When I was diagnosed with cancer at age 31, it was the shock of my life. I thought cancer only happened to people in the movies; like Mandy Moore in A Walk to Remember, or the hot Irish guy from P.S. I Love You. Suddenly I was the lead character in a film I didn’t want to be in, without the cheesy love story.
Briony Benjamin is the author of Life Is Tough (But So Are You): How to rise to the challenge when things go pear-shaped.
I had been diagnosed with advanced stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma just as my career and life were taking off. Strangely cancer had not been on my vision board.
Cue tears, IVF, egg harvesting, chemotherapy, wig shopping, hair loss, more hospital appointments than I ever thought possible, nausea and guilt-free naps (lots and lots of naps). On the other side of chemo I thought it would all be smooth sailing; that the hardest part was done and dusted. I was soon to learn however that healing can take a fair bit longer than I had scheduled.
I spent a few months at my parents recovering and growing back a little bit of hair and some highly coveted eyebrows and eyelashes. The fatigue was intense, and I felt sleepy and heavy most days. Before returning to the “real world” I figured I’d earnt a holiday (right?) so I planned a trip to go and see my sister in London. It felt like a big step after my treatment and I was excited and daunted all at once. Mum and Dad dropped me off at the airport and it was an emotional farewell. Their little (adult) chick with her soft new fluffy hair was finally flying the coup.
As I boarded the plane, I was feeling a little wobbly and wondering if this had all been a terrible idea. Luckily, on the plane I sat beside a woman my age named Alice, who had a warm smile and splendid red hair (my favourite: I was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables as a kid). She was certainly a kindred spirit. It was as if the universe had sent me someone whom I needed at that time: Alice had a background as a physiotherapist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and she told me a powerful thing that has stayed with me ever since:
Remember, your body wants to heal.
After a health crisis when you can feel like your body has let you down it was an important and powerful reminder. It’s funny how we see the process of recovery as an annoying thing that comes between us and a normal life. We just want to fast-forward through it. Even the language around recovery is so rushed! “Wishing you a SPEEDY recovery”; “You’ll smash this”; “You’ll be on your feet in no time”.
When you go through a relationship breakdown, a health crisis or the loss of someone you love, the slow pace of healing can be seriously frustrating. I know I wanted so desperately to “get back to normal”. You can feel really disappointed in yourself when you’re still not over a heartbreak years down the track or your health is still wobbly. But it takes time. I’ve had to finally accept that I have chronic fatigue and because of that my life needs to adjust to a different pace. And that’s OK: some things cannot be rushed.
On the road to recovery, this is what I’ve learnt.Credit:iStock
On days when you feel bad, do a little more than you think you can; on days you feel great, do a little less than you are capable of. This will keep your momentum going but keep you in balance. It can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting to make up for lost time when you’re feeling good and cram everything you can into a 24-hour window. This approach has caused me to crash and burn more times than I can count. So even if you’re feeling good, don’t overdo it. Just take it slowly.
Understanding what is good for someone else is not necessarily good for me
Our bodies are all different and move at different paces. Look at how two bodies respond to COVID: some people have almost no symptoms at all, while others might end up in hospital. Don’t compare your experience to the speed at which others move about in the world or recover. Just like comparing yourself to that shiny, tanned, impossibly beautiful Instagram model with the perfect house/teeth/ partner/dog, it doesn’t make you feel all that good. Things that others get away with may not work for you. (Some of my friends can go on a three-day bender and seemingly never get sick, but that’s not me!) Love your body, listen to your body and give it what it needs.
None of these things count as resting
I always thought that listening to a podcast, reading a book, scrolling through Instagram or watching a TV show constituted resting. But as I’ve learnt to manage my chronic fatigue with the help of the University of New South Wales Chronic Fatigue Clinic they taught me that none of those activities actually count as resting, as they all require a high cognitive function. So what is resting? Sitting with a cup of tea and staring out the window or watching the trees sway in the breeze. Taking a break to just sit and be. How often do most of us do that? Hardly ever. It’s not easy but it’s so important especially when you’re recovering.
Focus on what feels good
We spend so much time focusing on the negatives and what we’d like to improve. Gosh, we’re really just so mean to our dear little selves sometimes, aren’t we? A yoga teacher once told me not to focus on the areas that felt painful and sore during practice, but to think about all the parts that felt really good. What a shift! It’s so easy to fixate on the pain, especially when it’s sitting there yelling at the top of its lungs and poking you for attention. But shifting this attention when you’re recovering be it a physical or emotional pain to what feels good is super helpful.
You don’t have to be healthy to be happy
My friend Jenna Rumney who has been dealing with at times debilitating chronic illness for 15 years shared this idea with me. It was hugely empowering to understand that I could separate my mental state of mind from my immediate physical wellbeing. That just because I’m not feeling well today doesn’t mean I can’t find other ways to enjoy my day. As she said to me, “You can shift your mindset from ‘I’ll be happy when I am well’ to ‘I can be happy in this very moment, despite the challenges I face’.” This works not just for illnesses, but for all kinds of life crises. If we future-date our happiness to a time that is dependent on something out of our control, we will always suffer. Don’t decide you’ll be happy when . . . “I lose weight”; “the global pandemic is over”; “my partner stops doing this” Instead, choose to be perfectly happy with your imperfect life. Start right now.
Life is Tough (But So Are You) by Briony Benjamin.
Expect less of yourself when you are in recovery mode
Sometimes we really just need to lighten up and give ourselves a break. When you’re feeling crap, some days, if you get up, make your bed and get through the day then that is enough. When I was recovering, I had two simple questions that I wrote up on my wall. They were my main focus areas to think about each day.
If I made some progress in those two departments then great, and if I didn’t, that was OK too.
Text from Life is Tough (But So Are You) by Briony Benjamin. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99
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