What I Learned from Having Breast Cancer

6 Ways to Develop Resilience

Posted Jul 10, 2015

People are always asking me what I’ve learned from my experience with breast cancer. They’re looking for some sort of important inspirational life lesson.  When I really think about it, the lessons I learned were mainly about my own resilience and, in turn, my boundaries. When I had cancer, I finally gave myself permission to have limits.  I think that’s what survivors really mean when they say they live life on their own terms. It’s about knowing that there is a point at which the rubber band loses its resilience and it either snaps, or gets totally stretched out. Kind of like the Lycra in my underwear. It has its limits.

The Mayo Clinic offers 6 ways to become more resilient, and they resonate with me:

Take care of yourself
Make every day meaningful
Get connected
Remain hopeful
Learn from past experience
Be proactive

Isn’t that exactly what you hear from the most inspirational cancer survivors?

#1. Learn to ask for and accept help.  When many women are first diagnosed, they are most concerned about being able to take care of everything exactly as they had before.  They’re reluctant to admit they need help. Ironically for their friends and families, the hardest thing is knowing how and when to lend a hand.  How can you help someone who won’t tell you what they need? So the first piece of advice I give is: learn to ask for and accept help. It’s part of self-care. When someone says, “What can I do?” think of something…anything. I’m sure you’d be happy to return the favor if asked.  It’s what we used to call being a good neighbor.

#2. Make every day meaningful.  Isn’t “make every day meaningful” exactly what you’d expect me to say as a survivor? It’s easier than you think. Not every part of every day is going to be meaningful, but you can actually find something in every day that is. Maybe one day your child gives you a big hug and tells you he loves you. Or on another, you give your favorite charity a donation. Or you might eat some outstanding chocolate and savor it. Just thinking about moments like these makes them meaningful. Personally, I’m big on savoring the chocolate.

# 3. Stay connected to your community.  Studies show that the more connected we are to community, the longer we live and the happier we are.  Staying connected does not mean counting Facebook friends and liking everything they post. The relationships need to be consequential. Invest time into giving someone a second chance or a second glance. Be vulnerable.  Let your warts show. Nobody likes a martyr, anyway.

#4. Stay hopeful. I’m a pessimist who desperately wishes to be an optimist. Can we remain hopeful by sheer force of will?  I’m working on it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that fears enter my mind, uninvited. I call it “scenario spinning.”  “What ifs” are the killers of hopefulness. They sit with you and keep you up at night. They keep you from being resilient and lock you into negativity.

Imagine for a moment that you only imagined positive outcomes and planned for those. What if you actually pictured the bright side? What would that look like? Imagine spending your time focusing on the good things that might happen. How much cortisol would you save your body from having to metabolize? What’s the worst that could happen?  Wait, wrong question – what’s the BEST that could happen?  This is where # 5 comes in.

#5: Remember the good times, the calm times, and re-create those. We tend to only remember the times that our fears come true; we never remember when they were unjustified. We recall the flights that were turbulent, not all the uneventful, on-time arrivals. After all, we are only animals.  If animals don’t learn from experience, they get eaten. If you don’t remember where the lion’s den is, or what it means when the flock of birds takes flight, you’re lunch. The trick is to learn from positive experiences as well.  Remember the good times, the calm times, and re-create those.

Now comes the hard part.

# 6. Be proactive. The most resilient people are the ones who take adversity and turn it into a positive.  You can’t do that unless you’re looking beyond where you are, to where you want to be.  You can start by doing just one thing. Never in a million years did I imagine as a mother and interior designer that I’d one day have written a book, but I started by writing just one sentence.  Cancer gave that to me.  Who knows what your challenges can give to you?

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