Using Serious Illness as a Spiritual Tool
Chapter 1 – Put Yourself First
I have been on the spiritual path for many years and have found it helpful in every area of my life. At fifty-seven years of age, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the prognosis was not especially good. “Now what do I do” popped immediately into my mind. My options were to (1) be angry that “spirituality had not worked,” or (2) I could persist and use this illness as an opportunity for deeper understanding and spiritual growth. This was tricky, because I thought I had done a lot (of inner work) already. In the first few weeks I consulted my most trusted friends and asked the heavens for the best guidance. The first thing my friend advised was, “Diane, you must put yourself first.” Another long time friend said, “This is your opportunity to learn to receive.” Both of these ideas seemed rather scary, since my identity hinged on putting others first and giving instead of receiving. However, as time went by I began to see the wisdom of this advice.
My purpose, then, is to pass along some of the spiritual tools that have helped me gain perspective. This is occurring at the prodding of a woman who helps me learn to receive. She provides messages, which are therapeutic and a definite blessing. Her comments to me were, “Even if you don’t live as long as you might wish, you must find a way to share your recipe with others. You have successfully combined eastern and western approaches.” Well, I don’t have a recipe. What I do have is persistence. Basically, I have used spiritual tools such as prayer, meditation and deep inner looking for a number of years. Now the opportunity had been presented for a new “walk your talk” scenario to emerge.
My first step was to put into practice what a friend had advised. I began to put myself first. What does this mean? I started with accepting a new reality, one I did not like. Now identity had to shift, I was the sick one after so many years of assisting others. I realized my diagnosis was not going to go away overnight. Many of us who are ill long for a change in reality, at first and as time goes on as the weight of treatments like chemotherapy falls upon us and our families. This new reality included putting things like setting time aside for myself, which meant only doing those things I really knew I could do. Then, I would stop and rest or go to bed for however long was necessary. The lesson here is patience.
Priorities shifted and so do roles. Things I had always done now became my husband’s duties along with working full time. Professionally, I closed my small private practice, letting my clients know I was now too ill to serve. This was a shock to me as well as to them. I thought I could work forever. Not so with my current situation. I was putting myself first in a big way. I have always advised my clients to love themselves. A daunting task when you are ill, losing your hair and your days don’t hold the fulfillment previously enjoyed. Loving yourself and putting yourself first feels selfish at first. However, as time goes on we can begin to create days that are better by implementing our new priorities, one day at a time…
- Accept your diagnosis rather than wasting precious energy on anger and frustration.
- Love yourself
- Work with your shifting reality daily so it does not overwhelm you.
- Set time aside for yourself.
- Do what you can realistically.
Chapter 2 – About Your Family
Try to maintain a positive attitude and teach your family to persist in positivity. Ask your family for help in maintaining a positive outlook when you are down and do the same for them as you can. Let them know you will have good days and bad days. Realize that they, too, will long for the “old you.’ He or she may reappear, but not for awhile. As the patient, realize that their lives are going to move along as before and they will need to participate as they always have. While you may still be working you may not be able to be as active socially. This changes the family dynamics and how families regard their lives. This is the opportunity to put yourself first, but to let it be O.K. for others to have a social life. On your good days you may be joining them, but not always.
My husband and I used to entertain and have a lot of overnight company. For a long time I felt sad that we could no longer do these things. As part of my changing reality and priorities, I often had to say no to simple things like going out to dinner. For many of you “no” may be a new word.. As time went on, we adjusted to this change and, for a while, actually saved money in the process. Now when friends or family call we put the principles into practice. We do what I realistically can do. Sometimes with a little stretch on my part, but the change is that I no longer feel as if I have to do everything. Priorities and reality have shifted and we have come to accept that. Simple things such as going to bed when you need to can make the next day better.
Practice self esteem as you encourage your family to participate in your changing reality. The secret is to give one another space. Putting yourself first does not mean you are not thoughtful and mindful of others. It means you are changing your approach to everyday situations instead of automatically reacting in the way you always have. Giving up the luxury of running on automatic feels like a considerable loss. But, in fact, it forces you to pay attention to what is going on within yourself and with others. It’s part of the inner looking I spoke about earlier.
