Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The healing power of sharing my cancer story compelled me to found WhereWeGoNow for survivors creating inspired healing, wellness and live out loud joy. I'm also a blogger at The Huffington Post, an inspirational speaker, a support volunteer with Cancer Hope Network, a member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board, a patient educator with Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project, an interior decorator, a wife and mother, and a former very stressed out lawyer. Learn more about WWGN and me here.
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Despite some setbacks, there’s something about a new year that makes new beginnings possible. But how do you get there? The secret is the divine, female creative power you have to reinvent yourself.
Change happens all the time. We're just acutely aware of it when it's monumental (like getting cancer, changing careers or failing in a relationship.) The changes that hit me after I was diagnosed inspired my closing, ”Survival > Existence.” Long ago, when I was completely new to cancer survivorship, I assumed surviving meant not dying and being able to simply move on with my life. Now I know survival is greater than just existing; it brings massive change, a whole new skill set and reinvention.
With time, I've become more comfortable with the big changes cancer dealt me. I had no control over those changes, other than to learn to accept. When it comes to reinvention, however, I have a lot of input and realize it's the little things that usually make the most impact. Like making small, healthy changes in my diet. (More about my new powerhouse breakfast staple in a later post.) Or enjoying moments of gratitude frequently as I become more aware of how vital gratitude is to my mental health. Getting back to my meditation practice (which fell apart pitifully during the busy holiday season) helps too.
So what do you need to reinvent yourself?
1. Resilience: The reason we're all still here and upright is because we're resilient. Nurture your resilience on a daily basis. I tell you how in an earlier post, Six Truths I've Learned About Resilience.
2. Grieve: No one gets hit by a bus and reinvents herself the next day. Grieving is the process of coming to accept the "new normal." It's painful, but it's a vital step in reinventing yourself.
3. Gratitude: I firmly believe that gratitude is the single most important building block of reinvention. Without gratitude, there is no hope. With gratitude, anything is possible because we know how very blessed we truly already are.
5. Small Successes: Make small stabs at reinvention to achieve small successes. As you do, you get bolder and can stomach more risk. You can do it!
6. Carefully Chosen Words: Reinvention is self-inflicted change and change is scary. That's why, even when you're excited to reinvent yourself, you're also anxious. Instead of scaring yourself unnecessarily, why not change your words and thus your approach. If you break out in a sweat every time you say, "I'm going back to work," try saying, "I'm excited to find new opportunities to work with (fill in the blank.)"
You and I have lived our share of tragedies, losses, failures, disappointments and traumas. Whatever you’re struggling with now, it’s probably not your first set back, and it won’t be your last. When we take what we’ve learned from our struggles and use our female creative power to reinvent ourselves we are creating meaning. And, meaning is what we’re all looking for, right?
You and I are going to dig deeper this year to reinvent our health, spirituality, sexuality, careers, relationships and friendships. And as we do, dear friend, we’ll be reinventing and moving WhereWeGoNow to create inspired healing, wellness and live out loud joy!
(If you want to start your own Gratitude Practice, don't miss The WhereWeGoNow Gratitude Gems Series: Your 30-Day Guide to Jump-Starting a Lifetime Gratitude Practice comingout soon. As an added bonus, I've also created a relaxing video slideshow to watch anytime you need to recharge and reflect on gratitude.)
"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." William Arthur Ward
Do you remember learning the Thanksgiving story in grammar school? Did you make one of those construction paper turkeys from an outline of your hand?
We all know that the original Thanksgiving feast was a celebration of survival, friendship and bounty.
Now that we are older and can actually cook a turkey, the feasting probably gets more of our attention than thankfulness does. That's why it's good to take a moment to refocus.
The truth is that we are all survivors of harsh personal winters. It is only due to the generous support of others and the gifts of our harvest that we find ourselves in a bountiful autumn.
For all we have received, it isn't enough just to be thankful. For, what is thankfulness if it is not expressed?
