The Art of Surviving and Thriving After Breast Cancer



Life plays itself out like the Acts of an opera. There are several stages and as we live, we experience roller coasters of emotions; highs and lows, agonies and ecstasies, joys and sorrows to name but a few. Illnesses such as breast cancer tend to amplify these experiences and emotions; you have weathered many storms in life and have some how gotten through it all. Then you are diagnosed with breast cancer and the threat of losing your life can be the very instigator that helps you to find your life!

Women are now surviving longer with breast cancer, diagnosis has improved incredibly and medical treatments are becoming more streamlined. Integrative or complementary medicine also has had a part to play, and most people who experience breast cancer at some stage of their illness, will have used some aspect of complementary healthcare.
You may have learned about self-care, living your passion, been to a group, told your story to someone who really listened and you have survived thus far.*

There are recognised stages in a woman’s breast cancer experience:

– Diagnosis, surgery, treatment plan, treatment phase, end of treatment, the waiting post treatment – The ‘will I be OK time’? Some are OK but for others that cycle repeats. You may have a recurrence and things may become even more real. The good news is I have met some incredibly resilient ladies who have had five or six recurrences and are still living well and we can learn a great deal from these long-term survivors.

Illness can be a lonely business even in the midst of a sea of support. This may seem an obvious statement, however when identified in a workshop, the nodding heads in the room say it all. It is a very personal experience and no one can do it for you. In an overview of all cancer, we see that the path is the same for many, but each journey along the way is so very different. It is, or has been, your unique journey of breast cancer. Hearing the stories of others in a support group is the closest that you might get to understanding and empathy of your own situation, and it is often in the safe environment of a group, that real stories are told, stories that help to give meaning to your own unique life and your own unique cancer experience. It needs to be said that groups that accept women at all stages of breast cancer; need a skillful facilitator, lest the stories of the more seasoned women, perhaps on a second or third recurrence, tap into the fear of more recently diagnosed women. For most women, support groups can enhance survival. Dr. David Spiegel’s studies concluded that by attending a support group, you could double your life expectancy. **

The cancer experiences that challenge us the most are the ones that affect our appearance, that alter our body, our self-image, our self esteem, sexuality and confront us with issues that we may not have ever dreamed that we would have to face. For several years I belonged to the ‘colostomy clan’, and on one occasion; the ‘ileostomy clan’; a very challenging life altering experience, especially in the early days of a new relationship! For my sisters in the breast clan, the removal of a breast can for most, be incredibly challenging, but like a colostomy, if it means your survival. You do it! But in this world there are no changes without consequences. The rest of our lives therefore becomes dependent upon how we handle those consequences i.e. how we survive survival? I believe that as well as all the improved treatments and early diagnosis, the introduction of lumpectomy and in some cases, breast implants (post mastectomy) and improved prosthesis, have had a positive affect on both survival and life quality. As women re-find themselves and their lives, in their search for normalcy, they know that they have been transformed by the experience. After a life threatening illness you can never go back to as you were before. Something has shifted and this is not only about life, but tends also to be about a comfortableness and acceptance of death, whenever it comes.

But what is it, this intangible, deep experience that we undergo through the process of illness? This is a question that I have asked my self and my clients for years. However it wasn’t until I had my own experience that I found the answer at a deep level within my self. When we are going through or have survived a major life altering or life-threatening experience, we get in touch with and come to know something within that I will call our changeless core. Before our illness we may have worn many masks or veneers that have separated us out from this changeless core, our true self. This happens easily for women as we wear so many hats and assume so many roles in our lives. This core however, is always there, it is the place where wisdom can be drawn from your experience and is the place that helps you to move on, lest you become ‘stuck’ in your own story. When women discover or should I say re-discover this place within, there has occurred a shift in the way she will see and experience life. Many women notice that as they heal, their story becomes shorter, essentialised; they no longer concern themselves with the small stuff in life, priorities change, they have become resilient, make better judgements and are aware of their self care and especially how they choose to deal with life’s consequences.

Being in touch with that changeless core is the vital component of surviving survival.
With self-mastery (not selfishness) you can take charge of your life even if the situation around you hasn’t changed! This is the point where survival, and surviving survival, transforms into thriving in your new life.

By Grace Gawler ©

Leave a Reply