Chapter Blog Chapter 7 – Marie: Riding the Wind and Waves

By Healing and Cancer Foundation March 31, 2015

Chapter Blog Chapter 7 – Marie: Riding the Wind and Waves

Read Chapter Seven:  Marie – Riding the Wind and Waves.

Watch the Video:  Join us for a short meditation, a lecture on complete cancer care, and home practice exercises from our Healing Program series.

Dr. Rob RutledgeBlog by Dr. Rob Rutledge
Embodying Complete Cancer Care
Healing after a cancer diagnosis is like building a railroad track – you need to set down two rails which run in parallel.  On one side is physical recovery, and on the other is emotional well-being.

Promoting physical recovery is often more straight forward.  Getting the best care from the medical system is essential but it takes time to learn how the system works and how to advocate for yourself (starting with the attitude that you are the most important person in the room when you see your doctors).  Channeling your life force energy (and all the anger, frustrations, and fears) into adopting and maintaining the healthy lifestyle changes – exercise, diet, maintaining a reasonable weight, sleep hygiene and practicing a relaxation technique – is key to a long-term recovery.  Fortunately, you can expect to feel better / stronger / happier from taking these concrete steps.

Setting down the rail of emotional recovery is much trickier for several reasons. First, we need to let go of the expectation that we’re going to feel happy all the time. The fact is our emotions vary like the weather, and we can’t expect to see the sun every day. Laying down a healthy emotional rail entails allowing the naturally occurring emotions to flow through us. Being upset and scared when first diagnosed and mourning the losses in one’s life are expected. The first lesson is to let those difficult emotions be there, to run their natural course. It’s very healthy to be open and honest about your emotions with at least one wise person in your life – someone who can listen without trying to give you advice to try to make you feel better. As time goes on, typically the stormy weather seems to settle, it rains less often, and you can get back to feeling like yourself again.

The second reason why emotional healing is tricky is because we bring our emotional software from our life prior to cancer into the present.  My experience as an oncologist and support group leader is that most people (myself included) are hurting on the inside even though we try to put on a brave face.  The emotional software have been programmed from childhood with distorted beliefs like ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘I’m only worthy if I’m doing something productive’ and many others.  This software can cause a lot of suffering if we become more dependent on others during the cancer journey. The ego state (how we view ourselves) can be completely shattered and can take months to reintegrate a healthy view of ourselves.  However, like promoting physical well-being, we can learn and practice the skills which facilitate emotional healing.  Seeking a professional (psychologist, social worker, counselor) can also help us lay down your emotional track.

I love Marie, the star of this chapter.  She’s a poster child of what it means to get complete cancer care. She draws on her life experience as a clinical psychologist to work on both ‘rails’ to set down her railroad track of recovery.  But it’s not easy for her.  She has to overcome her strong tendencies as an introvert to reach out to others for the support she needs. She gets frustrated and judgmental of herself for falling off the exercise wagon. You can almost hear that wise and compassionate voice in her head saying, “It’s OK. You’re doing your best. Just take one day at a time. Just take baby steps.”   It takes work to promote this emotional healing.

I emailed Marie for an update of her life and asked her to offer some advice to others. Now 10 years cancer-free, Marie writes “I am doing well, working still 5 days in elementary and middle schools, and with children, teenagers and their families. I sing in a choir, still see my Breast Cancer Support group a few times a year (we spent a week-end together every June), try to do a bit of exercise (mostly outdoor and in nature), see many friends and go to Montreal once a month to help my 91 year old mother who still lives in her house but does not drive anymore.”

In addition she’s helping a number of people in her life outside of work reflecting, “I am still struggling with setting myself as the priority number 1 and taking care of myself. However, my expectations are more reasonable and I try to take baby steps each day to be mindful of my limits and respect them. So my advice to people would be to continue to face the emotions that come along in that roller coaster, to accept them, and to take care of themselves.”

She concludes, “You could also mention how grateful I am to still be alive and able to enjoy life. This healing journey helped me grow and still does.”

Dr. Rob Rutledge is a Radiation Oncologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, specializing in breast, prostate and pediatric cancers. He is also an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University.

