That moment. The moment when the doctor looks at you and says the “C” word, everything changes.
In that instant, it feels like all your hopes and dreams dissolve around you. And you are just left hanging in mid-air, not knowing where there is solid ground.
I know because I’ve been there. If that’s where you are at, I get it.
Of course, we all react to news like this differently.
But once that word had been said, all I could picture was death. Because that’s what we think of when we think of cancer. Death. Premature, grisly death. At least in that moment, that’s what I thought.
It became really difficult to hear the next words the doctor said. The shock, the fear and the panic took hold and in my effort to continue looking calm and collected, I went deaf.
As I left the doctor’s, I couldn’t help wondering if I just been transported into some alternate reality, a parallel universe. Nothing was the same as before I went in.
A diagnosis of cancer takes on a life of its own and we get completely swept up on to the medical conveyor belt. There are tests, biopsies, scans, appointment after appointment. We hear about type, grade and stage of the cancer. We get fed statistics and told what the treatment options are – watch and wait, surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, or a combination. And there may be trials for new drugs.
There is a sense that we are facing a juggernaut and that if we take just a moment to pause and reflect, it will sweep us up and throw us aside. There is pressure to act quickly and swiftly. The conveyor belt just keeps on moving. There is the fear that if we get off, we will get left behind and the worst will happen.
I had just one thought: I’ve been diagnosed with cancer – What do I do?
I frantically searched for guidance, a simple outline of what to do. I either didn’t look in the right places, or type in the right search terms or there simply wasn’t one thing that met my expectations. Eventually, once I had committed to treatment, I found books and other resources. But I couldn’t find anything in the short time I had between diagnosis and starting treatment. More importantly for me – and I mean me – I didn’t find anything that I felt was reliable enough for me to defer treatment with confidence.
Before I give you my list of practical suggestions to answer the question “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer – what do I do?” let me say this:
Be kind to yourself. Love yourself up.
You have been told that you have a life-threatening illness. That would make anyone shaky. You might find yourself behaving in ways you regret. You might speak harshly to loved ones. You might laugh inappropriately at situations you once would have considered serious. It’s all okay.
You are okay.
Your body needs you.
You need you.
So acknowledge yourself.
Acknowledge your fears.
Honour yourself and your journey to this point.
Commit to yourself and your body that you will support yourself through this with compassion and love.
People will probably tell you that you can “fight” this thing. While I want to focus on the positive things you can do, there is one thing I suggest you don’t do. Don’t go to “war” with your own body. Don’t “fight” the cancer. Don’t go into “battle.”
Love yourself and your body.
Acknowledge the cancer is there and turn your attention from it as best you can. Focus on the things that you are able to do, that give you hope and inspiration. That motivate you.
You might think this advice is New Agey and a bit woo woo. Please don’t dismiss it as there is a very rational, and as it turns out scientific, reason for this.
When we “fight” we go into protective mode and activate the “fight or flight response”. This is also called the “stress response.” All the physiological and metabolic processes of your body turn away from healing to meeting the perceived external threat. You can read more about the stress response here. Please, don’t put yourself under any more stress by picking a fight with yourself.
You are worthy of so much more. You deserve so much more.
So as I send a giant cyber hug to you at this time, here is my list of practical things to do:
1. Prepare questions for the doctor before you see her/him/them. Have one book where you write everything down.
2. Take someone with you to every appointment and ask them to take notes so that you can concentrate on what is being said.
3. Ask the doctors what the longest period of time you can defer treatment is. Not to suggest that you should refuse treatment, but any decisions regarding treatment require clear and confident thinking. This is not usually the case in the first weeks of being diagnosed. And there is a lot to consider. Is the treatment being offered palliative treatment or do the statistics point to a period of remission and good health? There is a lot of information to digest and I would have preferred not to have been rushed into anything.
4. Start meditating whichever way you can. Meditation can help to manage the anxiety that often follows a diagnosis, and turn off the stress response. It can also settle and quieten the mind so you can make decisions with clarity and confidence. There are some great apps and podcasts that you can use or you might like to find a course in your local area so that you have some social contact as well.
