Finding Self-Compassion During Cancer and Beyond

Robin Lin Photography

Robin Lin Photography

As I near the end of chemo, I am forced to confront the effects my diagnosis and treatment have had on me and how this experience will shape my future. As I look ahead to my life after this initial stage of treatment, I am scared. I have been so focused on surviving that I haven’t had a chance to get to know my new body, rebuild my confidence or figure out how this experience may have changed my priorities. While I try to adjust to these changes, I still grieve for the future I thought I’d have and the woman I used to be. I miss her constantly.

I miss the way my husband used to look at me before he was my caregiver and the way people would stare when I’d walk in a room. I miss the honeymoon stage of our marriage and our excitement about planning for a family. I miss the pregnancy books I ordered and the maternity outfits I’d pinned. I miss my excitement to see him as a father and planning for a nursery in our new home. I miss my hair and my breasts and my confidence in my womanhood. I know I’ve traded all of that for survival for a chance to fight to keep this life of mine and that’s worth the cost but I still miss the way it used to be.

It took me 27 years to become the person I was pre-cancer and to build a life I was proud of and happy to live. In just a matter of months, I feel as though my life has been changed forever. Cancer put everything in perspective and the things I used to worry about or deem important now seem trivial. I find myself searching for a greater purpose and for happiness. How will I make use of this second chance at life? I am scared to be alone and confront these feelings and fears. I feel as if I have to rebuild myself from the inside out. How will I find happiness and not live in fear of recurrence. How will I come to accept and love this new body of mine? All of those questions plague me now. I trust I will find peace eventually but right now the fears and the questions are overwhelming.

I am not quite sure how I will overcome these fears and answer these questions, but I do know I have an arsenal of tools to pull from. Many years ago my therapist talked to me about something that I like to call “belief talk”. When our brains go down a route of fear or anxiety, we fall back on what we believe to be true in order to reinforce our fears and anxiety. This thinking takes us down that downward spiral. In order to take our brain down a different path we have to question what we believe to be true. So let’s apply this strategy to one of my current fears about life after cancer. I am afraid the changes I have gone through will separate me from the people I love. I am afraid that my husband and close friends will not like the new me, and I will end up isolated due to this experience I have gone through. The negative beliefs that reinforcing this fear are: the changes I have gone through are negative and that my husband and friends are not accepting of change. If I change my mindset to a new belief such as, the changes I have gone through are positive and my husband and friends are caring and accepting people, it is much more likely that my brain can take me down a less fearful path. With a new mindset and a shift in my beliefs, it will be much easier to accept a more loving and nurturing outlook on my future.

I happened upon a great article from Forbes, which supports this way of thinking. The article is about how we can rewire our brains for happiness. Vanessa Loder writes, “scientists have now shown, we can literally rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions.  This means we can create new neural pathways – highways in our brain – that lead us to compassion, gratitude, and joy instead of anxiety, fear, and anger.  We can reprogram our brains’ automatic response, and all it requires (this is a simple thing…but not an easy one) is a conscious effort to build new pathways.” So how do we begin this process of building new pathways? How do we lay the framework for a new way of thinking? Loder says, “practicing self-compassion is one powerful way to start building these new pathways in your brain. Another tool is to begin cultivating gratitude.”

So it seems my work lies in self compassion and gratitude. Gratitude for this second chance at life, gratitude for the compassion shown around me, and self compassion and acceptance for this new person I am becoming. Maybe this terrifying and life altering experience will lead me to amazing opportunities, strength and self-love. Maybe these changes and my new perspective on life will help me strengthen my relationships with my husband and friends and form new relationships based on love and giving. It all depends on what I condition my brain to believe is possible. What new pathways will you work on in order to find more happiness?