How to look within. Prayer and meditation are key tools in this ongoing process. If these approaches don’t appeal to you, try keeping a journal. Soon you will see patterns emerge that reveal to yourself how you look at life, how you view yourself and others. Sometimes, we are not in touch with basic self concepts and beliefs that are the fabric of our lives. As patterns become more apparent, you can choose to make changes. Your strengths and weaknesses become more apparent. You may discover courage and grit you never knew you had. A journal also allows you to unburden yourself as you try to navigate the new waters of serious illness.
Chapter 3 – Illness and Spirituality
First things first, face your fears. You can discuss them with a counselor, write them in your journal or air them with your doctor. Keeping them unacknowledged can work against you in many ways such as sapping the energy you do have. Certainly, it can distort your focus.
Use forgiveness as a spiritual tool. You may find you have a lot of anger and resentment at being ill and losing some of the activities you previously enjoyed. Participate in the things you can do with greater awareness, especially the relationships you treasure. Practice patience with yourself and the process that is unfolding in your life. Even when you diligently use spiritual tools there are going to be days when things overwhelm you and you have a meltdown. Let your family know that there will be good days and bad days, that most of the time your meltdown is not personal to them.
Patience and persistence in positivity were the most difficult for me on my “bad days”… those days when I felt as if I would never feel better and really hated being ill. I have come to look upon every good day as a gift and to use the bad days as constructively as possible. Why? Because, in doing so, I face fears and even at the end of a bad day I feel that illness has not completely taken over against my will. Simply put, it helps me to feel more normal and in charge. Patience and forgiveness does not mean that you are passive. Rather, it means you are not spinning your wheels trying to do more than is realistic for you each day. You are putting yourself first at this most important time in your life.
Do a life review. Put your life experiences in a positive perspective. Appreciate the things you have accomplished. Where necessary, practice your principles and close the door to the past. In other words try not to dwell on the “if only” aspect of decisions you have made. Realize that every moment is a chance for growth. Spiritually speaking, we all start where we are in expanding our awareness. Each moment is fresh and alive with possibilities. Express as much love as possible when the dark times come.
Do not underestimate the value of prayer and meditation. These are the core of using your spiritual tools during serious illness. Keep things simple and try not to load up on expectations during your prayers and meditation. Leave space for your spirituality to effect change, provide support and comfort. Call upon your pastor or minister. Helping your spiritually is what they trained for. Your hospital has a chaplain who can also be a source for help and inspiration. **Don, do we want to keep this note or remove it?: (Started out GOOD, then throwing the reader back into religion, not spirituality.)** Take it one day at a time.
Chapter 4 – When East meets West
Using your illness as a spiritual tool does not mean giving up doctors. It means you are adding another dimension to your care. Follow your doctor’s plan faithfully. Prepare for visits by bringing in a list of questions you may have. Educate yourself. Develop a relationship of trust with your doctor and his or her staff. They are there to help you. If you are not satisfied, then change doctors. I chose my doctor on intuition. Later I learned he is considered “one of the best.”
Include your family in your treatment plan. Let them know what to expect and what lies ahead medically. Take your medication faithfully.
Chapter 5 – Taking Charge
Utilize your doctor’s plan as part of taking charge. Let them know when you are not feeling well or having difficulty in medication. Why are these obvious steps so important? As a patient, other people are telling you what you can and cannot do. In my case, many were years younger. However, as you participate in your own care, you may feel less run over by your illness and medical personnel. Suddenly, you may have lost your identity as you spend more time in the doctor’s office or treatment room than you ever thought possible. Now someone else is in charge. However, in reality, you are still in charge of your care along with your spouse and family.
How you choose to handle your perception of yourself is a large part of taking charge. You have a serious illness. You may feel branded and stigmatized, as well as regarded as ineffective. How does this happen? We live in a society that regards success in terms of what we do and what we have. I was stunned to watch a television show discussing cancer patients as futureless in terms of how potential employers view them. This felt like discrimination and I did not appreciate it. However, it is revealing of the underlying currents we face with seriousness illness. Some of them are so subtle that they are only a ripple in our awareness. Others, such as mentioned above, can truly make a seriously ill person feel like a non-person. Look for the clues to situations that make you feel “less than” and address them personally. How? Keep things simple. Prioritize using your journal and your intuition.
