I learnt to accept the fear of recurrence

PUBLISHED ON: 28 December 2017

As the new year draws near, Ann reflects on how she gave voice to her fears, and how 'Acceptance and Commitment Therapy' helped her through.

Ann walking down road

I've found words that inspire me

In the three years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer I have read and heard many words about the disease: some medical, some personal, some useful, some frightening, some informative, others less so. 

For many of those affected, writing, reading, talking and listening are powerful forms of therapy for the mind and spirit, filling the gaps left by treatments that focus primarily on the body.  

'Living with the consciousness of death at my shoulder'

Of all the words I have read, perhaps the most inspiring for me have been those written several decades ago by Audrey Lorde, the radical African American poet, writer and self-styled warrior who died of secondary breast cancer in 1992.

Years before the invention of blogs and forums, Lorde dedicated herself to turning silence into language and action, to speak the truth as she saw and experienced it. She wrote The Cancer Journals in the years following her primary diagnosis in 1979 with an urgency she described as 'living...with the consciousness of death at my shoulder.' 

In a powerful passage that really chimed with me, Lorde wrote:  

'When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid.' - Audrey Lorde

Giving voice to my fears 

At around the same time as I read these stirring words, I learnt about ACT, 'Acceptance and Commitment Therapy', a form of ‘talking therapy’ that combines mindfulness techniques with aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy and can be beneficial for cancer patients and people moving forward from a cancer diagnosis and treatment.  

Despite the slightly jargonistic name, the premise of ACT (also known as ‘Act’) is relatively simple. I am no expert, but I did attend a support group that used ACT to address fear of recurrence, and what I took away from that experience was a clear message:  

  • if you can, find a way to give voice to your fears and accept them as a healthy response to a deeply threatening situation  
  • recognise your thoughts for what they are: just thoughts  
  • commit to doing something life-affirming that is in line with your values, however humble it may be. Knit a scarf, bake a cake, play music you love and dance in your kitchen, go for a walk and observe your surroundings, write a letter, or hold a hand, plant something and watch it grow 

My garden became a metaphor 

Garden in winter

I began my chemotherapy in December of 2014, just before we moved house to a larger place with a back garden. It was the first time I had my own small plot of land to look after since moving to London over 15 years ago.

Being new to the house, I wasn’t quite sure what plants would come up in the garden’s modest but mature borders so I would put two hats over my bald head, bundled up and wander outside every day through that long, dark winter to observe any green shoots or signs of spring.  

The garden became a clear metaphor of new life and hope. It also allowed me to see that chemotherapy had given me the chance to slow down, to be at home and to observe things that I may have missed if I had been busy with work, commuting and the school run, caught up in the fast pace of my normal routine. Something that had happened to me out of necessity had become a form of mindful living. 

'Mindfulness' can seem off-putting 

Mindfulness has become a popular buzz word in recent years. To some, it may be an intimidating or off-putting term. In fact, it is really a word that has come to sum up a contemporary approach to an ancient form of wisdom. 

You don't need to sit in a class with crossed legs to practice mindfulness or mindful living (though of course you may find that helpful). And you don't need to run a marathon, climb Mount Everest or stage a political protest to change the world (though well done to people who do).  

Start with what you love 

Identify what it is you love to do or observe, what activities you lose yourself in, what you believe in, what changes you would like to see in the world, what you can contribute, what your talents are, what means a lot to you. Start small and focus on what is within your grasp in the here and now.  

It’s not about emptying your mind or achieving a state of nirvana. It’s simply about shifting your focus and doing something positive. Use your strengths in the service of your vision and observe, like Lorde, how it becomes less important whether or not you are unafraid. 

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