Heart

I am so very grateful to all the amazing people who continue to help me to understand the challenges of a life touched by cancer. I hope to not only continue to learn from them but to share their wisdom with all of you. This blog post and the lovely photograph are by Allison Smith and her blog can be found at walshsmith.com. Thank you Allison!

I’ve written and thought a lot about my heart, especially over the three-plus years since my breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 36. I’ve been in tune with each and every ache--even the happy ones like watching my kids grow. When I was diagnosed, they were ages six, three and one. Now they are ten, almost seven and five. I feel like I am watching their childhood slip away. All the while, I’m so incredibly grateful to be here, for them and for me, sharing in the ups and downs of life. I find myself understanding that heartache can coexist with--even spring from--joy.

With my cancer diagnosis, I experienced a great sense of loss. Cancer broke my heart. I remember pinpointing this feeling in the months following my seven months of treatment. I had survived the most difficult seven months of my life, facing chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Many who loved me congratulated and commended me for “fighting the good fight” and some, for “beating cancer.” But I felt far from triumphant. I felt exhausted and scared and sad. I felt broken. As my focus shifted from the physical, bodily effects of cancer treatment, I faced the daunting challenge of turning inward and taking inventory of how my mind and heart had changed. I spent many months thinking of my heart as broken and closed. I hid myself and my heart, hunkered down in a protective, wound-licking mode. I pushed back from all things spiritual because they were too murky, too elusive--and often troubling. 

I can’t say exactly when my thinking started to change. It feels recent. When a new way of thinking and feeling comes, it can feel sudden. But I know it was gradual, the result of a lot of hard work--steps forward and backward--as I tried to integrate my cancer experience into my life. I realized my heart is not fragmented, but open. It’s hurt but at least it’s not hard; it’s soft. In discussing people who have experienced great loss, author and educator Parker Palmer says, that after their deep grief, “[T]hey slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart.”

This resonated with me as I found myself looking on the world with a much softer lens. I am much less convinced that I am right and others are wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t get angry or judgmental, but I usually find my way back to a place of acceptance. My spiritual practice emphasizes belonging and gratitude, not righteousness. I accept that life is uncertain, but life is still full of hope--precisely because we don’t know what will happen.

Cancer forced a bit of what researcher and writer Brené Brown terms “wholehearted living” upon me. I live especially mindful of my mortality. I am taking care of myself physically by exercising and eating mindfully. I find there is a particularly strong connection between exercise and my mental health. Running regularly keeps my mood more even and just helps me feel more clear-headed. I am also nurturing my mind and spirit through attending a monthly support group, reading and writing. My husband and I have collaborated on a daily gratitude project, in which we take turns writing about what we are thankful for each day. Self-care is something I have to recommit to every single day. Some days and weeks I’m better at it than others. Of course, I’m also taking care of my family and find myself especially grateful for my time as a stay-at-home mom. This is a particularly sweet phase in my life that will change and end as my kids get older and I eventually return to work outside the home. I am loving this house and this neighborhood where I live. I am connecting with friends, especially families at my kids’ school.

There is a peace that comes with widening my perspective--of accepting life’s uncertainty along with its joys and sorrows. However, I don’t want to paint a picture of myself wearing rose-colored glasses. I still live with a measure of fear and resentment related to my cancer. I feel this most pointedly when I have my semi-annual check-ups and scans. But what I have learned to do is to allow that discomfort to come in, unjudged. I sit with it. I’m extra careful with myself and my feelings. I cut myself some slack when I’m a nervous wreck the days before a mammogram. And when my mammogram comes back normal, I experience an exquisite, exhausting sense of relief and gratitude. I treasure and sit with that moment too.

But what if, one day, my mammogram isn’t clear? Or what if I have a pain in my side that turns out to be metastatic disease? These are hard questions and possibilities that I live with. Some days they weigh on me more than others. When these anxieties well up, my response is to do whatever I can--read, pray, exercise, laugh--to get myself back to where I am right now. I try to return to the present, where my life is--even in its imperfection--full of love and joy. I live with these fears, but I don’t necessarily have to live in them.

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes: “If we’re going to put ourselves out there and love with our whole hearts, we’re going to experience heartbreak.” My thought upon reading that was, “Sometimes, I feel like I can’t handle any more heartbreak.” But lately, I’ve started to think I really can’t control or limit my heartbreak. My heart is broken. Is it fragmented? Or is it open? Is it both?

More and more I find my heart open to whatever is out there for it to receive. One of my favorite writers, Glennon Doyle Melton, introduced me to the idea that I can use my heartache as a compass--let the compassion in my heart lead me to serve. She asks, “What if the voice of compassion is our internal compass? What if all we have to do to get what we need down here is run towards the very things and people and places that break our hearts?” So what does this mean in my post-cancer life? For me, it’s a very specific step towards getting more involved in my kids’ school as a parent leader. This step allows me to witness the very good, difficult work that is done every day by teachers and staff. It has also allowed me to work with other parents as we seek to address challenges that exist for our school community, particularly an achievement gap.

I don’t know where I will end up, but I feel encouraged that I have a direction to follow. Cancer has taken many things from my family and me. But one thing I’ve gained from it is a very concrete sense of shared suffering. We all suffer pain and loss. I’ve also experienced the transformational power of love, extended to my family and me in our time of need. And I hope that my open heart will lead me to the next loving step in my journey.

Guest blog post by Allison Smith