By Darci L. Graves, MPP
Since my diagnosis of breast cancer in August, two concepts have continually been on my mind – gratitude and resilience. Gratitude and resilience are behaviors that require practice, require consciousness and require one to act thoughtfully.
We are entering a season of celebrations and spirituality. It seems appropriate to consider the concepts of gratitude and resilience as the holidays approach. This time of year presents ample opportunities to enter into a spiritual practice of gratitude and the art of falling up.
The Art of Falling Up
A few weeks ago, my brother had this conversation with my 2 and 1/2 year old niece at the playground:
] Niece: “he fell down.”
] Brother: “Yes he did.“
] Niece: “he needs to fall up”
In psychological terms, the art of falling up can be called resilience.
According to Merriam-Webster – RESILIENCE is the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.
For me, being resilient following the diagnosis of breast cancer was not the difficult part. The surgery and that recovery were not that trying either. Remaining resilient following (and continuing through) the chemotherapy… that has been my hurdle to overcome…
Chemotherapy has been hard. Trying. Vexing. It’s a complicated set of emotions.
That this thing called chemotherapy that I dread, that makes me feel puny and sickly, is what is going to make me well. How can you ‘hate’ something that is saving your life? My answer has been to remain resilient. The American Psychological Association (APA) has outlined 10 ways to build resilience. Below is their list and how I have applied these strategies in my current journey.
From the APA:
10 ways to build resilience
- Make connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience.
I made the choice early on to share my journey with breast cancer and not keep it a secret. The outpouring I have received has been overwhelming! From high school friends on Facebook, neighbors in my apartment complex I have received more love and support than I could ever have imagined. While you don’t have to “go big” with your announcement – having individuals to help and support you IS CRITICAL.
- Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can’t change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events.
- Accept that change is a part of living. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
- Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.
- Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
For me these four have gone hand-in-hand and all are difficult for me to pull apart.
My mom, two aunts and at least three second-cousins are all breast-cancer survivors and one is also an ovarian-cancer survivor. They went through this 37 years ago and 23 years ago and 21 years ago. If they could do this then, I can certainly do this now.
People have remarked on my positive attitude throughout this journey. Stuff happens – plain and simple. Statistically we are all bound to face something in our lifetimes. I am able to remain positive, because the alternative doesn’t make sense to me. Being sad or angry isn’t going to make the cancer go away and in all likelihood those emotions will make everything feel worse.
Am I happy to have cancer? Absolutely not.
Have I accepted it and understood it to be something to be overcome? Absolutely.
- Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals.
I created a ‘to do’ list when I was diagnosed. There are 8 tasks. (1) get healthy, (2) stay positive, (3) hug often, (4) grow my ‘army’ of supporters, (5) figure out how to share my lessons learned, (6) remain present, (7) honor the process and (8) laugh.
So that is when I feel myself losing my way, I remember my list.
- Take decisive actions. Act on negative situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions, rather than divorcing completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.
Sometimes I need help with accomplishing the items on my ‘to do’ list – remaining present, laughing and of course you always need another person for hugging. Therefore, sometimes the most decisive action I take is making a call, visiting a friend, sending a text, whatever it takes to help through that moment.
- Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss.
This one is still a work in progress. Facing a disease such as this makes you think about things more and differently than you have before… I imagine that this thinking and searching is going to continue throughout the remainder of this journey (and possibly longer).
- Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
For me, part of this step has to be to shun scarves and wigs. I will wear the occasional hat, but I didn’t like wearing things on my head before I got sick and that part of my personality hasn’t changed. So, when my hair started to really fall out I had a friend take clippers to the remaining hair. I know it’s not ‘conventional’, but I have cancer and this is what I look like right now. I’m just going to own it.
- Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.
I have been very fortunate that I have been able to take care of myself throughout this process. Being on short-term disability is sometimes a psychological stretch for me – but being able to rest when my body says rest and to work when the mind and body are willing and to visit my niece if all the stars align accordingly – all of that has been invaluable.
- Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful. For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.
Writing in my blog and working with Health Power to share the entries has been very cathartic – for me and for my friends. My blog allows all of my friends near and far to follow along with my journey, even if we don’t get to speak every day. It also allows me to tell a story once and not have to repeat it, if I’m not able or willing to that day. I can just point to the blog and say, “I’m alright… all the details are here”.
The art of falling up is going to take practice, but luckily I have time. Our bodies may be forced to comply with gravity, but that doesn’t mean our mind and spirit must. The next time you feel yourself falling, see which of the resilience action items you may be able to apply in your own life so you too may rise above.
For more on Darci’s journey, you may visit her blog at: http://EducatorAsPatient.com/, and see her key Day 38 Diary entry on the Health Power Home Page.
EAP and Health Power are partnering in sharing key diary entries related to my breast cancer journey, and next year, we will be expanding this Health Power feature to also include key life stories of Health Power Network members related to Health Power’s “Big 4 Targets”:
By Darci L. Graves, MA, MA, MPPEducator, Advocate, Patient and Health Power Editor