Lessons learned… thanks to breast cancer

The biggest lesson that I learned from breast cancer is probably the simplest one out there.
Stop and smell the flowers.

I can hear many of you now… “That’s it…that’s your lesson?” Yes, that is it.

Sure, I have some “try this for that side effect” wisdom and some “yes, that happened with my children” experiences, but when I sum up my whole cancer experience, the hardest learned lesson was the most basic.

I am and have always been a doer – doing, doing, doing and never really just being. Our house growing up was a constant chorus of “idle hands… idle minds…” I can do like the best of them, but it is the being that I was never taught… until cancer showed me how.

My tumor was growing for 7 to 9 years before it was detected, and while it was growing into a life-threatening problem, I was busy trying to cram 30+ hours into a 24 hour day. If there was not time to exercise, I did not. If there was not time to eat properly, I did not. If I was tired and I wanted to go to bed but there were still more things do, I did them. If my body was achy and I wanted to take a bath and soak (soak – what does that word mean???), I pushed on and did not take the bath. If I saw a pretty flower and I wanted to stop a minute to admire it and to smell it, there was no time. I was moving too fast, and these pleasures of being just did not fit in my schedule.

Getting a cancer diagnosis stopped time in its tracks, and then its partner in crime – chemotherapy – slowed my pace to a crawl.

My priorities went from doing everything to doing the very basics. I had to eat, I had to rest, I had to take a bath and soak, and eventually I had to exercise. All of these things were not optional anymore. They were not a matter of fitting them in if I had time but of necessity. I had to do them to get healthy, to stay healthy and to stay alive.

When I started to get some energy back and could start to take walks, I moved at such a slow pace that I was finally able to notice things that were a blur before. Stopping to rest after a few small steps gave me time to notice my surroundings — the air, the sunshine, the flowers. I could finally appreciate the individual beauty of each one because I was moving at a snail’s pace.

As I try to find my new normal after cancer, it is easy to forget this valuable lesson. I’m 29 months out from my diagnosis and finally feeling healthy again, and every day I have to fight the urge to make up for lost time. I want to fit as much in as possible in case I have a reoccurrence, and it’s easy to get busy doing again instead of just being. But I have learned the hard way that I must not go back to my old patterns. I must listen to my body. I must change my life so I can live my life.

I recently read a passage from the book Circle of Stones… Woman’s Journey to Herself by Judith Duerk that I carry with me now…

“If a woman is caught in overextended lifestyle and achievement-oriented values, depression or illness may offer the only opportunity to allow her to be with herself. As she ignores her own needs for quiet and self-nurture, the voice of the deeper Self may call through depression. If a woman cannot let herself hear her own needs, but continues to adhere fearfully to a lifestyle that denies her inner growth and deepening, the voice of the Self may manifest in physical illness as the only possible way to force her to take time to be with herself. Illness forces one to care for oneself at the most elemental level, that of matter itself. In illness, no choice remains but to care for the body, to be caring to the cells. In illness, finally, comes permission to rest, permission to treat with love and kindness the base matter of one’s own body.”

Mary Beth Volpini is a breast cancer survivor, an artist and the mother of two children. You can read more from her at www.marybethvolpini.blogspot.com.

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