Trauma, Cancer, and Hope

Trauma

A good friend spent part of her weekend doing some reading on trauma for work and discovered the acronym H.O.P.E. standing for the phrase Hold On Pain Ends. She knows I have tremendous faith in the transformative power of hope. Holding on and believing that all will be well again is a wonderful feeling and vision for healing.

Many people think of trauma as it relates to military personnel who return from active duty with PTSD. People who have been in accidents, suffered abuse, had violence directed at them, witnessed atrocities, been through disasters, lost loved ones, and have been through (or continue to go through) an illness also can be diagnosed with PTSD. Any negative event can cause trauma.

Cancer and Trauma

PTSD is a mental health condition that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. Cancer survivors have experienced their fair share of traumatic events. Painful and emotionally stressful tests, treatments, receiving bad news, hard emotions to process, and living with chronic or painful physical issues are possible sources of trauma. Looking in the mirror at a changed body, living with lymphedema, and having the pain of neuropathy are daily reminders for some people. Fear of recurrence may always be on a person’s mind. Some anxiety is normal and quite frankly unavoidable for cancer patients and survivors. When these feelings persist or worsen, it could be a sign of ongoing trauma. Symptoms may include things like nightmares, trouble concentrating, feeling fearful, guilty, angry, avoiding things that trigger bad memories, and loss of interest in people or activities you used to enjoy. Other possibilities may also cause these.

I believe seeking professional help is the best approach to address working through trauma. Sharing what is painful can help identify the root cause whether the pain is physical or emotional. Effective solutions can be tailored to a person’s specific needs. Speaking to family, friends, or support groups are other possible choices. Even writing it out can be helpful in sorting out what you think and how you feel as a pathway to ending pain.

Hope

My thoughts keep coming back to that acronym about holding on because pain ends. Hope is hope. How else can a person take an active role in feeling physically and mentally healthier? No official trauma labels need to be involved. Everyone has times where something painful is experienced. I am not a mental health professional, but nonetheless have a few thoughts to share for dealing with pain. I think of it as a way to Help Other People Excel. I can’t say that’s original. I also can’t find a source to credit.

Pain can be a teacher.

Sometimes I need to experience pain and sit with it so I know what not to do. When I’m sore, my body is often bringing something to my attention. I may need to rest. Maybe I’m doing a movement incorrectly. Possibly I’m using new muscles and my body is thanking me for using them but reminding me to do so gradually. I’m also being taught something if I experience emotional pain. Every experience teaches me something, even the ones I find emotionally difficult. You can’t ignore physical or emotional pain. Both get worse if you do. Listen to your body.

Grief is allowed.

You can’t just “get over” things. Just as with the grief when someone passes, many events can still be a passing of something and involve grieving. Again, just as with the grief when someone passes, it comes in waves. One day you are just fine with not working and having a flexible schedule, and the next day this very same thing has you in tears all day. Some insensitive comments leave you unfazed, and then there are others that you believe are beyond cruel that echo over and over again. Some grieve body parts. There are many things you “used to” do that now no longer exist. Those who have had cancer have lost a lot. There can be unexpected spurts of grief that come at the worst times. It’s normal. Allowing yourself time to feel feelings will eventually lead to more good days than bad.

Find a new focus.

Starting something new gives an opportunity to move forward with something different. Fresh starts have their merits. It could be a new hobby or interest. I have mentioned before that working out has turned into a positive focus for me. I also have more time to write. Maybe it’s something bigger like a new job, relationship, home, or city. Change may be exactly what is needed. If nothing else, change serves as a good distraction. Everyone needs a break from whatever makes life harder.

Exercise.

Here is my repetitive plug for exercise. Physical activity can help you see you are stronger than you know. This helps physically and emotionally. I have a long ways to go to make myself even stronger, but I’m stronger than I used to be. Exercise helps me feel more confident and in control. It makes me feel good. I feel less stressed. Exercise provides an opportunity for me to work on my inner strength while I work on improving my body. Finding and reclaiming power by moving is extremely therapeutic. Work with a punching bag is a very effective way to reclaim power.

Get outside.

