Last fall of 2017, I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. I’ve been through many life challenges and this one was up there for me in terms of difficulty. One of the first things I learned about this cancer is that it has a high 97% survival rate especially when you catch it before your 45th birthday, which luckily for me was the case. Doctors said to me that if they were to choose the type of cancer to have this is the most “mild mannered” and the one to choose! However, I soon discovered the process is no different than other types of cancer or serious health diagnosis, filled with unknowns and existential crises, countless medical procedures and testing, and fears about medical competencies. I chose to write this blog to share the personal key learnings I have discovered in my own process in hopes that it may help you if you are going through something similar: to feel less alone, find some solace, and take away some strategies in this very challenging time of your life. Here are my top 3 tips to empower you through a serious health diagnosis:
Be your own doctor.
Being your own doctor was a special message I received early on when I attended a retreat before my first surgery. “Being your own doctor” does not mean you are self-diagnosing, but rather is all about taking responsibility for your own health. This means that no one else, even those closest to you can take your place in what you are going through. No matter if they have experienced things like this themselves, you are the only one with the experience of being in YOUR body and mind. Your health, learning about your body, and gathering knowledge is your responsibility. As much as we wish there were a fairy godmother waving her magic wand to make it all better for you, the reality is you can find your path to healing if you are willing to take the step to do it for yourself by “being your own doctor”; get to know what your needs are, speak up when you have questions, take inventory of what you are experiencing, and be open and curious about your body and what you can learn about it. This thought can be an overwhelming, scary, and lonely experience, but you are not alone. Taking responsibility for your health can feel daunting, however you are in the good company of those who love and care for you. Owning your health is also about reaching out to those around you for the support you need. You can look at supports in three different categories: professional/medical support, natural support (i.e. family and friends), spiritual support (i.e. spiritual circle/tribe, church community, etc.). Many times, the natural support and spiritual support can overlap. Ultimately, taking responsibility for your own health is about empowerment.
Learn what helps your body relax
The one thing that can be a hit or miss moving through the medical system is the ability of the medical professionals to empathize with what you might be experiencing emotionally. This is not to say that the professionals are not competent at what they do, but really depends on the individuals one encounters throughout the process. Going through your personal medical challenge, let’s face it, is really emotional! You can often feel intense fear, anger, betrayal, sadness, loneliness, and helplessness (to name a few). These feelings are not for the faint of heart. When an individual is saturated with medical jargon, endless procedures and testing, one can feel like they are part of a scientific and/or academic experiment and less like a whole person with feelings. In some worst-case scenarios, people can even be traumatized by the very same health providers who are there to help, because they may be burnt out themselves, emotionally disconnected, and/or lack proper training. It is not to say that there are not amazing medical professionals, however this is the unfortunate sad reality that we may encounter in the medical field when looking for quality care. So, what can you do to stay ahead of this potential pothole in your journey? Learn what helps your body relax. When you are feeling overwhelmed, with so many appointments to stay on top of, need to continue your work, be there for your family, friends, and personal projects… it is time to slow down. Take a deep breath and find a way to slow yourself down to truly relax. Ways to help one person relax can vary for each individual. And some ways are healthier than others. Drinking and abuse of substances might be effective but in the long run are not truly helping you relax, but rather ways to avoid dealing with the real issues and numb yourself from feeling. The difference seems subtle but is actually very distinct, as avoidance and numbing usually stunt processing whereas other healthier ways help you truly move through the emotions so that you can feel strong and empowered on the other side. Some examples of healthy ways to relax your body are: exercise, meditation, yoga, soaking in your tub, talking with a friend, prayer, crying, playing music, dance, writing, art, etc. The key component to look for is whether this brings you a sense of peace, joy, and releases tension. Slowing down can feel counterintuitive but it really gives your body a chance to catch up with your mind, for your mind to take a break so that you can be more present for the next task at hand. If you do feel like you have experienced any trauma, you can ask for a referral for a mental health professional either within the hospital (if they have a department) or outside the hospital to help you address these concerns. More often than not, the emotional process can last long after the medical treatment is over, so be patient with yourself. This is a process in itself, but it will be worth it. Do not give up... which leads me to my last tip:
The last key learning is to have faith. This is probably the hardest and least strategic of all my tips, yet it is the one that feels essential when facing the unknown. When struggling with a health diagnosis like cancer, it is impossible not to face one's mortality regardless of your prognosis. If anyone shames you for thinking about death when your prognosis is better than most, you can rest assured that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Thinking about death is natural, not morbid. In fact, I commend you for having the courage to be so authentic as to consider this reality of life. No one can escape death, but how you face it is truly the test of your character and humanity. Having faith does not mean that you blindly believe that all will work out the way you want it to (Trust me, you will not buy it). Having faith means that you dig deep to find the thing you can truly hold on to and/or embody. For some, it is literally their faith, for others it can be the love they have, or the commitment to live the life they were too afraid to live. Faith, the thing that you hold on to, is inherently intangible. In my case, I have faith in the person that I am becoming and the sense of freedom that comes with getting in touch with the true self. When you hone in and get clear on what your faith is in, no one can take that away from you. Soon you will find that this will give you the strength to move through the unknowns of your life, especially this health challenge. Finally, I hope that I have left you with some ideas to consider, tools to try, and a sense of solace in knowing that you are not alone in your experience. I will leave you with a song that lifted me up in some of my darkest times...