I suited up in my protective camouflage and allowed myself to fly away into the spiritual arms of God. I swore I’d float myself on a cloud of faith, euphoria, love, and determination to be a happy and loving woman in the ugliest face of cancer. That was back in July, 2012, when I was diagnosed with a new reality that I naively thought would end with surgery and chemotherapy. My 6 month plan was to deal with extinguishing cancer and put it behind me. Discovering meaning and purpose in a quick and thorough cancer journey, I heartily shared it on Facebook and on my blog. When I landed, it was into the comfort and care of my family, friends, and community. My heightened feelings of happiness, hope, faith and love lasted all those months and then I came out on the wrong end of the statistics. The cancer came back quickly and I lost the luxury of ever tucking it away into the memorabilia box. Recurrent metastatic cancer is a bigger beast that may hide out in remission, but always lurks in your worst nightmares.
In the middle of my first experience with chemotherapy, there came a time when my protective facade began to crack and shatter. When things went wrong, people’s words had power to cut me. When I missed treatments due to low blood counts, I got angry but had no one to blame. My life seemed to come crashing down and I was eventually forced to confront moments when I couldn’t breathe the same, or smile, or laugh, or accept, or inspire. Arriving home from my self induced vacation from reality was a difficult awakening. You don’t have to have cancer to understand it. Every human suffers from some form of their own cancer, struggles, stresses, or depression. We would all choose to make things better and leave the bad stuff behind; if only we had a magic ticket.
During these years, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing and trying to grow, learn, and be better at living this life. What breaks and what heals? I’ve experienced the hopelessness of losing my footing and threatening my own survival. I’ve had breaks in communication, encountered bad chemistry, and had times where I surrendered to vulnerability, anger and sadness. During chemo, at my lowest, I learned that even blood can protest and go rogue when provoked. There were times when my stress and anger made me doubt my ability to make it. The worst I’ve felt is having to tolerate being cornered and stuck to the extreme of wishing for it all to just be over. In my darkest hours the contemplation of (G-d forbid) death, was thrown in with my prayers. I’m very lucky that those dearest to me reminded me, by never leaving my side, that I could never allow myself to be pulled all the way down.
Now I can admit that it’s unrealistic to accept such a devastating cancer diagnosis, so many losses, and endure grueling chemotherapy without facing and owning grief and pain. There’s no shame in sinking low as long as you get up again. Early into my journey, I was unwilling to allow any mourning or regret to show at all, and it eventually had to explode against my will about half way into my first round of chemotherapy, a year before the cancer came back.
I lead a life full of avalanches of joy and appreciation. I won’t insult a soul by pretending that I’m always cheery, happy, and jumping for joy. My Happylanche is 100% real and I have survived many down days too. Sadness, misery, and stress are temporary emotions that I can conquer when I’m focused on that purpose, and that is the message I want to spread. My secrets to happiness are not extraordinary; they’re free and available to everyone.
There are various levels of hardship: fatal and life-threatening, stressful and life-changing, and for some people, the threat and fear of those things are enough to bring on a crisis with a life of its own. Humans have the ability to either minimize or maximize personal catastrophe based on availability to cope. Abilities can be cultivated and perfected into life-saving mechanisms.
As a cancer patient, I was forced to relinquish my coveted roles in order to endure surgery and chemotherapy. My new occupation had to include doing everything essential to getting through treatment and extending my existence as the mother and wife I want to be. Letting go and allowing people to help me was necessary for my survival. It’s made me grow as a person, as a friend, wife, and mother. At the lowest point in my life, I discovered that my happiness was dependent on me and my choices and I chose to smile, laugh, and zoom in on the blessings in my life and in the world. I enjoyed letting my friends take me out of the house even when my body wanted to stay in bed. On the days that I couldn’t get out of bed, I choked down the nausea and the fatigue to wring out a few drops of activity that made me happy whether it was drinking coffee with my mom, cuddling on the couch with my beloved, watching my kids dance in the living room, or listening to them read, and watching them play. Those moments were rejuvenating. In those special minutes, I reminded myself of my abundance of blessings and felt immense joy bubbling through. The choice to be happy, to be powerful, is the best choice I could have made.
Support from people who have been through or are going through a similar experience is very healing. My Pink Moon Lovelies from Beyond The Pink Moon, an online support community, came into my life and continue to play an important role. The friendships I’ve made by having Nicki Durlester, author and dear friend, in my life have greatly contributed to my ability to cope. A collection of our stories was published in 2013 titled, The Pink Moon Lovelies: Empowering Stories Of Survival.
