For many people being told that they have cancer is one of the most stressful times in their lives. Just as we think we have everything under control, something comes along that can shatter even the strongest of wills.
Out of the blue, in September 2002, Sara faced one of the biggest challenges of her life – her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having nursed her mother through her illness, Sara took the step of having a mammogram just to make sure she herself was clear. All over Christmas she tried to put it to the back of her mind, but she couldn’t help worrying.
On New Year’s Eve 2002, she was horrified to learn that not only did she have breast cancer, but that it was a particularly aggressive form. Of course, Sara was very angry at first. She thought, Why me? It would have been better if I hadn’t gone for a mammogram. She was also very scared. She said, When someone says, You have cancer, you immediately think you’re going to die. I have to wait six weeks before my surgery and I have no idea how I will stay sane until then. What on earth am I going to do?”
After a few very bleak days, Sara decided she was determined not to give in too easily. Her mother had, after all, fought the disease, so she, too, could do the same. When she was calm enough to answer her question What on earth am I going to do? several answers came to her, as she was walking her dog.
Find out as much as possible about breast cancer.
Talk to other people who have faced similar situations.
Be realistic about what she could change and what she needed to accept.
When Sara opened her eyes and started to believe that she had choices, she was amazed at the different ideas that popped into her head. She discovered practical ways to prepare her body and mind prior to her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. She was able to make a number of choices in her life, including exercise, changing her diet and learning how to chill out with meditation.
By the time Sara went into hospital in February, her frame of mind had shifted from a very negative one to that of how she could take control of her life. She said, I can’t stop the cancer running through my body but I can change how I deal with it. It’s taking over my body but it doesn’t have to take over my mind. I can control how I deal with it.
Sara is certain that her excessive workload, poor nutrition and lack of exercise had taken a toll on her body and were contributing factors to her state of health. She sees her illness as a new chapter in her life rather than the end of it. As well as conventional medicine, Sara has also discovered the power of laughter. “It is impossible to laugh and feel stressed at the same time. I think laughing brings about release.”
If you are feeling stressed you might not feel like laughing. But laughter really is the best medicine. As Sara pointed out, it is difficult to laugh and feel anxious at the same time! Try it! How do you feel when you have a really good laugh? As soon as you start to laugh, the power of the stress is lessened.
I have recently been very involved in setting up a charity, Clowns in the Sky, which supports children suffering from brain tumours. Children with tumours spend many weeks in hospital undergoing painful treatment and we have found that bringing some fun into their lives makes a huge difference to their well-being. If they can laugh, so can you!
My favourite films are The Full Monty, Bridget Jones and Hitch. Why? Because they make me laugh!
This Christmas we tried out a really funny game. Try saying “purple sprouting broccoli” with your lips over your teeth; it is almost impossible to do. You will laugh with frustration that no one can understand you and others will laugh at you because you look and sound so silly. Don’t worry, everyone including you will be laughing!
Is everything perfect for Sara? Of course not. Her initial surgery was successful although she was diagnosed with breast cancer again a few months ago. The fear that the cancer might return again has always been the hardest thing for her to deal with and it is something she thinks about every day. But she feels much more in control of certain aspects of her life. She is trying to focus on what she can change, just a day at a time. She still finds the visits to hospital very stressful, but she doesn’t allow herself to dwell on negative aspects of her illness for too long as she has found it very counterproductive.
Sara didn’t have any choice about having breast cancer. She did have choices, however, about how she chose to deal with life each day.
You may not be able to influence and overcome every stressful situation, but you can take charge over how you respond.
If you are facing a major change and finding life very stressful, what changes can you make to how you view the situation today?
If you want to manage stress in your life, you need to begin with yourself.
None of us are able to predict the future, but we can make the present better if we choose to.
What makes you laugh? Do you have a favourite video, a story, a joke or a friend who helps you to lighten up?
Focus on what you can change and you will start to feel more in control of your life.