My Second Life

On this day 19 years ago I went to the operating theatre to have my left breast removed, it had developed a significant invasive cancerous tumour and it had to go! I am, as far as I know, in remission. I celebrate this day as my second birthday, the last 19 years as the second life I was given; and I try to use it well. So here are 19 of the things I have learned:

  1. There’s really no such thing as the “all clear”, I have given up explaining this but really no-one can be guaranteed “cancer free”, the correct term is “no evidence of disease”.
  2. I am still me, a work in progress but always me. Cancer didn’t take anything from me, I am not my disease. I am not “the one who had breast cancer” because I am so much more than that.
  3. Who I am is far more important than how I look.
  4. Who I am is a gazillion times more important that what anyone else thinks of me. Their judgement is about them, not me.
  5. Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people. Lightning does strike twice or even more times. Heartbreak is a part of life, as long as you have love and joy, you will have grief and sorrow; but the love and joy will prevail and it is worth it. Oh, and cancer is a lottery – I didn’t `deserve’ it, no one deserves it. We constantly look for explanations but sometimes there just is no explanation. If you have been diagnosed, please, please know that it isn’t what you did or said or took or didn’t take. Yes, there are health risks and if you want to reduce yours and live a healthier life, please do – you will no doubt benefit but as the bible says “Todays burdens are enough for one day”, don’t add to your load with blame or shame.
  6. Everything changes, all the time, regardless of whether you want it to or don’t want it to. You are not in control, you cannot change it – accept it, go with it.
  7. Anything is possible, good and bad, so stay open that possibility.
  8. Perfection does not exist, you aren’t perfect and nor is anyone else. Your parents aren’t perfect, they are just doing the best they can and they know you aren’t perfect – they just want the very best for you and sometimes it comes out a bit twisted. But really, they love you just exactly as you are.
  9. As Maja Angelou says “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
  10. There are no bad feelings, just your feelings. Listen to them, let them tell you what they mean. You are not your feelings, but they are important.
  11. I tried to say this better but couldn’t, so take it away Emily Dickinson
    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul
    And sings the tune without the words
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land.
    And on the strangest sea,
    Yet never in extremity,
    It asked a crumb of me.
  12. Count your blessings, gratitude has been proven to improve well being and it’s a great practice to get into.
  13. Forgive and send love to everyone, especially those who don’t seem to deserve it – they are usually the ones who need it the most.
  14. You can do it, even in the fiercest storms of your darkest days – you are stronger than you know.
  15. Breathe deeply, practice slowing and deepening your breathing as a means to steadying yourself when life churns you up a bit.
  16. As the wonderful Matt Haig says “notice the beauty”, look around you, there is always something to appreciate.
  17. Everyone has something to teach you.
  18. Learning is a wonderful gift, stay curious, ask questions and listen.
  19. Love is everything – to love and be loved.


“Selfcare isn’t selfish” is often quoted these days and I truly agree. The equally popular adages “You cannot pour from an empty cup” or “Put your own oxygen mask on first” are helpful to those who perhaps have been raised, as I was, to believe that everyone else comes first and your purpose is to serve. I don’t think these were messages meant to harm us, they were meant to create “good” human beings; I guess our caregivers believed that inherent instincts would stop us taking the messages to the extreme where we would put our own survival in jeopardy.

This summer I have battled with the self-care message. I wrote my self-care charter and broke it – still a work in progress! But then I read a couple of books that (I hope) are life changing. The first, thanks to a dear friend, was “The Choice” by Edith Egar and, from a reference in that, I read Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”; and then I got confused. Clear messages from both were that how you perceive something is critical and that only you have control of that perception inside your mind; I was fine with that. The harder message is that you shouldn’t seek happiness, that happiness is a biproduct of service to a larger aim; in service of something or someone else. That shattered my little self-care campaign until I decided to order things (here I go again, there’s a theme already from my blogs)!

So, I see it as a spectrum from Selfish to Selfless; at one end I’m “all about me” and at the other end I am exhausting myself in service of others or some form of work (not necessarily paid work). But there is a happy medium. What to call this? I have seen it referred to as “Self-full”, so a place where you take care of your own needs first and from that position of strength serve others. It’s maybe my conditioning but that terminology doesn’t really appeal – to me it suggests I cannot serve others until I have done everything I need; which sounds a little bit selfish. Perhaps a more appealing term would be “Unselfish”? In my mind this suggests a sensible balance of self-care and purpose. It might also be seen as equal measures of hedonic and eudemonic wellbeing – hedonic being pure pleasure/ enjoyment and eudemonic being more about feeling worthwhile.

We need both and, I believe, our self-care charter needs both.


Grief is three dimensional

All of us, at some point in life, will deal with grief. It can be the loss of a person, a pet or a part of ourselves (a relationship, a career, a job or a skill).

I am no expert, but I have lost people and a dear dog who were very precious to me. It is only with this most recent loss, my beautiful two-year-old female German Shepherd, that I have started to find some structure to my grief.

When my mum died four years ago, an extremely close and complex relationship for me, I was lost. I started on a course of study that would take me into the realms of psychology and help me to pick apart that relationship and who I was as a result of it. I sincerely hope it has led me to a better and happier place; but during the journey I struggled with my grief. One of the things I struggled with, was the perception I came across in the texts that anyone still grieving after a year was `stuck’ and probably `pathologically depressed’. Maybe I was? I was doing a bloody good job of living with clinical depression if this was it! More texts told me what I absolutely needed to hear, that there was no arbitrary cut off at 6, 12, 48 or even 360 months! My grief was my grief and it depended who I lost, how I lost them and what our relationship was.

Our dog taught me lots of things. She had character to spare and it took me a while to accept that this mischievous, funny, beautiful, stubborn and loving little character was okay to open my heart to. Looking back now it seems silly to have taken time, but I was still heart sore from mum, I had unrealistic expectations of that puppy and I was doing too much in general. After a year or so our relationship blossomed and became an unconditional love, an often-used phrase but one that I had never truly understood before. Then in, what seemed, an especially cruel twist of fate she became seriously unwell. A part of me wanted to lower my head again and see this as a slap in the face of happiness; to surrender myself to misery and depression, but I managed a balanced view that this was just a challenge, that our darling girl was just extra special, and we would love her even more for it. Then fate took her from us.

So here I am, determined not to bow my head and wanting (as I always do) to make some sense from this; so here is what I have learned. I see three dimensions to grief:

• How the loss occurs, in the loss of a person this includes how they die, how much time you have with them, whether this is an “out of time” death (such as the death of an infant or your child), whether you can be there, whether you can make any sense of the events that happen;

• The loss, having the person ripped from your life, what’s the timing, where are you at in your career, your relationships and what part does that person play, how is your relationship with them at that point in time, how much are they woven into your life and your story;

• Missing them, not having them in your life, not there to share things with, not there to give you advice or for you to help them. Not there to enjoy the activities you used to enjoy.

These three aspects are interwoven but my hypothesis is that the first two dimensions can be processed and progressed in some way. The third dimension will never go, the shape and presence of that person, pet, relationship, will always be in your life; a part of who you were; a part of who you are; and part of the memories that you see, feel and (hopefully) cherish.