Image: Julia trekking in Bhutan earlier this year.
2015 has been a great year in many ways. I led my first tour to Bhutan with awesome people. I had ‘proud mumma’ moments. I had special visits from special friends.
That said, it was not a year I’d care to repeat. I found myself in new territory with a large, rare, malignant pancreatic tumour not seen in Australia before. Until that point I was barely conscious what a pancreas actually did.
Three hospital visits later, I found myself with: fifty per cent less pancreas. No spleen. A greater appreciation for ambulance drivers, who are simply amazing. Spending 45 per cent of my treatment with my partner away and with no kids at home. Then there was the strong sense of betrayal; my body had never let me down before, and now was having this epic fail. I was pretty pissed off.
The good news, as I found out yesterday, is that my chemo finishes on the 15th of December. With a brand new year around the corner, I wanted to share some stuff I have learned that might help others get through it and stay positive.
1. Support doesn’t always come from expected sources
This was one of the hardest and most hurtful lessons for me, but I figured out how to lower my expectations. Not everyone learned how to be empathetic growing up or has strong EQ. Let it go – they won’t learn it on the run during this crisis.
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2. Fatigue and control
The second biggest challenge for me was not having my usual high energy. I was used to getting a lot done every day and I had to scale things back. It led to huge frustration until I learned I had to work with my energy flows and to try to do things that brought me joy and not bring me down.
I tried to ‘normalise’ life where I could; I still did grocery shopping, washing, cooking and social stuff. Staying normal also helps conquer fear and puts you out in the real world not the parallel universe threatening to drag you under and make you a victim.
You need to find a way to forgive those who were unable to step up and help you when you thought they’d be there. Understand they handled it as best they could, or as they thought appropriate at the time. You can’t be responsible for how they might feel about themselves down the track, when a more reflective quality may replace defensiveness.
4. Be kind to others
Giving makes you feel so good. Plus you never know what shit others are going through and judgement is very ugly. (Post continues after gallery.)
5. Living with fear teaches you how brave you are.
That said, being brave means speaking your truth. I struggled with this, and used to prefer to let sleeping dogs lay and lying dogs sleep. But I got better throughout treatment.
6. Beautiful new people will come into your life.
You will connect for the usual reasons – common interests and values – but the difference is you will have the time to get to know them. Recognise that blessing.
7. Those in your tribe with a great sense of humour will be your oxygen some days.
Breathe them in when you need them.
8. You need a couple of ‘3am’ people.
This was recommended by Professor Kerryn Phelps in her book ‘The Cancer Recovery Guide’. The definition is obvious, but they are the people who you can call anytime and show your worst self to, and they’ll love you anyway. They are more precious than gold.
9. Eat well.
I know, it’s a no-brainer. Buy a good blender – it makes nutritional eating easy. If someone tried to separate me from my Ninja blender, murder would be committed.
10. Protect yourself.
What you're dealing with will showcase the silliness of a lot of other issues people bring up. Sometimes you have to walk away, even from good people. This was a hard lesson.
There will always, always be people worse off than you. Through all this I have a bed to sleep in; meanwhile, the conflict in Syria has now driven more than four million people to seek sanctuary in neighbouring countries. When I talk about this to my friends, they say, “Yes darling, but this is happening to you."
Too much ‘Me’ focus is a slippery slope. When my mother passed away suddenly at 60, too early to enjoy her newly-won retirement, I learned life is random. There doesn’t need to be a reason for shit to happen — it just does. (Post continues after gallery.)
12. Nature nurtures.
Get out there! Life stories are all around you.
13. Learn to say no.
If something isn’t serving you well, step away. It might be hard, but it's not as hard as chemo. When you have limited energy, you’ll figure out pretty quickly what ‘yes’ means in practice.
When my first child was born, I did a Buddhist meditation course to help keep me a bit more grounded and calm. It was the best thing I ever did — it introduced me to a philosophy that immediately resonated with me, particularly the concepts of mindfulness and compassion.
When you’re doing something, when you’re with someone, try to be fully present. Not only is this therapeutic, it brings joy. This includes everything from figuring out a workplace policy for mobile phone etiquette in meetings, to leaving your phone at home when you go for a walk.
15. Aim to have a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for when the heavy stuff is over.
Make plans. Look to the future. I’m not quite there, but I know instinctively it's going to help me live with this monkey on my back.
For me, this is connected to ‘stuff’ and ‘meaning’. I try to create meaning all through my day. My first cup of tea is always in the cup given to me on my wedding day by my best friend, in the garden with the cat purring beside me, or in bed watching dawn rise. Brekkie is served on china my Nanna gave me. I like ‘stuff’ with no meaning less and less and love decluttering.
And a final two for the girls out there:
17. Wear nice underwear.
It just works. (Post continues after gallery.)
18. Love your hairdresser.
You’ll need one who can perform miracles.
Lastly, and best of all, this was a chance to spend amazing time with people and see in a unique way the meaning of friendship, which has truly blown my mind.
There is some stuff I’m still figuring out. I’m the same person but not the person I was earlier this year. I have tried hard not to let this illness define me, but it has changed me in some ways I haven’t totally got a handle on — and I suspect there is no going back. I need to learn to live with the new me.
Bring on 2016. I just can't wait for my first glass of bubbles.
What are the things you do that help you to stay positive?