eating can be and how easily you can adapt it to what works best for you.

10. Fasting helps you learn what your body wants
When you’ve spent a day fasting you really notice how your body reacts to whatever you eat next. I’ve noticed that rice makes me bloated and that too much onion gives me heartburn. Because my hunger has been significantly reduced, I’m paying a lot more attention to making sure the food I do eat is nutritious. I’m back in touch with my body. It’s a good feeling.

11. Fasting has unexpected benefits
My eyes look bright and my hair is thick and shiny. Usually when you’re my age and you lose a lot of weight you expect it to age your face, but my skin looks great and I haven’t gone all wrinkly. I suspect this is because fasting triggers autophagy, the body’s ability to clean up dead and damaged cells. I’ve noticed that cuts and blemishes heal faster on fast days. I also noticed big steps forward in the healing of my mastectomy scars. It’s likely that fasting is also helping my body to kill off any potentially cancerous cells. It would be worth doing for that alone, even if I didn’t lose weight. This style of eating is also slightly contagious. Apart from my mum’s weight loss, my husband has also dropped an easy ten kilos, reducing his hereditary risk of heart attack.

12. I can eat this way for the rest of my life
The single biggest factor that has caused me to come off a diet in the past was the overwhelming sense of misery I felt, even if I lost weight. I once achieved the same weight I am now through Weight Watchers and then sustained it long enough to become a lifetime member. I was resentful of matchbox-sized serves of cheese and palm-sized serves of meat. I spent hours each day calculating points and feeling deprived when I couldn’t eat what I wanted and stay within my limits. I felt cheated by the realisation that the more weight I lost the less points I’d have so the less food I’d be allowed to eat. What’s surprised me about fasting is that I have easily lost weight without feeling deprived and I’ve kept it off. Some days I get to lunch time and realise I haven’t eaten yet. Incredible! I’m much more aware of the difference between thirst and hunger and I’m much more inclined to eat just enough rather than over eating. These are all of the things that Weight Watchers was trying to achieve but without the misery and constant feelings of deprivation.

13. I am really, really happy
I think some of this has to do with conquering sugar cravings without even trying and the beneficial effects that has on my blood sugar. I also suspect that not having nasty little bacteria messing with my brain helps and I am overjoyed to be at my target weight. But mostly this is about finally breaking out of that cycle of self-bullying, deprivation, anxiety and misery that is traditional dieting. I love food. I love eating good food. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling anxious about what I put in my mouth. I don’t want to look in the mirror and insult myself for not being ‘strong enough’ or ‘committed enough’. The biggest surprise for me has been the way this form of eating has given me a great relationship with food and eating. I’ve lost 16 kilos and I’ve kept it off easily. I’m naturally choosing healthier foods because that’s what I feel like eating.

Oh, and did I mention that I’m also reducing my risk of cancer?

 

 

 

 

Six Months Post Mastectomy

WARNING: This post contains photos of my mastectomy scars. Skip this one if you’re likely to find that upsetting.

It’s the eighth of February today. That’s six months since my mastectomy.

Anniversaries take on a new significance when you’ve had triple negative breast cancer because our highest risk of recurrence is within the first three years. By the end of five years our risk has dropped to the same as everyone that’s never had breast cancer. It’s one of the few consolations for having a form of breast cancer that’s typically described as ‘more aggressive and with a worse prognosis than other breast cancers’.

I thought you might like to know how I’m travelling.

In a word, brilliantly!

My wounds are almost (but not quite) fully healed. I’ve been surprised by how long it takes. There’s a period of rapid healing immediately after surgery, as I expected, but then there is also a long, slow healing where the scar tissue gradually loosens up and improves in both appearance and sensitivity.

I still get strange electrical pings from time to time, but nowhere near as often as I used to. The tightness around my chest had greatly improved, particularly across my back. Following surgery I had a strange stabbing pain in the centre of my back when my bra fastening used to be. If I rolled my shoulders forward it was worse. That’s completely gone now. So is the mysterious stabbing pain on the outside of my upper arm near the shoulder. My surgeon, Kylie, described both as ‘referred pain’ and I’m happy to be over it.

