How we imagine our future may influence our health and healing.
This week, I'm celebrating my 68th birthday and my fourth year as a male breast cancer survivor. One the eve of my day of birth, I'll be driving to a campsite, not far from my home in Vail, Arizona. When the suns first rays appear over the Eastern horizon, I'll be on my way to climb Picacho Peak, a notoriously craggy and rocky mountain that juts out of the desert chaparral like a jagged, granite tooth. But even more interesting than this excursion of mine is the fact that I climbed it several times in my imagination as I was recuperating from double full-knee replacement surgery just six months ago.
Without a doubt, this surgery was the most difficult I've chosen to endure in my life — even more traumatic than the mastectomy of my left breast.
But having done the research and talking with lots of other folks with knees replaced, I believed that my life would be dramatically improved after the two to three months of initial recovery time.
Similarly, four years ago, the day after my mastectomy, I came up with a precise plan to put my work as a professional magician to good use while visiting men's and women's groups to talk about cancer survival. I thought I had “retired,” but the opportunity to bring male breast cancer into mainstream conversation — while sharing my love for the art of stage magic – is what gave me the momentum to move on.
Two challenges. Two positive visions. There was never a guarantee that either of these plans would work, but that's not the important part of this story. What we now know, with a number of clinical studies reporting clear evidence, is that positive thinking helps stress management and can improve our overall health.
In this case, I'm not just talking about affirmative thoughts or mental pictures, but very clear and detailed beliefs that after a while become integrated into our lives.
The Mayo Clinic reports that "some studies show that personality traits such as optimism and pessimism can affect many areas of our health and wellbeing."
In a recent report about these studies they suggest eight ways to improve your disposition and lower your stress:
■ Recognize a positive event each day.
■ Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.
■ Start a daily gratitude journal.
■ List a personal strength and note how you used it.
■ Set an attainable goal and note your progress.
■ Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively.
■ Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.
■ Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.
I believe that my breast cancer will not return, but more importantly, I've made clear plans of how I want to spend my 80th birthday. And here's the catch: I don't actually believe that what we think or believe is going to always come true, but it certainly puts a damper on my cancer anxiety, stress and fear of recurrence. And positive thinking sure feels better than cancer negativity.
So, later this week when I climb my mountain, I'll be thinking about where I put my feet instead of my next cancer check-up. And when I return to solid ground, I'll have the satisfaction of knowing that I did something healthful and invigorating, and I can still enjoy my mobility after living almost seven decades on Earth. Besides that, I'll have a chance to give these new knees a good test drive.