The effects of being outdoors for me are similar to exercising. It makes me feel good and less stressed just like exercise does. Fresh air and nature calms me. Problems often sort themselves out as I spend time in the woods. My head always feels clearer. Maybe it’s because nature is grounding. If you do not have access to a handy outdoor source like a park, farm, or green spaces, something as small as a garden plot can give you the opportunity to dig, to let dirt fall through your fingers, to weed, to plant, and to watch something new grow. Container gardening has become very popular in areas where green space is limited. This is also a great option if you have some physical limitations. Sitting in the shade with a refreshing lemonade and reading a good book still counts as getting outside.

Forgiveness.

Forgive yourself for past actions. I have heard a lot of people say how important it is to forgive others, show universal love and kindness, speak positively, and have at least one good friend you can count on. All important. Even more important is to forgive yourself, love yourself, have positive self-talk, and be your own friend. I have been pretty hard on myself and now I am much kinder. I believe pain can end when we treat ourselves like we treat others. Each day is a new opportunity to treat yourself well with kindness and forgiveness. Reset every morning.

Believe.

Believe in hope. Expect the best. Hope begets hope. For me, things always come back to my unwavering belief in hope. One of my favorite hope quotes reads:

“When the world says,

‘Give up,’

Hope whispers,

‘Try it one more time.’ “   – Unknown

I love that the source is unknown. It somehow makes it even more appealing to me. It’s as if there is an anonymous and universal whisper that could be from anyone anywhere in the world. The whisper may be a gentle hush. I like thinking of it that way. I see it in the flame of a candle. I hear it when a bird sings. I feel it with good friends. I find it in some of my favorite places. You know where some of those places are if you know me well.

Here is one of my favorite places where I hear the hush. Can you hear it, too?

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Author Anne Lamott describes a hush as something sacred. Hope whispers softly and pushes us to keep trying. Hope as a hush is sacred indeed. Pain ends. Hope remains. It can replace pain and grow exponentially. I continue to listen to the whispers of hope.

Unringing A Bell

You can’t unring a bell.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is very much the same. You can’t go back to the way things were even after surgeries, radiation, and treatment are finished, even if you are assured the cancer is gone. The fact remains that you had it. Everything you went through has inherently changed you in some way.

Others may not see it. Physical appearance doesn’t change drastically for many. Family and friends may tell you that you look the same to them. You are still the same you. It’s intended to be reassuring. There is some truth there. (I find it annoying.) To say you look the same on the outside and imply that you are the same on the inside is what some people mean. That is not fair, nor their call. I know of one marriage that ended because a friend’s husband didn’t understand his wife was still dealing with a lot of difficult emotions. She told him, but she looked “just fine” and everything was “done” and needed to get back to “normal” so he couldn’t understand why everything else wasn’t therefore fine by default. Certainly, there could have been other factors to this marriage ending. I know of another marriage that ended because the husband understood there were changes on the inside as well as on the outside, and he wasn’t attracted to the outside any more. What a guy! There could have been other reasons behind this marriage ending, too, but it seems like cancer became the impetus.

Then again others may see it all too well. Somehow a person who has suffered and is somehow different in a good way may be too much for others to accept. They would be very happy to go back to how things used to be in order to feed what they need. This is where disapproval, insults, and being told that YOU have done something wrong come into play as attempts to keep you in a place that works for them. These relationships should end. There is no room for toxic people in a life that has seen its share of toxicity. I personally deal with toxic drugs almost every week in my efforts to stay well. I can’t deal with toxic people or negativity. Whether finished with treatment, currently in treatment, or in ongoing treatment, do not choose to tolerate toxic negativity from any person. Enough. January is a good time to start fresh.

Maybe you feel not much has changed on the outside or the inside. My position is inside changes took place because you grew from what you experienced. Change accompanies growth. Those who don’t like change don’t have as much opportunity for growth. I used to be one of these people and it’s still hard for me. Change is uncertain and often I don’t understand why some things need to change. I’m trying to understand that changes are there to teach me something and I am working to be open to changes. Changes can be new beginnings. January is a good time for these, too. New beginnings after diagnosis and treatment may be a new job, home, or relationship. Maybe you look at life differently, and have reexamined your belief systems or time commitments.

