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Breast Cancer and Nourishment of Self

23 Nov

I have written about this before, but it bears repeating.  Breasts are symbolic of nourishment.  In this culture we tend to look upon breasts as symbols of sexual attraction, but obviously breasts were  made to feed babies.  Breasts are first and foremost about nourishment.

Last night a friend handed me a copy of Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body A-Z.  He gave it to me because I was having some back issues, but as I leafed through it, I found the section on “Breast Problems.”  Hay wrote as probable emotional cause: “A refusal to nourish the self.  Putting everyone else first.  Overmothering….”

So, I invite you to ask yourself:  “Do I put the needs of others before my own?”

If you are a woman – and especially if you are a mother, I am willing to bet that often the answer is yes.  And if you are a woman with elderly parents, or if you are a nurse or a social worker, or even if you are married, I bet the answer is often yes.

It seems many of us have been trained since we were very little to look after others.  We may have had younger brothers and sisters to look after; we may have been trained to cook and clean and do the laundry – certainly moreso than any brothers we may have had.   And when/if we married, most of us voluntarily took on the responsibility of most of the housecleaning and shopping and ferrying around of children.  Even in our jobs we may have been trained to take care of our boss’s needs rather than our own.

Even if we are conscious of patriarchy’s presence in our lives and we do what we can to honor the rights of ourselves as women, most of us are nevertheless firmly committed to kindness.  And while kindness is certainly a virtue, martyrdom is not.  And many of us unconsciously cross the line from kindness into martyrdom.

If you’ve had a really rough day at work, for instance, and you’re worn to an absolute frazzle, how many of you will push yourselves to make dinner rather than ask your husband to pick up some take-out or, heaven forbid, even do the cooking  himself?  How many of you will throw something together even if you’re dead on your feet rather than ask the kids to make themselves a sandwich?  I’m not saying we shouldn’t make nourishing our families a priority, I’m just suggesting that sometimes we need to honor our own needs first.  If we are so depleted that we get sick, we obviously are serving no one, least of all ourselves.

I was blessed to have a relatively stress-free life when I was married and raising my young stepson.  However in my fifties, my life got a bit more stressful.  I was working for a hospice organization and had thirty to forty patients to look after.  And then my mom had a heart attack and my dad had Alzheimer’s and so I jumped in to take care of them.  And then, needing money, I took another hospice job and so I was taking care of both parents plus a roster of patients.  Did I take care of myself?  Not so much.  I indulged in comfort food way too often.  Because I also had a long commute, I didn’t have much time or energy for walking or other exercise.  So generally, I was unhappy and exhausted and burned out.

I share this as a gentle reminder to women everywhere.  Be kind to yourself.  If at all possible, structure your life in such a way that you are not overburdened.  And if your choices are limited, make sure that at least there are plenty of release valves.  Figure out a time each day when you can take a short walk.  Or wake a bit earlier so that you can meditate.  And if you absolutely must work outside the home while simultaneously raising kids, if possible, have help around the house.  Delegate.  Negotiate with your partner and older children to make sure they do their fair share of the household chores.  Make sure you have time out with girlfriends during which you can just be yourself.  Try to make room for massages or a yoga class or gym membership in your budget.   Find ways to relieve stress.  Stress is a major factor in most illnesses, including breast cancer.

Like the flight attendants remind us at the beginning of each flight, put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child.  We can’t take care of others if we don’t first take care of ourselves.  And it is essential that we take care of ourselves while we are relatively well or we will be forced to do it when we are ill.

Don’t refuse to nourish yourself.  Don’t put everyone else first.  TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  Be kind to yourself.  Mother yourself!  And be well, my friends.


When Your Inner Voice Says “Time Out”

28 Aug

Recently I stumbled upon and reread one of my journals from two years ago.  Two years ago was half a year after my breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent lumpectomy.  It was a time during which I had removed myself from much of “regular life.”  I was not working a “regular job,” I was not socializing, I was definitely being a bit of a hermit.  Cancer had thrown me for a loop and I was struggling to find my footing.  Withdrawing from life seemed necessary at the time, although that doesn’t mean I didn’t sometimes judge myself for it.

When I first discovered the symptoms that took me to my primary doctor and then very quickly to a breast specialist, I was busy working on a big project and trying to start a new business.  In the midst of all this busyness, I had a second appointment with the specialist.  As I was getting ready to go to the appointment, I was finding myself stumbling on things, I was so stressed.  When I took a moment to check in, I realized I was extremely anxious.  I was scarcely breathing and I felt like I was ready to scream.  Then it finally dawned on me that I’d become so busy worrying about making money that I hadn’t taken the time to even figure out what this momentous “breast thing” might mean for me and what I might want to do or not do as a result.  I was about to show up at this appointment completely unprepared.

I stopped for a moment and sat down to breathe.  And then – no surprise – I started to cry.  I gave myself permission to feel all my anxiety and fear.  And from that moment on, my attitude changed.  NOTHING became as important as what was going on with my body and the decisions I had to make about my care.

