I’m in this place where I’ve let go of how things were and I’m moving toward something new but I’m don’t know that this next phase is going to look like, what changes it's going to bring or how it’s going to feel.
Going through treatment for breast cancer has been helpful and challenging. It’s been helpful because it has forced me to make some decisions that I would’ve been unwilling to make otherwise. And just like any other significant life experience there is a lot of uncertainty while in the midst of it all, and with uncertainty can come fear and overwhelm. Where do you put your focus? How can you make it more manageable so the feelings of overwhelm don’t lead to being completely frozen.
For me it’s been about reigning myself in, and trying to really focus on one thing at a time. I have to move from a mega-view of my life and try to break it down to the next couple of weeks, and sometimes it’s just day-to-day. What can I do today to help myself stay on track?
In Alcoholics Anonymous there are a couple of sayings that are helpful. “One day at a time.” and “Do the next right thing.” If you’re feeling doubtful about your ability to make decisions, it’s hard to figure out WHAT is THE next right thing to do.
So I’m trying to let go of making the most ‘right’ decisions, because I realize this is also part of the freeze response to life. Instead, I’m asking myself to just take one step, and let myself be open to what happens next.
One thing that has surfaced during this whole process is I’ve been questioning my relationship with food and body more. When I received the diagnosis of breast cancer, my first response was to look at my diet and go into this mindset that I need to go on a cleanse, detox, cut out certain foods, take supplements, and find the most right diet to heal cancer.
Wait a minute. How many people do I know who have been diagnosed with cancer who eat healthy, exercise, and live a fairly balanced life? Actually, in my case, most of the people I know who have cancer have been people I consider to be ‘healthy’. So if that is not the sure fire way to stop cancer from occurring or to heal my diagnosis than why am I trying to put so much focus on this and in the meantime making myself feel more anxious and more deprived?
I think there are two answers for this. One is that we are told that in order to live a long and thriving life we need to follow the “wellness” program. That if we follow this program we will gain more certainty over life and what happens to us. The thing is, we don’t have control over how much time we have and what happens to our loved ones and us. Life happens.
I also think that the hyper focus on nutrition and wellness gives us something to DO about the uncertainty. I can buy the supplements, go to the health food store, cook the food, read about the harmful effects of other foods and things in our environment, and it really could go on and on.
This can easily be a place to put all of the focus, instead of being with the terribly uncomfortable feeling of being out of control over what is happening to me.
Then there are all of the medical treatments that come along with breast cancer. ‘Standards of care’, as they are called. In the last week I’ve found out that I may still have to do a round of chemo, which is three months. No matter what, I will have to do four weeks of radiation followed by a five-year stint of a hormone blocker medication called Tamoxifen. The medication will send me into early menopause, and the rest of the treatments all have their own side effects.
This shakes loose the feelings I have of being in control of what happens to my body and how I view myself in the world. How will my body change? What will I look like after all of this? Will I age earlier than I want to? Will I lose the ability to move in the way I want to? Will I gain weight and not be able to lose it? I know! Superficial shit.
The thing is, all of the treatments they are giving me are to reduce the risk of my cancer returning, and since I’m only in my early 40’s they give you more treatments to try to reduce this risk even further. So this is a good thing, and yet it’s still hard to move into this next year of my life and wonder if I’m going to change so much that I will be unrecognizable to myself.
It also shows me how much I’m still really attached to what I look like including my body size, shape, and fear of aging.
I’ve spent the better part of the last five years learning about the impacts of our cultural beauty standards and how they impact women. In some ways I think I should know better. But we are all impacted by these standards. Which is why the wellness culture feeds off of our collective fear of improving and healing ourselves and it often means dieting, exercising, self-help programs, etc.
In the times of health crisis, it’s easy to put the focus on nutrition and exercise and to go into a mindset of restriction and elimination.
Some of the best advice I’ve received in the last few months comes from my friend Jane Clapp. When I asked her if she knows of adjunct therapies I can use to support myself during treatment, she said, “I honestly think good psychotherapy is the best for helping our bodies find a healing place to hover. The rest is gravy (or icing).” Sigh. Thank you Jane.
It’s not that don’t believe that nutrition, exercise, and supplements are helpful. They are, but I believe they are meant to be a support to deeper work and not meant to be the only work we do.
In working with a therapist, it’s helping me to cognitively break down some of the fears I’m experiencing and to bring things into focus so they are manageable. I feel supported, and supported by someone outside of my every day life, which means they can give me a more objective view. This has been incredibly helpful in shifting my perspective and therefore to relax and settle.
I’m teaching a 4-week webinar series called Recover Your Relationship with Food and Body. I focus on how you have developed into the current relationship you have with food by starting with the spoken and unspoken beliefs around weight, body size, and exercise while growing up. I also ask you to consider what the pulse of your family was like; meaning was there significant stress in the home and showing you how this impacts your physiology.
We start to redefine the words “health” and “wellness” and move away from a singleness of focus on nutrition and exercise as the only path to feeling well, and thriving in your life.
More than anything else I believe that stress brought about by life circumstances and in many cases, social biases and injustices lead to a negative health outcome. This means that if you are living in a circumstance where you don’t feel like you have autonomy, a voice, are not seen and heard, and are subjected to frequent and even infrequent aggressions and micro-aggressions then no amount of healthy food and exercise can counter that.
In fact, I think that unless we work towards healing what is causing stress in our lives while also learning how to have a higher broadband to manage the stress then using nutrition and exercise can be another way to by-pass dealing with what is really hard.
I also think our ability to have some level of comfort in our bodies comes as we mature, and move away from societal ideals of what it means to be beautiful, or healthy, or successful. It is not easy; there is a lot of fat-phobia in our culture. Something else I cover in my webinar.
My relationship with food and with my body has been challenging throughout my life, and I’ve done a lot of healing as well. What I find is that learning more about the larger issues that surround my challenges with food have been helpful to make this relationship more peaceful.
But it’s on going and uncertainty is there for all of us. The challenge is to live with as much openness to outside ideas as we can, so we can widen our scope and in my opinion this creates more acceptance, less judgment, and an ability to be more compassionate for our differences and our challenges.
If you’re interested in learning more about things I’ve mentioned here than register for the Food & Body Webinar series I’m teaching, the details are below.I think this message needs more people to hear it because it brings a new level of understanding to the very common feelings of body shame and distrust experienced by women, so we can all have a better experience of being ourselves out in the world.