Cancer Liberated me and transformed a lifetime of programming into a spiritual awakening.
When you know better, you do better.
I come from a place and a time where “children should be seen and not heard”, was the order of the day and mental health was taboo. Fake it till you make it was a strength and acknowledging pain or struggle was a weakness. Perfectionism was the most pursued trait. This means shame was rampant and “riding shotgun”, as Brenè Brown would say. My parents owned the local Grocery Store and all the employees were like my older brothers. My mom cooked and we shared our meals. Her favourite phrase was, no one is too good to be bad and no one is too bad to be good. She was the epitome of kindness and love. Mom volunteered at the local cancer hospice, sang in the choir, visited the sick in hospital and most importantly was my best friend. She took care of all the grandchildren and the not-grandchildren who wanted to be her grandchildren.
My dad could silence me with just one look, yet he always made me feel like I was the smartest and the prettiest. That is until I became a teenager. I automatically became the enemy of the state. I was 16 when he found out I had a boyfriend. He didn’t approve of the guy and the fact that my sister fell pregnant when she was 16, exacerbated his fear. My mom was in the hospital with cardiovascular disease initiated by cancer treatment. The first and only beating I got kept me out of school for two full weeks. Normal children get grounded or spanked, my father beat me with his fists and used my hair as a sling to bounce me between my bed, the wardrobe and the floor. I never stepped over the line again, even after I moved out. I became a people pleaser and a doormat, happy to oblige.
The big C, as some people refer to it, is associated with death. Hearing it, catapults our brains into fear mode. Fear is a healthy way of warning our bodies of impending danger. If we lean into that fear, it will eventually leave. If we try and fight it, it will fight back. When my sister was diagnosed with leukaemia, her first words when I called her were, “ I am dying” followed by inconsolable sobs. I was 8 thousand miles away at the time and reacted as opposed to responding. At the time, I didn’t know any better. I thought I was being supportive by encouraging her to get better when in fact I was minimising her emotions and not letting her lean into her fear. I would not have realised my selfishness had the diagnosis not forced me to self-reflect.
A week before I was diagnosed, I came across a podcast on how toxic thinking affects your brain and in turn your body.
80% of your nutrients are used to process a toxic thought” Dr Caroline Leaf. This means your body only gets 20% of the required nutrients and if the stress persists, it leads to inflammation which can lead to other autoimmune diseases.
I believed I was in a really good space. I was strong because I was able to move past the trauma without shame. I was exercising daily, praying, reading my bible and consuming a lot of positive content when I found the lump. The podcast had prepared me but I was still stuck in Perfectionist syndrome. I remember my husband shedding a tear for the first time in 16 years of marriage and me giving him my biggest smile and a hug, telling him, we will be okay.
Healthy Boundaries are as important as putting on your mask first
The hardest thing I had to face was my ego. Before I could do that, I had to acknowledge I had one. I had the same open-door policy as my mom. We lived in a different neighbourhood from where I was raised and when my children were toddlers, I would drive to my old neighbourhood to pick up relatives children to spend the weekend. We never had less than 6 children a weekend. If someone dropped by, I would get super excited and start cooking. Guests normally ended up staying for breakfast dinner and lunch. I didn’t believe in boundaries and was a co-dependant. When my kindness was not reciprocated, the toxic thoughts started breeding and my ego was full-blown, because “I was a good person”, with no boundaries. I immigrated full of resentment, not knowing that I was just as much to blame because I failed to set boundaries. That would mean I had to admit that my ego was holding me hostage and that I had to re-evaluate my parenting skills as well as my mother’s.
Mental health is not and should not be taboo
Trauma is what happens when you are stuck in fear mode. For example, if you are a small child and something happens that you are unable to deal with, your brain pushes it to the back of your subconscious. All of us have suffered some type of trauma one way or the other. It will resurface at a later stage and show up either in our relationships or when we are faced with a life-threatening diagnosis or when we are able, ready and willing to deal with it. Sometimes we choose to accept it. I had a friend who used to tell me “ Tigers don’t cry”, his dad used to say it to him to encourage him when he got hurt and it became part of the essence of who he is and probably who his children will grow up to be. Emotions are not a sign of weakness but rather growth. Sometimes it is okay to not be okay.
Perfectionism does not exist
Social media sets a trend. Perfectionism. Not good enough-ism is the offspring of perfection, comparison and shame. The precedent has been set that if you don’t wear the GUCCI, PRADA or whatever other name brands are out there you are not good enough. You have to look like a supermodel to fit in. It is about followers and likes. Authenticity is compromised and defined by the clothes we wear, the car we drive and our appearance is more important than who we are at our core. What is worse is the fact that we buy into it, hook, line and sinker. And we pass it onto our children.
I was always obsessed with my weight and gained about 15 kgs. after starting a new role. When we relocated I managed to lose 20kg’s in under a year. By the time I was diagnosed, I was almost my goal weight with 7 kg’s to go. 2 Years later between steroids (during chemo), radiation, hormone therapy and total hysterectomy, I have managed to gain 33 extra kgs. I live off green smoothies and green tea and can’t seem to shed the access weight. I have made my peace. I am alive and I am grateful. It hurts when random people look at me with disgust or the chiropractor indirectly referred to me as a couch potato, thankfully I know the truth. People normally respond to you with what is actually inside of themselves. I used to explain myself, now I just smile and wave.
The day after the life-changing or was it traumatising beating, not too sure; my dad came into my room at about six in the morning. “ Don’t think you are going to lay in bed the whole day b!£$%, get up and clean the house.” I was taught from a young age that the floors need to be swept, washed, polished and shined until you could see your reflection. I dragged my bruised body out of bed because I didn’t want mom to come home from the hospital to a dirty house, even though it wasn’t dirty. Old habits die hard. I realised as I am typing this, that I still have a long way to go in that area.
The day I came home from the lumpectomy, I deep cleaned my house because I was in the hospital the day before and unable to clean. During chemo, I would force myself out of bed to make breakfast for my family, irrespective of how I felt. It wasn’t until I was on my last 3 sets of chemo that I was forced to lean into rest. When I started radiotherapy I said to my husband, I was being strong for all of you the entire time, not allowing myself to process or rest through this process. Self-care is not only a visit to the Spa, or relaxing with friends. It is not only about eating healthy and exercise. It also doesn’t stop at taking care of your mental health. It is being patient with yourself when you are not okay, being kind to yourself and realising the only thing you need to be in this world is the best version of you. You are good enough. You don’t have to be skinny or pretend to have it all figured out. It is in our struggles we realise who we really are. We just have to listen to the quiet of our souls.