My writing life suffered this week. I originally planned a series of posts exploring the topic of fear and how I approached fear as someone living with metastatic breast cancer. Everything has been turned upside down in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and I struggled. I struggled with a lot of things. I stared at my drafts. I couldn’t get anything to work.
I was at a loss for words.
I felt lost.
One way I dealt with my feelings the past week was to post a photo a day of a photo I had taken that brought me joy. I can lose myself in pictures in a good way. No words are needed. It was my way of offering a positive distraction to the Facebook world when so many posts were centered on fear, sadness, misinformation, and politics.
And so I offer some floral sunshine of some favorite photos that make me feel happy. They restored some brightness and light. I find them reassuring and supportive. They give me a sense of hope and peace. May they do the same for you. Lose yourself in them. Find a favorite.
Find a way.
Words are powerful. They entertain, inform, and persuade. Whether written or spoken, words communicate. Something.
Writing is a way to self-reflect, express my beliefs, and share my voice with others. Tara Parker-Pope wrote an article in The New York Times titled Writing Your Way to Happiness. One path to happiness is through writing a personal story.
The goal is to create an “optimistic cycle that reinforces itself.” She explains that although our inner voice is choosing the words as we write, we can go back and edit our story. For example, I may choose to write a story about a session with my trainer, or planting morning glory seeds, or being kept awake by a thunderstorm. Rewriting it can bring about behavioral changes, improve happiness, and lead to better health.
Bringing about behavioral changes, improving happiness, and working toward better health are all important to me as someone trying to live well with cancer. I’ve written quite a bit about the progress I’ve made with my trainer. Through the rewriting process, I discovered how negative self-talk hinders me in my training sessions and then I made some changes. Maybe I’ll write a story about morning glories and understand why they make me so happy. Writing about sleepless nights during bad weather may motivate me to sleep in my basement where I can’t hear anything which in turn makes me feel a lot better the next day.
Stories lead us to better understand ourselves.
For anyone interested in journaling specifically about health, consider the following prompts:
- What changes do I want to make in my behavior? Why do I want these changes? What is it I am hoping to gain? What is my plan? How can I take the first step?
- What things make me happy from the inside out?
- What small goals do I have that can lead to better health?
Or write a story about morning glories or something you think is entirely irrelevant to your health. After it’s written, you can look for possible connections that you didn’t see at first.
Timothy Wilson has researched writing as a way to change core narratives successfully and calls the process “story-editing.” His background is in social psychology and focuses on self-knowledge and behavior. I recommend one of his books, Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By, for further reading if interested. He sees writing as a pathway to bring about change. A writer writes for about twenty minutes a night for three to four nights, and each night goes back to edit the narrative. The outcome is that a more honest narrative is written through reflection on consecutive nights.
It’s an enlightening process.
Try it out: Think of a recent situation where you felt some anger.
Anger is a wonderful feeling to use for this exercise because you have automatic conflict.
On the first night, just write a very brief account to get the bare bones of the event written. It’s nothing fancy. Focus on your feelings another night and how to convey those through descriptions or specific actions. Add dialogue another night. Or just see where the writing takes you each night. You really don’t need a plan if you don’t want one. Just write.
Sometimes I wind up with an entirely different piece of writing than when I started.
I see writing your way to happiness as much more of a “revisioning” of a core narrative than editing, especially where endings are concerned. Revising involves bigger changes. Some parts stay, some go. Ideas are expanded. You try things out and see if they work. In Wilson’s book, one of his exercises is called “The Best Possible Selves.” He asks a writer to imagine his or her life twenty years from now and write about how everything has gone as well as it possibly could. Details about how the events of things happened are to be included, as well as meaning, hope, and purpose. Again, writing for twenty minutes a night for three to four nights is part of the directions. It gives your subconscious time to ruminate and work through whatever needs more thought so you can make more progress the following night. I think this is the same reason you are asked to write in the evening.
The part about including details about how future events happened is important. Being specific helps you form a picture in your mind of what you want. It makes a picture with words. Adding meaning, hope, and purpose also makes your vision super clear. Clarity in meaning and purpose makes what you want more probable.
I can tell you in my version I am completely healthy, retired, and enjoying every day doing the things I love. Writing sets a powerful intention more than thoughts or spoken words. It involves being really clear on what you want and organizing your words in the best possible way to express your specific intentions. I found that reading what I wrote out loud to someone after I completed the exercise also very revealing because my soul really responded to the core beliefs that I hold the dearest about my future as I put it all out there to the universe. Writing your way to happiness is one positive affirmation after another.