How to describe the sensation across my chest? I think if you took something like a clay mask,  spread it over your chest and let it dry you’d be approximating the sensation. It’s a little tight, but not painful. Kylie warned me that my chest would get tighter over time and then it would ease. I’m at the happy end of the easing process with hopefully a little way to go.

As the skin has loosened away from the muscle it’s become more comfortable. You can see from the photos that there’s now a little bit of a droopy bit, particularly on the right hand side. I joke with my husband that my breasts are growing back. Actually, it’s a good thing because I now look less like a mastectomy patient and more like a naturally flat chested woman. I’m doing some hand weights to build up my pectoral muscles and to give me a bit more of a natural shape.

Having said that, I’m now completely comfortable with my flat chest. I’ve had a lot of fun replacing most of my old wardrobe. My two favourite ‘looks’ are a beautifully patterned cotton shirt over a singlet with long pants, or one of those box shaped dresses that sits just above the knee. I didn’t feel comfortable wearing shorter skirts before my surgery but now I enjoy putting my ‘yoga legs’ (as Graham calls them) on display. I’m accessorising with beautiful scarves and long necklaces which now sit beautifully thanks to my dolphin chest.

The only pain I have is from arthritis in my hips and shoulders (which I would have had anyway) and the peripheral neuropathy in my hands. They are very sore when I first wake up but improve quickly with my morning yoga.

My recent followup appointment was with my radiation oncologist, Andrew. He reminded me that I shouldn’t give up on the peripheral neuropathy and that sometimes nerves take a very long time to regrow. He suggests waiting a decade before calling it quits. This is great news because Rachel, my oncologist, has warned me that whatever I had twelve months after chemotherapy I would probably be stuck with for the rest of my life. It’s not really a big deal either way. I can still type, obviously, and last week I finally returned to playing my cello.

It’s made me very happy to discover that in spite of the numbness in my fingers, the need to completely reposition my instrument and the poor playing that results from two years without practice, I can still read music and make a beautiful sound. The challenge now is to return to daily practice. Like so many things, the cello requires a regular small investment in order to reap returns.

Andrew and Rachel are in agreement about what we thought was recurrence. It’s likely that this was actually DCIS left behind after the first surgery rather than new cancer. Why does this matter? Well, there’s a huge difference between a bit of old cancer still growing away and a whole new outbreak of the disease, particularly in terms of my long term survival odds. Although I was initially shocked at the possibility that my surgeon had made a mistake I now consider it to be serendipity, a happy accident.

You see, what we know, thanks to Kylie’s ‘mistake’, is that the cancer I used to have was resistant to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It is almost certain that I would have needed a mastectomy at some point. Having it when I did meant the tissue removed was free of cancer and that greatly contributes to my future survival. You don’t get better margins than ‘no sign of cancer in this tissue’. If Kylie had removed a bit more tissue in the first surgery I would still have potentially lethal breasts with no guarantee that we would have caught the recurrence before it had spread to vital organs. Everything has turned out for the best.

I know Kylie still beats herself up over leaving the clip and some of the tumour bed behind. I’m glad I’m not a doctor. They are human like the rest of us and that means that, sooner or later, they will make a mistake. It’s unavoidable. A world where it’s safe for them to acknowledge that and talk about it is a safer one for all of us. It’s not a metaphor when people say that doctors often bury their mistakes!

It’s an interesting thing to come face to face with your own mortality. Last night I lay in bed thinking about a new blog called ‘We are all dying’ or ‘live like you’re dying’ because I now believe that when you really understand this, all the way to your temporary bones, life becomes richer, more precious, more meaningful………if you let it!

It still sneaks up on me at odd moments. My husband and I will be watching something on the television and laughing or joking about it. I’ll suddenly feel overwhelmed by my love for him and all he’s done and been since I was diagnosed. One day we will both be gone. That makes being here so much more beautiful.

When we’re intimate I sometimes weep with the wave of emotion that floods me. He touches these scars as if they were precious. You’ll notice that the photos are the right way around for this post because I finally felt okay about asking him to photograph them rather than using a mirror and taking them myself. The photos still shock me. From this side of the scars it’s easy to forget. Graham has just adapted to incorporate this new version of my body. He’s so grateful that I survived. He loves me.