My younger sister reminds me of this again and again, when she sends me a text in the middle of the day just to say she loves me and is thinking of me.
Our daughter wrote her brother, father and I beautiful love letters before she left for college. Reading it brought tears to my eyes and made me immensely proud of the woman she has become.
Their example and writing the Gratitude Gems Series has made me more aware of the importance of expressing my gratitude.
This year, we will be celebrating Thanksgiving with my very large family. (I am one of nine sisters and brothers, and we have husbands, wives, children, a mother and a new nephew-in-law. We are a very close, high-spirited bunch.)
Will you join me in a Thanksgiving resolution? As you feast this Thanksgiving, make a special effort to express your love and appreciation for those you love and care about. You don't have to make a speech (see my sister's text messages.) Just a few heart-felt simple words can go a very long way.
If you celebrate, have a wonderful Thanksgiving! And a big "THANK YOU" from me to you for joining me here at WhereWeGoNow. I am so grateful for your emails, comments, input and company.
"There's a big world outside those hedges," she said with some unkindness. We were young college commuters and her words stung. Sure, I was naive and sheltered, but life beyond the landscaping was only a matter of time.
It's many years later and now I'm the one encouraging my college-age daughter to step outside the confines of home. Yes, I'm a grown-up out in the world now, but I've never lost my nesting instinct.
Nesting allows us to reconnect, re-energize and reflect. It doesn't actually require a house, however. We can create similar moments whether we are sending a child off to college, planning a hospitalization, traveling or just looking for warmth out in the bigger world.
Here are my five tips:
1. Gravitate to the familiar: We visited our daughter at college recently and visited the Barnes & Noble College Store. It was bright, airy, and very familiar. Located in the heart of her college town, it draws in students and locals, providing the "grab a book and a coffee" experience. The carrels were full of students working together and socializing. It felt like home from the moment I crossed over the threshold.
2. Carry treasured pieces of home with you: When our children started pre-school, separation was hard on all of us. To make the transition easier, I gave them little trinkets of home to carry in their pockets and it still works today. A tiny Donald Duck doll attends college with our daughter and we enjoy getting pictures of his (mis)adventures. If you're on your way to the hospital, a cozy throw or treasured photographs from home can bring immense comfort.
3. Surround yourself with natural elements: Wherever you are, you can instill calm with natural elements. A simple flower in a vase gives your eyes and mind a rest during a busy day at work. A seashell or a rock can conjure up vacation memories.
4. Reach out to others for support: Nesting at home is ultimately about family, because no matter how lovely a house is, it's not a home if your relationships are dysfunctional. That's why you can create nests wherever you go if you have a supportive community. If you're new, reach out to make friends and become part of the group. If you're established, reach out to someone new because we all know what it feels like to be an outsider.
5. Savor moments of gratitude: Writing the WhereWeGoNow Gratitude Gems Series taught me so much about maintaining an "attitude of gratitude." The biggest lesson: If you want to be happy, live in the moment and gratitude and joy will find you there. That means wherever we travel, if we are fully where we are, we are home.
We do survive every moment, after all, except the last one. John Updike
What does surviving every moment teach us? Quite simply, that we are resilient.
If you're like me, you've had your share of challenges. Cancer is certainly up there on the list, but it's not the only entry. You've been around the block and you'll make the trip again. Life is just like that.
What gets us up, over and through our challenges is resilience. Resilience is the ability to go on despite fear, disability or hardship. It's the ability to recover and change course. We are going to break down at times, but it's resilience that lets us rebuild.
The more moments I've survived, the more I've come to understand resilience:
1. Resilience means letting go of the fantasy of control: We just survived six days of cold and darkness when Hurricane Sandy knocked out the power. We did what we could to be comfortable. As for the rest, we just had to accept that we had no control over how long it took for the lights to come back. It was difficult, but acceptance made it less frustrating.