One constant remains: You can never not have had cancer once you’ve had it. That bell was rung.

I’m tired of its clanging and repetition.

I believe you can ring other bells louder so the sounds drown out other bells.

Ring the bell of resiliency.

We are all capable of more than we know. Resilience is another one of those intangible factors that makes people rise up time and time again after tough times. Yes, problems are inevitable. How a person deals with them is what matters. Being resilient means you find a way to continue to thrive even when there are problems. Taking care of yourself is part of being resilient. Physical and emotional self-care are non-negotiable. Exercise, eat well, meditate, find joy. When your outer and inner self are strong, it means another layer of resolve has been added to resiliency that problems cannot break through, whether the problems present themselves as people, situations, or things.

Ring the bell of joy.

Do more of what you love. Have that cookie. Take a day off and do something fun, frivolous, and completely fantastic. No need to justify, or explain, or defend it. For me, I choose to walk trails and be among trees. I sit on my sun porch and listen to birds. I laugh at movies I’ve seen too many times. I call friends or get together with them. I enjoy exercising (usually) and enjoy it even more when I’m done and reaping the benefits.

Have another cookie.

Yes, I know I mentioned that one twice.

Ring the bell of gratitude.

I believe there is a richness and depth in appreciation that gives life both more purpose and meaning. That thing where you think of five things to be grateful for at the end of each day works. Feeling gratitude is easier when you feel healthy. What about when you aren’t feeling well at all? Knowing myself as I do, I know my emotional and physical health does impact what I’m capable of feeling in the gratitude realm. The other night I had one of these moments. It was about twenty-four hours post treatment and I was flushed and hot from the neck up while the rest of me had the chills. I was low energy and felt a little sick. But I knew if I could get to bed and fall asleep that it would pass and tomorrow would be better. That was about all the gratitude I could muster. My point is it was enough. We are human and do the best we can on any given day. That is the space we all share where health status doesn’t matter.

Ring the bell of knowing yourself.

Take whatever time you need. It isn’t selfish to take time for yourself and know what you think. It isn’t selfish to do what is best for you. Live your beliefs. Others don’t have to like them or agree with them. You do. I thought I knew myself pretty darn well before the cancer diagnosis, but it sure caused me to be more deliberate with how I live. I am more sure of myself now than ever, even though I continue to be a magnificent work in progress.

Ring the bell of standing strong.

You may have to keep ringing a lot of bells longer than you had planned until the unwanted bells stop ringing. Keep at it. You’re stronger than naysayers. Statistics do not know you. You’re more than a number. I get tired of bell ringing, but remember that the sounds create important tones and vibrations. These bells make beautiful music.

Nope, you can’t unring a bell. You can’t let anyone else ring it for you either. Ring all the bells you need to ring until you hear a song fit for a carillon tower. Your song.

 

For reflection:

What bells would you like to stop ringing in the new year?

What bells would you like to hear ring more?

Doom Dibbling or Hope Harvesting

Have you ever heard of a dibble?

How about a doom dibbler?

I was truly lucky to have my amazing dad in my life for 26 years.

I am equally fortunate that I carried over so many valuable memories and words of wisdom into my life today. Too many to share here, but there are a few that lend themselves effortlessly to being hopeful and resilient.

My father used many inspiring sayings that have stayed with me over the years. I don’t feel I experienced a lot of hardships growing up, but he would often fall back on the tried and true, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” Apparently, this phrase is attributed to either JFK’s father or Knute Rockne. My dad would say it whenever I needed a little extra encouragement and the impossible loomed. My dad thought most things were possible. Sending the tough on its way has a lot to do with resiliency. A resilient person has the courage to bounce back and deflect tough things because he or she is tougher. Being tough and strong is the only choice. Some see this as stubbornness. I take those words as a compliment because the tough has to get going. So long, tough. You are not welcome here. Get going and be gone. My inner toughness will prevail.

