It now seems cliché to say that 2020 has brought unexpected challenges. We have all adapted to the constant of change. Personally, my biggest change was a diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer. Initially, I responded with calm analysis, keeping reality at arms-length by “doing” what needed to be done. I made a notebook, set up second opinions, read extensively, set up Zoom chats to tell family, and calculated the best days for treatment so I could still work, but below all the management and brave face, were two strong feelings – betrayal and knowing.
Anyone who has gone through cancer seems to have experienced shock that this is happening to them. As someone who teaches wellness and lives a very healthy life, it felt as though I had missed something, and this diagnosis had to have had a cause. That’s where the knowing came in. Ayurveda’s ancient teachings see cancer as originating in the soul and then expressing in the physical body. I was pretty sure that for me, the soul part of the equation was where I was out of balance.
Soon after my diagnosis, I came across Laura Nasi, MD’s book Cancer as a Wake-Up Call. She describes cancer as having four contributors, and this perspective helped me tease apart the impacts in my own life that created an environment that allowed this cancer to grow.
Psychologic. My family of origin has always focused on service. We lived in places of poverty, and the needs of others were visibly profound. I count this background as a blessing, but it also made it easy to see my only value was in serving others. It seemed wrong to have needs or prioritize myself when it meant another child might die, or someone would go without health care because I needed my parents. I trace my calling to be a physician to these years and have a clear sense of purpose for my life. What I didn’t develop well was the ability to have compassion and priority for my own needs. I’m learning how to set boundaries and how to ask for what I need. My reminder right now is a phrase, “Stop feeling guilty for doing what’s best for you.” This mindset will be a life-long process, but I believe I can do it and learn a new harmony between care for others and myself.
Nervous system. It took pulling away from my work to recognize that I am an “adrenaline junkie,” unaware that I am running on elevated cortisol. A few weeks after my diagnosis, after clearing my schedule of unnecessary work, I wanted to celebrate a friend’s birthday with a socially-distanced lunch. I needed to pick up a gift and time the food pick-up to meet her at noon. Everything took longer than I had allotted…and I could feel my anxiety rising. I realized suddenly that this was how I had been living most days of my life – expecting myself to do more than is reasonable in limited amounts of time. I took special notice of how my anxiety felt and made a commitment to recognize my built-in alarm system. While I know my tendency is to work like an energizer bunny, I know I’m going to have to be just as diligent at refilling my batteries and living life at a gentler pace.
Immune and endocrine systems. Initially, I dismissed these parts of my story because I have such a healthy lifestyle. But as I’ve thought more about it, I realize I have had little clues along the way that these systems were suffering the consequences of over-work and living in the “fight or flight” state of elevated cortisol. Stress has been the fuel to the fire for me, and I ignored it. My antibodies indicating reactivation of the Epstein-Barr virus, along with early menopause, had been clues to slow down. I missed the messages and kept on pushing until cancer stopped me.
Cancer has indeed been a wake-up call for me. I am going through a broad treatment approach that includes chemotherapy and surgery, along with qigong, Ayurveda, acupuncture and naturopathy. I know I will come through this with a new understanding and ways of living.
If my example can help you, please know that health is multi-dimensional, and the efforts you make now to build wellness in ALL areas of your life are worthwhile.
Jeralyn Brossfield, MD, is the founder and physician of XO Health and medical director of Brain Treatment Center both in Rancho Mirage.