Actually, you may be surprised that simplifying things proves beneficial. This is your chance to focus on yourself and your relationships, rather than the complications of an overcrowded and demanding schedule. Running here and there may feel as though you are in charge. Or were you? In simplifying, you may find that many things controlled you, including the opinions of others. Take charge now. You decide how you want your life to function. The focus may be illness but, as you review the changes coming about, you may be surprised to find that you like some of them. You may even like yourself better. What a blessing!
Focus on what you have done, not what you have not done with each passing day. Notice what you have done with each day, not what you were not able to do. In doing so, you will find that you are practicing appreciation of the small joys as well as the larger ones.
Living with serious illness is a process and accepting that helps you take charge. Perhaps joining a support group provides you with an additional outlet for companionship and expression of your feelings and emotions.
Give up your hidden agenda in every respect. This is a tremendous spiritual tool. Right now, you may be asking, “So what is a hidden agenda?” Here are a few: Having to have things your way; feeling the need to express old anger, resentments and hostilities but not doing so; anger at yourself for your illness. An effective way to become acquainted with your hidden agenda is to be a neutral witness to your thoughts, actions, words and deeds. As you take some time to really listen to yourself and get in touch with your hidden agenda you may discover sides to yourself you may have been unaware of.
Simplify. Keep your life simple. Make room for faith, love, courage and the positive. Let go of the need to be “the way you were” before illness struck. This is the biggest hidden agenda of all. Let your illness provide you with a new understanding of yourself and your life. The miracle is in the appreciation of the moment, not necessarily a return to your former self. Serious illness changes your outlook on many things, including priorities.
You may not feel as though you are in the swim of things in the same way you were even if you continue to work. Why? Because you are learning new things about yourself, new outlooks and new ways to relate to others. As you use illness as a spiritual tool, your awareness expands. New insights reveal themselves. The journey can be difficult, but the results can be personally exciting. As you use your tools, you are taking charge not by being aggressive or running over others because of your fear and anxiety, but by participation in your own unfolding process.
Chapter 6 – Use Light and Energy
Spiritually speaking, there is light and energy available for our use. You can draw on that light and energy as part of your personal spiritual toolbox. Its purpose is to uplift you, provide comfort and courage, and help you through a meltdown or when you find yourself off base. It can help you to keep in better balance each day. Even if you have never meditated or don’t wish to, you can take a few minutes to send yourself pink light. It is simple, quick and effective. To begin, you take a moment to close your eyes and view a beautiful pink light. As this becomes more familiar, see yourself surrounded in pink light. You may also send it to others, as you remember them, to give them a lift or help them through difficult times.
The key is to keep it simple. I use it in many situations as I remember others and myself in prayer. At night, when sleep does not come, I think pink light. If I don’t drop off right away I find myself thinking, “Well, it didn’t work this time. Usually, I wake up hours later to realize that, yes, it did work! This is a subtle tool, so notice if you feel improved or if things, in general, seem better. I always give thanks when I realize this simple tool has, once again, assisted me. As you continue taking charge, you are using your illness as a blessing, instead of a curse.
Pink light is non-invasive and comes only from love. Its purpose is to uplift and bring what is necessary for you and others. Part of giving up your hidden agenda is giving up the notion you know what is best for others, and, at times, yourself. What does this mean? Allowing space for love, forgiveness and release of resentments, along with giving up your hidden agendas, leaves space for God to bring you the blessings that are right for you. Pink light, therefore, is not a tool for manipulation. Rather, it puts you in the center of what is right for you. Take charge. Live your life with purpose, that is, as a blessing.
Chapter 7 – If You Have Cancer
Tips to prepare for chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is not easy, but you can prepare in order to make your first day more comfortable. Wear comfortable clothes you can recline and rest easily in. You may be in the treatment room several hours. Consequently you may want to use the restroom. Keep that in mind as you will be hooked up to an IV, and you will be taking that with you. Bring food or some snacks. Some pre-medication such as prednisone can make you very hungry. Some of you may want to bring something to do. I always have a book with me. I have seen others with a walkman and listening to tapes or music. Books on tape are a possibility, too. Of course, some of you may just want to sleep. Arrange for transportation both ways, if possible. You may be too sleepy to drive safely after your treatment.
Be aware that the chemotherapy room can be very difficult as you will see some people who are very sick. Alert your nurse if you are having discomfort or problems. They are experts and are there to help you. Notice the dignity of others around you. I was amazed at how well behaved people were under those trying circumstances. Take a minute or two and send yourself pink light.