My daughter returned from Europe and we have two precious weeks before she returns to university. I want to follow her around and embrace her randomly. I am so proud of her. She could have walked away from her studies without anyone criticising her because, after all, her mother had cancer. But she stuck it out. Her marks dropped but she still managed to pass two of the hardest subjects of her degree. Because the last eighteen months for me have been about surviving I haven’t been able to support her as I would like to have done. Now I can.

Her physical and emotional health have suffered. She’s working on being well. It’s been a shock to her to contemplate a world without me in it and it shows. I wonder if she’s realised that, like me, she is also temporary. Maybe that’s not a concept you need to come to terms with in your twenties although I know from the many young breast cancer survivors I have met that there are plenty who do. I pray for a cure. I pray for a future where she doesn’t have to fear my genetic inheritance.

My six month anniversary present was news from the Mayo clinic in the USA. They think they might have a vaccine that prevents the recurrence of triple negative breast cancer. I want to put fifteen exclamation marks on that. I still cry with joy when I watch this:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/02/03/mayo-clinic-triple-negative-breast-cancer-drug-trial/22785941/

It’s too soon to call this a cure. They’re just starting trials and the trials may yet prove that the treatment doesn’t work, but hope is like rain in the dessert when you’ve had cancer.

So, as always, here’s the photos. This is what my body looks like after six months of healing and taking very good care of myself.

P1070195 P1070196
P1070194As you can see, the puckering to the left hand side is much better and I’m reasonably confident that this is going to keep improving. I’m seeing a massage therapist that specialises in oncology at least once a fortnight and sometimes more often than that. I highly recommend it. I’m also brushing my torso with my hands each night to help promote lymphatic drainage. The lymph system sits just under the skin so you really just pat yourself like you would a cat, with long strokes down the body. I can feel the lymph moving when I do this. It’s a mild tingling sensation. I’m hoping this helps me to avoid lymphedema, a common complication of cancer treatment.

The skin on the left hand side is also much better. This skin was damaged by radiation therapy and that’s why you can see such a marked difference between the two sides. You can also see the arc of a scar from my original breast conserving surgery above my mastectomy scar. I’ve been using macadamia or hemp oil, perfumed with essential oils, after my shower and that’s helped.

The question I get asked most often is “Will you be having reconstruction?”.  My answer is still “No”. I am very happy with my decision to do the best thing for my health and have the least amount of surgery possible. Even with all of the weight I’ve lost I still have a little bit of a belly. I’m very happy to have it sitting where it has always sat rather than having it surgically relocated to my chest, with all of the risks, pain and recovery time that would have involved. Just the thought of more than ten hours under anaesthetic was reason enough to avoid it but I’m also happy about not having any more scaring than was medically necessary.

Everyone makes their own decisions on reconstruction and, if you’ve decided to have it, then I sincerely hope you are as happy with your choice as I am with mine.

I’m still not inclined to wear ‘foobs’ (fake boobs). I don’t think there’s anything about my appearance that need ‘enhancing’. Of course, I’m also the kind of person whose happy with my prematurely grey hair, my glasses over contact lenses and my habit of saving makeup for very special occasions. There are some clothes that I know would look better with a bit of a mound. Perhaps, in time, I might have a look at something to go under evening wear but so far, so good.

Emotionally I’m feeling great. Thanks to Russ Harris and the ACT skills I’ve been practicing I now have an effective method for dealing with fear of recurrence. Losing 14 kilos since surgery (and only two of that was actually cut off me) has made me very happy but it’s really The Fast Diet that’s been a major contributor to my emotional well being. I am now in a healthy weight range because of a method that’s sustainable for the rest of my life. I can still enjoy great restaurants and the occasional take away without fear or guilt. The evidence on the benefits of this way of eating and the implications for those of us seeking to avoid cancer continue to mount. I am certain that I am doing the right thing for myself, my body and my family.

I know it’s still possible that the cancer could come back. Cancer is like that. But I don’t dwell on it. I enjoy my life. No, it’s more than that. I CHERISH my life, because I finally understand how precious it is.

Is There a Fast Way to Reduce Cancer Risk?

