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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.


Healing as a Process

15 Apr

April 10, 2012


I will be getting another stereotactic biopsy on Monday.  I’m hoping it’s my last one.  I’m ready to be done with all this cancer drama.  I’m ready to be “just me,” as my friend Art used to always say.  (“How are you?”  I’d say.   “I’m just me,” he’d reply.)


Also, it’s been a little over ten months since this saga has begun.  It feels like a good time for reflection.


This is what I’ve noticed.  For about eight of the last ten months, I feel like I’ve been pretty worthless on a productivity level.   I like to think of myself as being pretty strong, but it seems clear this health scare threw me for a much greater metaphysical loop than I’d ever have imagined.


I truly did not have much energy for doing much of anything.  I certainly didn’t have energy for work.  Or for being responsible.  Or for doing things for other people.  If I put on my judgmental hat, I would have all kinds of rather nasty, disapproving things to say about myself.  But if I put on my wings and look at myself from a place of greater compassion, I realize I was a bit more fragile than I thought I was.  And whether it was completely conscious or not, I ended up giving myself plenty of time to truly process things.


I’d written a blog post a couple weeks ago in which I was wallowing in my shame about this non-productive time in my life.  I ended up not publishing it, and have to say I’m glad.  Because since that time, I’ve had a couple instances of reassurance that I wasn’t just a total slug, that important work was going on.


First, I had a session with a friend who is highly intuitive.  (She has a great gift and she offered me a session as part of an exchange.  I took care of her house and her wonderful dog. Along with some money, she gave me a reading. Yay!)  One of the things she told me was that I’d done a lot of work in the last two years and that the next two years would be good ones as a result.


I’d done a lot of work?  I can’t tell you how happy my spirit was to hear that!  I had been bashing myself quite a bit, flagellating myself for not getting myself more together. (My eyes are flooding with tears as I type this.)  I was so embarrassed about how little paying work I’d been doing.   I hadn’t had a lot of work, and I hadn’t had the energy to go look for it.  Nor had I any idea what I really wanted to do.  Except, that is, those things that I love to do – all those things which were not yet bringing me much money.  (ie, writing, art, teaching.)   To receive the acknowledgment that I had indeed been “doing work” was a huge, huge gift for me.


I’m sure when she said “work,” she was referring to emotional/spiritual work.  This kind of work is very hard to do in the workaday world.  The soul requires time and space to do this kind of work. And this culture doesn’t really look kindly upon people taking time off for soul-searching. Not that I was consciously “taking time off.”  I was simply in a one-day-at-a-time mode. I just didn’t have the usual reserves of energy, nor the usual font of ideas and inspiration for anything more far-reaching than the next day or two.


The second thing that happened was a dear friend of mine said that I’d been a catalyst for a really big change and growth process in her life.  She said that I had had a major impact on her just by being me, just by being a loving presence.


This was also so affirming for me.  I had asked her, several months ago, for a favor.  I had offered some services in exchange for this favor.  What I discovered was, though these services were and are appreciated, it was apparently my presence which had been most valuable. What this told me was that Spirit was at work, whether I realized it or not.  There was grace happening in the midst of struggle and in the midst of this not-so-honored-by-society fallow time.


Once these two events of affirmation happened, I began to lighten up.  I began to trust that I was being of service in the world – even without trying so hard.  I began to realize that even such mundane things as making posts on Facebook and giving hugs at church were benefiting the world in a small way.  Maybe I didn’t have to do the “big” things – like midwife people into the afterlife with hospice work, or bring in a large paycheck.  Maybe it was okay to just “be me.”  Maybe I wasn’t such a slacker after all.


And with that realization, I can – right this minute, feel my heart opening.  I feel a greater connection to Spirit. I imagine the angels cheering as I realize I am okay the way I am; that I don’t have to be more, better.


I also notice that in the past month or two, my energy has been returning. I’m not talking about physical energy.  I’m talking about the energy to be more present to other people.  I’m talking about the energy to be more responsible for something larger than myself.   I’m talking about the energy to be of service in the world again.


