Good news for anyone who can breathe

Waiting for the results of medical tests is one of life’s exquisite tortures. One morning I was at work trying to concentrate on my tasks while waiting for the phone call with results of a biopsy. Waiting to find out if I had cancer. A couple of days before, that sort of thing wasn’t even on my radar. I hadn’t been feeling unwell or visited the doctor suspecting any problems. I felt fine, had a routine screening mammogram and was completely surprised to end up having a biopsy. Now I was sitting at my desk, staring blankly at my computer with no idea what was going to happen next. Would I have to have chemo? Would I be very sick? Would I die? How was I going to tell my mother? What about my hair? My boob? How much was all this going to cost? Maybe there’s nothing to worry about at all. Maybe I’m fine. But what if I’m not? JUST HURRY UP AND TELL ME!

The uncertainty was maddening. A panic attack was brewing. If it turned out I had cancer then there would be more tests, more waiting for results, more tough decisions and uncertainty. If I was having a panic attack on day one of this journey, then life was only going to get a lot more difficult. That’s when I decided that navigating cancer-land is a mind game, and I needed to learn how to play. Real fast. Right now.

I took a break from staring uselessly at the computer screen and pondered for a minute. I asked myself: ‘Is this moment terrible? As I sit here at my desk on a normal Thursday morning, is this moment so bad? Am I in pain? Am I bleeding? Am I being shot at? No. I’m fine. Even if it turns out I have cancer, I had cancer yesterday and the day before that, and it didn’t bother me then. Nothing is different today. Nothing. This moment is okay. I’m okay in this moment. Speculating about my situation is not going to help me one jot. I need to do my work. I will do my work and let go of any thoughts that do not relate to my work and this present moment where everything is okay.’

I took a deep breath, let go of worry and focused on my work. For about two minutes and then started freaking out again. But I took another deep breath and gently guided my attention back to my work, affirming that I was fine in this moment. I spent the day regularly steering myself back to the present. I began to get better at it and I was calm and composed the whole day.

That evening I received the call I was waiting for just as I was leaving work. The doctor confirmed I had cancer. No amount of speculation during the day could have prepared me for the gut-dropping reality of hearing those words. But because I had not wasted all my emotional energy during the day worrying about a possibility that I could never really prepare for anyway, I was able to stay calm and in control and drive home safely.

Now I had to wait another week for my appointment with the surgeon who would reveal the next steps ahead of me. I continued to play the mind game, refusing to speculate, refusing to think about the what-ifs that lay beyond the surgery. One step at a time. In this exact moment, right now, everything is okay.

After the surgery I had to wait for more results that would shed light on whether I needed more surgery and if chemo was appropriate.(Spoiler – yes, and yes). By then I was getting pretty good at the mind game and staying in the now. I won’t lie – the next year was tough. I did indulge in worry, sob with self-pity, lose sleep and have a few assorted panic attacks, meltdowns and freak-outs. But I was always able to right myself again pretty quickly and keep going. I didn’t deny my fears, but I didn’t let them get the better of me and take control. I just kept on breathing through it, reminding myself that in this very moment, everything is okay.

Louise Hay wrote that the point of power is in the present. I would add that the point of peace is in the present. Usually, unless your hair happens to be on fire, the present moment is not immediately life-threatening and it is possible to take a breath. The present is also the place where you have a choice. The choice to continue down the path of scaring yourself or to stop, breathe and enter peace. If you are capable right now of taking a breath, then that’s great news. If you can breathe, you’re already in front; the possibilities from here are endless!

I still need to remember this stuff. A couple of months ago I was panicking because I couldn’t pay my bills. I had to walk myself through the whole routine again. ‘In this very moment, right now am I in immediate danger? What is going to happen right now? Nothing. I’m okay right now. Breathe, breathe. HOW THE HELL AM I GOING TO PAY THIS BILL? MY CREDIT CARDS ARE MAXED OUT I’VE GOT NO MONEY OMIGOD I’VE GOT NO MONEY… in this moment I am absolutely fine; I’m not in danger, I can still breathe, breathe, and breathe some more. In this moment I am okay.’

Whatever your challenge is, panicking, ruminating, speculating and worrying will not help matters in the slightest. Don’t waste the energy you could be using to deal with your problem by freaking out about it. Every challenging landscape can be traversed one step at a time, continually checking in with the present moment where all is well. Don’t let your awareness stray far from the present. Once it goes off adventuring into the wild woods of what-if, it can be hard to reel it back. Stay close to the still centre of now and breathe in that peace that can be found there and nowhere else.

If that sounds like an impossible task, make a deal with yourself. Set a timer for a small amount of time that sounds reasonable to you – maybe 30 seconds or a minute or two. Until that chime sounds you will breathe and entertain the possibility that everything is okay right now. Promise yourself that after the chime sounds, if you don’t feel that little exercise helped, then you can go straight back to freaking out if you wish. I know, another little mind game.

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