New Habits post Cancer

Gillian Coutts - January 2012

It feels a little self indulgent, and frankly, a little early in my recovery to be pretending I have any idea about moving on from cancer. But as you'll read, I'm taking it a day at a time.

A recovering career-a-holic, a new mum and just about to turn 40, I thought I had enough on my plate... With my son just ten months old, my husband had just been made redundant. Then in December 2010 I was a week back at work from Maternity Leave when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, grade 2 and stage 2.

The lumpectomies, the IVF, the chemo, the mastectomy and reconstruction have all come and gone now. It was a pretty rough ride and my sense of self as a strong, capable, “tough it out woman” flew out the window. My internal Polyanna – who had always looked for the good in things – went on strike for a good few months. And as the dust settled around September, I started to have time to think about what I wanted this experience to mean for me.

Facing something like cancer kind of puts the wind up you about where life is at. Have I done what I've said I would? Can I look back and be satisfied...? And I have to say, that when I did more than a little navel gazing, I do have things that I regret. That I have danced, in many respects, to other people’s rhythms. That I have a voice – something to say, that I haven’t really said yet. Things to do, a human to be.

I get that it is such a privilege in so many ways to be able to say that - I'm sure if I really was on my death bed I'd have a totally different perspective. And hopefully acceptance. But none the less. As I reflected on my life and purpose, I started challenging myself to come up with “the answer” - what I was searching for. What did I really want life to be about?

Over the next few months I mapped out 9 different careers I would like to have a go at – from psychology, to medicine, to running a not for profit, research into organisational dynamics, journalism... you get the picture. I was at serious risk of disappearing into my own proverbial black hole. What was interesting was that I would find myself absolutely sure I was onto “the thing” for about a week, only to find myself equally enthralled by something else the next week. Or perhaps obsessed would be a better word. It was not a particularly comfortable experience, and I started to become quite anxious that “the answer” might be just as elusive as it had always been.

By November, where I got to was that while all of those options were indeed options, none of them pulled me sufficiently, right now, to go and do something about them (other than to enrol and then withdraw from a psych degree...) I guess the pragmatist in me knew that as the primary bread winner for the family right now, I couldn’t go back and start again in anything at the moment. And I probably wouldn't need to. But I still had this overwhelming need for this year to have taught me something. To be deliberately different as a result.

So I decided to focus on a different question. That is - What habits could I develop in the next three months – indeed, the next year - that would reflect what I now know and value?

Sitting with that for a few weeks, the most obvious answers seemed to be in doing things to support my health, and to actually act on what I valued. So with that in mind, I vowed to make time to act on what I value most, by dedicating an hour to doing something I valued, everyday.

So far, the 60 minutes to pursue something that matters to me has been on the go for ten weeks now. And I love it. I've always been such a talker – coming up with ideas for things I'd like to do but never making the time to see them through. So now I’m making time to put my efforts where my mouth is. I'm certainly not inventing world peace, but so far I've used the time to finish a photobook of a trip I took 6 years ago along the Silk Road in Russia and China. Sometimes I use the hour to sit with my husband and step kids on the couch on a Friday night and watch a family movie, walk along the beach with a friend, or explore pine forests with my son. Sometimes I read something I'm interested in or I use the time to draft project ideas I've been hatching forever... A book, a website, a company selling art...

Whatever it is, I'm committed to not beating myself up if it doesn't happen. And it doesn't HAVE to produce anything. It just needs to be about whatever I'm most interested in that day. And I figure if I get to the end of 2012 and I've spent 365 hours pursuing things that attract me, I'll know an awful lot more about what that is, and that might help inform what I could do in my other 8-odd work hours a day. Or maybe not. We’ll see.

The unexpected by-product of living like this – deliberately seeking out my values – is a quiet confidence is returning. Facing the fear of recurrence (of cancer), I morbidly figure that if I was to die in a year’s time, I will have lived the truest life that I could between now and then. Fingers crossed, I will go on to be able to spend many more years pursuing what’s most important to me, in the company of loving family and friends. Interestingly, it’s also taken the pressure off my job needing to be any more than the thing I do to earn money right now. And with that, it has become a lot more enjoyable.

My internal Polyanna and I are still negotiating. There are times – weeks – where I can start to feel like the world is truly a wonderful, hopeful place. Then there are other weeks when I’m swamped by waves of grief, anger and anxiety that can seem to threaten everything. I’m looking forward to being further down the track, when I might be able to ride the waves more easily.

Friends ask me how on earth I find the hour each day – and it’s not easy, although as I get further into habit it is becoming more natural. My trick at the moment is not to look too far ahead. Thinking about how I can find an hour a day for the next year, six months or even a week is actually pretty daunting. So I chunk it down to the next 24 hours, and focus on that. I’m committed to creating the space in my next 24 hours to live my values. And with that, the days turns into weeks. And hopefully, weeks will turn into years...