Just as cancer generally takes quite a while to grow, perhaps our spirit takes a while to heal.  Perhaps it’s a process that can’t be rushed.  Like grieving or childbirth, it unfolds in its own time, and no amount of rushing will make it go faster.


Maybe I’m okay just the way I am.  Cancer or not.  Money or not.  Busy or not.  Maybe it’s all okay.  It’s all just a process – life is a process; healing is a process.  I am healing in process.  But I think… I think it just may be possible that this chapter in my life is coming to a close.


And if not, well that’s okay, too.  In ten months, no doubt I’ll have another realization or two.


Blessings to each of you.  Thank you for reading this.

Asking the Hard Questions

2 Aug

The Breast Blog #8

Asking the Hard Questions

By Cynthia Greb

August 2, 2011

Tomorrow is my first biopsy.

Now that the shock of “something seems to be wrong with my breasts” has begun to fade a bit, and now that the worry of getting these biopsies scheduled has passed, and now that the reality of a diagnosis is getting closer, I find I am finally ready to look at the harder questions.

  1. Why has this happened?  I’m not talking about possible exposure to radiation after the Three Mile Island incident. I’m not referring to too many years on birth control pills or too much bacon or possible contamination of my drinking water by pesticides and herbicides.  (All of which I believe could have contributed to possible dis-ease or imbalance in my body.)  I’m talking about metaphysical reasons.  Do I have any thought patterns or beliefs or ways of being in the world which may be creating a disturbance in my physical body?
  2. What can I do to get myself better???   Or what can I do to bring myself to a greater state of health and well-being?

And before I address either of these questions, I know I need to address something you probably have been thinking.  Is my focus on the possibility of cancer ill-advised?  Are my thoughts creating my reality?  Am I jumping to conclusions?

These are extremely valid questions.  And believe me, I have been asking them myself.  To be honest, I find myself thinking that nothing is “wrong” with my right breast, which is the one being biopsied tomorrow.  In spite of a dream possibly symbolizing a right-sided mastectomy, I find that I am not worried about the right breast.  If the pathologists report a cancerous condition, I will be a bit shocked.

The left breast is a different matter.  There seem to be very real indicators that something is amiss.  There IS a discharge that does not feel normal or healthy.  In addition, ultrasound technology reveals both a small nodule and a dilated milk duct.  There are certainly benign possibilities for both of these symptoms, but clearly there are signs that I am not in radiant health at this moment.

I truly do believe that we create our reality with our thoughts, our words, and our beliefs.  At the very least, we co-create it.  Not always consciously, of course.  Consciously, would anyone ever ever EVER choose cancer?  Of course not!  However, as one example, I will confess right now that in the past I remember having had the thought – on more than one occasion, that when I die I would prefer it to be something like cancer, so that I would have time to wrap up my affairs and say goodbye to the people I love.  I never wanted to die quickly before the really important details of my life were taken care of.

I hasten to add that I have since cancelled this thought.  Cancel cancel CANCEL!  I am making a new agreement!!!  I want to be a vibrantly healthy person who strives each day to have all her affairs in order and to live in such a beautiful way that when the time comes (way in the future), I can let go of this earthly body knowing that I have done and been all I am meant to do and be in this lifetime.

For almost fifty years I have said and felt “I am a healthy person.”  I have felt it and believed it and felt very blessed by it.  Then in recent years I have noticed (with chagrin) my creeping weight gain.   I had noticed occasional times when I’d become out of breath.  There were a few times earlier this year (at work) that my normally stellar blood pressure had crept up to slightly higher than low-average numbers.  And I’m very aware of a strong history of diabetes and cardiac problems on my mother’s side of the family.  So I finally made an appointment with a doctor (a new doctor – I’ve had so few health problems in my life, I didn’t even have a primary doctor) to try to nip things in the bud and get control of my health before it got too out of control.  I had only one appointment with him before all this “breast stuff” happened.

