Niamh Gaffney is back today with a truly beautiful piece about how to make your life after a cancer diagnosis a better life…
“Once you know some things you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away.” – Alice Hoffman
It’s the knowledge curse.
When first you show up for your triple assessment with that lump that the gp thinks is just a blocked milk-duct you’re comfortable in your ignorance. You take quick furtive glances at the lady over there with a scarf on her head, and then you go back to your book because she’s a lot older than you, and everyone KNOWS you can’t get breast cancer when you’re young, or if you’ve had children, or when you breastfeed your baby. Everyone knows.
They don’t. You can.
And then you learn some things that you can’t ever unknow.
You know that when you’re escorted into the consultant’s room by a nurse in a pink shirt it’s not good news. Good news doesn’t need an escort or a pink shirt.
You know that scars tingle for years after you’ve gotten them, and that every headache or bone ache can send your anxiety levels sky-high.
You know the gorgeous woman in Debenhams doing her Christmas shopping is wearing a wig. Not because it looks like a wig, it doesn’t, it’s incredible. But you know now that the eyebrows are a dead giveaway.
Once you’ve experienced Cancer, chances are the things you know have changed you at a fundamental level. You can’t go back to the way you were. You know too much.
Yep. Knowledge can be a curse alright.
But it can give you huge blessings too, if you let it.
Once you’re aware of what’s going on inside you, you can do something with that knowledge. You can make it work for you. You can take back control. You can choose another label for your life than ‘Cancer’.
If you know what’s important to you, then you possess the tool to make every decision a simple one, to make every day a fulfilling one, to make every action a worthwhile one.
Clarifying your values allows you to create your own gps system, guiding you to achieve your goals, making every decision much easier.
With clarity on your fundamental values, you get freedom and control over your life.
Let’s say you’ve clarified that your primary and most fundamental value is “Spending Quality Time with Family”. This is what makes you most happy, what you get out of bed for. With this knowledge, a decision about what job to take becomes easier – you choose the one that gives you the most time with your family. You will never be quite as happy if you take the job that keeps you away from your family, even if it does come with a higher salary – the extra money will never reimburse you for the time lost. Taking that job can give rise to bitterness, resentment and feeling hard done by and without really understanding why you feel that way it can often then spill over into the time you do have with family, so you miss out there too.
When you know your values, you know what makes you happy. You cannot unknow this.
This knowledge can give you courage and strength to do things that are hard to do. It becomes easier to speak up and ask for what you want. You say no to things that keep you away from what makes you happy. You realise you and your family are happier when you get more time together and this gives you the courage, the strength to make the necessary financial changes to allow you to take that lower paid job. You say no to the longer hours, or the overnight work trips, to social events you ‘should’ go to. It becomes so much easier to give up smoking not because it’s bad for you but because saving the money will buy you a plane ticket to see your new granddaughter in Sydney.
Because saying no to those things is saying yes to spending time with your loved ones.
So how can you find what’s truly important to you? That’s easy – you already know. You just have to become more aware of it.
You get energy from doing what makes you really happy. This is the thing that’s important to you, what makes you uniquely you. Think about the last time you felt truly happy, truly energised; chances are it was because you were doing what you really loved, being who you really were, living how you really wanted to live. Simply take notice of what gives you that energy, of when you feel happy, of what makes you feel stronger, braver, alive. These are your values. Your energy levels are refuelled by doing what makes you happy. It gives you energy for the other more difficult stuff. You can cope better, you can be stronger, you can do more, you can put up with more, you can give more, you can be more.
Working with a coach can help you clarify the finer details of those values, but you already know what’s important to you. You just have to become aware of them, and take steps to build them into your life, so that you get that energy, that sense of being alive, of being truly you, of being fulfilled every single day.
If you know that no matter how stressed and fatigued you are, spending time with a loved one makes you feel better, you know how important it becomes to build that into every day, even in just a small way. You will feel a freedom, a joy, a fulfilment in turning off the phone and playing playdoh with the kids. You will feel energised by a facetime to a cousin. You will feel alive sharing a meal with a lover. You will feel proud of another day without a cigarette and another coin in the jar. You are creating your own happiness. You know you are alive. You know you are happy. You can’t unknow that.
Sometimes it does take a little reminder though. It’s much easier to remember the negative, painful, difficult, stressful stuff. That’s human nature.
But, writing out a daily gratitude reminds us what we do have, what we do know. It can remind us of what’s important about life. It can remind us to be happy.
And if you know that a kiss from a loved one gives you comfort, a hug from a friend gives you strength, a moonlit night fills you with wonder, that the smell of freshly laundered sheets relaxes you, that hair that you can put in a ponytail makes you smile, that fingernails that don’t hurt fill you with glee, that nose hairs are really useful for stopping your nose running and that life after a cancer diagnosis can be a pretty good life, you can’t unknow that.
So, it’s true, cancer teaches us a LOT of things most of the world doesn’t know. And it’s also true, some of these things we’d love to unknow. But, you know, all things considered, this whole knowledge thing is definitely not a curse. Not for me anyway. Far from it. Maybe I’d go so far as to say it’s a blessing. I know things now that have really changed my life for the better. I know me, warts and all. I know I’m not cancer. I know I’m strong, I know I’m anxious, I know I’m brave, I know I’m scared, I know I’m normal, I know I’m alive. I know I’m me.
And that’s a ‘burden’ I’ll gladly carry!
Niamh Gaffney runs coaching consulting company Directionality. She was 35 and a new mum to a gorgeous 6-month old baby girl when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the year that followed, she dealt with surgery, fertility preservation treatment, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and then faced redundancy from her executive level role. The fall-out of that crazy whirlwind of a year was a shock; she seriously struggled with the aftermath, with trying to get back to normal until coaching helped her realise that there was no going back – she needed to find her New Normal. When the dust settled she understood how much coaching could help others in similar situations and so Directionality opened its doors in early 2016.
We are delighted to have Niamh onboard as a regular contributor here on Happy Magazine and will be sharing more from her soon.