Right here, right now.

Positive-Thinking-1bdlofy

From the very beginning of my diagnosis positivity has been emphasised at every turn. Indeed I am a pretty positive person and adopted quite a positive approach myself from the outset. At my test results appointment it was me hugging the surgeon and saying “We can do this”. Everyone tells me that positive thinking is crucial and that there is evidence that it helps towards recovery. Staying positive is generally considered to be, other than all the actual treatments, the single most important gadget in your cancer recovery tool box.

At the beginning everyone told me that I had to be positive and it seemed pretty clear that being positive meant believing in my eventual cure and return to health. I could see how this might help in terms of my mental health and committing to my treatment plan, but in terms of it actually helping me to get better it just seemed so utterly illogical. I mean for the current part of my treatment I am pumped full of toxic drugs that kill cells. They will kill the cells they are going to kill regardless of whether I am curled up in bed weeping or dancing in the sun and whistling a happy tune, surely.

I kept trying to convince myself that there were ways this could work. At one point I actually found myself arguing that all blood goes through the brain so if the brain is saying “You will be well, you will be well” then maybe the blood carries that message through the body to the sites of tumours or potential tumours and helps the chemo etc do it’s work. Utter poppycock.

The other problem with this kind of is positivity is that if you follow it through to its logical conclusion, i.e. if positivity means believing you can be cured, visualising that you are cured and working towards being cured…and then you aren’t cured, does that mean you weren’t positive enough? That doesn’t seem very fair or positive to me.

I cannot hitch my wagon to the idea that it is all about believing I will be cured. As far as I see it there are two clear problems with this idea. Firstly, I do not believe that I can simply will myself well. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if my cancer spreads and becomes incurable, where does that leave me positivity wise? Pretty darn negative, that’s where. I reckon in that circumstance I might need some positivity more than ever but if I’ve already defined positivity as cure then that leaves me a bit buggered.

There is a theory that focussing on the future outcome of treatment will help us endure the treatments itself. This makes sense of course: we go through the discomfort, pain and unpleasantness of chemotherapy for example because we believe it will give us a better chance of being well. We go through the pain, disfigurement and essentially life threatening process of major surgery so we might survive. Chemotherapy is hard. It’s an endurance test. It goes on for months and months and the side effects are unpredictable. It’s unpleasant at best and at worst utterly debilitating. Chemotherapy doesn’t just kill cells it attacks your very sense of self from how you look to how you behave. I used to undertake tasks in bursts of intense energy, all at the same time and at break neck speed. Now I have to do things slowly, one at a time, piece by piece. I once heard myself described as “Ashley, with the hair” now I am almost completely bald. No one undergoing chemotherapy comes out the other end the same person they were when they went in.

I have read so many discussion forums, Facebook posts and blog entries by cancer patients that say they just want to feel normal again. That they try to be positive and try to believe they will be well but that it is hard when you feel terrible. It’s hard to believe that things will be better when you have nausea, diarrhoea, bone pain etc. This makes perfect sense, it is hard. Sometimes it is unbearably hard and almost impossible to believe you will be well again. I was reflecting on this and I realised that that’s the problem. Wishing we were ‘normal’ whatever that means, willing ourselves to get through the awfulness of everything to reach that magical day when we are cured can be helpful and we all hope that we reach that place one day soon but it is not what I call positivity.

When I am really poorly I remind myself that it’s ok to be ill. That the constipation followed by diarrhoea, the pain and the mouth ulcers, the nausea and the fatigue, are ok. It is ok to be ill. I will be ill for sometime and that’s ok. It doesn’t mean I am not me anymore. It doesn’t mean my life is terrible and that everything is shit, it just means that today I am poorly. I might be poorly tomorrow but I might not so what’s the point of wondering? Just make sure there is a stock of Imodium and chicken consommΓ© and wait and see.

Positivity is, I believe, utterly crucial in this cancer journey. I believe that my treatment is more likely to work than not but for me, the most helpful positivity isn’t about focussing on that magical day when chemo and surgery and radiation therapy is over, but about focussing on what is good about right now. It’s about being able to say, I am here, I am alive. No wishing things were different. No guilt or regrets. No blame or fear. Just right here, right now, I am here and there is some good stuff to be happy about.

Here are some positive things I have found to focus on:

  • Waking up and realising that I am not nauseous, I feel hungry and want to eat.
  • When the sun shines and the sky is blue and I walk along the beach, or through the park or just down the garden to the shed.
  • The day during my chemo cycle that my taste buds come back and I celebrate with a bacon sandwich.
  • During my last chemo my allergic reaction was hardly noticeable and I didn’t need any top up drugs.
  • On days when I feel very tired I wear my silk pyjamas and watch telly and don’t feel bad about getting through an entire On Demand box set of Bomb Girls.