Writing something down tells your brain that your ideas, thoughts, and goals are important.
Writing engages us with our thoughts and helps us process emotions. It makes those thoughts concrete. It prepares those thoughts for becoming actions. Writing really serves as a blueprint or map for all that unchartered emotional and mental territory. Regular journal writing about feelings or uncomfortable events can help lower anxiety and help a person sleep better.
In the world of living well with cancer, I have both read and written. I am still learning how to write what I know and believe about cancer.
This is how I break down words about cancer:
- Medical journals/scientific articles on cancer findings/advancements. I’ve avoided reading many of these articles and journals as they aren’t written for patients. Once it was suggested I read one per month, but I found them confusing. Or upsetting. Or not applicable.
- Test results also can be confusing (or upsetting, or have unclear applications), however, these are much more important to understand because they affect the patient intimately.
- A personal health journal to document the factual side of a cancer diagnosis. Surgeries, treatments, radiation, medications, side effects, tests, appointments, and schedules fall into this category.
- Diaries/journal writing from survivors, thrivers, lifers, however a person best identifies. There are narratives filled with tips. Some write about living with cancer. Some write about beating cancer. Some write about dying from cancer.
- Fictional stories where characters have cancer. They read differently than biographical accounts but contain many of the same sentiments of life and/or death. Some hit the mark – others do not.
- Advocacy writing that argues for better research and treatments for later stage cancer patients. In my opinion, the world needs more of this kind of writing. People focus on the wrong drivers of “awareness” or accuse women and men of being “negative” if they write about the hard, scary, and ugly parts of cancer. Change will come through advocacy. Current widespread attitudes need to be challenged.
- Celebrities sharing their “I never let cancer get the best of me” stories. How courageous . . . and . . . inspiring? I think it’s just ducky if they never experienced one moment of fear, doubt, or anger. If you can’t tell, I don’t believe them. I would be more impressed if they used their platform in the public eye (that is much more far-reaching than mine) to put a mark on metastatic breast cancer that can’t be ignored or dismissed. It makes me sad. I feel like they don’t understand. Maybe they can wear pink and that will make it all better.
- Private writing reflecting on some of the questions above or your own.
- A few write blogs. 😉
Am I missing any?
Writing forces a person to process a pesky thought that has been floating about unrecognized or undefined. Once on paper (or the computer), it lets you see what you were thinking or feeling. If it isn’t quite right, you revise until your inner voice has spoken.
I end this post how I began it: Words are powerful. They entertain, inform, and persuade. Whether written or spoken, words communicate. Something.
“She’s done it all.”
I heard this comment a while back referring to a TV personality. She has written songs and books. She’s written a movie, starred in it, and directed one. She’s co-hosted two morning TV shows. She had a lasting marriage, is a mother, and seems to be loved by many friends. I don’t know her, yet I get the feeling she returns that love back to friends and strangers.
She is talented. I like her.
You may even correctly guess this person’s identity. I’m purposely not going to name her because that really isn’t the point. It could be many people. Those in the public eye often achieve a level of success and celebrity because they are so visible in the public eye. Opportunities and connections come to them like bees to honey. Opportunities and connections are wonderful, as are bees and honey. Nothing is wrong with any of those things.
What I want to write about is success.
How is success defined?
Does success mean doing it all?
It certainly can.
But I haven’t done most of the things this woman has done and I am still successful.
I have family and friends who love me and I love them back.
I established myself in a career I loved where I was respected and made a difference. I feel that overall I was liked and had a good reputation. I worked hard over many years to earn that respect and reputation.
I have traveled extensively including all 50 states and 26 countries.
I have a beautiful home.
I have interests that allow me to grow while still feeling whole.
I see beauty in people and places.
I even have a few books and songs. Unpublished for now. I’d love to see that change with the books. The world may be better off without the songs. Lucky ones have heard these.
Each individual has his or her own definition of success. For a long time, the most familiar model for success meant money and power in the business world. Success was measured with a dollar sign. You were more admired if you held immense power. Popularity was an important indicator of success. You knew you had made it in the world if everyone knew your name. It mattered who you knew and how well connected you were. Success was defined by money and possessions.
Of course, life isn’t this way for most people. I suppose the above description does match a definition of success for a few. The fictitious George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life beautifully demonstrates how someone who doesn’t fit the above description still embodies success. He’s even the richest man in town because he has qualities that matter more than money or power.
Success to me means being loved and feeling happy. I have both of those.
