Turn on, tune in, but don’t burn out

There is no doubt that our mental state has a bearing on our physical health – few would argue with that point any more – so it’s ironic that a cancer diagnosis can trigger such a strong stress and fear response, the exact opposite of what our bodies need. But there’s something else I’ve noticed time and time again: a cancer diagnosis can trigger a strong rebellion too. As I was travelling home from the Yes to Life Conference on Sunday night I found myself reflecting on why that might happen.

The conference was called ‘Finding a Deeper Connection: exploring the essential, often forgotten element of healing, and I was there to talk about nutrigenomics, supporting my friend and colleague, Emma Beswick, founder of Lifecode Gx. It was so good to meet some recent clients ‘in person’ and connect with so many wise, brave, curious and knowledgeable souls. I heard some incredible and some heart-breaking stories, and enjoyed sharing some of my own insights as a practitioner and survivor.

In conversation with one especially courageous woman I found myself reflecting with her on how we can balance our need for inner peace and calmness with a sometimes frantic search for answers. It’s a problem that most of us have faced after diagnosis, and it’s tricky to get it right.

Talking about spirituality is not always easy; not only because we all have widely differing views on what it means but also because these things are often considered private and ‘best not spoken about’. Nevertheless, many of us were brought up within some sort of spiritual tradition and it’s likely that the authority or figurehead in that religion was male and represented an ancient tradition with a complicated set of rules that needed to be learned rather than felt. As a result you may have a sense that divine energy is something ‘out there’ not something that lives inside you.

I am struck by the similarities between organised religion and state health care: within conventional health paradigms we are also encouraged to believe that the answers to our problems lie beyond our understanding, known only to our wise and wonderful doctors.

Naturally, life-threatening illness tends to bring up challenging feelings about both faith and medicine. There is an implied requirement for ‘believers’ in both regimes to submit to the orthodoxy and not question the evidence. But submission, it is generally agreed, is not a healthy mental attitude. Submitting to medical treatment carries its own risks. We may be over-treated, or simply not sufficiently invested in our own survival. Dr Bernie Seigel, a renowned and much-loved oncologist, reckoned he could spot a survivor within 30 seconds of meeting them, no matter how dire their diagnosis. He was convinced that it was the awkward patients who were more likely to beat the odds.

The authority assumed by ordained religious leaders and qualified doctors asks us to look outside of ourselves for knowledge, wisdom, permission and validation, and the institutionalised sexism of both organisations can trigger conscious or subconscious emotions that may understandably spark a rebellion. In religion, that tends to lead to its members losing their faith, and looking for answers elsewhere. In healthcare, much the same thing happens. For those of us who are interested in the ‘woo’ side of healing, conventional care can seem a bit mono-dimensional, and even evidence-based complementary approaches can seem cold and clinical. When there’s no acknowledgement of the bigger picture, it can trigger a feeling that the answers are not within the plan.

But rebellion also carries risks: when we choose to comprehensively reject what’s on offer we risk missing out on valuable treatment options that may have the potential to extend our lifespan. Moreover, the rejection of the conventional route inevitably means we need to look elsewhere for healing support. The ingrained habit of looking outside ourselves for wisdom can send us on an endless quest for alternative gurus and magic bullets that can exacerbate stress and panic. I’ve seen too many clients become burnt out by an exhaustive and exhausting search for answers.

(Ironically, the fact that the system is not comfortable with challenge and collaboration, and fails to provide any guidance about evidence-based complementary care, leaves patients more vulnerable to ‘snake oil’ sellers.)

Add to this the advice of friends and family, especially other survivors who swear it was the wheatgrass that saved them (or some other magical remedy), and perhaps, too, a cacophony of well-meaning complementary therapists, and you may not know which way to turn. Nothing in your culture, upbringing, education or experience has prepared you for the moment when you may need to make a decision to save your own life.

My point is not to make a case for conventional or complementary medicine – the best protocols tend to include both – it’s about understanding the emotions and habits that are triggering you and driving your decisions.

Both the conventional and complementary approaches are more likely to fail when we don’t take our own needs and feelings into account. Because it is part of our conditioning to look for the answers ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’ we are likely to miss out the vital intermediate step, important for any meaningful life choices, of seeking our own inner authority. Checking in with yourself to find the choices that feel right for you and that resonate for you is an important part of any survival plan, and a good foundation for working with any health professional. As much as you need to see a doctor you need to see yourself.

Increasingly, I feel that the first step in seeking to improve our health is to come back into relationship with ourselves, and acknowledge our inner power. It never ceases to amaze me how much we neglect ourselves in order to keep up with the goals we set ourselves – denying ourselves adequate sleep, food, water, leisure, pleasure, exercise, fun and connection in order to hold down demanding jobs and ‘successful lives’. Diagnosis can sometimes feel like our bodies have betrayed us (although I know that for some they feel they have betrayed their bodies) but either way we often double down on a highly disciplined regime that can be a bit harsh and heartless.

The real meaning of spirituality is a deepening of the relationship with ourselves and our understanding of our place in the world. You cannot hope to heal if you continue to push yourself beyond your own boundaries. Respecting your psychological and physiological limits is the most important step of healing. If there is an unkind voice inside your head telling yourself to try harder, be stronger, go faster, or do better, or keep up with the expectations of others, please stop listening. Instead, tune in to the other inner voice, which is often quieter and sadder, asking you to slow down, take care, respect your own needs, and do your own thing. Start cultivating your inner wisdom.

For this reason I have recently renewed my commitment to the coaching approach in my practice – seeking to tease out the knowledge that is inside you, instead of trying to transfer all the knowledge that is inside me. I see our work together as a collaboration and cultivation. I want to support you to find the answers you need, based on what will work best for you, to help you develop a more discerning and critical approach to the care you reject and accept. It’s a deeply personal approach. Your tools for navigating this brave new world are are dissonance, unbelonging, joy, creativity, curiosity, longing, listening, intuition, adaptability, community, and your six senses.

When you are back in relationship with yourself you will be able to make better decisions about how to support yourself, and about who else you would like to include in your survival plan. There’s lots of amazing help available from both conventional and complementary health professionals but there is no substitute for the care and respect we give ourselves.

(Headline paraphrased from a Sisters of Mercy dance track. Image by By Sven Mandel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81543395.)