On Friday, April 13th, Shawn and I traveled to Nova Scotia to attend the “Skills For Healing” breast cancer weekend retreat. I was rather quiet on the drive, which prompted Shawn to ask, “Is everything okay?” Suddenly an image came to mind of a plane landing, and a voice in my head said, “Ladies and Gentlemen we are making our final descent into the land of breast cancer.” It was sort of like the feeling I got the first time I went to the cancer clinic. Although I had been diagnosed for many months, there was a surreal quality about actually being there. My mind was telling me, “You know Flo, you must really have breast cancer if you are sitting in a cancer clinic.” But this time the voice said, “You know Flo, you must really be a breast cancer survivor if you are going to one of those retreats.”
Attending this retreat has been one of the most healing parts of my cancer journey (as well as one of the perks of having cancer!). The wonderful facilitators, Dr. Rob Rutledge, and Dr. Timothy Walker (http://healingandcancer.org/) simply exuded love and compassion as they taught skills such as meditation, yoga, how to re-frame our thoughts, and how to honour our bodies. For me, these concepts were not new, and while it was a good opportunity for me to brush up on my existing skills, the real healing came from being part of the group: the healing circle.
While I have many “cyber-friends” who share my diagnosis, this was the first time I was actually in a room full of women on various stages of their breast cancer journey. It was so liberating to just be able to take off my wig and not worry about the shock value of others seeing me that way. For the first time, having breast cancer did not make me different. I was among kindred spirits. Not only was I able to take off my hair, but I also took off my “Super Cancer Hero” cape and spilled my guts about my deepest fears and anxieties. I cried. Not one of those movie star cries, where a few tears creep down the cheek without ever disturbing the make-up. No, this was more of a wounded animal howl accompanied by lots of snot and mascara-stained tears. Oh, but it felt so good to open that floodgate!
I realized that I have been so intent on maintaining a positive attitude, that I have suppressed many of my “negative” emotions. On this retreat I discovered that when it comes to feelings, it does not have to be one or the other. In other words, allowing myself to feel anger, sadness and fear does not diminish my positive attitude. As one lady said, “It is possible to experience joy amid suffering.”
I learned so much from this group of women, and I will carry their stories in my heart forever. I have permission to share one of these stories with you. Jody Cook is a 35 year old Paramedic from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. The first time I saw Jody, I was mesmerized by her presence. She has one of those smiles that just lights up a room and you can’t help but to smile back. Her sparkling eyes hinted at a mischievous spirit, which even her recent chemo could not dim.
Jody is the single mom to 9 year old Olivia and 12 year old Rodney (she is also the owner of a deaf horse, which Shawn feels I should mention). In February, Jody underwent a double mastectomy. That did not make her any different from many of the other women at our retreat. What did make her stand out however, is how she carried this new body of hers. Man, she rocked the survivor look! Seeing Jody, so confident and comfortable with her flat chest made me feel kind of sheepish about the wad of cotton batting that I had stuffed into the left side of my bra. Rather than lament about the loss of her hair, Jody saw it as an opportunity to experiment with different hair colors and styles. However, she was just as comfortable going bald. What most impressed me about this beautiful woman was her incredible openness and honesty. In a group discussion about stress, most of us were willing to open up a little and show our human side. Jody told this story: “One day I was feeling really tired and stressed and the kids were just driving me nuts. I got so frustrated I turned to them and yelled: WOULD THE BOTH OF YOU JUST F**K RIGHT OFF NOW!” The group erupted in laughter. That story opened the space for all of us to be honest and show our vulnerable side. Thanks Jody!
Tip: Allowing yourself to feel anger, sadness, fear and other “healing feelings” does not diminish your positive attitude.