So now let me return to the question, “Is thinking about the possibility of cancer actually creating it?”  I do believe that what we focus on becomes our reality.  If we focus on “being fat” we will be fat.  If we focus on “being poor,” we will never become wealthy.  If we focus on being sick, we will never be well.  At the same time, I believe there has to be an accurate assessment of where we are before we can shift our thinking into where we want to be.  ie, If we want to be slim and trim, there may need to be an acknowledgement that we aren’t so in the moment.  For instance, I can say to myself, “Cindy, you’re carrying a few extra pounds right now.  What are you going to do about it?”  Then I can focus on eating a lot more vegetables and taking more walks and swimming more.  What I should NOT focus on, however, is “fat thoughts!”  (ie,  “I don’t want anyone to see  me today because I feel too fat.”)  This is a hard one for me, I confess.  I have to be extremely vigilant.  I may not be able to look in a mirror and say, “Cindy, you are skinny!”   But maybe I can look in the mirror and try something like, “Cindy, you  are looking voluptuous today.”  I can focus on beauty instead of flaws.  I can look at my smile instead of my cellulite, my curves instead of my wrinkles.

Okay, so how does this relate to the cancer question?  Clearly it is not wise to continue to think or say, “I might have CANCER!!!”  (Picture that famous painting called “The Scream.”)  This is, of course, a thought that will occur to one faced with “suspicious abnormalities” and two biopsies.  However, it CANNOT be my focus. Instead, as of right now, I am shifting my focus.  Cindy, you have beautiful breasts and a wonderful, functional body.  How can you take exquisite care of them?

One of the ways to “take care” is to do some soul searching and ask the “hard questions” I listed up in the second paragraph.  What are the metaphysical reasons I may have created a less-than-healthy situation in my breasts?


If breasts are about nurturing, I do believe I have been quite a nurturer in my life.  But have I been out of balance in my nurturing?  Have I forgot to nurture myself?

I like to think the answer is no.  Generally speaking, I think I take more time for myself than the average person.  However, if I look a little deeper, I realize that I have not cared about myself enough to, for instance, take more time to prepare good foods.  There are certainly days I prepare incredibly healthy and wonderful foods.  But on days that I work, or days when I’m tired, or days when I’m down, I don’t.  I don’t make my self-care a priority.

I find the timing of this possible cancer scare  interesting.    Two and half years ago, I had moved back to Pennsylvania from my beloved New Mexico (I’d only lived there three years) in order to help out with my parents.  My Mom had had a heart attack and a small stroke.  I was very concerned she wouldn’t last the rest of the year, and I wanted to be with her to help with her care.  In addition, in my absence, Dad had begun to show signs of early Alzheimer’s.  I hadn’t picked up on it during my phone calls, but as I spent larger portions of time with him, it became rather obvious.

So, being the daughter who did not have kids or a husband (at that time,)  I moved in to:  prepare the meals (Mom had diabetes and the neuropathy in her hands had made cooking almost impossible for her,) make sure they were taking their meds, monitor blood sugar levels, take to doctor appointments,  help Mom with  trips to the bathroom, do the laundry, etc., etc.

Suffice it to say, I pretty much gave up my life.  The more I did, the more dependent they became on me – physically and emotionally.  I felt like I was on call 24/7.  Even if I tried to get away for a weekend and go to a friend’s house, they would often call.  I loved my parents, but I was so exhausted, so miserable, so burned out.

I lasted sixteen months.  And then a really bad weekend caused me to collapse in tears upon my sister-in-law.  I wept that I just couldn’t do it any more.  Fortunately she supported me in staying with friends.  The rest of my siblings (who had done more than their fair share while I lived out of state) stepped in to do what needed to be done until we got a reverse mortgage and hired caregivers.

I know cancer supposedly takes decades to grow, but I can’t help noticing that all this is happening only a little over a year after moving out.  I think I became too out of balance.  And whatever is going on now is giving me an opportunity to look at this.

So, that’s my theory on the metaphysical reason why this is going on right now.

Thanks for listening.

(And I’m going to save Question #2 for another day.  Although clearly one answer is:  Find better balance in my life!!!)

Blessings to you.