2. Resilience feeds on gratitude: Throughout our six days without power, I heard stories of immense suffering. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed and people are without food and basics. Given their suffering, how could I not feel grateful that we are safe and our home is unharmed. At my coldest moments, I just couldn't shake my gratitude that it hadn't been worse for us.
3. Resilience is cheerful: A sense of humor and cheerfulness go a long way. If you're not feeling it, you can fake it by laughing at a funny movie or chatting with a friend. You'll be surprised how easily your mood can lift when you actively try to improve it.
4. Resilience embraces change: The most resilient people I've ever met don't fight change, they embrace it. But don't let them fool you. They don't embrace change the minute it happens; they have their moments just like the rest of us. They just don't spend a lot of time grieving the past because they are too busy adapting and moving on.
5. Resilience must be nurtured: Challenges require energy to navigate and energy, like everything else, is a limited resource. Resilient people know when to rest, relax and recharge. No one is effective 24/7 no matter what they tell themselves.
6. Resilience can't go it alone: Social support is the most important building block of resilience. Carrying challenges in isolation is a recipe for burnout disaster and unnecessary. Resilient people seek out empathetic others to help them lighten their burden.
You are resilient! Don't stop feeding your resilience with gratitude, rest, cheerfulness and acceptance and you will survive every moment (except the last one) with strength and grace.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Melody Beattie
The more inspiring gratitude quotes I find to share with you, the more I realize that the attitude of gratitude must be practiced. And what better place to practice than in our kitchens, preparing our daily meals.
When we approach cooking and eating with gratitude, everything changes no matter how much time we have in the kitchen.
Gratitude for our families, food, kitchen and the roof over our head brings us into a state of mindful awareness. it slows us down after a busy day and brings us back to center, literally and figuratively. As we chop, mix, stir, braise, saute and create a meal in our kitchens, gratitude brings home the only reason we are there - for the love of our families.
As gratitude slows us down, it gives us time to think. We take the time to plan healthy meals, rather than reaching for the same old stuff. We sit and read cookbooks encouraging us to serve foods we've never tried before. We learn to simplify and yet, somehow, we expand. (Read the rest of my guest blog post here.)
Acknowledging the good things in my life expanded my cancer experience from meaningless to meaningful. Pure and simple gratitude creates inspired healing, wellness and live out loud joy in my life to this day.
As we enter the holiday season, let's focus on bringing gratitude to the table and into our lives. If you haven't done so already, join me in November for the WhereWegoNow Gratitude Gems Series. I'm so excited to share the attitude of gratitude with you as we count down the 30 days of November.
I'm working on the WhereWeGoNow Gratitude Gems Series and just want to take a moment to tell you how grateful I am to you for sharing this journey with me. Creating inspired healing wouldn't be possible without caring people like you!
DO NOT miss watching this Ted Talk video. Louie Schwartzberg is an award winning cinematographer, director and producer who has literally been filming 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the past 30 years. This talk includes his short video on Gratitude and Happiness, narrated by Brother David Steindl-Rast. I hope today is a good day for you.
This has been an emotional week! I should have known on Sunday, the three year anniversary of my mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstructive surgery, that it would be. I tend to get into "moods," as my emotional memory (my elephant) rears up and leads me wherever she wants me to go.
On Monday, I shared my reflections from that day and mentioned Janine, the OR nurse whose only focus was comforting me before my surgery. I was never able to thank Janine personally (I wish I could have written her a thank you note like I wrote to another medical professional who helped me greatly.) But just as that thank you note had a surprising effect on its recipient, my gratitude to Janine also rippled out in unexpected ways.
In my role as a patient educator with the Pathways Women's Cancer Teaching Project, I recently met with a first year resident of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Women's Health at Morristown Medical Center. She was open and honestly looking to learn how to be a better doctor. Initially, her questions centered on what she could do in her future career to effectively serve the whole patient. But, eventually, the conversation took an interesting turn.
