Skip directly to content

Check Out My Most Popular Article at CURE.

Image courtesy of Kevin Dooley

Debbie's blog

Empathy, Connection & Healing for Cancer Survivors

You need to watch this video.  It's less than three minutes long and, trust me, it's worth every second. I'll wait right here until you get back.

I'm so glad you watched the video. Now we can talk.

Brene Brown is my favorite academic. She's a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work studying vulnerability, shame, courage, empathy and authenticity. Her concept of "wholeheartedness" (how to embrace our imperfections and vulnerabilities to live in a place of worthiness and authenticity) is groundbreaking. Her TED talk has over 12.5 million views and she recently sat with Oprah for a two-part Super Soul Sunday.

As cancer survivors, (heck, as human beings) we've all spent some time in the deep, dark hole of despair. I've felt fox-like pain from break-ups, miscarriages, infertility, and cancer, just to name the biggies. 

Memorable bears who came down the ladder in empathy include my brother-in-law Bob. He called me after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, his discomfort obvious, and admitted that he had no idea what to say. His honesty and desire to connect with me despite some awkwardness touched me deeply. It felt like, and was, a gift of love. 

I also remember my brother Robert, who called me after my surgery every day for weeks on his drive home from work. He obviously had no idea what it felt like to have a mastectomy, but checking in with me was a soulful reminder of our life-long sibling connection. 

And each and every cancer survivor I communed with who "got it" (that's my shorthand for "Hey, I know what it's like down here and you're not alone,") helped me heal and climb out of the black hole in which I found myself. 

Counter their empathy with the stupid, hurtful things other people said just to say something. The pain they caused felt like being left all alone in the world. As Brene said, their "sympathy" drove "disconnection."

A few days after I first watched this video, I was talking with two breast cancer survivors. When the subject of surgeries came up, I mentioned I had some side effects as a result of my TRAM flap reconstruction. One of the women, who had elected not to have reconstruction after her unilateral mastectomy, responded, "at least you have a breast."

I immediately felt put down, proving Brene's point that "rarely if ever does an empathetic response begin with "at least." It was a rare sighting of the survivor's one-upmanship I wrote about in an earlier post and the polar opposite of the empathy I usually share with other survivors. It also left me with classic cancer survivor's guilt.

Do you want to respond like a deer or do you want to connect like a bear? We all have fox moments and we can all be bears reaching out in empathy and connection to make it better for someone else. The beauty of practicing empathy is that we become healers. And that is the purest form of giving back that I can think of, bar none.

Survival > Existence,

Taking the Present Moment to Rest & Refresh

I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am. I am. I am. Sylvia Plath 

I'm still a Girl Scout in that I always have a project (or two or three or ten) going. Add in to-do lists (actual and mental) and it can get exhausting.

This year, my big project was birthing my books, You Can Thrive After Treatment and How to Build an Amazing Life After Treatment. Like any first-time Mom, I jumped in with no idea what I was doing. Self-publish eBooks and paperbacks on Amazon? Sure, why not? I figured I would figure it out and approached gingerly. I eventually made it happen, but it sure took a lot of time.   

Just yesterday, a day after the paperbacks launched and the six month process was finally complete, a thought quietly struck me.

Stop. Look at what you've accomplished. Don't just push on to something else. Take a moment to appreciate. And, you dumb bunny, take a moment to rest.

Yes, I really do talk to myself in the third person. And, yes, I really do insult myself when I feel the need.

The voice in my head forced me to remember the lesson of last week's sudden, untimely death“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”  Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Right now, instead of ramping up for the next project, I need to rest. Especially now, during the holiday season, subtracting makes much more sense than mindlessly adding to my list of things I convince myself have to be done. 

Which brings me to my "problem." My husband keeps asking me what I want for Christmas and I cannot give him an answer. What I want to say is completely reminiscent of what my mother used to say when the same question was asked of her: "Peace and quiet." 

Yes, Mom, I hear your voice in my head and I so get it now. I too want peace and quiet of mind. I want the disease of busy, to which I have lost a few friends, to cease and desist. I want to be still and ignore worrisome thoughts like so many clouds floating across the sky.  

In our "Just do it" society, I want to just be.

As I watch my breath I want to know with each "I am" beat of my heart that I am enough, with no need for the "validation" that comes from busyness.  

Really, all I want is a little break. I fully expect to lean back in come January, when I'm refreshed and ready to push forward on new challenges.

But January is later; now is now. 

"Stop" the thought said; appreciate the now. 

I am learning to listen.

