My friend Maurice at Duck? Starfish? but…23 inspired me to write about resilience following his comment on my ‘side effects’ page. Please visit Maurice’s blog because not only will you find excellent writing, you’ll also learn a lot about Newfoundland and see that Maurice, the folks he works with and the communities in places like d’Espoir, Francois and Burgeo must be pretty resilient too.
Dictionary definitions of resilience say it’s the ability to spring back or rebound. In the case of illness or adversity, it is the ability to recover quickly. I am not sure how long my recovery will take, I am told anything up to 18 months to be on top form again so I think perhaps there is another angle on resilience. For me being resilient also means enduring difficult circumstances, keeping going in spite of everything and having a steely resolve to overcome chaos and crap on a regular basis.
Finding out you have cancer or any life threatening illness is, of course, a shock but with cancer you often don’t realise you’re sick because early on there may be no adverse symptoms of the monster within. In my case I felt well, I had energy and I was physically quite strong. I had been more tired than usual but decided that was just my long-term relationship with pernicious anaemia. The only sign of cancer was a rather innocuous looking dimple that in turn lead me to discover a lump the size of a broad bean. At that point I didn’t really feel unwell.
When I found out I needed surgery followed by chemo my world turned upside down. The one thing I didn’t want to face under any circumstances was chemo… chemo-induced complications killed my Mum (and 16 years on I have not been able to forgive it for taking her away from us when she was only in her 40’s). What if it killed me too?
On the other hand, I know what untreated cancer does to people and animals and there’s no road to happy ever after if it’s allowed to take control. My first call for resilience came when facing the prospect of chemo, before my surgery had taken place, before I knew what havoc cancer cells were attempting to play inside a body I knew I could no longer trust and before my FEC-TH regime had even been prescribed.
My next call for resilience came with surgery. Breast surgery for medical reasons is not the same as breast surgery for cosmetic reasons. Operable cancer means surgery is mandatory. You can’t change your mind and tell the surgeon “you know what, put the scalpel away because I’ve decided I’m happy with my breasts just the way the are.” To be completely accurate, it’s possible to refuse any form of medical intervention but in the case of cancer that means it’ll take hold… no happily ever after if that’s the case. For me, surgery was the only choice because death by cancer is something I’d very much like to avoid.
I’d never experienced any major surgery previously but the thought of it didn’t bother me unduly because I just wanted the ELB (evil little b*stard) out. As it happened, the surgery itself and the post-operative recovery period were less challenging than I thought they might be. My body recovered quite quickly. It took a little longer to make peace with the psychological impact of this surgery and it called for more resilience because I had to learn to like myself again, scars and all. I had to accept that this (mutilated) body is all I have to live in so I might as well appreciate it. This appreciation had to extend to the blob of silicon and 6″x 4″ piece of pig intestine now residing in my chest too.
An article in Psychology Today says “Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make someone resilient, among them a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after a misfortune, blessed with such an outlook, resilient people are able to change course and soldier on.”
Undergoing 5 months of chemotherapy called for resilience; the challenges it presented came in the form of side effects that made me go from looking and feeling relatively normal to looking and feeling abnormal and unwell. Looking like a cancer patient can change the way you think about yourself if you let that happen… you simply have to get used to the way other people look at you. Choosing not to be defined by the chemo-chic look takes quite a lot of steely resolve; dealing with side effects definitely requires some resilience. If you want to read about side effects take a look at that page, it describes what happened to me. Fortunately not all of these things happened all of the time but several of them happened most of the time. I tried hard not to let this get to me; sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I didn’t. I worked on the basis that a positive attitude is half the battle. I can be pig-headed at times as well as pig-chested – I wasn’t about to let cancer screw my life up and make me miserable every waking hour.
Until recently I’d anticipated going through chemo would be the biggest overall test of my resilience and ability to endure. I think that assumption was incorrect because the post-chemo limbo land is now calling for a fair amount of resilience. When you go through chemo you expect to spend some time feeling unwell, to have some side effects and be less able than you were before the
poisoning treatment began. Once it’s over you expect to feel better. Coming through chemo and still feeling a shadow of my former self a month down the line is a real challenge. I want/expect/feel compelled to do things. Simple things like going for a long walk, running up and down stairs or exercising on the cross-trainer and bike. My mind is immensely willing but my body states in no uncertain terms “I don’t know what the hell just happened but if you think you’re going to make me run for 10 minutes you can think again sucker!”
Dealing with the frustration this causes and the feelings of being inadequate/weak/somewhat pathetic require more resilience. It would be very easy to let this period of post-chemo alienation drain my resolve, to move from frustrated to angry and then from angry to despairing. Fortunately as Psychology Today points out, being resilient means having the ability to regulate emotions and see failure (in this case my knackered body) as a source of helpful feedback. My body is knackered because it’s had a tough time and I know I cannot expect the things I asked of it a year ago at this very moment. That would be both unfair and unwise given all this 5’9″ frame has endured. Once again I find I am learning to like myself as I am, to accept there are things I cannot do right now and in time that will change. Normal service will be resumed when the body is good and ready.
A mutilated and knackered body is all I have to live in and I appreciate it very much. It has an amazing ability to endure some very adverse situations. I hadn’t realised how much resilience resided in me, physically and psychologically, until I needed to use it in earnest. That said, I hope I never have to call on it again.