There are loads more and there will be new ones.

There are positive lessons to be learnt and good stuff to be found everywhere if we look hard enough. That has been the overwhelming lesson of my cancer so far and I am grateful for it. I don’t pretend that I have found some great inner peace or achieved any dramatic level of mindfulness but I have had to slow down a bit and I have had to look a bit more carefully for the good stuff. Sometimes the good stuff is so good it hurts. My daughter singing for instance, or my wife laughing so hard that no sound comes out.

Those of us with a chance of curing our cancer spend so much time and energy focussing on a future where we are well, healthy and disease free that sometimes we can forget how to be here, now. In the end all any of us really have, for certain, cancer or no, is here and now. We get to chose whether to focus on what is terrible or what is great. Positivity just means choosing to focus on what is great, right here, right now.

12 thoughts on “Right here, right now.

  1. You’re my new hero, Ashley. You have a better attitude than I do most days, and I don’t have nearly as good an excuse to be grouchy. I think you’re right on about the power of positivity though. Being a Christian, I look to the Bible for guidance on what to believe, and everyone who asked Jesus for anything, in faith, received what they asked for, including and especially healing. Positivity coupled with faith in God is a supernatural force to be reckoned with. You’re an inspiration to me and to a lot of other people as well, I’m sure. Keep up the good work.

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  2. It’s relatively easy for healthy pple to be positive. I can only imagine how difficult it is for you when even if your mind says not to think negatively, the discomfort, pain and tiredness keep reminding you about it. It’s great that you are having your focus on the positive stuff. May I also suggest to you to do something that you’d love so much that it’d distract you?

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    1. I think that regardless of health or circumstance we all get to choose whether to be positive or not. I know plenty of perfectly healthy utterly miserable folk. In the same way that there is always good stuff to find there is plenty to be miserable about too, if you so choose. It’s all about which way you choose.

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  3. I’ve just read your blog from start to finish Ashley. I’m not sure how to put this without sounding like some kind of eejit or something, but I have to tell you that I had a fair few tingles up my spine as I read. In a very weird kind of way, I feel as if you could have been the inspiration for much of what I’ve written about recently. I’m wondering if there’s such a thing as finding the inspiration after the event?! (I’m not some kind of weirdo spammer, honest! Hear me out!)
    I’ve just finished writing a wee book of rhymes and articles to help raise funds and awareness on behalf of the three charities that make up the ‘Women V Cancer’ partnership. As you might know, Breast Cancer Care is one of those charities. I totally agree that they are a fantastic organisation and I’m so pleased that you’ve found them to be a valuable source of support.
    There are various things that you’ve talked about in your posts that I’ve tried (nowhere near as eloquently as you) to incorporate into my rhymes. For example, your way of thinking of your baldness, as described to your daughter, as being an outward sign of your fight to get better, to treat the disease, rather than it being an outward sign of your illness is something that I’ve broached in one of my poems and is also referred to in one of the articles (written by an ovarian cancer survivor).
    Also, I write a blog that’s all about looking for something good in each day. It’s not about ‘being positive’ all the time, it’s simply about looking for the little bits of good in a day that are always somewhere to be found (some days more easily than others). I loved the way you described the importance of doing just that in this last post. You truly could very well have been the inspiration for my wee blog!
    I think I’m rambling a bit now – apologies for leaving such a long blethering comment. I really just wanted to say that I love your blog and will be following your progress from now on. I’ve read many, many blogs and websites over the past few months as part of the research process for my little book and I can honestly say that yours sits amongst the very best. I have no doubt that your posts will be helping others, whether they have cancer or not, to have a better understanding of this awful disease
    I hope your treatment continues with less drama from now on. Oh, and a Happy New Year πŸ™‚

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    1. It’s feedback that was very well-deserved! I pride myself on always trying to say it straight from the heart, and I meant every word I said!
      My wee book should be ready by Friday (I hope!) – I’m waiting rather impatiently for a call from the printer to confirm. I’ll be selling it through my own website, which you should hopefully find by clicking on my profile picture. Thank you for asking πŸ™‚
      I thought that writing the rhymes was going to be the hard part but I’m fast discovering that I need a crash course in social networking to help spread the word, We’re really hoping that we can reach as many women (and men – they need their awareness raised too!) as possible so every little bit helps. Thank you πŸ™‚

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    2. Once you’re up and running with the book I will be happy to promote it through my networks and the breast cancer care forum.

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  4. Hi Ashley
    I just thought I’d let you know that the book’s up and running now (at last). I’m so grateful for your offer to share the link and promote it. I hope you’re doing OK and I look forward to reading your next post in due course πŸ™‚

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