What my cancer diagnosis taught me about navigating a storm

On days when you feel bad, do a little more than you think you can; on days you feel great, do a little less than you are capable of. This will keep your momentum going but keep you in balance. It can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting to make up for lost time when you’re feeling good and cram everything you can into a 24-hour window. This approach has caused me to crash and burn more times than I can count. So even if you’re feeling good, don’t overdo it. Just take it slowly.

Understanding what is good for someone else is not necessarily good for me

Our bodies are all different and move at different paces. Look at how two bodies respond to COVID: some people have almost no symptoms at all, while others might end up in hospital. Don’t compare your experience to the speed at which others move about in the world or recover. Just like comparing yourself to that shiny, tanned, impossibly beautiful Instagram model with the perfect house/teeth/ partner/dog, it doesn’t make you feel all that good. Things that others get away with may not work for you. (Some of my friends can go on a three-day bender and seemingly never get sick, but that’s not me!) Love your body, listen to your body and give it what it needs.

On the road to recovery, this is what I’ve learnt.Credit:iStock

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None of these things count as resting

I always thought that listening to a podcast, reading a book, scrolling through Instagram or watching a TV show constituted resting. But as I’ve learnt to manage my chronic fatigue with the help of the University of New South Wales Chronic Fatigue Clinic they taught me that none of those activities actually count as resting, as they all require a high cognitive function. So what is resting? Sitting with a cup of tea and staring out the window or watching the trees sway in the breeze. Taking a break to just sit and be. How often do most of us do that? Hardly ever. It’s not easy but it’s so important especially when you’re recovering.

Focus on what feels good

We spend so much time focusing on the negatives and what we’d like to improve. Gosh, we’re really just so mean to our dear little selves sometimes, aren’t we? A yoga teacher once told me not to focus on the areas that felt painful and sore during practice, but to think about all the parts that felt really good. What a shift! It’s so easy to fixate on the pain, especially when it’s sitting there yelling at the top of its lungs and poking you for attention. But shifting this attention when you’re recovering be it a physical or emotional pain to what feels good is super helpful.

You don’t have to be healthy to be happy

My friend Jenna Rumney who has been dealing with at times debilitating chronic illness for 15 years shared this idea with me. It was hugely empowering to understand that I could separate my mental state of mind from my immediate physical wellbeing. That just because I’m not feeling well today doesn’t mean I can’t find other ways to enjoy my day. As she said to me, “You can shift your mindset from ‘I’ll be happy when I am well’ to ‘I can be happy in this very moment, despite the challenges I face’.” This works not just for illnesses, but for all kinds of life crises. If we future-date our happiness to a time that is dependent on something out of our control, we will always suffer. Don’t decide you’ll be happy when . . . “I lose weight”; “the global pandemic is over”; “my partner stops doing this” Instead, choose to be perfectly happy with your imperfect life. Start right now.

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Life is Tough (But So Are You) by Briony Benjamin.

Life is Tough (But So Are You) by Briony Benjamin.

Expect less of yourself when you are in recovery mode

Sometimes we really just need to lighten up and give ourselves a break. When you’re feeling crap, some days, if you get up, make your bed and get through the day then that is enough. When I was recovering, I had two simple questions that I wrote up on my wall. They were my main focus areas to think about each day.

  1. How am I calming my mind today?
  2. How am I strengthening my body today?

If I made some progress in those two departments then great, and if I didn’t, that was OK too.

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Text from Life is Tough (But So Are You) by Briony Benjamin. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99

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