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Here’s a quick quiz. How many of the following statements do you think are true?
1. Fasting is bad for you.
2. If you don’t eat regularly you’ll get low blood sugar and feel tired
3. You can’t exercise if you’re fasting.
4. You must eat breakfast to ‘kick start’ your metabolism.
5. Losing weight is simple a case of energy in, energy out; reduce the amount of food you eat and increase the amount of exercise you do and you are guaranteed to lose weight.
6. Fasting will promote binge eating.
7. Fasting will promote eating disorders.
8. Going hungry will make it difficult for you to concentrate.
9. You can’t sleep if you’re hungry.
10. Weight gain is unavoidable with age.
11. Losing weight means giving up food you love.
12. Over weight people are just making excuses because they are greedy.

For me, cancer has been a lesson in holding my opinions lightly. So many things that I was sure of have been flipped. The most recent example is fasting.

I can remember a friend trying to convince me of the benefits of fasting over ten years ago. I dismissed her arguments and ‘new age nonsense’ and put fasting in the same basket as alkaline and ketogenic diets. I’m a skeptic. I need evidence.

Then a couple of months ago when we were channel surfing I found a story on the Sunday Night program about intermittent fasting. It included an interview with Dr Michael Mosely who made a documentary for the BBC a couple of years back following his investigation of fasting. With Mimi Spencer, he wrote a book about what he discovered. Here’s a link with a pretty good description:

http://www.booktopia.com.au/the-fast-diet-mimi-spencer/prod9781780721675.html?source=pla&gclid=CjwKEAjwtIShBRD08fKD1OWSik4SJAAuKLovgENgBkfcr5B9jRV2vQjPVCEN_BsMJA6t1GlDkSfwohoCn1vw_wcB

I gained about ten kilos during chemotherapy and at the time it was a source of distress. My beautiful daughter reminded me that my body was fighting cancer and that I shouldn’t worry about extra weight. She was right. I stopped obsessing about it.

I also got back into my daily yoga habit. You can’t downward dog on a full stomach so postponing breakfast became normal. I usually eat what I call my ‘super porridge’ around 10.30am. I’ve also been tired so I’ve been eating dinner around 6.30pm and going to bed early. Without planning to I’ve been creating a much longer gap between my last meal and my first meal. Two things have happened. The weight that I gained during chemotherapy has gradually disappeared  (not counting the two kilos they removed from my chest!), and my appetite has reduced to the point where I rarely feel particularly hungry and I never feel ravenous.

Without intending to, I’ve been adopting one of the behaviours that research now tells us can permanently reduce weight and improve health. I’ve created a ‘fasting window’.

It occurred to me that I was naturally thin when I was younger. My weight problems came during pregnancy when I was told I MUST eat breakfast. Up until then it was my habit to have coffee in the morning and not to eat until lunch. While I was breastfeeding there was also the breakfast mantra. Now it seems the experts were wrong. Or perhaps more accurately, the advice was incomplete.

If you’re a ‘breakfast person’ then you should eat it. If you’re not then you shouldn’t feel guilty about skipping it. And regardless of your age or your weight, it seems that fasting is good for most people.

What’s most appealing to me about this way of eating is the rigorous science behind it. Most diets work for some people for some of the time until, almost inevitably, they regain the weight they lost (and then some). This diet involves a permanent change in eating behaviour that most people find relatively easy and sustainable. You won’t just lose your saddle bags and your muffin top. You’ll also drop the fat that’s around your major organs and this weight loss has all kinds of health benefits, including a reduction in your risk of developing diabetes.

Eating this way gives my body time to repair itself. When we eat our body manufactures new cells. When we fast for long enough it triggers our ‘repair mode’ and the body not only draws on our fat stores for fuel, it also cleans up damaged and unwanted cells. You can imagine what exciting news this is for anyone prone to cancer. My damaged cells can kill me.

We now know that most of us have cells with the potential to become cancer circulating our bodies all of the time. Yes, when I say ‘most of us’ I mean potentially any human on the planet and not just those of us with a history of this disease. In order for these damaged cells to become tumours they need to trick the body into providing them with a blood supply.

Of course, most of these cells get killed off by the body as part of our normal process of cell rejuvenation. Now it seems that intermittent fasting boosts this process. That means that changing the way we eat could have huge benefits for cancer patients.

