After the diagnosis

On 11 April Stephanie Dowrick will begin leading the first of six evening workshops in the “Support for Life” Sydney series. This is Stephanie’s first group with Petrea King’s Quest for Life Foundation. Stephanie has been leading other groups and workshops for many years and also working with Breast Cancer Network Australia where she remains an Ambassador and wellbeing presenter at their forums throughout Australia.

Stephanie writes: My life has been profoundly influenced by the many privileged years I’ve had working with people in all kinds of challenging moments – many of them provoked by a serious diagnosis or illness.

My professional training is in the areas of psychotherapy and ministry and I am aware how often those “challenging moments” can seem to stretch over months or even years. In fact, sometimes the hardest time with an illness or life-changing diagnosis is not when it occurs and everyone is focused on it, but when the immediate crisis passes and we believe life “should” or could be back to normal!

Yet I wonder if after a big inner upheaval life is ever quite the same again. Or, indeed, if it should be?

Almost always some of the old certainties will have gone. Perhaps some of our old innocence, too. But it is not inevitably a change for the worse.  Perhaps what will also go is the illusion that we can postpone what matters most to us. Or put off saying what’s really important to those we love. Or making time for the small exquisite joys of relationship life.

Whatever our physical condition or prognosis, it’s almost always still possible to find gentle and effective ways to increase our joy in living and even to experience greater and more genuine wellbeing.

Our “health” never depends on our physical condition only. That’s a wonderfully freeing thing to discover and this is part of Quest’s philosophy also. It is always deeply affected by our mind and spirit, our attitudes and our openness to inspiration, hope, connection and support. Some people are truly and increasingly “well” until their last breath, even when the body is going. That’s not something we can always control, and we certainly can’t take it for granted. But we can influence it.

This is not to deny the pain and fear we all feel in the wake of something serious as a potentially terminal or life-changing illness. Learning to “read the body” to best support it, and effectively to soothe your mind and emotions, becomes an urgently needed resource for most people after a serious illness. Those are skills easily learned and of tremendous benefit. Then, whatever our situation, most of us will indeed discover and identify ways to live more positively. And often with new levels of kindness and a greater sense of meaning.

There isn’t a recipe for this. And it certainly should not be imposed. One size does NOT necessarily fit all!! But psychology and generous, thoughtful reflection can help us with some simple yet profound ideas that will work for many people.

That change is part of life is a given. But the changes that come with illness are often incredibly badly timed! And so unwelcome. Nonetheless, when the reality of illness hits us, or someone close to us, it can force us to take stock in ways we might not when things are going well. In fact, it can push us to “audit” what we believe matters most in our lives – where we want to give our time and attention – and what really doesn’t.

In my work with Breast Cancer Network Australia I often say that an illness like cancer gives us the chance to let go of what no longer benefits us and take up what does. Making those choices (and continuing to make them) is wonderfully empowering. Knowing that there is no better time than NOW is also wonderfully freeing. When we haven’t chosen the changes in our lives – or the inner sense of confusion or chaos that sometimes accompanies serious illness – many of us will feel emotionally fragile or even out of control.

It’s often at those times that our usual ways of coping with change come under most strain or even come undone. People say to me, “I feel I am at a loss for the first time in my life.” Or, “I can’t bear feeling as though this [illness] has more power over my life than I have.”  I also hear, “I should be coping better than this…” which can add self-blame to an already potent mix of feelings.

Often, too, the stress of our diagnosis and treatment is all that we can effectively cope with. That means we simply must identify any other stress or unresolved difficulties or frustrations in our lives – and deal with them effectively.  It also means we can no longer postpone what we most want to do – especially when it adds pleasure and delight to our lives.

For many people those small, powerful changes in attitude and focus are not just positive; they are life changing. They certainly have been for me.

I have been writing for many years now and my books include Choosing Happiness: Life & Soul Essentials, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, Intimacy and Solitude and Seeking the Sacred.  What you may not know is that I’m a breast cancer survivor myself and have worked with Breast Cancer Network Australia for more than ten years, offering wellbeing presentations at their forums throughout Australia.

In my own family serious illness was inescapable. My mother, an uncle and two aunts died before they were forty, and I have learned first-hand how crucial the choices are that we make after a serious illness. My own response during and post-cancer was to focus on the qualities that eventually I wrote about in Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love.  They were courage, fidelity (to my values), restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness.  I did this not because I wanted to be a “better person”, but because as a mother of two young children I needed to be a braver and wiser one – even a happier one. The alternative for me was to drown in my own anxieties, and I couldn’t afford that for their sake or mine.

There were good days and less good ones, but my stubborn focus on those qualities, and my increasing trust in them and familiarity with how they resonated in my life, really did change my life for the better. This doesn’t mean that I am glad that cancer is part of my story; it does mean that I am more appreciative than ever about life and living.

“Support for Life” in Sydney will run over six evenings from 11 April, with a break for Easter Monday, from 6.30-8.30pm. The location is Crow’s Nest, Sydney. A partner or support person may also participate. Group numbers are limited to 22 so early booking is required. Cost $395/$295 concession includes tea, coffee, notes. Please note that this is a group for women and men, and the emphasis is on support and skill-sharing that will be of benefit to participants whatever their stage of life or prognosis.

All details and bookings must be done through Quest for Life. Please go direct to the booking page http://www.questforlife.com.au/support-for-life

To join Stephanie on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/Official-Stephanie-Dowrick/163507037001204