As soon as I returned from that appointment I did a heck of a lot of research.  I also decided to go to the beach to have a small retreat and try to get clarity about my next course of action.  After a couple hours there with the sun and the ocean, I suddenly remembered a dream I had once had but then “forgotten.”  In the dream I was asked, “How’s your cancer?”  I was stunned that I’d had that dream and then tucked it back into my subconscious.   I suddenly realized I didn’t need to stay at the shore anymore; I’d gotten what I came for.  I realized I needed to go home and look at my dream journals.  I also realized I wanted a different doctor.  I wanted someone who would listen to my concerns and include me in decisions about my treatment as opposed to simply telling me what “we” were going to do.

During the course of the next several days, weeks and months, I spent a great deal of time in the process of introspection and reflection.  Meanwhile, I wasn’t bringing in any money.  Needless to say, that was a bit stressful, but I couldn’t seem to focus on anything as mundane as a job.  I know that sounds ridiculous, but nothing in me wanted to work at a regular job.  I was seriously burned out from several years of hospice work and intensive caregiving (of others, not me!)  And I was actually feeling strongly guided to not begin another job at that point.  And then the Universe conspired to support me in that decision by causing my car to break down.  I had no money to fix my car and so I stayed home.  And continued with my introspection, reflection, and research.

I also took a lot of walks.  And  I wrote.  A lot.  I called a few friends.  I also did something I hadn’t done in many, many years.  I vegged.  In extreme.  I watched loads of Netflix.  I did the Facebook thing.  I sat in front of the screen of my laptop more hours than I care to admit.  But this was where I was at at the time – in a place of non-doing.  I didn’t feel like being a contributing member of society.  I just needed to be by myself.  A lot.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t judge myself.  I did that a lot, too.  This society doesn’t look kindly upon idleness.  I confess I got a bit depressed.  I was poor, I had no car, I had no job except for the occasional odd job, and I was worried about whether I’d “done enough” to fight the cancer I’d been diagnosed with.  But now, two years later, I realize this fallow time was absolutely necessary from a spiritual perspective.

Cancer is such a wake-up call.  It is seldom simply a physical disease.  It is always, if we let it be, an impetus for change and growth.  Healthy growth.

My guess is that a lot of women who get breast cancer have been neglecting themselves.  Most women are oh so very good at taking care of others.  Here is what the four years prior to my diagnosis looked like:

  • For a couple years I was a hospice chaplain in New Mexico.  At one point I was serving two offices and commuting upwards of four hours a day – not counting all the driving between clients scattered throughout the central part of the state.
  • My workload increased as the job of bereavement counselor was added to my duties.
  • Then I left the hospice job and started doing private caregiving.
  • Then I moved back home to help care for my parents.  My mother had had a heart attack and a small stroke, and Dad was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
  • While caring for my parents, I got some more caregiving jobs.
  • The opportunity arose to become a hospice chaplain yet again, this time in New Jersey.  And once again, I had almost an hour’s commute each way.

So for four years I was caring for other people.  Relentlessly.  That was my job.  I cared for clients, staff, parents.  But not so much myself.  I was pretty much in survival mode for much of that time.  My energy reserves were very low.  I did my work as well as I possibly could, and then when I got home, I kind of crashed.  It was hard to summon up the energy to prepare myself a good meal.  And on weekends, I was happy to just stay home.  I didn’t feel like driving anywhere.

In retrospect, it is so obvious  why I got cancer.  I needed something drastic to happen before I would have the courage and wisdom to say no to obsessively caring for others and yes to caring for me.  Not that I wouldn’t care for others on an emotional level (although my energy for that was more limited), but that I wouldn’t subsume myself in the needs of others at the expense of my own.

After a month or so I decided to stop fighting this desire to not work.  I realized that if my intuition was guiding me to not work a “regular job,” then I would simply need to find a way to reduce my expenses.  They were already fairly low, but I did have rent.  That was my biggest expense.  Then my intuition kicked in again. It said  to ask a friend if I could live with them for a while and barter my rent.  They said yes!

During that next year I wrote,  I walked their dog (and myself), I slept, I dreamed, I prepared healthy food, I drew, I painted, I gave a few massages, did a few odd jobs.  But mostly, I simply cocooned.  I badly needed to hibernate and stop focusing so much on others.

Here is what I now realize.  That downtime, that retreat time, that withdrawal from the world, enabled my energy to rise again.  I had to give myself that time to determine what my spirit needed and what I needed my life to look like.  I had to ask myself “What did I want to do less of?” and “What did I want to do more of?”  And very gradually, as I sank into and allowed this delicious downtime, the sap began to flow again.  My energy began to return.  I knew what my spirit wanted to do.  I began to pursue my dreams.  I allowed myself to make plans to move.  I began focusing on my passions and my purpose.  And I finally realized that focusing on my own deepest dreams and desires was what most greatly contributed to my highest health and well-being.

Too often we wait for something rather catastrophic to happen before making big changes.  Don’t wait.  If you’re feeling depressed, stressed, anxious, unsettled, there’s a reason for this.  Be kind to yourself and figure out what you’ve always wanted to do.  Then give yourself permission to do it.  You will find yourself with more vitality than you’ve felt in a long time.

May you be happy!  May you be healthy.

Abundant blessings to you.