Answering her question about how other medical professionals had helped me deal with the anxiety of surgery, I told her what Janine did for me and how much I appreciated it. She commented that, as a first year resident, she didn't feel she could make that type of difference in a patient's care. I told her it didn't matter to me as a patient what her title was. What was important was how she ministered to my emotional needs and helped me face the anxieties and stresses of being in a surgical setting. I assured her that anyone could hold my hand, look me in the eyes and comfort me.
I can only characterize her response as an "Aha! moment." She was truly inspired and heartened to learn that she could make a difference that very day in the experience of a patient. As she shared, "I learned that every person (even a lowly resident) can make a big difference in a patient's life by having a humanitarian affect and approach."
As cancer survivors, our experiences offer valuable feedback to the medical community. More important than feedback, however, is appreciation. I was never able to thank that OR nurse for what she did for me, but her compassion is now being paid forward by a first year resident.
I have to share this with you because it's just so cute. As I walked into the Survivor's Symposium I attended a few weeks ago, a Girl Scout volunteer handed me a gauze bag. Inside, I found a beautiful hand-painted Heart of Hope from by my favorite grief support organization, Interregnum, Inc.
The heart is beautiful, as I am sure you will agree. But, it was the message that accompanied it that melted my heart. Michael in the 'sekond grade" wrote me a little letter of love and encouragement.
Michael's "favirote sport team is Giants," and "favirote food is french frise." He closed strong, "Believe in yourself! Follow your dreams! Think positive!"
In the bag, I also found the following: Your heart was painted by an elementary school student from Verona, NJ. The children were inspired to participate in this program by their art teacher, Mrs. J, who is a breast cancer survivor. She received a "Heart of Hope" during her treatment at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ, and is now actively serving as a volunteer in an effort to help others.
Oh no. Instead it keeps traveling out in concentric circles like a ripple on a pond. When wrote the email I blogged about on Monday, I thought I was just saying "thank you." But I accomplished so much more. I accomplished having a positive impact on someone's career. And now she can resume having the same positive impact on other patients and their healing that she had on me.
That's what Mrs. J is doing, by inspiring elementary school children to reach out to cancer survivors and touch their hearts with hope and encouragement. By volunteering with Hearts of Hope, she isn't just saying thank you for the heart she received. She is pushing her gratitude out into the world, concentric circle by concentric circle. And people she has never met are benefited.
A heartfelt "thank you" is a form of giving back. Think of it as magical currency, which pays the recipient back and then exponentially expands outward with limitless possibility.
I like the idea of paying it back and forward at the same time. I'm definitely going to do more of it. Are you?
Gratitude also made me a compulsive thank you letter writer. I’m not talking about polite thank you notes written from social obligation. Oh no, I‘m talking about raw, openly emotionally missives from the heart. I had to let these very special people know I couldn’t have done it without them.
Probably because they came from the heart, these letters always made me feel vulnerable and I usually put off sending them for days after they were written. To a person, however, the response was always kind, appreciative and truly touching. What really struck me in fact was how happy they were to hear from me, which I really never expected.
Last May I wrote an email to a very special medical professional who gave me incredible support and guidance. She responded, telling me how happy she was to hear from me, especially as she was now struggling with career decisions.
Last week she sent me an email saying it was her turn to thank me. My earlier email had helped crystalize for her what she loved doing and she set about getting back to it. Now, she was happy to report that she was back on track and happily pursuing her passion.
Her email brought tears to my eyes. Before I sent my email, I struggled with insecurity and was uncomfortable reaching out to her. Now, she was thanking me for inspiring her to follow her heart and find joy again in her career. My gratitude had come full circle.
Is there someone who made a real difference in your healing? Have you ever told them how much they mean to you? Does their impact on your healing inspire you to give back to others? If so, I’ll leave you with an inspiring quote I love:
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. John F. Kennedy
WhereWeGoNow does not provide medical, diagnostic or treatment advice.
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