The internet can be a place of support and information. It’s essential to know what websites to visit and which ones to avoid. I’ve been on-line to educate myself about the prognosis and survival for women with recurrent metastatic ovarian cancer. The statistics are dreadful and It’s a shame I can’t erase them from my memory however there’s only 100% or zero percent in life and death. As long as I’m here, I think it’ll be more meaningful to live 100% ALIVE! Just as I (chose) to pour through the macabre statistics, I can also choose to remember that I am not a number. There are no small miracles so why shouldn’t I hope for the best? You can be 100% alive, which is 0% dead, or you can be 100% dead, which is 0% alive. As long as I’m breathing, it’s my choice.
In the thick of the storm, on Carboplatin and weekly Taxol, I was bloated and bald, nauseated and sick, and smiling. We smile when we’re happy but we can also smile when we’re forced to. When you smile often, whether it’s forced or not, you feel the happiness and people around you respond in kind. I know that I cannot pretend away the cancer, but I can live as a survivor whose future is unwritten, uncertain, and unknown. Is my happiness fake? Is it possible to live with daily crisis and a life-threatening situation and actually be full of joy, appreciation, and happiness? Sometimes you need to fake it til you make it.
In the early days after diagnosis, I rediscovered Yoga, and my favorite poses, Warrior 1, 2, and 3 (Virabhadra’s Poses). Just getting into those positions made me feel strong, powerful and free, not a fighting warrior but a spiritual warrior, conquering the enemy of fear, doubt and stress, which were my primary sources of anguish. I adapted my own poses of triumph and I practiced them everywhere and sometimes in public, which embarrassed my kids, but that usually made us laugh too. I searched for answers as to why I felt better after posing like Wonder Woman. There’s scientific proof that this method of posturing works. Our minds change our bodies but our bodies can also change our minds and the proof is in our hormones.
After the cancer came back, I was shocked. Within 2 months it spread all over the place and we didn’t know if the chemotherapy was even going to work. I knew I might be dying. Bold people asked me how I was still “feeling so well” and complimented me on how “great I looked”. I guarantee, I was not feeling well, wasn’t healthy, and it might have even annoyed me just a wee little bit that so many people would come to such conclusions but maybe it was my exterior reflecting my fake it til you make it superpower? Some friends and acquaintances distanced themselves from me and I understand. Some people might want to slap me upside the head in response to my displays of happiness, love, dancing, singing, and fun during such dark and scary times.
I won’t lie, I am faking sometimes. I have a lot to be thankful for and I also have a lot to fear. I have valid reasons to be mad, sad, and depressed sometimes. Chemotherapy was a horrible and difficult treatment to go through, twice, with young children. It made me weak, nauseated, and exhausted. Chemotherapy makes you not want to get out of bed, let alone drive, shop, cook, clean, or even move. I learned to fake it and it’s been a wonderful start to opening up and welcoming some really wonderful people and things into my life. Right now I have a lot to celebrate: being alive, completing two rounds of chemotherapy in less than 2 years, achieving a second remission against the odds. I’m glad I didn’t give up and I’m most appreciative that I didn’t give up my happiness, hope, faith, and love.
Fake it til you make it!
Even if you’ve reached limits of despair and feel like you can’t bear to live through another day, try forcing a smile. If (when) your children seem to constantly bicker and fight and you’ve reached your wits end, blast your favorite music and dance like the nut case you may have become. When you feel angry, don’t curse the moronic driver who just cut you off; laugh instead. Smile at that idiot because you can and it’s your choice! Laugh and giggle in public or in private. Just do it because it will make you and everyone around you feel good. Smile generously and stand tall and proud when you do it. It works!
Fake it til you make it!
I discovered a Ted Talk featuring social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, who explains how body language shapes who you are and affects how others see us. I shared her Ted Talk on my blog on November 21, 2012 and have received responses from people who say it changed their lives! During her 21 minute talk, she explains that powerful people are more assertive, confident, optimistic, abstract thinkers who take risks. Clinical studies have shown that powerful people have higher levels of the hormone, testosterone, and lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Every individual houses a power within that we can seize and use to control how we react to stress. Ms. Cuddy discusses how posturing in various power poses for a mere 2 minutes causes huge changes in our hormones, which can change how we react during stressful situations. In the YouTube video below, Amy Cuddy details how Power Posing, defined as posing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident, can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success. It’s free so take it, use it, and be HAPPY together with me!
The most important part of having the priceless knowledge of our ability to change how we’re perceived by others, by changing our posture, is not that I can become more powerful and successful in society. What inspires me so tremendously is the scientific proof that every person can choose happiness even in the most tragic life situations. It’s a choice. The most important and empowering outcome of this simple method is: how we change our body language can actually change how we see ourselves, and that is the secret to happiness.