Everyone has core themes – themes that make you who you are. Identifying what these are as an individual is a huge part in understanding your identity. Core themes become part of a healing plan because when you know who you are, you know your strengths. Leaning into your strengths can lead to faster healing.
We should always align what we do with our core beliefs. It’s part of being well and being happy. We all need to live our truths and core values.
I hadn’t thought much about my themes other than I was a teacher, a friend, a daughter, and that kindness was really important to me until I was diagnosed in 2012. With a lot more time on my hands to ponder my purpose, I could really expand on themes for my life. Then I could see how well these matched with my core beliefs. If there was a natural flow, then I knew that I was headed in the right direction. If something felt forced or there was resistance, something was out of line and either didn’t belong or needed a bigger adjustment.
Here are my core themes that I am reaffirming and reminding myself of as I live with cancer:
I am important.
My needs are important and need to be put first. I don’t come last. Yes, helping others is part of my purpose, but I need to make myself a priority. It feels really good when I snuggle in a blanket and sit by the fire with a book. I enjoy putting something else aside so I can go for a nature walk. Taking a break to drink a cool glass of refreshing green juice tastes heavenly. I have rediscovered the joys of reading and writing. I have gifts to share through teaching, writing, and journaling. My work is valuable.
I also need to choose activities and people who are calming, supportive, and fun. I am too important to put myself in harmful, negative, and stressful environments. There is no need to apologize or explain. No drama for me. I lived as a compromiser for too long to avoid arguments. Honestly, I thought it was easier that way. The problem was that the compromises, or all out giving in, was not calming, supportive to me, or enjoyable. It isn’t selfish to put yourself first. It’s self-care.
My life still has great purpose. When I taught, I made a difference day-by-day, child-by-child. Now, I approach new endeavors with that same driven ambition I had with teaching, but also with more balance since my schedule is highly flexible. What I have to say is important to share.
I am strong.
Another core theme is that I am strong and immensely powerful. No, I am not overly physically strong, but I’m getting stronger. I could never climb the rope in gym class or do a decent pull-up. Those are claims to fame that still elude me. But I have enough inner strength to match a hundred rope climbs and thousands of pull-ups. That’s right, thousands. I had the power to get a classroom singing to original lyrics and choreographed movements about respect for an assembly, AND I was able to get them to think it was cool because it was cool. I have the power to advocate for my best health and make it the best it can be.
I will exercise and eat well to feel better and give my body what I need to be healthy. Health doesn’t happen with just one or the other. Eventually, poor eating choices catch up with a person even if he or she is fit. Great eating choices don’t do a lot if someone never moves or exercises. There also is an emotional payout to exercising and eating well. I get my thirty-minute minimum every day.
I’ve had to dig my heels in a lot more over the past seven years, particularly in terms of what I will accept in terms of how I’m treated. As examples, I was not happy with past phone conversations and what I considered bullying from a long-term disability company that did everything in its power but help me. I spoke up, but it’s a long story and a subject for another post. I’ve also called the patient relations department a few times where I receive treatment over the repeated delays and long waits patients have in receiving treatments because of financial decisions rather than decisions focused on patient care. Here again, it’s a subject for another post. The take away is I’ve become strong enough to speak up for myself when my needs aren’t being met or someone has been rude.
I connect with nature.
I need nature. I love healing green spaces with lots of trees. I absorb the energy. Two summers ago on a short vacation, I observed this first hand. I had traveled with my sister to Door County on Wisconsin’s peninsula. I usually am ready sooner than she is in the morning. I would get a little droopy and sluggish waiting for her before we started our day. My energy level completely changed by simply driving through one of the state parks as a detour connecting one town to the next. The woods provided a combination of nature, peace, energy, healing, and spirit for me all in one. My mood shifted for the better.
I experience the same feeling wash over me whenever I drive into the UW- Arboretum. My mind unwinds as I meander along the paths. It’s the green, all the trees, and being in a place where any humans I meet are there for the same thing as me.
Peace and kindness are recurring themes.
I am all about peace and kindness. In 2013, I finally started a peace journal, made up of Bible passages, ideas from other religions on peace, poetry lines, famous quotes, songs, and anything about peace that resonated with me. When I quiet the house and everything around me, everything narrows down to particular words and thoughts. Then everything opens up big time. It’s pure meditation and oxytocin in action. My spirit soars and I feel like I leave or that I’m lost in the moment. Maybe I’m actually more present than ever. I believe a lot of people pray for peace, which is more important now than ever in today’s world. I read a distinction someone made not too long ago that if people prayed, meditated, or just thought (whatever you want to call it) to feel peace rather than for peace, it would be possible to achieve lasting peace between people in the world. We need to feel it within first and push it outward.