Chemotherapy takes patience and support from those around you. For sure, you will experience days when you are extremely tired. Remember to be good to yourself. Rest when you need to. Reach out for help in every day activities such as housework, laundry, meal planning and grocery shopping. Start with your doctor’s office. He or she may have a board where service providers post their name and telephone number. Check with your church to see what they can offer you. If you can afford it, bring in outside help such as a housekeeper. This is not the luxury it seems. Such a service may lift many burdens from you and your family.
Don’t be afraid to use these everyday practical matters as opportunities for prayer. Ask for what you know you need each day. In so many respects, out of prayer came the very best in physicians, a wonderful housekeeper when my husband and I were truly worn out. I was stunned and grateful at the obvious blessings that came to me while I was in the midst of a nightmare.
Chapter 8 – Alternative Medicines (Along With Chemotherapy)
Should I take alternative (sometimes termed as “complementary”) medicines?
Not without your doctor’s knowledge. Why? Because herbs are powerful medicine. Some of them may block the traditional treatment you are taking and or vice-versa. You may be surprised how open your oncologist is to alternatives. I was pleasantly surprised when I advised my doctor that I wanted to take something to boost my immune system. He had no problem with my choice.
Keep in mind that the medication you are being prescribed is serious for a serious illness. Participate in your own care through eating a healthy balanced diet whenever possible. Keep things simple and easy to manage. Try to get fresh air and sunshine and mild exercise, even when that may mean simply sitting in the sunshine for just a few minutes. This simple activity can bring a fresh perspective to a difficult day. I know it often did for me. We had a long patio in our home and I used to walk back and forth whenever I could. Our dog Lucy would run back and forth with me, looking out through the gate and enjoying herself, too. I always felt much more refreshed and ready to face the situation.
Chapter 9 – What About the Potential of Death?
Perspective, and a positive one, is so necessary at this time. Try to keep an open mind to new insights about yourself and the world around you. Yes, you are seeing things differently through the eyes of illness. However, you may find many of these insights useful as you progress in your unfolding journey.
Let’s take the stigma out of death. Cancer or other serious illness is not how most of us imagine our deaths. However, it is accurate to understand that all of us will experience death at some point in time. If, after everything that can be done has been done and you find yourself at the end of your life, do try not to see it as a personal or medical failure (and with all due respect to the patients and families who are reading this), **Don, this parenthetical comment sounds as if something is coming after it, but it drops off and is not completed. Keep & finish the thought or remove it?**
Spiritually speaking, death is a part of our eternal selves allowing the soul to move on to further purpose and growth. So, rather than failure, it is a new beginning. Naturally, the hard part is leaving our loved ones and what is familiar. Facing the unknown can be frightening. Now is the time to draw on your faith and open your heart and soul to this profound change. You may experience anger, hurt and pain, asking, “Why me,” and “Why now?” Our higher purpose is not always revealed to us, but the spiritual action in our lives is always taking place if we are willing to open our eyes and see it.
You may find yourself grieving for yourself and the life experience you are about to lose. This is part of your unfolding into death, a natural part of life and not a personal failure. Do express your love and appreciation to others while you can. If you are in hospice there are hospice Chaplains to assist you and your family. Let your death crown your life as the spiritual event it really is, rather than something to be dreaded and hated.
Revisit your life review. This action can make your journal so worthwhile as you gain more perspective about your own life, the contributions you have made to others and the world around you. Remember, there are no ordinary lives. Spiritual opportunities are abundant, moment to moment. Put your life in perspective spiritually and you will have given yourself a great gift.
Do not look for perfection in your life. Rather, revisit the way you moved through difficult or adverse times. You may be amazed in looking back at your own strength and courage, probably quietly done without much notice from others. Review your relationships, realizing how you may have touched others. These are spiritual moments that may have gone unrealized in the busy day-to-day world.
You may need to forgive yourself and the universe for things that did not work out the way you had expected. Two of our big stumbling blocks to spiritual growth are expectations and the yardstick of the world. That is, how others think your life should be and what you have materially. In the final analysis, what matters is how you view the life you have led. As you drop your expectations, healing and peace can occur. This is a true blessing as you crown your life with death. As you find peace, with it comes comfort to your family and other loved ones.
Chapter 10 – The Inner You
(This segment was never started, but the reader can see what Quest has to say about this in the many Books and Chapters that Diane brought through. – Don)