My father was one of the pivotal hopeful figures in my life. He made me feel like I mattered every day. His positive outlook and upbeat attitude were repeated over and over from people who knew him at his visitation and funeral. I already knew these things, but it is so important that he spread hope to others. I believe that it’s part of his legacy. What qualities did he have that made me feel like I mattered? He was always in my corner. He spent time with me every day and sang me bedtime songs. He read to me. He loved watching me play tennis, win or lose. He drove me back and forth from home to college almost every day during my fifth year so I could live at home and save money. He drove me to job interviews and waited in the car until I was done. We had good talks. He made me laugh. He really believed I could do anything.

Another one of his key phrases was not to be a doom dibbler. JFK’s dad or Knute had nothing to do with this one. It is an original Dad concept! Really, I never thought dibble was even a real word. He had a way of mispronouncing things and getting some words wrong. He was raised in a German-speaking home so this was typical for him. I figured he had made it up, but I knew what he meant. Much to my surprise, dibble actually is a word! As a verb, it means to make a hole in the soil with a tool (from the noun called a dibble) for seeds or young plants. His background was in farming and agriculture, so now I understand doom dibbling on a whole new level.

He knew exactly what he was saying.

My dad didn’t just want me to stop whining about something and have a positive outlook.

He didn’t want me to plant that seed of doom that would grow larger and larger.

Doom dibblers get bogged down in negativity and worry. Constant emphasis on what undoubtedly will go wrong becomes toxic and central to their world. Are you thinking Debbie Downer? Womp-womp. Nothing is or ever will be right. What if the worst happens? It becomes central to their identity as a doom dibbler. Doom is quite an ugly word. Do not be a doom dibbler.

Become a hope dibbler instead. Perhaps a hope harvester better expresses the sentiment. Emphasis on the positive spreads that energy in the world. Use whatever dibble you have to plant the seed of HOPE and watch it grow. What if it all works out? Imagine all the wonderful possibilities. My dad knew a lot about hope. Yep, he definitely was a hope harvester.

My dad also had a habit of writing me notes that I’d discover tucked away in my slippers when I was home for the weekend or he’d mail them to me in college. Little stick figure sketches of himself, our dog, or Bucky Badger were included. A twenty-dollar bill was usually clipped to the notes. Little words of wisdom were also included. We were a close family who spoke regularly and saw each other every weekend. Yet, he’d still send weekly letters filled with words of hope and wisdom. Hope was a message in almost every note I saved. Usually the notes began that he hoped all was well. He was so eager to hear about school and support my studies in any way he could.

“You are such an outstanding young person. Do share with us all your accomplishments.”

Well, shucks. See what I mean about him being in my corner? These notes were my own personal cheering section. I cherish them now more than ever. Yes, I’ve kept them. His hopeful words and messages transcend time.

On one note he wrote that smooth sailing didn’t make good sailors. (I don’t know the source for this advice. It probably isn’t JFK’s dad or Knute.) He owned a recreational motorboat before he married my mother. He kept the boat after they married, but it was used infrequently. I remember playing in it when it was stored on one half of our home’s garage. I never thought of my dad as much of a sailor, but I’ve often come back to his comment about sailing.

Sailor or landlubber, the point was that hardships help us learn and grow.

In the end, they shape our character and strengthen our spirit. Hope plays a role because you land on your feet a stronger person after going through the struggles.

Another repeated theme in his weekly notes was on the value of saving money. I always thought I had been good at saving money, but maybe I’ve been good at it because of his influence with his notes. On some notes, I’d find articles attached on investing. In one note he wrote, “You’ll find a short article on the value of investing early for retirement. I know you’re young and still going to school, but it doesn’t hurt to have your ideas focused for future investment moves. Enclosed are a few dollars.”

I hope you hit the jackpot when you were given your father. I know I did, and even though he’s been gone for over twenty years, he’s never left my heart. Some of you reading this may have had the good fortune to know him. My words really can’t do him justice. Maybe my memories have made you smile with some of your own about special people you’ve known in your life. Thank you, Dad, for all the love and hope you gave me, and for everything.