Success means being healthy. I would love not to have cancer. But I do. I am thankful for the health I do have. I can’t feel defeated or unsuccessful when I always try. Some things are out of my hands.
Health means a lot. Life changes when a person has lost their health, mobility, or independence due to an injury or illness. I now live with one of those pre-existing conditions. I’m on Medicare. I receive disability. I can’t take long trips like I once did because of a revolving door of medical appointments. When I do travel someplace, I pack a traveling pharmacy. I try to keep up but need to do less sometimes. A lot has changed. Many health dominoes have toppled over much earlier for me than I thought they would if they toppled at all. The thing with dominoes is that when one domino falls, others do, too. I took my relatively good health before cancer for granted. When a person has good health, they do have everything. I still have a lot, but life is different.
Feeling happy and healthy are the two forces that guide any feelings of success I have.
I am not “doing it all.” Having/Doing it all means different things to different people. It’s all relative to an individual. If I don’t have what someone else has does it mean I am lacking, or vice versa if the situation is reversed? My goals are to be as happy and as healthy as I can be. I still want to get up in the morning with the intention to somehow be helpful if possible and to live joyfully. I want to go to sleep at night with the satisfaction that I succeeded.
Take a moment and think of a time when you felt successful. What had you done? How did you feel?
I’ll give a few examples that may trigger some ideas.
One of my extracurricular activities in high school was forensics. I was a storyteller. Although I never came in first at a meet, I did place well enough to earn a trophy once. The trophy wasn’t all that important. I felt successful in retelling a story so well that I painted a picture with only my words and captured my audience. I also felt extremely successful that I never passed out during a telling. I had a wide range of standards to define success in those days.
I also am privileged to present a small scholarship to a graduating high school student who plans to major in education. It isn’t much, but it’s important for me to be able to give back. I feel successful that I can support someone’s dream in a small way. Still feeling connected to the educational community also makes me feel successful.
Reaching goals enable a person to feel successful. When I finish a hike or a bike ride I feel successful because I have completed something from start to finish. When I’m able to lift more weight or meet a new benchmark in my training sessions I feel successful because I know I have made progress. Goals can be small to still feel successful. I know someone who had a brief stay in the hospital and needed to move around more even though it was painful to walk far. She told me one of the nurses saw her making a slow lap around the halls on the floor. Afterward, the nurse came into her room and made three boxes on the whiteboard where general notes were written about diet, meds, and other plans. She checked off one box for one lap and told my friend she needed to do two more that day. My friend confided in me she really didn’t want to because walking hurt and she was so slow. But those empty boxes stared at her waiting to be crossed off. The boxes were such small things, but very motivating. She did what she had to do. She simply crossed them off without walking to make it look like she had done the work. No, she didn’t, but I wouldn’t have put it past her. She did two more laps, each one faster than the last. She was very pleased with herself. I was proud of her.
No money, fame, or power were in any of these examples. Success truly came from a place of happiness, being able to help, and being healthy enough to get something done.
As long as I can find a way to feel happy, helpful, and healthy, I will be successful.
I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts on how you define success.
Living with cancer has given me the opportunity to spend more time reading for enjoyment. It is a welcomed escape. I recently read one of Brené Brown’s books, Braving the Wilderness. In today’s post, I explore this book’s themes from three different lenses.
Lens One: Braving the Wilderness Brené Style
This lens is a basic introduction to the book’s main message. Brené Brown explains that being brave involves being true to yourself. Being brave means bringing life to your story. You are the only one who can do it.
She says you aren’t going to please everyone. Inevitably, it means you can’t be brave and never disappoint anyone. So true.
If you seek the constant approval of others and people pleasing is more important than your own inner happiness, you are not being brave.
There will be criticism with braveness. There will be LOTS of criticism.
There will be great moments of uncertainty because you are standing alone.
There will be vulnerability as you discover all your truths and how you are discovering exactly how you belong.
These sound terrifying. Going through life not knowing yourself is more terrifying. Braving the wilderness means you stand firm when you face the wind and disapproval of others. When you know yourself, you have the courage to stand firm in your beliefs because you know who you are.
To truly belong, you only need to belong to yourself.
That’s the biggest take away for me in the whole book. In a world where belongingness is sought after in almost every interaction and relationship, we all lose sight that the most valuable relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves. The interactions that matter most are the ones directed at how we treat ourselves.
She writes that “true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”
Belonging is intertwined with I AM.
Lens Two: Braving the Wilderness with Cancer
My opinion and personal interpretation take over with this lens.
