Women's Health, Your Health Seth Stratton | 6 years ago

Clouds Giving Way to the Sun: A Breast Cancer Patient's Essay

The following essay was written by Darlene Prestbo, a former clinical social worker who became a patient at Levine Cancer Institute after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

A few weeks after I retired from 42 years as a clinical social worker and moved with my husband to North Carolina, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly I was transformed from being a healer to a person needing to be healed. The process of mending is still ongoing. I have experienced the clouds giving way to the sun, just as I heard a weather broadcaster say. This has happened by tapping into my own inner wisdom and by embracing the support of others. What has helped me may also has value for the caretaker, who often absorbs the pain and stress of those in need of healing.
Darlene Prestbo was a licensed clinical social worker, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks after retiring after 42 years helping others. Darlene Prestbo was a licensed clinical social worker, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks after retiring after 42 years helping others. (Contributed photo)
Let Go of Regrets: The immune system is a marvelous but sensitive aspect of the body. It responds well to gentle affirmations and peaceful thoughts. It weakens with the rush of negative energy, resentments and sense of failure. We are all like a valued antique dish, chipped, faded and glued but still beautiful. Look backwards with acceptance of what has been. Accept Caring Touch: Gentle hugs are known to encourage a sense of comfort and relaxation if you can be open to receiving the warmth. Give yourself permission to accept tenderness. When you are with a caring person, put on some quiet music and breathe deeply as your companion softly massages your shoulders, upper back and scalp. Five minutes of this gentle touch is healing. Take a Timeout: Illness and discomfort within the body often brings out a feeling of being irritable, cranky or impatient. Be aware of the tension building. It’s as if a balloon is being filled with too much air. It’s important to release the air before the balloon explodes. Go into another room, take deep breaths, let some tears fall if that would be helpful, then imagine you are in a peaceful place such as a garden, nurtured by mother nature. Learn the Power of Deep Breathing: Not only does calm breathing lower blood pressure, but it also stimulates the immune system to do its healing work. Sit in a quiet place, listen to gentle music if you like, and breathe in. As you do this, mentally say a phrase that is soothing, such as “I am breathing in peace.” “The Lord is my shepherd.” “I am a child of the Universe.” Whatever your concept of a higher power, find a verse or phrase that comforts you. As you breathe out, say “I am releasing fear.” (Or whatever negative energy you need to have carried away.) Don’t rush. This is a calming time. You will find this helpful when you are getting medical treatment. The Attitude of Gratitude: The bleakest day will have at least a few moments free of shadow. Get a notebook, at the end of each day, make a list of three things for which you are grateful. Perhaps it’s a phone call, or a refreshing drink of water, a kind smile, a pleasant nap or a chapter in a good book. Be aware of simple acts of kindness. The inner being of a person is refreshed just by noticing a reason to be thankful for something. Ignore thoughtless comments and embrace words of caring. Adapting to a New Normal: Surgery and long-term illness create undeniable life changes. The body can be weakened, mental clarity can be blurred, activities are minimized, sadness and concern become more common. At the depth of my weakness after surgery, I said to my physician. “I’m not me anymore.” She looked straight into my eyes, touched my hands, and said with intense conviction, “You are still you.” Believe that for all the changes in your health and circumstances, the essence of who you are is a firm reality  You are still you. Coping with Uncertainties: It’s human nature to have the mind cluttered with worries and doubts. Life at its best is filled with uncertainties. When a person deals with major illness, thoughts often turn to anticipatory dread or anxiety about future possibilities. This becomes, as one friend said, “loud background noise on the nerves.” There is no shame in feeling afraid or shattered. It is important to change the focus, however. Come back to the present moment, take several slow deep breaths, walk if possible. There is no need at this time to visit the future. Practice finding calm right now to ease the anxiety and quiet the unwanted thoughts. Life-affirming Journal: Find a journal with a cheerful cover, perhaps with a picture of flowers. Find helpful sayings, poems and articles that lift your spirits and put them in your journal. Write down meaningful comments, jokes, words of wisdom. Paste in cartoons that bring a smile. Recall happy memories. Write down a song or nursery rhyme from childhood. This is a gift you give yourself. Short Cuts: The road away from darkness into the dawn has many bumps, potholes, detours and sharp curves. Here are some ways to cope. Have a few potted plants in the house for you to nurture. Find a soft stuffed animal to hug for comfort. Mine is a fluffy lamb. Send a note, prayer or make a phone call to someone who might need some words of support. All life is finite and the great mystery is when it will end for each of us. Cherish each day. Here is what life has taught me thus far: Be open enough to learn from experience. Be wise enough to listen to your own intuition. Be loving enough to feel compassion for others. Be mindful enough to quiet your thoughts and step away from distraction. Be grateful enough to give thanks for the joys of life and the gifts of nature. And be forgiving enough of your own shortcomings so that you can continue to grow.