I am a teacher and a learner.
A core theme as a teacher and learner has been central to my life. I loved elementary school. I did well. Reading and immersing myself in a world of story couldn’t be beat. From as long as I can remember, I always loved learning and sharing what I learned. Whether a student or teacher, school was a place where I felt safe, successful, and supported. It’s what I wanted to give my students. Teaching always just fit who I was. I can’t explain it any other way. Sometimes I entertain thoughts of returning to school for courses in writing, history, archaeology, and literature just for fun. For now, I enjoy exploring what interests me on my own.
It is no coincidence that in work with my fitness coach I am focused on a lot of work to strengthen my physical core. I know what is at the center of my personal core. I have rock-solid personal core themes and know who I am. In this sense, I am very well aligned.
Happiness involves living in accordance with your core themes. What you identify at your core should be those things that bring you happiness, enjoyment, and peace. Associated words for these feelings may be energetic, hopeful, valued, proud, loving, joyful, and thankful. You may reconsider your actions if you associate feelings of guilt, boredom, frustration, anxiety, helplessness, discouragement, and anger with them. It seems obvious, yet many people stick with actions or beliefs that go against their core out of habit and because making a change is hard work. Make little changes. In a few months time, a small shift has happened where you feel more like you.
We all deserve to be our best.
- What’s at your core?
- Where/when do you feel most like YOU?
My mom made the biggest impact on me from anyone I have ever known. She has been gone for six years and I haven’t written anything about her, not even notes.
I couldn’t handle jotting down ideas. It’s still too fresh, but at the same time it feels like it’s been a million years without her.
Today is Mother’s Day.
I am ready to share.
Violets hold strong memories for me. It started with a violet that first belonged to my grandma. The porch off the kitchen of my grandma’s farmhouse was a greenhouse of sorts during the summer months. The light was perfect to grow an assortment of plants, one being violets. One such violet came to my mom when my grandma died from cancer. It was already huge but continued to thrive for another fifteen or so years. My mom had a knack like my grandma. It went uncared for when my mom was so sick and I thought it was past help when I discovered it. I took it to a local gardening store for a second opinion with the hope that I was wrong. Unfortunately, they agreed with me. However, I decided to give it one more try before I gave in to what I thought was inevitable. Do you know what happened? The violet came back! It had more blooms on it than ever. I started many new plants from the grandmother violet. Many of those have been redistributed to family, friends, and former co-workers.
Eventually, the grandmother violet stopped thriving. Its stem arched and twisted like an arthritic finger. It was very old and long past its expected lifespan. Being so twisted, I didn’t notice when the stem broke away from the roots. By the time I did, it was too late. I struggled to throw it out. I rescued it and had kept it going for years. It was a visual reminder of my mom and grandma. I couldn’t lose it on top of all I had already lost. One day, I finally accepted it was gone, and took what was left and buried it, figuring it was better to return it to the earth than chuck it in the garbage. Something that held so much value didn’t belong in the trash, discarded like it meant nothing.
It meant a lot.
I also needed to reframe how I thought about this magnificent violet. It was a life-giving plant. So many new plants came from one plant, much like the offspring from my grandma in my family tree. Friends and family still send me photos when the violets I’ve given them bloom. In this way, I feel like small parts of my family live on. Maybe the memories are just mine, but good memories deserve to keep blooming. Violets in bloom do this for me with fond memories of two of my favorite people.
Now that I’ve chosen to write about my sweet mom, allow me to share a couple more memories.
I remember one summer day when she was mowing the back lawn. My father was still alive and not yet retired. I was also out in back reading and not being helpful. Yes, I know I should have helped more. The mower had stopped. She restarted it and the mower lurched forward with remarkable speed and headed across the lawn. It was a self-propelled model. My mom grabbed it and held on as her little short legs hurried to keep up with it. She regained control so it didn’t careen into a tree. I know I probably shouldn’t be smiling right now, but smiles are better than tears.
Another time she was outside gardening in a flowerbed I had encouraged her to start. I was older and home visiting for the weekend. This memory finds me once again out in back not being helpful. She stood up a little too fast from weeding and lost her balance. With surprising agility, she jumped over the flowerbed and just kept running across the yard until she slowed to a stop. I didn’t know she had that athletic ability in her! The flowerbed was a source of enjoyment for many years. Black-eyed Susans thrived and prospered.
