This year my circle of friends and family lost six breasts, but zero lives to breast cancer.
A victory of sorts, I suppose.
As I have watched these three brave women fight and triumph, I have found deeper layers of respect and admiration for them. They each have very different stories, which are not mine to tell, but they are mine to learn from, and what I learn, I share with you, my dear readers.
While visiting my friend, she tried to describe her feelings to me about a cancer. A self-described hypochondriac, she surprised herself by facing caner with unbridled optimism, energy, and strength. She tried to describe to me how her spirits have soared, but she cut herself short at one point, explaining that just as non-parents can’t quite grasp what motherhood feels like, the same is true for cancer patients.
I knew what she was saying was true.
When I was single, a mother I knew sobbed uncontrollably over a tragedy that happened to someone else’s child. She told me that I couldn’t understand the impact of such news because I wasn’t a mother. I was miffed at the time. Compassion and empathy are universal traits, not the exclusive domain of mothers.
After I became I mom, I looked back at that incident and understood the point she expressed inelegantly. Nothing but first hand experience can touch the very core of one’s being. And so, it’s true, I cannot understand the full depths of what the women in my life have experienced, but that doesn’t mean we all can’t learn a few things about living from them.
1. Plant-based diet
Each of the three women have shifted towards a plant-based diet, consuming varying amounts of animal products, ranging from vegan to garnish-sized portions. The consensus is that the hormones, antibiotics, and carcinogens found in animal products provoke and aggravate cancer. Beef, pork, and dairy are particular culprits these cancer patients avoid.
On the other hand, they are embracing fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains for their powerful antioxidants and healing properties. Most of them juice on a daily basis, and credit all the nutrients they are eating with revitalizing them.
So, a plant-based diet is both a step towards better health and a move away from disease.
Two out of the three ladies found lumps in their breasts during self-exams. One of them felt something hard like a rock or frozen pea. The other felt something unusual and squishy, which did not immediately alarm her doctor.
I have been lax about my own self exams because I find them confusing. I felt embarrassed in the past when I had a doctor check out something that was nothing.
The diagnosis for breast cancer is remarkably swift with treatment beginning immediately, because it can spread so quickly. Had these women not spent a few minutes paying attention to their bodies…frankly, I can’t go there.
Now I take a deep breath and take my time getting to know my own breasts every month. I don’t like it, but it sure beats the alternative.
3. Slow down
One night this summer I was tired before everyone else. I wanted to visit with family I rarely see, but I was wiped out. My aunt told me that cancer taught her to rest whenever she needed it. She learned that the world kept spinning without her. There is no need to trudge on through exhaustion.
She’s right. I just watched a documentary on PBS about what happens during sleep. It turns out, quite a lot. During our non-REM time, our immune system kicks into high gear. Our bodies literally heal themselves when we rest. Our immune systems can’t get their work done if we keeping working when we are tired. In fact, feeling tired is the way our brains communicate the need for us to sleep, so we can heal and restore.
Not only must we pay attention to our bodies, we must also listen to them.
4. Speak up when you need something
I haven’t met a shy cancer patient. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but the women in my life have all been quite open about what they need. They haven’t been pushy, just up front and honest. Please cook a meal for my freezer. I need to visit my family. Please drive me to the store. I need to rest now. Let’s have a party. Please watch my kids. Don’t cry.
I don’t know why, but many of us don’t speak up during regular life. We hem and haw. We hint and hope. Rarely do we just come out and say exactly what we need. Why not? My cancer ladies have each realized that they are not surrounded by mind-readers, but they are surrounded by people who love them and want to be of service. Their openness enables others to help in a helpful way. We all need to speak up a little, and stop waiting for people to guess what we need.
5. Be. Here. Now.
This is the old yogi mantra and probably the most important lesson from my cancer ladies. I think it is also the lesson that most connects to the actual experience of having cancer. Each one of these women have become fully present in the present moment.
It is hard to describe exactly what has taken place, but they have each become more fully who they are. Their energy is radiant. RADIANT! They are flush from the throes of a new and passionate love affair with life. They have shed layers of worry, anger, jealousy, and pettiness. When I have a conversation with them, they are there. Cell-phones are off. Children are always given their full attention.
This is the lesson I want most to learn in the deepest layers of my being: the art of living when you are truly grateful to be alive.
To begin, I take a breath….