Having cancer is a wilderness of its own. Truly belonging to yourself and blending that wilderness with a cancer wilderness is challenging. To own both wildernesses is overwhelming.
I believe if Brené Brown were to speak directly to me, she would say to lean in fully to the loneliness and discomfort of cancer. She would emphasize the need to become vulnerable with it. The personal connection with it would change how I feel about it. At least I think that’s what she’d say.
I also think I’ve had plenty of loneliness, discomfort, and enough of a personal connection with cancer already.
Brené Brown writes a lot about boundaries. The firmer the boundaries, the more respected they will be. It is not okay to be taken advantage of and trampled upon physically or emotionally. You can’t belong to yourself if you are crushed.
Cancer can crush a person as much as someone else can. Being bald makes you look and feel less feminine. Surgeries do the same and you’re left feeling “less than.” Others often confirm it. If you are flat, then you somehow have lost your womanhood. Perceptions around going flat are slowly changing. Treatments take all the oomph out you so there isn’t much energy left for you to object to cancer defining you. Medical labels, side effects, perceptions, and an evolving normal keep shifting. It’s easy for cancer to define someone. It’s much harder to claim belongingness.
Suddenly, you are not you anymore, but the person with cancer. Everyone has a story to share with you because that’s how they attempt to connect with you and now identify with you. It’s important to set boundaries for how you want to be treated.
Firm boundaries support trust. When others respect boundaries, it is safer to trust them. Trust has caused me an ocean of hurt. A lot has become clearer to me in the last few years.
To me, living with cancer and learning to trust more means:
- I share what I want about my health and expect my privacy to be respected.
- I do not have to explain or justify my feelings, nor do I need to provide a reason so others understand.
- I can’t trust a person with the big stuff if someone has betrayed that trust with smaller stuff.
- I need to feel physically and emotionally safe in order to feel connected to someone.
Strong boundaries enable a person to have more empathy for others. Self-care comes first. Then you know what you can do and not do for others. I still identify as a helper. Taking care of myself first lets me know what time and energy I have available for others.
Living well demands I brave it – it being life – and I’m braving it fiercely these days. The older I get, the more at home I feel in my own skin. I’ve known for some time that my happiness depends on my braving life. I am comfortable with most of the decisions I make. Being brave is both frightening and peaceful at the same time. The uncertainty and vulnerability show up as frightening, but then the acceptance of those parts of my life oddly brings an element of peace.
Lens Three: Braving Well Together
This sounds like an oxymoron if braving the wilderness involves only needing to belong to ourselves and having the courage to stand alone yet firmly in our beliefs and values. The way I see it, there is still room for the support of others who are also being brave. Picture a wilderness scene. I can be standing in my wilderness next to a beautiful mountain lake holding a sign that proclaims my beliefs. Another person can be standing a few feet away near a magnificent tree with a sign that reads entirely different. Part of my wilderness may be accepting and trusting others. This holds challenges for me, but I need to be vulnerable enough to slowly test those waters. The other person may be working on keeping a few more personal thoughts and the confidences of others private. We can give each other the acknowledging head nod to show our support while still recognizing the work is an individual inner process.
The other way I believe we can be brave together is that it’s when we feel alone and are brave that someone else comes along and gives voice that they feel exactly the same way. We may think we are alone, but we are not. It’s very possible that someone was feeling the same way and was beyond grateful to cross paths with someone else giving voice and standing his/her ground in a way they needed. When we are brave on our own, social connections can be found. It’s part of finding your tribe.
Vulnerability has always been tough for me. Honestly, I haven’t always liked Brené Brown’s work. I stopped reading her first book years earlier because I didn’t like what she had to say and I found her too repetitive. Looking back, I wasn’t ready to do some of the work I needed to do.
I still have work to do. LOTS. There is so much I don’t have figured out. I’ve figured out this much: I’ve become more comfortable braving the wilderness.
- Have you read any of Brené Brown’s books? What stands out to you?
One sunny day in early April, I decided it was time to pump up the tires on my bike and take it out for a test run. Truth be told, it was just as much of a test run for me, too.
Every year I wonder how I’m going to fare with many of my sportier endeavors. Will I still be able to hike? Can I bike? Am I slower? How far can I go? What kind of energy level will I have? Will I be able to maintain it? Lots of questions bombard my mind, and I can’t answer any of them until I get out there and see what happens. I visualize doing all my physical goals effortlessly and flawlessly. Visualizing success is a healthy practice. It can frustrate me when I don’t visualize the small steps to reach my goal, but I’m getting better, slowly.
