Slowing Down and Appreciating Life With Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide

    Snow falls gently outside my window this morning, muffling the clunks and clanks of plows going by on the street outside. It’s been falling since mid-afternoon yesterday; we have a good 10” out there now. Our first blizzard of the season has guaranteed us a white Christmas.

    In many places, the snow comes to rest on felled trees and downed power lines, victims of New Hampshire’s biggest, costliest ice storm in history, a storm that brought life as we know it to a virtual standstill. At its height a week ago, three-quarters of the state’s homes were without power: no light, no running water, and no heat, with temperatures dipping into the single digits. Candles, flashlights, and kerosene heaters can only take you partway to comfort in northern New England, in December. It’s been rough. Very rough.

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    An ice storm is spectacular, sheathing everything in its crystalline grip. You actually need to shield your eyes from the brilliant glitter. And you might as well leave your car in the driveway; only emergency personnel and the most foolhardy take to the roads.

    But snow doesn’t offer nearly as many impediments to daily living. It falls; we shovel it; we get on with things. And it’s like a mother’s caress, softening and smoothing the harsh winter landscape. It covers brown lawns, muddy sidewalks, and bushes whose leaves have withered and curled in the cold. It doesn’t stop us from driving; but it does slow us down.

    Driving at a normal pace in the snow is asking for trouble. We seasoned winter drivers start and stop slowly, lest our wheels find a hidden patch of ice to send us spinning into a tree—or the car ahead of us. The pace of every trip is more leisurely, as we travel at 30mph where usually we’d go 45. The cost of car repairs, the fear of injury… it’s just not worth it.

    Slowing down used to make me absolutely crazy. I’m a GO-GO-GO type of person, always late, always rushing. At least I was, before cancer.

    But during 9 months of cancer treatment, I HAD to slow down. Incisions from the mastectomy had to heal before chemo could begin. There was no shortcut through chemo: 21 days between each of those six deadly injections, and I trudged my way through every single one. And radiation meant slogging to the hospital Monday through Friday for 7 long weeks.

    Lucky for me, I discovered the slower pace of life—once it was forced on me—was something I preferred. I realized how stressed I’d been, the tension I’d cloaked myself in. Moving more slowly actually felt good. For the first time in years, my shoulders weren’t hunched; the muscles in my neck unclenched, my stomach relaxed.

    And with these physical changes came a change in attitude. How important was it, really, to try to win all of life’s little contests? Being at the front of the line in the supermarket, racing through the yellow light, having dinner on the table at 6 p.m…. What did it matter? The minutes and hours and days and weeks proceed at a measured pace; I could ramp everything up to warp speed, as I’d been doing, or slow down, and find my own measured pace to follow. 

  • Which is just what I did.

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    It’s 6 a.m.; my husband sleeps in the next room as I write. I’m thinking I should put on my boots and start shoveling; he’s still dreaming. I haven’t changed completely. I’m still an early morning, get-up-and-go type gal.

    But as I push snow off the walks and sweep the steps, I’ll pause regularly to take in the black and gray of a chickadee flitting from branch to feeder; and to enjoy the sight of millions of snowflakes descending from the sky, each at its own measured pace.

Published On: December 21, 2008