Fasting also increases our white blood cell count and boosts our immune system. It helps to reduce insulin type growth factor, which is important because high levels have been shown to correlate with a higher risk of cancer. Here’s an article summarising some recent research:

http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/06/05/fasting-for-three-days-renews-entire-immune-system-protects-cancer-patients-remarkable-new-study-finds/

After checking the research I am convinced that intermittent fasting has the potential to reduce my risk of recurrence. My husband was also keen to try a 5:2 diet to lose the extra kilos that he’s put on during the last year so about six weeks ago we both started limiting our calories for two days a week.

We chose Tuesdays and Thursdays as our ‘fast days’. You can choose two consecutive days but most people find this harder than breaking them up. On fast days, Graham likes to have breakfast which is usually some kind of vegetarian omelette. I prefer to save my 500 calories for one meal at dinner time. I’ve found that it’s easier to not eat at all during the day. I love that this way of eating is so flexible and that you can adjust it to suit your preferences.

Dinner on fast days is a big pile of low starch vegetables (leave out the potatoes and corn) topped with a small serve of protein. We often have fish because it’s low in calories and I don’t eat enough of it. We’ve also had eggs, tofu, organic chicken and grass fed organic lamb or beef.

Graham gets 600 calories by virtue of his gender which means that once he’s had breakfast I’ve got plenty of room to make us both a delicious dinner.

So how are we going?

Well, a girlfriend came to visit me this weekend to take me out to my favourite restaurant as a late birthday treat. I sat enjoying the view out the window of the ocean and tucked into my goats cheese tart with duck breast followed by a giant pork chop with heaps of vegetables and thought “This has got to be the best diet EVER!”

When my daughter turned 21 I finally admitted to myself that the in spite of all the dieting and exercising I was just going to have to live with ten extra kilos for the rest of my life. I did, once, manage to get back within my BMI by attending weekly Weight Watchers meetings and obsessively measuring and counting everything but I was so miserable that it was unsustainable. What a great business model they have; any loss is their credit and any gain is your fault!

My daughter has a similar metabolism. I’ve seen her eat like a bird and train like an athlete only to be distressed by the lack of any movement on the scales.

The thing I love the most about The Fast Diet is that it has finally exploded the whole ‘energy in-energy out’ myth of dieting. Ask anyone whose battled their weight long term or any honest personal trainer and they will tell you that it’s just not that simple. Traditional dieting ultimately makes people fatter.

What’s worse than the lack of results on the scale are the thin people that spout “You just need to eat less and exercise more!” as if you weren’t already doing that. The implication that you are just being untruthful about your vigilance is offensive and demoralising. You give up. You eat a bar of chocolate. You may as well, because people assume you are anyway.

So you can imagine my excitement when (drum roll please) the scales showed my pre-pregnancy weight! I’m so happy I’ve become evangelical. We are not ‘big boned’. We do not have ‘a slow metabolism’. We are not weak, lazy, self delusional or greedy.

The first couple of weeks of fasting required some commitment and a bit of effort but it was much easier than I expected it to be. Yes, I was hungry. So what. Every diet I’ve ever tried required me to feel hungry but I was required to feel it every bloody day! Two days a week? No problem!

What makes it really easy to get through fast days is this phrase: “I’ll eat that tomorrow.”

You see, the wonderful thing about The Fast Diet is that you don’t count or restrict anything on your other days. Yes, you read that correctly. No calorie counting. No portion control. No using matchboxes or your palm to measure serving sizes of the food you love. The authors recommend that you eat a healthy diet most of the time which is high in vegetables, includes some fruit and good quality protein but you can also include occasional serves of the foods that are usually forbidden.

I’m thinner than I’ve been in twenty two years and I did it while eating pizza, French cheeses, gourmet dinners, decadent desserts and the occasional hand full of potato chips. On the recommendation of the authors via their Facebook page we suspended fasting over Christmas, both gained a couple of kilos and then lost them when we fasted the following week. You can see why they call this ‘The Foodies Diet’.

