So, yesterday I finished a 6-week course at Maggie‘s on ‘managing stress’. The course is designed for those who have had a diagnosis of cancer (or those close to them), as diagnosis, surgery, treatments, and ongoing treatment are all ‘difficult and testing times’ – leading to extra stress, intense emotion, tiredness and irritability:
Week 1: Stress and Breathing
We talked about theories around stress, and the fact that cancer leaves you at a ‘higher starting level of stress’… so that ‘smaller things’ tip you over the edge much faster … and need new strategies to deal with “the new normal”. We thought about where stress came from, the internal and external triggers for stress, identifying how we know we’re stressed. We talked about the physiological impacts of stress – adrenalin, cortisol – and how that leads to effects such as forgetfulness and difficulty making decisions, prioritising tasks and dealing with new information. Classic sign of forgetfulness – I had booked annual leave for Monday, and totally forgot to take it!
We spent some time on breathing and relaxation exercises – with an encouragement to continue with these… tied in with (not planned) conversations about sleep – the lack of sleep, the lack of quality sleep, the interrupted sleep… and the need to not ‘stress’ about poor sleep, but still try and take time to relax … Added Matthew Walker Why We Sleep to my reading list…
Week 2: Time for Relaxation
We focused on the need to learn to relax (we’re not very good at this in contemporary society). We thought about what things make us feel relaxed – noting that things we might typically have enjoyed – e.g. reading a book – require concentration we may not have. We looked at theories of how relaxation happens in our bodies… and what that looked like physically (inc fight/flight).. the need to control our breathing/muscles. We undertook ‘the lemon exercise‘ to think about the ‘power of the mind’. We talked about the need to acknowledge worries (and how to try and deal, rather than avoid) – and then dealing with them – including distraction, visualisation, allowing ‘worry time’ and writing thoughts out.
Week 3: Thoughts
A reminder of the need to practice relaxation (and putting some of it into practice – feeling deep breathes right into the stomach) in the face of increased anxiety … which has physical effects… but particularly impacting on our thoughts (feeling out of control). We introduced mindfulness – and focused on not fearing fear, with the idea of keeping a thought diary – in which we were given strategies for challenging anxious thoughts (and thinking about underlying beliefs driving our thinking). Focus on unhelpful thinking habits.
Week 4: Mindfulness
We focused on mindfulness this week – paying attention to our present, our ‘moment to moment experience in our lives’. We focused on sitting in silence and focusing on the sounds around us. We considered the balance between ‘auto-pilot’ and mindfulness – e.g. when we drive we often get to our commute destination without paying much attention… and that auto-pilot can be helpful sometimes… other times meditation could help. We talked about living with uncertainty, and thinking beyond the ‘if only’ … allowing time to ‘be’, and hold onto things more lightly.
Week5: Relationships, Communication and Sleep
Cancer is a challenge for everyone involved … there can be challenges in relationships – we’ll be looking for supportive/helpful relationships, but cancer is a real challenge (I always remember @bowelbabe saying that marriage is a marathon, and marriage with cancer is The Ironman). We looked at passive, aggressive, (passive-aggressive) and assertive communication styles.
We’d looked at sleep earlier, but we got some notes on this…
Week 6: The Cycle of Change
We thought about ‘the cycle of change‘, and how we need to gain awareness of our behaviours so we can undertake gentle change… we talked about it in relation to smoking, although diet also came up (and the fact that diets are all about deprivation, and ‘all at once’… how does that incentivise anyone, and too easy to fail…). Our mental health requires nurturing (and we can’t take it for granted)… looking to be proactive rather than reactive…. prioritising/compassionate to ourselves. How can we recharge our batteries? *Need to remember to book in for the half-day ‘managing fatigue’ course!
Continuing to Deal with Metastatic Diagnosis
I had an appointment with my oncologist the other week. He is pleased with how things are currently going … I’m due a heart scan and an MRI shortly… and if these go well, we’ll go to six-monthly scans. I asked about the ‘complete pathological response’, and he said they hope things have gone, but current technology cannot differentiate between scar tissue/cancer cells … but whilst it’s not growing – it’s stable, and that’s good news. The mental gymnastics of living between scans, and not knowing if you have 3 months, 3 years or 30 years = exhausting! To that end, likely to go down to 80% working (currently taking most Fridays as annual leave), and really appreciating the chance to potentially explore the local area a bit more, and catch up with people over e.g. a walk, a swim, a TV programme, or – of course – and online chat!
*and check out my friend Jo on This Morning yesterday. *Scroll to base of article to watch. I have chatted with Jo about this quite a bit, I’m not bothered by the bell, and in fact would repurpose it if I so wished to celebrate e.g. 10 cycles, but I 100% agree that placing could be done much more sensitively – away from those who do struggle.