In 1999, Rob co-created the ‘Skills for Healing’ Cancer Weekend Retreats. These weekend support groups teach a powerful and integrated approach to the cancer diagnosis and ways to heal at levels of body, mind and spirit. To date, more than 1,600 people have attended the retreats in over 20 cities across Canada and abroad.

Rob also leads the Healing and Cancer Foundation, a Registered Charity, that freely offers educational videos, documentaries, and webcasting seminars – and he is co-author of a book called The Healing Circle, which captures the teachings and inspirational stories from the weekend retreats.

In 2010, Rob received Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s Award for Excellence in Patient Care and, in 2006 Doctors Nova Scotia presented him with the Health Promotion Award in recognition of his contribution to physician health and health promotion in cancer patients.

Dr. Timothy WalkerBlog by Dr. Timothy Walker
Remembering Marie:  Riding the Wind and Waves
Remembering Marie and her story of the two images that inspired her, rouses in my heart a deep sense of confidence in the resilience, power and goodness in the human spirit. Marie truly transformed every defeat and discouragement along her cancer journey into an opportunity to examine herself and her old ways honestly, and then rise to the challenge to overcome them step-by-step. Of course it helped that she had some background and training in psychology and counsels young people to find their strength and resilience. Nevertheless, she still had to walk the walk one step at a time and face her own fears, demons and inadequacies.

The image of her just before being struck by the big wave is such an apt metaphor for so many people who are blindsided by a cancer diagnosis in the prime of their life. Smiling for the camera in the sunshine and truly enjoying your life suddenly you are struck from behind by a huge wave that brings you face down in the sand and leaves you soaking wet and cold. The feelings of loss, disorientation and downright anger are normal. Yet at that moment the choice is clear, one can let these feelings take over, and generate thoughts that recycle them in ones body-mind system or one can see this as an opportunity to practice starting over.

In some ways the essence of mindfulness practice is this willingness to start fresh again and again with whatever situation and conditions exist in the moment. When we don’t allow our natural intelligence to start fresh, engaging in the moment with whatever is present, we tend to bring attitudes and expectations from the past and try to make them fit in the present.

When our current reality doesn’t match what we are used to, our image of ourselves and our place in the world can be shattered beyond recognition. This will provoke strong feelings. The feelings themselves embody a form of innate intelligence about how to negotiate our way in the new reality. If we can simply be with the feelings, breathe into them, feel them with our mindful curiosity, they will shift and change as they motivate us to move forward. If we let the “old software” of thinking things should be different than they are and the image of who we thought we were, play in our mind we stir up a secondary emotional storm that is disconnected from our current situation and further suffering will result. Any cancer diagnosis is a powerful opportunity to learn and strengthen this important life skill and practice.

The second image that inspired Marie, a photo of her at the helm of her brother’s sailboat while a strong wind tilted it to a frightening angle represents how Marie gradually and consistently conquered her fear. Fear is also a powerful emotion on the cancer journey that we need to honour. When we truly feel our fear and stay present, we find again there is a moment of choice where we can either give in to the fear, triggering the fight, flight or freeze primitive brain and stress nervous system, or we can again breathe and find our fearlessness directly within the fear. The old adage of “feel the fear and do it anyway” best describes this choice point that mindfulness helps us to recognize. Each time we feel the fear we can challenge ourselves to practice fearlessness even just a little. This will gradually lay down the new neural pathways of fearlessness. Practicing fearlessness helps us move forward in our lives just as a sailboat can move forward even in the face of the wind.

Timothy Walker Ph.D. is a mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist  living in Halifax Nova Scotia with over 30 years experience integrating mindfulness into counselling, education and healthcare. He is co-author of the The Healing Circle: integrating science, wisdom and compassion in reclaiming wholeness on the cancer journey and co-founded with Dr Rob Rutledge the Healing and Cancer Foundation. He designed and has taught with Dr. Rutledge the Skills for Healing Weekend Retreats for people living with cancer and their family members 42 times since 1999 in 20 cities across North America touching the lives of more than 1600 people. He has taught at Dalhousie University, Acadia University, and Mount St. Vincent University as well as hundreds of workshops, seminars and retreats Internationally. In his private practice, The Healing Circle, Timothy sees individuals, couples and families and welcomes distant consultations.


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