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Hope, Belief, and a Monthly Planner

In early January of 2017, I bought myself a new monthly planner for the year ahead. My main motivation was I wanted a different one other than the school academic monthly planner I had used. Every time I used my school planner, there was a visual reminder that I wasn’t there. This was before official retirement when my leave had been extended for the entire school year. I pondered maybe it would be a good step to transition to a different planner.

The first sign that this was good was it only took me about five minutes to choose which new planner I wanted. I grabbed five or six off the shelf at the bookstore and sat down and started comparing them. One was too heavy and had a magnetic snapping cover. It was going to take up a lot of space in my bag. Weekly planners were out because I liked looking at the entire month as a whole. My final two choices were between a planner with a blue floral cover I liked but with very plain inside pages, and a colorful, almost hippie style outside cover, with equally flower power inside calendar pages. It was all very cheerful and bright. I bought the colorful and cheerful planner.

I had bemoaned for months over whether I would continue my leave from school or return to teaching, and here I had been able to make a decision quickly and effectively. Yes, I know my decision concerning work was much more monumental, but it was also stressful. It felt good to make a decision quickly about my planner and know I was happy with my choice.

But there is more to the story. I remained happy about my new planner for days afterward. It became one of my favorite objects. People would ask what was new, and I’d tell them in great detail about my wonderful monthly planner. It was weird and a bit obsessive. Truly, I did have other things going on. Then I figured out why my planner was a source of such joy. The planner was about hope. People who are hopeful make plans and write them down. When I bought my planner, my decision had been made to extend my leave, and I wanted a planner not connected to school while I didn’t work there. I was going to make and keep lots of plans. I did just that.

My calendar has been fuller than ever these past two years. My new planner for 2019 has a few too many things already penciled in for an introvert’s liking. One constant for the coming year will be to fill each day with hope, and maybe try to schedule a little less to balance with my inner peace.

Hope springs up in the most unexpected places. Consider the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. I expected a graphic, emotionally hard to read story of Louis Zamperini’s unfailing will to survive and beat all the cruelties of war and imprisonment. Throughout the book, I found myself wondering how in the world he managed to pull through and dodge death for another countless time. What I didn’t expect was to relate much on a personal level because my day-to-day life is so different from what Louis Zamperini lived. His resilience and strength really empowered his spirit. I had that in common with him. About halfway through the book, there was a chapter focused on his family’s beliefs that was powerful. You see, the Zamperini family always felt Louis was still alive after his plane went down and he was assumed dead. His parents still spoke of him in the present tense. This section of the book made me think for weeks about the intersection of hope and belief. Hope was a wish. Belief was a feeling. Belief persevered without proof. If your hope became part of your beliefs that you thought of as true, you then had this awesome force on your side to surround and support you.

Time and time again, I have needed to dig deep into my springs of hope. It happened a lot early into the cancer diagnosis when I was told why surgery or radiation wouldn’t work for me. There have been countless times when I have heard a medical NO, and always one more time than this where I have had to bounce back stronger and more hopeful than before because the hope in my heart said YES. There is often chaos and fear in NO. NO can be a very useful word. NO is a complete sentence all on its own. But here it carries a lot of uncertainty. There is always a path and hope in YES. YES carries lots of belief and promise.

Hope may make all the difference.

Never.

Ever.

Give.

Up.

Hope.

 

You are always welcome to leave a comment below.

What plans are you making?

How is hope part of your belief system?

 

Tennis and Life: A Resilient Match

I remember the crisp pop the racket made as it connected with the tennis ball in just the right way in the center of the racket.

It was a solid sound.

I remember the feeling of oneness that came from getting your racket back, making contact with the ball, and following through with a forehand as I watched the ball sail through the air and land cross court.

It was a fluid feeling.

It was also twenty-five years ago. Or more. I never played much beyond competitive play in high school. Recreational play after that had its ups and downs, mostly downs. I played too infrequently to maintain any real skills. Friends I had played with moved away. Finding people with whom I was moderately well matched was challenging. There never seemed to be time. Life got busier with work and other interests. I barely knew who the top ranked players were and seldom caught a match on TV. Years went by as they do.

