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Nancy F. Koehn

Nancy F. Koehn

Posted: November 1, 2010 10:19 AM

There is an "underground railroad" of support fueling the fight against breast cancer. In the spirit of this vital "railroad" and the amazing community of women that sustains it discussed in my last posting, here are a few insights from having had breast cancer twice in three years. They are culled more from my failures, weaknesses, and self-doubt on this part of my life's journey than from ongoing fortitude and confidence. Nonetheless--or perhaps because they were hard-won--these lessons have had real staying power for me, those who helped me find my way to them and those women to whom I have since passed these insights on.

First, choose an image or vision--beyond cancer--that you want to walk toward as you wrestle with the initial (terrifying) uncertainty of the disease and later when the uncertainty contracts some and you are toughing it out through treatment. I chose an image of jumping my horse at a show and my being strong and well as he and I took flight over the jumps. Over and over--through sleepless nights and long days in the bathroom as I wretched my way through chemotherapy--I conjured up this image, steeling myself and summoning my will to move toward it. (I kept on thinking of Scarlett O' Hara in Gone with the Wind: "With God as my witness, I will jump my horse over three feet again!).

Second, consider all the people in hospitals around the globe fighting cancer. I used to lie in bed at night and picture men and women and children in chemotherapy infusion rooms, in beds, being wheeled in and out of operating rooms. All these individual human beings were fighting a battle with cancer--some facing much bigger foes than I--and all were doing their best. This realization was another I came back to again and again. Each time, it dialed down the aloneness I felt while feeding my sense of the power of the human spirit.

Third, cordon off some mental space for what you want to learn and become in the crucible of cancer. Most of us have relatively little control over whether we get breast cancer. What we can control is how we respond to it: will we grow bigger, more loving, and braver as a result of this experience? Or will we become smaller, brittle, and more frightened? There really is not much middle ground. So if you choose the first, higher path, and you make this choice consciously, you will find yourself learning as you go--and logging this experience, not only for the moment, but for those beyond cancer as well. For example, I saw about midway through cancer 2 that I could reduce my own suffering by taking a longer-term view--on treatment and its effects, on my life goals, and on my most important relationships. Less just-in-time reacting (and frantic doing), more observation, deep breathing and emotional processing.

Fourth, if you choose this higher road, you will, at times, have the sense that you are an alchemist, transmuting base metal into gold, as you see something positive and powerful in the midst of great adversity. I will never forget the chemo nurse who held my head as I vomited through my final infusion. She was present and kind and unflappable surrounded by all that suffering. I pull her picture up often now, finding inspiration for my own perspective and behavior in stressful situations.

Finally, never forget that you are stronger and more courageous than you know. Outer layers of fear and doubt often cover the inner vigor and bravery. But do not be deceived. Much of what you need to deal with cancer and its repercussions is right there, down in your core. But to access this spirit, you have to believe it is there at the same time that you find the resolve to dig deeper than the fear, to not cave in to such intense anxiety and where it wants to take you. This is hard. And I, for one, could not consistently rise to the challenge. But when I did, my struggles and fright diminished while my confidence and sense of having some control increased.

In my experience and those of other women I know playing the mental game of cancer, these lessons have stretched beyond October and the attention paid to breast cancer.


 

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