Doctor to my friend, Tara: “Oh wow, I love your hair.”
Doctor to me: “Oh, and you have cancer.”
That’s how I have chosen to remember my breast cancer diagnosis conversation.
Of course, that’s not exactly how it happened but it’s close.
I get reflective about my cancer experience around the anniversary of my diagnosis (January 23, 2017). This year my reflection turned to one specific memory – the day that I was diagnosed. And this reflection got me thinking about how I cope with hard things – what I notice, how I deal, and how I remember.
It’s never too soon for levity and laughter. Laughter has always been my go-to coping mechanism and it faithfully came out to support me on the day of my diagnosis. My pal, Tara, was also there to support me at the appointment (Fin was on a flight home that day). Some important context – Tara and I have a long track record of being together (while travelling, at restaurants, at work, and on the street) when someone will randomly approach us and then compliment her on her hair. So it probably should not have been a surprise to see this pattern hold true at my cancer diagnosis.
The people closest to me understand how to support me with levity. Tara knows this. Within 10 minutes of my cancer diagnosis, she announced my future Run For the Cure t-shirt slogan: Sandy’s Gunn-a Beat Cancer. Tara has always been an ideas person. Fin knows this. As soon as we were able to talk through my diagnosis and what the next year would likely look like for us, he doubled down on his commitment to care for me during cancer – he promised to be at my appointments, cook my meals, and give me hugs. And then he laughed when he told me that he drew the line at doing my make-up. When Fin and Tara used humour to deflect, distract, uplift, and energize me, that signalled to me that they would be my two go-to people during this tough time.
There is power in noticing the “Yes, and…” A situation can be devastating AND have levity. I can feel scared AND feel safe. I can experience anger AND feel gratitude. I can approach hard news with analysis AND empathy.
Before cancer, I would have described my general emotional state as balanced, even, and calm. So, it was new and sometimes uncomfortable for me to experience the roller coaster of emotions that came with cancer. Looking back now, I dealt with this by pushing to regain balance and honestly, to feel a sense of control. I didn’t know it at the time but I was subconsciously staying open to experiencing my emotions and perceiving my situations in multiple ways. Recognizing that opposing reactions could be true at the same time helped me to accept my situation. I had found a new coping strategy.
How I choose to frame or see a situation in the present impacts how I will remember it in the future. I’ve written about how grateful I am that I kept a daily journal during cancer – how my journal became a trusted confidant and how it held onto my memories for safekeeping, knowing that I would likely want to remember and process them at some point in the future.
It has been neat to read what I chose to record and remember. I recorded the “facts” – my treatments, my symptoms, my doctors, and the process. I wrote about my “negative” emotions – my anxiety, my boredom, my fear, and my anger. And most surprisingly, I noticed and wrote often about gratitude, self-compassion, and joy.
As I re-read my journal, I’m struck by how automatically my brain seemed to find and filter the positive. Choosing to notice a moment of humour during an otherwise crappy situation gave me the strength to process that situation in the moment. And it meant that I would look back on the experience with more love than fear, with more resilience than helplessness, and more hope than anxiety.
How do you create space to notice moments of levity? How can you use these moments to frame your memories of a situation?