I have other reasons for eating well most of the time. I know that good quality whole foods can contribute to my health and reduce my risk of occurrence. I also know that eating well affects my mood, my energy and my appearance. But The Fast Diet means that I can finally enjoy food again without any guilt. I can have an evening out at a beautiful restaurant and not use kilojoules or fat content as a criteria for menu choices. For someone like me who loves fine dining this is close to miraculous.

Apart from the weight loss I think this way of eating helps to educate your subconscious; hunger is not going to kill me.  Like other people on this diet, I find that hunger does not increase throughout my fast days. It comes in waves. It peaks and subsides and it’s no worse at the end of the day than it was in the morning. It’s about as uncomfortable as a small stone stuck in the bottom of your shoe. Mildly annoying. Not more than that.

This is not a starve and binge strategy. Although I expected to be hungry the day after a fast day I actually stuck to my usual routine of a late breakfast. I have found that I am just not as hungry as I used to be and that I naturally eat less. Although I had no hesitation in ordering a pork chop for lunch I chose not to eat all of it and I passed on dessert. On purpose. My choice.

I’ve also lost my sweet tooth, perhaps because fasting has starved the sugar-eating bacteria in my gut. (Another recent Catalyst program explained that this bacteria can signal our brain to crave more sugar.) The research confirms that people don’t overeat after a fast day. That’s part of why this strategy works so well.

For the first few weeks, fast days were a challenge. I avoided anywhere that sold or stored food (including my kitchen) and kept myself busy doing things I enjoyed. I slept late and went to bed early in order to shorten the day. I felt occasionally ravenous but then I would distract myself with something, have a nice big drink of water and the feeling would pass. It reminded me of giving up smoking.

Now to my surprise I actually enjoy fast days. Apart from being seriously impressed with the results (12 kilos gone and counting) I find I have plenty of energy, I think clearly and I don’t ever suffer from ‘low blood sugar’ fatigue, which, it turns out, is just one more dieting myth that this research has exploded. Think about it. You go to bed every night and go without food for seven or eight or nine hours. You can usually add in the couple of hours you didn’t eat before you went to bed. Do you wake up feeling light headed because of low blood sugar? Ironic that this diet might be the way to avoid diabetes.

Some of the recent research is showing that athletes actually perform better if they fast before competition. The guy that wrote the book on ‘carb loading’ is now apologising and advocating a different approach. It makes sense that as an animal reliant upon hunting to provide our food, fasting would trigger improved athletic performance.

I’ve only got another two or three kilos to go and then I’ll cut down to one fast day a week for the rest of my life. It’s clear that this is one way I can actively help my body to avoid cancer in the future.

If you’re interested, here’s a great article by Michael Mosely:

http://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/the-fast-way-to-lose-weight-live-healthily-and-fight-ageing-30600623.html

5:2 is not the only way to fast. Some people find it easier to limit their eating to an eight hour window each day. This is usually referred to as the 8:16 diet. You might, for example, have your first meal of the day at 11.00am and your last meal at 7.00pm. Eating this way gives your body a fasting window where it can switch to repair mode. The biggest difference with 8:16 is that you need to eat this way every day (some people take one day off a week) for the rest of your life. It’s a personal choice whether you prefer 5:2.

There’s also the option of doing a three day continuous fast every month. If you prefer this, you need to be aware that this is a serious fast and not just the calorie restriction you get on the 5:2 diet. Most people doing a three day fast have only water or herbal tea. Some have clear soup or broth. I know people that combine a monthly fast with some kind of spiritual practice such as a retreat, meditation, yoga or prayer. It’s about a lot more than diet for them, but a spiritual aspect is not a requirement. I think the most difficult thing about three day fasting is fitting it into your life. Few of us can walk away from our lives for three days every month and trying to maintain an extreme fast while friends, family and co-workers are enjoying meals would be difficult.

I’ll probably do a three day fast a couple of times a year for the health benefits.

Regardless of which model you choose, fasting is good for you.

I’ll add my usual caution here. If you’re currently having treatment then discuss any diet changes with your doctor and please, do your own research. If you’re having chemotherapy then it’s worth googling ‘chemotherapy and fasting’. There is evidence that fasting might help to make chemotherapy less toxic to the body and more effective. Ironically, the chronic nausea and loss of appetite could be part of the reason chemotherapy works at all.

