Our Body Sends Us Signals When It's Sick

Do we ignore what our body tells us because we're afraid of losing control?

Posted Jan 14, 2014

For most of my life, I have been oblivious to myself. Sure, I was pretty confident about who I was; I knew I was generally capable and often funny, but I knew this on an intellectual level, not an emotional or, more important, a physical one. In the 15 months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had four bladder infections. Intellectually I knew something was wrong with my system, but I sped on with my life without spending too much time thinking about what was going on in my body to make it get this kind of infection over and over. And it certainly never occurred to me that there was any sort of broader story here.

I did my usual research and determined that, most likely, my diet was the problem. One infection came on fairly quickly and ferociously a half-hour after I had a completely satisfying cup of Irish coffee. I checked my natural healing book and, sure enough, coffee, alcohol, and sugar are high on the list of ingredients for a bladder infection. So I stopped drinking Irish coffee, but I did not consider the deeper issue: Why did my body react so quickly to those ingredients? Others with me had the same thing but I was the only one who got sick. 

Likewise, I did sort of lame breast exams, a pick and a poke here and there and then on with my real life. I just did not really take them that seriously. I had better things to do than get breast cancer, so certainly I would be OK. And when I felt a small lump, I initially shrugged it off, figuring it was just a fluke that would go away. And because I was so derelict in doing exams, I was not even that sure what was normal and what was not.

I suspect I am like others who feel they need to control their destiny—it’s not just that I think I know best and the world would be wise to take my counsel. (I do think that.) It’s also that I am terrified of what will happen if I let down my guard—I’ll go hurtling down a metaphorical cliff into the abyss of the soul. Splat.

Truly. Losing control? Unimaginable.

Our reaction to cancer—or any major illness—is often so severe because we have no control over it. The disease is not only out to do no good, but it is in charge. We are not.

Luckily, that small lump came right before my yearly gynecological physical. The doctor also found it, sent me in for a mammogram and made an immediate appointment for me with a surgeon. The medical pros, then, acted on what I had been ignoring. They took control—it is, after all, their job. And through them I gained power over the illness.

But because of that experience I began to pay more attention to the physical me, to be attuned to my body, to look for what I could control in my own health. I got cancer, which meant I probably could get just about anything. I had to face the fact that I was vulnerable to the bad stuff.

Oddly, I no longer fear breast self-exams, as I now know that if I find something, I just deal with it, the way I did with the first lump. Having lived through the scary disease actually gave me that control I sought. I beat cancer. Yay, me. I am quite the big woo.

But I also learned that I needed to do things differently, that feeling in control meant zilch if I did not take care of myself.

I completely changed my diet, emphasizing lots of vegetables, a good amount of fruit, three decent meals a day plus a healthy snack between each one, complex carbohydrates, and a small amount of protein. I have alcohol once or twice a week—rather than the one or twice a day that used to be my norm—and I have limited my caffeine. I exercise religiously, do yoga and meditate.

The old me would not doubt call the new me a bit of a nut.

I became more intentional about the spiritual and psychological me as well, about the how and why I do what I do, about the way in which my mind, soul and spirit react to the various environments in which I plop myself. But that has been a learned skill. And I am not yet that good at it. I am good at paying attention to what’s outside of me. Looking inside requires me to change a perspective I have honed for nearly seven decades, making me look at something I had thought was best left alone: me. That sort of hurts my head

I’m working on learning from my three-year-old grandson.

Eli started preschool last week; he goes a couple days a week. After the first week, his mom asked what he thought of it and he said, “I liked it there, and I liked what we did, but I did get sad.”

He not only paid attention to the problem, he named it, and respected it. “I did get sad.” Very wise. Grandma hopes to someday be so wise.