Surf's Up

Equanimity is the ability to remain calm and even-minded in the face of a difficult situation. It’s something that I’ve been learning to master for a few years now. There are lots of opportunities to practice when living with metastatic breast cancer.

When I need a reminder, I like to reference a book I've mentioned in previous blog posts - Toni Bernhard’s, How To Be Sick. From this book, I've pulled quotes and one-liners to write on notecards or to hang on my mirror and I've practiced the suggested meditations and coping methods. I’ve also recommended it to women in my various cancer communities.

Bernhard fell ill after a trip to Paris and never recovered. As a practicing Buddhist, her book is full of wisdom for the chronically ill. It’s real and honest and most important it’s not full of fluff.

This quote from her book about equanimity and treatments failing is everything to me.

She says:

“Nothing illustrates the value of being able to ride the ups and downs of life with equanimity more than the experience of treatments that initially succeed and then fail.”

I’ve been through six treatment regimes since my diagnosis three and a half years ago. The treatments worked for a while, some longer than others, but cancer eventually outsmarted them.

Every time a medication stops working it’s like a punch in the gut. It's a blow to my existence and it only gets more difficult - especially when I've finally established a routine, learned to manage side effects, and am living well. Starting over is hard. Still, I’m fortunate that five out of the six treatments have worked and given me more time. More time to be with loved ones and to indulge in activities that I enjoy.

With the news of my latest progression in July, the thoughts that flooded in were different than previous times. I wasn’t ruminating over “What didn’t I do right”, “Should I have tried this diet?”, “Why wasn’t I meditating more?”, “Did I eat too much sugar?”, and more. It’s easy to get caught up in blaming myself for cancer progressing, no matter how illogical I know it is.

This last time, equanimity got challenged instead by the darker thought of “I can’t do this anymore. I just want to die.” That thought felt shocking and shameful as I struggled to find ways to look at and eventually overcome it.

Bernhard’s book helped me then and continues to do so three weeks later.

“...the essence of equanimity is accepting life as it comes to us without blaming anything or anyone - including ourselves...The challenge is to not let this insight slip into indifference, because indifference is a subtle aversion to life as it comes to us. Indifference turns the serene acceptance of “things as they are” into “things as they are - so who cares?”

To keep this level of equanimity Bernhard describes is difficult. This is some real gangster/guru shit and Toni Berhnard is my homie.

For me, I know it’s natural to feel anger and aversion to hearing that cancer has progressed in my body. Accepting it with instant grace is impossible. There’s no rush to skip over wanting to flip furniture or punch someone in the face. There are waves to ride through this devastating shitstorm of a situation.

But the sooner I can move through my emotions, without blame and find a semblance of hope and acceptance, the better off I am.

By better off I mean the faster I can get back to enjoying the days and time I have left. The sooner I’ll get out of bed, contact friends, get my appetite back, and look at the new chemo pills as little helpers instead of poisonous darts. Most important I can get back to watching horror films or dark series. Because no matter how much I love them, when I have real life terror going on, all I can watch is the Home & Garden Network with my parents.

Queen's Park subway tile. Photo: Janelle Eisler. 

Queen's Park subway tile. Photo: Janelle Eisler. 

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