Last summer biking was tougher for me. Little changes in incline bothered me and I fatigued too quickly from the extra exertion. If I rode too far, the final stretch was interrupted with lots of rest stops. It always happened in the second half of the ride. I ended rides thoroughly exhausted feeling like an old crump. The strength and cardio work I had done in other activities didn’t transfer over to biking. Last summer was hard.
Each year it feels like I’m starting over.
I held one rule heading into this spring’s inaugural ride: Easy Does It.
I biked close to home and biked around the neighborhood. Any hills were neither steep nor long. I was ready for home after only fifteen minutes. My goal was thirty minutes, so I kept pedaling, thinking of flat routes that wouldn’t challenge me. I kept talking to myself, repeating my rule to take it easy. There was no need to push. I’ve had a tendency to push myself hard. Pushing too hard is what caused some of the hardness and disappointments last summer in the biking and hiking departments. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve had to push hard to be heard, to assert myself at school, or to travel places. No one else was going to do the work for me, nor should they.
Here on my bike, I didn’t have to go fast. Easy does it. Take my time. Remember to breathe. Coasting offered welcomed breaks to reset and normalize my breathing.
A couple other rules took shape on my test ride.
Rule #2: Enjoy It.
On that particular day, I was just out to get my bearings. I needed to do some self-assessment. I enjoy a good pace if I can handle it, but I bike more for recreation. I am not interested in doing a Tour de France. If the ride became too hard and I wasn’t having any fun, I was less likely to do it again. I do hobbies I enjoy, not those I despise.
There are plenty of parts of my life (medical parts) that I do not enjoy. I am very intentional about my choices with the rest of it. Having fun is part of my well-being.
I love biking on Wisconsin’s bike trails. There are some beautiful routes that pass alongside farms, woods, and prairies. My favorite provides a perfect mixture of sun and shade.
Rule #3: Practice Makes Perfect.
The more I practice, the better I get. It was a small sign of encouragement that stayed up as a permanent poster in my classroom for years. I will build on each small success and every ride. Greatness takes time. Professional athletes train for years to make hard work look effortless and flawless. I forget this often when so many of my attempts are filled with concerted effort and countless flaws. Failing is tough. Failing teaches us how to be better and stronger. Failing is valued practice, and practice makes perfect.
Here’s the thing – I don’t need perfection. For my purposes, I’ll define perfect as being fit enough to do the long bike rides I want with confidence and strength. It means I will enjoy the ride and relish in greatness when I get it. Repetition and practice bring me what I need for happiness, not perfection.
Maybe the saying about practice needs to shift from making something perfect to bringing happiness.
These three rules got me biking again. They will work for me when I go out on my next several rides. I hope they can help anyone who is ready to embark on a new physical activity. Maybe it doesn’t even need to be anything physical. Any new activity would work. Easy does it. Slow down and don’t go too fast or push too hard. You’ll get where you’re going. Things have a way of working out. It’s okay to take your time and get something right.
Life is meant to be enjoyed. I don’t believe we are here to be unhappy or to suffer. I want to take every opportunity for happiness that comes my way. I will seek out happiness. Some parts of life come easily. Hopefully, many things are easy. There undoubtedly will be a few flops ranging from tiny to colossal, but mine have taught me needed lessons. I keep practicing. Life is a mixture of enjoyment and practice.
I finished my ride and reached my thirty-minute goal. My body felt more than ready to be done. I worked hard, but I could still walk, talk, and otherwise function normally. All good signs I didn’t overdo. I have learned (through failure) that it’s good to stop physical activity before it stops me. My energy level was so good I even tackled a couple of tasks outdoors before heading inside.
My test run was very successful. My bike worked fine and so did I. Going on that ride made me feel empowered. There was a strong sense of accomplishment that left me feeling refreshed and energized. I had control of something in my life. I had forgotten how good I (eventually) feel after a bike ride. My heart felt stronger and each breath was fuller and deeper. I felt more confident to handle other challenges.
I still need to figure out how to handle some fatigue issues. My anxiety button gets pushed too quickly when pedaling becomes hard. Then anxiety pushes my panic button. Hopefully, my “Easy Does It” reminder will kick in at these times and keep panic far away.
Time has passed and now it’s June. I can bike from home to do a couple short bike trails. My next step is to put the rack on my car so I can do rides that gradually lengthen. As long as they remain relatively flat my enjoyment level will stay high. I plan to enjoy many beautiful rides that make me feel fit and healthy throughout the long summer.
- How do you apply Easy Does It?
- What are some guiding rules for your life?