Five years ago today, on June 10, 2009, I lay on an operating table with my arms immobilized in Velcro crucifix constraints forming perfect 90 degree angles from my torso.
Salty tears slid down my temples into my hair, with no way for me to wipe them away. Realizing for the first time that a part of me was about to be amputated, I prayed for the anesthesia to knock me into unconsciousness.
I awoke minus my left breast. The cancerous cells that had been discovered in three different quadrants of that breast were also gone. And though my cancer had been caught early enough for me to not be at risk of dying, the experience would transform me at every level of my being.
Marking my 5-Year milestone with 5 lessons would have been the obvious choice, but it was simply impossible to limit the list to such a small number. Since I also turned 50 this April, and having learned at least ten lessons each year since my diagnosis, here are…
50 Lessons I’ve Learned Five Years Out from Breast Cancer
1. A breast is a breast, no matter how small. Losing even a tiny one sucks.
2. Whatever we judge, we end up confronting in ourselves one day. In my case, I had judged women with plastic breasts. Now I am one of them.
3. There is great power in looking in the mirror and feeling good about what you see, even (especially?) when you know there’s a six-inch scar hidden under the fabric of your clothes.
4. The power in #3 comes from knowing you are healthy and doing everything in your power to remain so.
5. Your body is not “you”. Your outer form is temporary and fleeting. A healthy body, however, supports a healthy mind and spirit (it’s a three-way nurturing system).
6. You have to hit rock bottom before you can really push off and break through the surface.
7. You have to experience weakness to fully appreciate strength.
8. Cardio exercise–30 minutes a day most days of the week–reduces your risk of breast cancer recurrence.
9. Cardio exercise–30 minutes a day most days of the week–transforms brain chemistry enough to eliminate the need for anti-depressants in many people (my personal experience verifies the extensive research on this).
10. Alcohol consumption (including wine) is linked to breast cancer. My oncologist recommends limiting intake to 2-3 glasses a week.
11. Life is still good even when limiting alcohol consumption to 2-3 glasses a week.
12. Coffee is OK (per my oncologist; since she let me keep my coffee, I can now forgive her for limiting my alcohol intake, though it took a couple of years to do so).
13. Everything happens for a reason.
14. If we don’t take time to slow down, life will force the issue.
15. Life is happening now. Most people are missing it by either lamenting the past or worrying about the future.
16. The more you resist the reality of what “is”, the longer it takes to move through difficult times.
17. Take action where you can and let go of the rest.
18. The more I practice acceptance of what life throws my way, the fewer hurdles are placed in my path.
19. Each and every day is a gift, no matter how many seemingly crappy things happen.
20. If you look closely enough, seemingly crappy things always have a silver lining at some point down the road.
21. Our purpose in life may involve something previously unimaginable.
22. That critical, crazy-making voice inside your head telling you you’re not good enough, not qualified enough, not X or Y enough is Ego. Ego is not YOU.
23. Ego is also the voice telling you you’re a victim, convincing you that you are being forced to suffer more than everyone else (Ego is very competitive).
24. Ego stands in the way of living a purposeful, contented, fulfilling life.
25. Becoming aware of Ego and its motives is like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West — it melts.
26. Happiness is a decision; gratitude is the path that gets you there.
27. Something beautiful and noteworthy can be found each and every day if we take the time to look (and even photograph it).
28. Positive and negative energy flows are real, and are within our control to influence.
29. Other peoples’ worry is contagious. Positive people make you feel better.
30. We are all connected.
31. Choose your circle of friends wisely; say no to the drama.
32. Go public with your goals and you’re more likely to achieve them.
33. It doesn’t matter how fast you get there. The most important part is starting.
34. Regular exercise is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and our families, both for our own longevity and modeling healthy life habits for the next generation.
35. It’s never too late to start a fitness program. Last year a 64-year-old woman beat me in a mini-triathlon. I want to be her when I grow up.
36. Nature heals us.
37. Spirituality can be found in your own back yard.
38. The garden forgives the bed-ridden gardener.
39. Growing new things (in the garden or through any other creative outlet) makes the universe happy.
40. Creativity is a survival strategy, bringing a sense of purpose and fulfillment when everything else may feel out of your control.
41. You can’t take care of other people if you’re not taking care of yourself.
42. Enjoying your own company is key to contentment.
43. Learning to be calm, aware, and non-reactive is a community service.
44. Mindfulness techniques (including, but not limited to meditation) train your brain to remain calm and non-reactive in the same way that exercise trains your body to be strong and resilient.
45. Meditation isn’t about clearing thoughts out of your head. It’s about observing your thoughts and feelings, allowing them to come and go without judging them, and letting go of those that don’t serve you well.
46. You don’t need to be a Birkenstock-wearing hippy or monk on a mountain to benefit from meditation. Meditation can have a spiritual component or be totally secular.
47. You don’t need to sit on the floor in the lotus position to meditate. A chair or meditation bench can make the experience much more comfortable.
48. If you’re looking for a down-to-earth teacher who takes the mystery out of meditation, check out Andy Puddicombe’s program at www.getsomeheadspace.com (I’m not being paid to say that).
49. Because my cancer was caught before it had become invasive (the malignancies were still contained inside the milk ducts), it was labeled Stage 0. I’ve spent five years feeling like a breast cancer imposter because of that Stage 0 label, wondering if the mastectomy/amputation was overkill. My Ego was telling me that since I didn’t need chemo and didn’t lose my hair, I didn’t measure up as a cancer survivor. (How messed up is that?) A few days ago, my oncologist reminded me that my pathology report designated my cancer as High Grade and aggressive. “This is the type of cancer that becomes invasive if left untreated,” she said.
50. Regular mammograms saved my life.
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