When I was growing up, my mom forbade skateboards, but she did allow unrestricted use of the balance board that sat at the edge of our garage. A balance board, if you don't know, can look like a skateboard without wheels that is balanced – by the user – on a can-shaped roller. It is difficult to stay steady in the center for any length of time.
While I've compared living with cancer to a high-stakes walk on a balance beam, where difficulties lay in wait along either side, at almost four years into a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, I'd say it's more accurately a life lived on a balance board. Staying centered most of the time is hard work when there's a life to live that's interrupted by the steady, relentless and difficult parade of appointments, scans, treatments and deaths (113 a day in the US alone).
Like stepping onto a rolling, unsteady piece of plywood, life with cancer is often uncontrollable swinging between opposite extremes, even as you use all your available strength to find the center. The anxiety that surrounds regular scans flip me to one side of the board and the good news that all is status quo sends me flying to the opposite extreme. The friend who continues to ask how I'm doing sends me sky-high, but I am brought low by the one who "just can't relate" to my life. Finding the center in this cancer requires focus.
I've been thinking a lot about balance because as my kids grow older, I see that my life of fighting to stand straight on the cancer balance board is similar to where they live as well. Most of us can remember what it was like as life stretched before us, full of the possibilities we could see but with the danger and hurt out of sight until we toppled into it a moment too late.
How do they return to the center when bad things happen? Have I taught them how to do it? And what can I teach myself? So far, I've learned a few things that work to get me out of the spiral of sadness and temper my natural tendency toward positivity that can veer toward denial. But I'm still learning and would like to know what works for you, if you want to share.
Positive Self-Talk Freaking out about a botched IV insertion is not an every-treatment-day occurrence for me, but I know that meltdown is always lurking as I enter the clinic. I try some positive self-talk about how I do what I can to make the IV a non-event: I've hydrated, I can continue to breathe normally, I can focus on something outside myself (nearby person, a light, a wall). I use this self-talk whenever stress threatens to overcome my ability to cope.
Every Moment Counts Every moment is a chance to do something differently. When I teeter on the edge of despair, I can pull myself back toward the center by the reminder that I have free will and I can choose to get up, to go outside, to hug my kids. It's true that it takes resolve and sometimes I just don't have it, but maybe the next moment I will.
Get and Accept Help There are times when just getting the words out about depression or fear is enough and there are times when I need help managing what I feel. There's no shame in that. Reach out in person online, or on social media. Someone wants to help.
See the Small Stuff Having great scan results is worth celebrating, but so are all the little things we experience every day: a hug, an honest conversation, a good meal. I find it helpful to acknowledge the things that bring me joy as a way of counterbalancing the effects of living with cancer.
A Final Thought Falling off is not a crime. The emotional, cognitive, and physical effects of a metastatic diagnosis are real, frequently debilitating, and scary - most people don't live with a terminal diagnosis. It takes a lot of mental energy to live with this disease and I respect myself and everyone else who does it, no matter if we're lying on the ground, balanced in the center, or flying through the air with joy.