Survival > Existence,

Monday Morning Motivation - A Special Tribute to Nelson Mandela

In this video, Dr. Maya Angelou shares her tribute poem for Nelson Mandela on behalf of the American people. Thank you "our great courageous man" for teaching us the true value of forgiveness and reconciliation. And thank you to Dr. Angelou for your most beautiful words. 

Mindfully Remembering That the Present Moment is All We Have

“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”  Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
Yesterday, a member of my husband's networking group suffered a massive heart attack. John was at the group's morning meeting and had just given a "spotlight" talk - wherein members talk about themselves so other members get to know them and their business. 
He finished his talk, left the room and crashed to the floor. 
Two members of the group rushed to his side to administer CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. EMTs took over, put him in the ambulance and rushed him to the hospital.
A few hours later he died.
This is hard to write because the sudden death of a 59 year old man with a wife, three children, family and friends is not about me. Because I didn't know John that well, I don't even have the right to grieve. My sympathy for his family isn't about my loss and, when I make it personal by veering into empathy, I find myself backing away. Imagining myself as the wife, losing my husband, consoling my children is just too painful to bear.
What I am sitting with is the fact that, just a day before John died, my husband spoke with him on the phone.
The subject was the group's holiday party, scheduled two weeks from today. When my husband asked John if he would be there, he replied, "Absolutely, my wife and I are looking forward to it." 
Every day, I make plans, assumptions and predictions about the rest of my days. I "absolutely" believe them too, despite the fact that I should know better by now. Sure, it's pleasant to look forward to happy things (which may or may not happen,) but the flip side is the fear and dread that comes from worrying about the future. 
Having cancer made me an Olympic-level worrier. At some point after I had my mastectomy, I discovered Eckhart Tolle and realized I needed something I thought he could teach me. That something was peace of mind. 
It turns out that creating peace of mind is simple but far from easy. In a nutshell, all you have to do is practice mindfulness by making "the NOW the primary focus of your life." 
For the past four years, I've been trying to do that, but I struggle and I think I now get why. Simply put, I forget. I forget that life is short. I forget that we don't necessarily have many more decades together. I forget that children grow up and move out. I forget that people die. Why do I forget? Because it's just too painful to remember. This is not our first inexplicable, sudden death. It's not that I don't know, it's that I don't want to know. 
When Tolle tells me I must "realize deeply that the present moment is all you have," he's telling me flatly to remember that my days (and those of my loved ones) are numbered. 
Someday, for each of us, there will be no tomorrow. At that moment, we will have proved, completely and without any doubt, that all we have is the present moment. The trick is getting to that realization well before we take our final breath.
Survival >Existence,

Asking the Big Question After Cancer Treatment - "Why Not?"

I keep going because I believe that even if we can’t erase the difficult parts of our story, and we can’t control how or when it’s going to end, each of us has the ability, right here, right now, to dream audaciously and ask ourselves the question, “Why not?” Terri Wingham

I've written before about Terri Wingham. In a nutshell, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy and chemotherapy, quit her job, volunteered in Africa, gave up her apartment, spent six months volunteering around the globe, and created a foundation to support other survivors starting their own "fresh chapter."

Terri freely admits that none of this came easily and she has experienced fear every day for the last two years. Yet, she keeps going because she asked "Why not?" and that "spark of possibility saved my life." 

Terri's recent talk, the video of which you can watch below, got me thinking about the power of "Why not?" This seemingly simple question goes hand-in-hand with another question, Are you "going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure." Joseph Campbell

The power of saying "Yes" comes from listening to our inner voice, letting it lead us out of our comfort zone and into our adventure. Those of us who live with cancer actually have an advantage here. We've been catapulted out of our comfort zones and have the clearest of reasons to say "Yes" to our adventure:

If not now, when? From How to Build an Amazing Life After Treatment

Or, in other words, "Why not?"

There is formidable power in those two little words. They can make crazy, audacious dreams, such as foundations, books, websites and rehabilitative exercise programs, reality. But, and this is important, they can also birth "little things" with amazing significance. After cancer treatment, I started doing yoga, donating blood, writing, and practicing mindfulness. The more I started asking myself "Why not?" the easier it was to get to "Yes" in every area of my life.

If saying "Yes" still feels unnatural to you, try it the other way around: "Why can't I say "Yes" to myself?" If you can't come up with any solid, good reasons, then go for it! From How to Build an Amazing Life After Treatment

Terri dreamed an audacious dream and asked herself, "Why not?" Whatever it is you want to do after cancer treatment, ask yourself "Why not?" and start saying "Yes" to your adventure now.

Survival > Existence,

Related Posts:

Cancer Warriors Wednesday - Tell Me Your Story

The Survivor's Nest - A Very Special Courageous Woman with Cancer

Do You Want to Find Support? Communicate!

Copyright 123RF Photos