When I moved back to my hometown and got a teaching job at my former elementary school, my mom was there to help. I would bring her to school to help set up my classroom at the end of summer. She was my number one helper. Truthfully, she was my only helper. My mom did a good job cutting out laminated materials, putting up bulletin boards, and other small odds and ends that were huge time savers. She was great company. I’d stop by and visit a bit after the first day of school and let her know how the day went. I have countless memories of her being in my corner.
Another frequent memory I have of my mother is how she’d expect me to know answers to her questions without providing me much (any) information. She called me up so many times to ask, “Who’s that person that we saw at that place doing that thing?” I knew her so well. Most times I could figure it out. We talked every day. I miss that a lot. Whereas I can still talk to her, the conversations are not quite the same. I wrote to her in a grief journal for a few years after she died. It provided a much-needed connection that was part of my grieving and healing work.
We took many trips to Door County in summers when it was just the two of us. It was so easy to travel with her. We walked on trails not knowing where they would lead. Thankfully, they were always circular and we ended back where we started. We indulged in cherry desserts at dinner. We savored ice cream at two particular ice cream establishments. Our pace was never hurried. Sometimes we just sat by the water and visited. We watched a couple of beautiful sunsets. One year she got three consecutive holes-in-one at miniature golfing. She didn’t mind the attention it drew. I am glad there are memories of her around every corner when I visit today.
My mom died from metastatic breast cancer. It was painful to watch her worsen for her last final months. Slowly. Irreversibly. All the while, I was recovering from treatments from the very thing that was killing her. Pain for her. Pain for me. The various benchmarks of death inching closer are not things I care to remember. It’s excruciatingly hard to forget images that haunt me. Trauma mixes in with grief. I look far too much like her. Most of the time I consider this a very good thing. I can even see how she looked like my grandma. It’s when I relive memories of my mom during her last days that I’m not so fond of the resemblance.
These gut-wrenching memories don’t help me. They serve me in no positive way. There is no beauty in them. I am never going to be glad for those moments. It’s really hard work, but I am trying to shift to happier memories when the bad ones get triggered. Happy times are the beautiful moments filled with joy that I’m glad to remember. I finally started my list of happy memories I don’t want to forget. They are nothing more than bullet styled ideas that I can add details to later.
Grief is a lot like paper in a paper shredder . . . the original piece of paper still exists but has changed to an unrecognizable form. It will never be the same again. It never can be put back together. Maybe the paper gets recycled and becomes whole once more, but it’s a different wholeness with different print and perhaps a different texture.
Another shredding is always possible.
I still have moments where I feel completely shredded.
March and April are months that are filled with more grief for me than other months. May historically is a happy month for me. I am always glad when May arrives. Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be sad. It is for many though who have a sick mother, have recently lost their mother, yearn to become a mother, or may even be a mom herself who isn’t well.
Grief shows up on unexpected days as easily as on expected days like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. It comes and goes in waves. I can be okay at a funeral or visitation and then almost lose it in a grocery store. Whenever grief washes over me, I need to acknowledge it and let it pass. It washes back out to an imagined sea soon enough. Grief is ongoing. I swim in it, towel off, and am okay until the next wave. I work through grief and try not to get stuck there. No one should stay stuck in grief.
On Mother’s Day, I need to focus on good memories. The disturbing memories I have need to be banished, or at least minimized, so I don’t have a visceral reaction. So I don’t stay stuck. There is no point in remembering my mom immobile and unresponsive in a hospital bed, still breathing but unable to eat, speak, or open her eyes, and already gone in so many ways. When I look at photos of my mom in better days, she is happy. These remind me of pleasant memories. Even if I’m not in the picture, I go back and am happy in that moment again with her. Happy memories are the places I need to linger every day and not just on Mother’s Day.
I close my eyes and let the good memories fill my heart.
I see her stand in the front window where she’d always wave goodbye to me.
I hear her voice and uncontrollable laughter.
I smell the angel food cake she always baked for my birthday.
I taste her special cran-raspberry and lemon jello dessert salad.
If I try hard, I feel my mother’s hug.
I know how much I was loved.
That’s the best memory of all and never leaves me.
Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.
Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.
Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.
I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.
Where am I going with this?
Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.
From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.
I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.
Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.
Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.
What if we believed in hope instead?
What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.
Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.
Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.
Don’t let fear crush hope.
Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.
We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.
We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.
All the time.
- When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
- How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?