If you sent me a message saying you had just been diagnosed and asking my advice then part of my response would include a recommendation that you fast for three days. If I could go back in time that’s what I would do. It’s possible that fasting might just help our bodies to fight active cancer.

This is a fascinating area of research and one I’ll be keeping an eye on.

So here’s a short list of the ideas I’ve now consigned to the rubbish bin:

1. Fasting is bad for you.
2. If you don’t eat regularly you’ll get low blood sugar and feel tired
3. You can’t exercise if you’re fasting.
4. You must eat breakfast to ‘kick start’ your metabolism.
5. Losing weight is simple a case of energy in, energy out; reduce the amount of food you eat and increase the amount of exercise you do and you are guaranteed to lose weight.
6. Fasting will promote binge eating.
7. Fasting will promote eating disorders.
8. Going hungry will make it difficult for you to concentrate.
9. You can’t sleep if you’re hungry.
10. Weight gain is unavoidable with age.
11. Losing weight means giving up food you love.
12. Over weight people are just making excuses because they are greedy.

All of these are WRONG. Imagine my delighted surprise!

 

Fear of Recurrence: Part 4 (Mindfulness)

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I sometimes wonder if the people that developed Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) based their model on Buddhist or yogic philosophy. There’s some striking similarities. One of the most obvious is the use of mindfulness as a technique.

It seems that mindfulness, all on its own, is enjoying a popularity surge at the moment. It’s the subject of books, TED talks and articles. Most people are at least passingly familiar with the idea of being present, paying attention to what’s right in front of you, or around you, rather than the chatter that’s going on in your mind.

When you’re dealing with the fear of a serious illness returning, mindfulness brings you from your fears about the future all the way back to the present. It reconnects you with the activities you enjoy and the people that you care about. In the context of ACT, it helps you to turn your attention to your values, and to take action consistent with those values.

Russ Harris explains that when you’re dealing with a distressing event (or you’re upsetting yourself by imagining one) mindfulness is not a relaxation technique but a way to anchor yourself.

Here’s a simple mindfulness exercise. As you’re reading this, pay attention to the device that’s displaying it. Look at the different textures on the surfaces of that device. Are they reflective or dull? What colour? What brand? Are you holding the device in your hand and, if so, what does it feel like? Or if it’s on a surface in front of you, what is that surface. What is it made from? Now look around the device. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell?

If you’re similar to me then mindfulness exercises feel like moving out of your head and back into your body. I have a mild sense of waking up or reconnecting with my world. Please don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with using imagination to create dreams, explore ideas, imagine possibilities. The aim is not to be mindful all of the time, but to spend more time being mindful.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to focus on your own breathing. Try this now and then use it the next time you start scaring yourself with thoughts of illness or death. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take five gently breaths and focus on your exhale being longer than your inhale. (This also helps to prevent you hyperventilating. Suck in too much oxygen and you definitely will not feel calmer.) Breathe through your nose if you can. Notice how your breath feels cooler going in and warmer going out. Try to breathe all the way down to the hand on your belly. Notice the way your hands rise and fall with your breath. Hold yourself gently and kindly.

As you do this, remember that you’re not trying to get rid of your anxiety. You’re just trying to anchor yourself during a storm. Those difficult thoughts and feelings will keep trying to frighten you. Notice them. Thank your mind for trying to warn you and protect you. Recognise what a great story teller you are.

Now shift your focus to your five senses. What can you taste? Many people experience a metallic taste when they’re stressed. What can you hear? You might not be able to hear anything other than your own heart or breathing or you might be able to hear music, or birds, or traffic. Just notice it without judgement. What can you smell? What can you feel? It might be just the air on your skin or the places where your body comes into contact with your chair and your clothing or you might notice the air temperature or a breeze. Finally, what can you see? Look around you and notice the detail. Where are you?

I think that part of the reason yoga and meditation are so good for reducing anxiety is that they both incorporate mindfulness. It’s a powerful way to put ourselves back into the present moment. When applied to ACT, mindfulness also allows us to think about what it is that we really value, and what type of action would make our lives more meaningful. Nobody expects you to come up with strategic plans while you’re frantic about the future but mindfulness can give you, quite literally, the breathing space you need.