Although I had meditated for years, the technique I practised became more a source of frustration than comfort. So I listened to podcasts by Meditation Oasis, a range of different types of meditations, and then I enrolled in a course called What Meditation Really Is run by Rigpa (a spiritual organisation under the direction of Sogyal Rinpoche). Rigpa has centres worldwide. Eventually I found Dr Ian Gawler and his meditations specifically focused on healing. Ian has a lot of online resources. And you can get a free guided relaxation meditation here>>>>
5. Get these resources – two books and a film – You Can Conquer Cancer by Dr Ian Gawler, Radical Remission by Kelly A. Turner PhD and The Connection.
You Can Conquer Cancer by Ian Gawler
This is the book I truly wish I’d had on my bookshelf the day I was diagnosed. It covers every aspect of health but most relevantly has a section on how best to approach decisions regarding treatment – which plan to follow, or even how to make your own plan.
Contrary to popular belief, Ian is not “anti-chemotherapy”. His approach is that whatever you do, make sure you believe in it and embrace it. This is a common view amongst advocates for mind-body, or complementary, medicine. Belief in what you are doing is essential. Studies done on the “placebo effect” have found that belief in a treatment has a huge role to play in the activation of healing.
Ian provides instruction for the meditations he recommends, together with mind training exercises to help you to unlearn beliefs and habits that no longer serve you and to foster healthy emotions. There are comprehensive suggestions for diet and a healing plan of juices and healthful foods. This book also tackles the big issue of dying and how to prepare yourself. In being prepared for death, we can learn to live well.
This book has decades of experienced wisdom within its pages, not just Ian’s personal story but also from the work he has done with thousands of people living with cancer. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with cancer, it provides greats tips for preventing chronic illness. Hardly a day goes by that I do not refer to it.
You can watch Ian and me discussing his work and how you can take responsibility for your own healing in this video here.
Radical Remission by Dr Kelly Turner PhD
This book was published at the beginning of 2014. It brings together many stories of recovery against the medical odds, exploring the 9 factors Radical Remission Survivors have in common. The 9 factors – radically changing your diet, taking control of your health, following your intuition, using herbs and supplements, releasing suppressed emotions, increasing positive emotions, embracing social support, deepening your spiritual connection and having strong reasons for living – have been the subject of the Radical Remission blog series on this website. For more about the book and links to the posts on each of these factors, go here.
Perhaps more importantly, Dr Turner was amazed that no one had undertaken an analysis of these remarkable stories of healing and recovery before. To rectify the gap in public information, she has established The Radical Remission Project where Radical Remission survivors can upload their stories and a description of what they did to heal. This is a searchable database and I encourage you to explore it. It can be found HERE. Another website that contains personal stories that you can search is Chris Beat Cancer. Head to the Survivor Stories tab.
The Connection – Mind Your Body
This documentary gave me hope when nothing else could as my immune system crashed. Released just over a year ago, it was inspired by director Shannon Harvey’s own diagnosis with an auto-immune disease that doctors said was incurable. Over 3 years she travelled the world speaking with doctors, researchers, scientists and people with their own incredible recovery stories about the power our minds have over our bodies and our capacity for healing.
Here is the trailer.
You can also watch the first 15 minutes free at TheConnection.tv.
6. Once you have all this information and have allowed it to settle in your mind, make your own plan for treatment taking what you believe will work for you and making that your priority. The simple fact is that cancer patients who take control of their own health have far better outcomes than those who accept treatment passively. If you can, seek out an integrative oncologist to assist you.
YOUR plan might involve a combination of conventional medicine and complementary techniques. Or you might opt for one to the exclusion of the other. It needs to be tailored to you, and what you believe will work for you. As part of that plan, think carefully about who you will tell and when. Once the news breaks, that too can take on a life of its own.
Being diagnosed with cancer is a game changer. It’s happening to more and more people around the world. You are not alone. There is a lot of help out there but finding it can be difficult. Look for supportive groups and people. You are more than welcome to reach out to me via the contact page.
But being diagnosed with cancer can also be incredibly life affirming. It reminds us to embrace each moment that we have. None of us know when we are going to die, but a special few of us are given the opportunity to acknowledge and plan for that eventuality by taking steps to experience the best life has to offer in whatever time we have left.
Sending you love and light as you take your first steps on this unexpected and unchartered path.
As always, be happy. Be well.
And so be it.
It has just come to my attention that on 13 October a new 9 part documentary series on cancer will be released online. It brings together the experiences and learnings of a range of medical professionals, scientists, researchers and survivors in treating, studying and surviving cancer.