Last winter, I decided I wanted to play again and made an action plan. I researched my tennis options. I would take a lesson. It would be private so I wouldn’t have to be concerned about my level of play with another player. I largely wanted to see what it felt like to be on a court again after so many years and get baseline data for my abilities. I wanted to work on the mechanics of net play, my serve, and my forehand and backhand with minimal running. I figured my brain and body still had the neurological maps for how to do those things, but I needed to focus on them in isolation.

Isolating strokes revealed I still had a lot of really good moves. There was a lot of joy in hitting things.

A LOT.

My mental focus is much stronger in my late forties than in my teens. On that particular day, it was like a part of me was watching me play in slow motion and I noticed what I was doing so I was able to adjust where I needed while I did it. I felt in control, which was something that had been more of a foreign feeling in my life lately.

Before I started, I was concerned I wouldn’t last the seventy-five minutes scheduled for a lesson, but my stamina held up well. I was also playing with my chemo body. I felt really good on the court. The feeling was there as soon as I stepped into the court enclosure. Honestly, I hadn’t expected to have a sense of belonging wash over me as it did. Then I realized the feeling was the mix of joy and excitement.

The joy felt electric, which is a very odd way to describe how I felt, but so much was firing together in my body and mind. It wasn’t just the popping sound of a solid hit or my strokes that felt fluid.

I felt solid and fluid.

I was capable and a little more whole than I was when I woke up that morning. My instructor was impressed with what I was able to do taking into consideration my current health needs and how long I had been away from the game. So was I.

You know how people always try to make things look better than perhaps how they really are? Facebook is a platform for this. So are Christmas letters. We can take multiple photos of ourselves and delete the unflattering ones instantly. This narrative I’ve spun about my triumphant return to tennis feeds into this need to always portray everything in our lives as wonderful. It’s natural to try to look and sound your best and put your best foot forward. But none of those are completely accurate versions of reality. Keep reading.

I am no star athlete and I don’t believe I ever will be. I just want to do something again that I used to love and be more active.

And hit things.

But here is my reality that I’ll leave out of the holiday letter . . .

I got hit with a rogue tennis ball in the head.

Of course I did.

I managed to keep all the balls I hit in my court and not hit any over the high net that divided court enclosures. My control was surprisingly impressive. One ball however came flying over from next door.

My instructor hollered, “Look out!”

I just froze. I knew a ball from somewhere was coming but didn’t see it. Hopefully, it would miss me. One more step and it would have.

Bonk.

After decades of not playing, I was in just the right place at the right time. What were the chances? What was the lesson? Life is filled with imperfections and this was simply a good example of one. In anticipation of my lesson, I had worried I wouldn’t move fast enough and get hit in the face with an oncoming ball. Here I was being taught I had nothing to fear.

Nothing.

Everything was still fine.

And sure, there’s always the lesson to laugh at whatever life throws your way, even if it’s a tennis ball.

Or is this the part I edit out when I share with others?

I guess it’s a little too late for that idea.

Which sounds better?

A)  I got hit in the head with a rogue ball from another court because those are the types of things that happen to me.

B)  It felt great to be on the court again. I discovered I still had a lot of good moves and hit many balls confidently.

I personally favor B, but know both together give a more complete picture of what happened.

Few things are ever completely wonderful or awful. Keeping the part in about being hit in the head shows resiliency in action. The ball bounced off my head and it was no big deal. I bounced back from that perfect fluke before that ball even landed on the court.

The lesson that offers the biggest take away for me is the lesson of resiliency. It shows up again and again, just as its name implies it should. Resiliency shows up going on longer walks, hiking a hill that seemed out of reach, and taking a tennis lesson.

Every activity offers opportunities for learning more about my capabilities. They provide me with templates to learn how to adapt where I need to and stay flexible in the moment.

Resilience always leads to growth.

Much like the tennis ball, being resilient allows us to keep bouncing. Whether the ball bounces in court, into the net, just out of bounds, or off your head, it bounces in the realm of possibility for making future challenges probable and more successful.

Resiliency is a good match for all of us, whether we play tennis or not.

How has life shown you that you are resilient?