Once you’ve weathered the storm you can revisit your values and put together plans to achieve things that are consistent with them. You’ll probably keep having scary thoughts. Cancer is terrifying! But these techniques will help you to have a rewarding and meaningful life in spite of your fears.

I don’t plan on writing a post about how to make plans and carry them out. I think most people are now very familiar with the SMART model and ACT incorporates it as part of the ‘Commitment’ part of the acronym. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry if you’re not already using SMART or you can google ‘SMART planning model’ for more information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMART_criteria

There’s whole books written on this model and there’s no doubt that people using it are generally far more likely to achieve their goals than those that don’t but this is not universally true. Not everyone needs or wants a structured planning model and critics would argue that being too structured can blind you to the surprises and opportunities that life puts in front of us. I suppose the acid test is how effective you already are at setting and achieving goals. If you feel like you’re going around and around in circles then I’d recommend going through the SMART process, writing things down and then checking in regularly to measure your success. Like so much of life, the key is to actually DO rather than just understand.

Even if you think you’re pretty good at achieving your goals I’d encourage you to give the SMART model a try. You might find that it helps you to take effective action and to achieve more than you already do. I used to use SMART in a work setting and find that after years of use I now naturally slip into this framework when I want to achieve something. Revisiting it from the perspective of ACT has made me keen to try using it for something other than work. I’ve always been a lot more ‘free form’ in my personal life, perhaps because work was so structured.

This is the end of my four part series on dealing with fear of recurrence and I hope you’ve found it useful. ACT is a collection of interrelated tools that have been proven to be very effective in dealing with everything from PTSD to giving up addictions. For me, learning about this model and putting these methods into practice has resulted in a significant improvement in my life. I am calmer, happier and clearer about what I want my life to stand for. Even though ACT practitioners are very clear that the model is not designed to reduce or eliminate troubling thoughts, I have, like many people, noticed a reduction in them as a side benefit of practicing these techniques. I’ve also found that Russ’s book for couples ‘ACT with Love’, has strengthened my marriage and increased my considerable love and affection for my husband.

If you’ve read about ACT and thought it was too simple, or too difficult or just not you then I’d encourage you to at least try some of the techniques. It’s possible that you’re right. It’s also possible that you just might expand your skills and improve your life. Surely that’s worth a bit of your time.

Here once again is the link to Russ’s web site.

http://www.actmindfully.com.au

I would highly recommend his book ‘The Reality Gap’ to anyone facing a cancer diagnosis or dealing with significant anxiety about anything. Just remember that reading the book and expecting your life to change is like reading a cook book and expecting to eat. ACT only works if you do it. Yes, some of it will feel awkward and strange and even a bit stupid but that’s how you’re always going to feel any time you’re brave enough to try something new.

As I write all of this I’m thinking about 2015. It’s the first day of that year. I love the new year. For me it’s always a time of reflection and gratitude. It’s also when I decide on what I’m carrying forward and what I’m leaving behind. I spent this morning reducing my Facebook ‘friends’ list down to those people that I actually spend real time with and those that I would spend real time with if they lived closer. Gone are the friends of friends, the occasional acquaintances and the people I never really knew at all. ‘Unliked’ are all those pages that push stuff into my timeline and eat up the first couple of hours of my day. This is all part of a desire to spend less time online and more time leading my new, improved and very valued life.

Cancer has made one thing very clear. My time on earth is limited. The most important question I can ask myself is ‘How do you want to spend that time?’ For me, this year will involve more yoga, more painting, more cello, more gardening and, most importantly, more face to face time with the people that I love. I’ll be spending less time ‘liking’ or ‘commenting’ on the posts of people that probably wouldn’t invite me to a party if they threw one. Facebook is a wonderful tool for communicating with lots of people but it has become a time vampire. I suspect I may have become just a little bit addicted to it. Time to get back to life. Nothing takes you away from mindfulness as quickly as Facebook.

I wish I had never had cancer but I am very grateful for the person I’ve become because of it. Thank you to all of you that have shared the roller coaster with me. Thank you for your time, your comments, your kindness and your advice. My plan is to live until I’m 86 and to never ever have cancer ever ever ever again. Wish me luck.

 

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