Vanessa Loder and Lisa Abramson have a website I found useful called Mindfulness Based Achievement. I signed up for their free Self Compassion Toolkit and you can too. The first step in this toolkit is the act of writing letters of self-compassion to yourself each day for seven days.  Research shows that writing this type of letter for seven days can decrease anxiety and depression and increase happiness for up to six months. I figured why not give it a try at a time when I need self-compassion the most. I am excited to see how this path of self-compassion and gratitude leads to less anxiety and fear about my life after cancer. Maybe I’ll even share some of the letters I write with you.

I hope you can join this journey with me on the path to self acceptance.

Photo Credit: Robin Lin Photography

Makeup: Makeup By Alexis Ripley

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21 comments

  1. Mac says:

    I love you so much hunny! We’re almost through the current phase of “cancer care, cancer care, cancer care” that involves chemo and the transition from “pre-cancer you” to “cancer you”. It’s great to see you starting to notice the changes you’re going through internally. Up to this point there have been a lot of physical changes and treatment and medicine and doctor visits and … And we haven’t taken the time to really explore the “things that need to be important later”. It’s about the right time to reevaluate “what needs to be important now and what needs to be important later”

    As always, I’m able to see changes in you a little sooner than you’re able to recognize yourself. There are so many people that love you and can see the same things I can see – in time, you will recognize them as well and say, “You were right hunny [as always]” 😉
    I’m excited to live our next phase of life together and enjoy the new priorities we’ll share.

    It took me longer than you would have liked to decide I was ready to get married and be with you forever, and that’s because when I made that decision it was a decision forever. I’m here with you through it all and will be forever. Remember, I’ve gotta build up some credits so I don’t feel guilty about you changing my diapers in 60 or 70 years.

    Love always,
    The hubby.

  2. Joe says:

    FEAR. All I can say is that is a dangerous word and without a doubt it’s hard if not impossible to avoid in your situation. I think it’s great that you’re trying to work out your anxiety through this difficult time for you. I talked to a minister out of Tulsa, Oklahoma who is an amazing human being named Sam Hager and he was telling me that love, grace, and generosity were part of the puzzle to finding inner peace. These are things that I’m trying to work on as well. I apologize if I am getting weird, but here is his Facebook link, he did ministry work in Nigeria and he also wrote a book.

    Facebook.com/SMASHTHEGATES

    By the way, you put up with Mac and that god awful beard and the ECU hat that smelled worse than my gym socks (ask his family about how bad my gym socks were) I think Mac can manage. I look at Mac like my big brother, he gives me good advice in any situation, even when I had the big C he was there.

    Hope this helps, Stay Strong, Joe

    • Mac says:

      That hat is the best thing that ever happened to Anna. She loves it so much she tries to hide it from me periodically so she can enjoy it all to herself.

  3. Lee Majewski says:

    Dear Anna,
    Such profound and beautiful share – thank you so much for inspiration. Like you, at the end of the treatment I was devastated physically, emotionally and mentally. Today I use BrainHQ and my brain and a host of other tools to rejuvenate myself. We also run a rejuvenation programs for people after treatments. I still cannot understand why cardiac patients have 6-12 months rehab scheduled by doctors and we are told “to go and live our lives” when we are at the lowest point and most vulnerable…

    Please check my website – perhaps you will find the program helpful just like many of others did. You may also check http://www.facebook.com/cancerdetox...

    • Anna says:

      Thank you so much for your comment and following along with my journey. I will definitely check out your website and resources you mentioned. I appreciate your support.

  4. Teresa says:

    Anna
    I don’t know you very well but I have been following your journey and have been learning a lot from you. I can only imagine that you will come thru this a better person if that is possible.
    Some of the information you have shared is very useful in other life situations and I will be checking out several of the links you have shared in this post. May you continue to be blessed in your journey.

    • Anna says:

      Thanks so much. I started blogging in August 2015. It has been really fun learning WordPress and the layout tools. I am so glad you find the content helpful and engaging.

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      Thank you very much. I am so happy to have you following. I appreciate you sharing the blog. The more we can get the word out the more young women we can help.

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