Take Some Time for Self-Examination During Your Breast Cancer Journey

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • I’ve just returned from a weekend retreat, and as I transition from that place–a spa visit for my inner self, as it were–back to life-as-usual, I wanted to share some thoughts.

    Though the retreat was positioned as a gathering for cancer survivors and their caregivers, it really could have been for anyone–anyone who was willing to do some self-examination, that is. The setting was gorgeous: a beautiful boys’ prep school here in New Hampshire, absent the boys. It’s rural-lovely, situated on a point bisecting a large, secluded, and very quiet lake; we could hear the loons calling at odd hours, against a backdrop of whispering wind in the trees, and the occasional slap-slap-slap of waves against the dock. The facilitators were top-notch: two talented, caring women, experts in the mind-body connection and how it can work to help in our journey with cancer. And the participants came from all over a three-state area, each bringing their own stories: some as cancer survivors, some as caregivers to those survivors, and all as vulnerable human beings who’d been broadsided by a life-changing illness–and lived to tell the tale.
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    The key word here is vulnerable. The retreat included activities ranging from writing and art to dance and storytelling. And a common theme developed: vulnerability, and what you do with it. Yes, we’re all vulnerable to cancer; in the end, it’s probably a random roll of the dice that determines who gets it. But that’s not the vulnerability we faced this weekend. Instead, it was the vulnerability that comes with exposing your deepest fears, your most personal anguish, to the light of day. Standing up in front of 17 people you’ve never met, and saying, “I’m scared out of my wits, and I’m not brave at all; I’m a wimp.” Or, “I’m not who I appear to be; this is all a fake. The real me is awful.” Or, “I’m not in charge anymore. I was always the strong one, the superwoman, and now I have to ask for help.” Once you stick your neck out enough to admit your “shortcomings”–once you expose your vulnerability–then what?

    First of all, believe that they’re not shortcomings, flaws, or anything else you might term these parts of yourself you don’t like. You are who you are, “warts and all.” Having cancer taught me to think like this early on; I’ve never been a fighter, and had no interest in “fighting” cancer. Instead, I accepted cancer as part of me, and decided we’d have to reach a compromise. “You can stay, but you have to hide and not bother me. Go lurk somewhere; just leave the other cells alone.” Now, 4 1/2 years later, I’m living with cancer, the key word being “living.”

    Second, look at these “itchy” parts of you as opportunities for growth. If you were perfect, what could you ever strive for, or work towards? Dealing with cancer teaches you, sooner or later, that you’re NOT a superwoman. That it’s OK to accept help. Heck, it’s even OK to ASK for help–a big step for many of us, if we’ve always seen ourselves as the chief caregivers, never the care-receivers. People are good and want to help; how wonderful that cancer has made you vulnerable, and gives them the opportunity to do so!

  • Going through cancer treatment also maps out for you the boundaries of your strength. And guess what? Maybe being a “wimp” was the perfect reaction to chemo. It’s humbling, it’s debilitating, and you were savvy enough to accept help, rather than march through it on your own, only to fall under the weight of that lonely burden later on.
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    Finally, use your own vulnerability to recognize and accept it in others. We all have very high standards for the world, don’t we? “Should” is way too common a word in our vocabulary. Perhaps, when we soften our own personal standards–when we accept and love ourselves exactly as we are–we can more easily do the same for those around us. And think how that might change the world!

    Me, I learned something very important this weekend: how to dance. I was a wallflower growing up, and never got asked. But, in the supportive, loving setting of this retreat, I admitted I couldn’t dance, and went out there and did it anyway. And within an hour, to the strains of Motown, I was dancing. Right into the next part of my life.

    Forest Moon, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Vermont and western Massachusetts, offers a number of retreats and workshops throughout the year for those touched by cancer.
Published On: August 24, 2006