10 Year Cancer Free Anniversary

Hello Lovely People!

Today is a pretty special day for me – it’s the 10 year anniversary of my surgery! On this day one decade ago I was at Victoria Hospital getting a stage IV malignant tumor removed from my throat, along with my thyroid and voice box. Apparently, after the 10 year mark it’s unlikely that the cancer will return, so it looks like I’m in the clear! 🙂

I find myself filled with mixed emotions on this day. Happiness and gratitude to still be alive and not just well, but flourishing. But also feel some sadness for having lost such an intimate part of me – my voice; it’s a strange feeling knowing that a part of you, part of what makes you who you are, is missing. I feel hope as well, for my future and the possibility of achieving my dreams, and for having the opportunity to help others to learn how to grow and thrive.

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Achieving one of my many dreams – Graduating with an Honours Degree in Psychology!

I believe it’s no mistake that I survived. I think that certain things happen for a reason, just as certain people come into our lives for a reason. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my experiences over the last 10 years. Contemplating what I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown. I can say with surety that I am proud of who I am today.

 

This evening I’ll be celebrating dinner with my family, as we always do on this day. However, in celebration of this milestone I would also like to share with you 10 things that I’ve learned in my 10 years since my whole world changed:

1) While anger can be useful to help you get through certain experiences, it does no good to hold on to it longer than is necessary. Holding on to anger is like consuming poison that, day by day, will drain your energy, happiness, and life. For many years I allowed anger to consume me. Learning when and how to leave anger in the past, to let go, and move forward is a key step towards actualizing one’s potential and flourishing.

2) Happiness comes more easily when you focus not on the things that are out of your control and that which you don’t have, but rather on those things over which you do have control, such as your attitude. There are many things that will inevitably happen in life which are out of our control. However, we always have the ability to decide how we choose to react to our given circumstances, and the extent to which we allow them affect us. Remember, as said by psychologist Carl Jung – “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become” 

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Cultivating happiness and personal growth through adventure! (Emerald Lake, Alberta)

3) As the years go by and I get older, I’ve come to realize and appreciate that the most important things in life are not material, but rather experiences and memories made. Relationships with others, opportunities to learn and grow, adventures, helping others – including those those who can never repay you – is what makes life worth living. Being grateful for each day we have, as we never know when it will be our last.

4) I used to be so insecure and hate the things about me that made me different from others – namely, my whisper voice. But now that I’m older (and arguably wiser hah) I’ve grown to appreciate those things that make me unique; to embrace them. Now for me personally, I can think of little worse than to spend my one life being perfectly ordinary and unexceptional. This is not to say that I don’t still experience insecurity, as we all do. However, as I discussed in this post on insecurity and personal growth, the key is learning how to challenge ones insecurities when they arise, so that you may overcome them, grow, and thrive.

5) Our experience in this world is greatly a matter of perspective. For the longest time all I wanted was to be “normal”, but what is normal? It’s so subjective. What’s normal for some may be bizarre for others. My point here is that learning to live with an open mind and an open heart, and to consider a multitude of perspectives, fosters personal acceptance and growth. “Normal” is a fallacy we create to feel comfortable, but it doesn’t really exist as it’s entirely dependent on our perception and perspective of things, events, people, etc.

Me and theo 2015
Challenge your perceptions of normalcy, accept and love yourself – learn and grow

 

6) In these 10 years I’ve realized that, with respect to dating and love, I needed to learn to love myself first, and to be content with being on my own, rather than looking for someone to love me. I’ve come to appreciate that I need not wait to meet the “right” person to start living my dreams. Sure, this may seems obvious but learning how to embrace and practice self-love and acceptance was one of the greatest, and most rewarding, challenges I’ve overcome. Learning how to accept and love oneself is paramount to personal growth and happiness.

7) As I’ve discussed in a previous post on the Value of Vulnerability, I’ve learned that not only is it okay, but also necessary, to be vulnerable. Embracing vulnerability helps one to be more open to others and to life. Many of us have been conditioned to perceive vulnerability as a weakness, but is it really? I think not. In fact, I’ve come to appreciate that having the capacity to accept and embrace ones vulnerability is instead a strength. It was only through allowing myself to be vulnerable and embracing it, that I was able to let go of my anger, move forward with my life, and cultivate happiness.

Ukee sunset 2015
Embrace vulnerability and open yourself up to life! (Adventures in Ucluelet, BC, 2015)

8) One of the most exhausting and toughest lessons I’ve had to learn is that depression is not a black hole from which there is no escape, though I appreciate that it can sometimes feel this way. As I discussed in my post on my personal journey with depression, it CAN be over come. However, this requires that you truly want to heal; recovery and healing are a choice. You must both want it and be open to it. It was not until I decided to take accountability for my circumstances and an active role in healing myself that my life began to change positively. No one could make me do that, except for me. The same is true for each of us.

9) Life gets busy, and it’s easy to push relationships with loved ones to the back burner, because we tend to (falsely) assume that they will always be there. My close call with death and the struggles I endured afterwards have taught me that life is indeed short, and the relationships we have with those we care about are essential; we should strive to appreciate and nurture them, as we never know when that person could disappear from our lives. Make time for loved ones, whoever they may be, while you can – family, friends, significant others, pets, yourself – as you never know when their (or your own) time will expire.

My Birthday 2015
Appreciate those you love and care for – celebrating my birthday with baby Calvy!

10) Our time here in life is finite – it will not last forever. Having come close to death, I no longer fear it. What I fear most instead is failing to live while I have the opportunity to do so. By stepping outside of my comfort zone, I’ve grown tremendously, and I encourage you to do the same. Travel, explore, try new things, meet new people! Be vulnerable, uncomfortable even, because this is how you learn and grow. Challenge yourself constantly, even (and especially) if it’s something the scares you! I’ve never lived far from home, but in June I’ll be moving to Vancouver Island in BC, and let me tell ya – I’m nervous as all get out about it! haha. But I feel this is the next step in my journey and I’m excited to see what the future has in store for me 🙂

Well, here are 10 of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in the past decade. I hope you’ll find some meaning in these, perhaps some inspiration, or hope. Please, do not allow life to pass you by. Embrace it, live it, and savour every last precious moment you have!

Wishing you health, happiness, and love!

xo Julie

The Value of Vulnerability

Hello Beautiful People!

After the positive response to my post on Insecurity and Personal Growth last week, I thought this very honest, raw post would be a fitting follow up. It also so happens to coincide with Valentine’s Day tomorrow, which can be rather difficult for some, as well as the 10 year anniversary of my official cancer diagnosis. Today I’m going to discuss the value of vulnerability.

I’m curious: how many of you upon the mention of “vulnerability” automatically associate this with weakness and negative connotations come to mind? Likely a great many do, and that may be because in many societies we have been socially conditioned to perceive vulnerability as a weakness. (It should be noted that limited research exists on this and there appear to be cross-cultural inconsistencies within the literature).

However, perhaps vulnerability isn’t a weakness at all. Consider this: humans are social creatures and many traits we exhibit have been evolutionarily preserved. By this I mean that since our early ancestors, qualities in individuals that were useful, such as altruism, stuck around because such qualities helped promote survival. However, for the most part qualities that were maladaptive (such as an inability to cooperate with others) and did not help an individual to get along with their social group were unlikely to be passed along to future generations (through reproduction).

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Altruistic behaviour – caring for orphaned baby squirrel, Theo (Summer 2015)

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, feeling vulnerable is something all of us have experienced at one point or another. It’s innate and has been evolutionarily conserved, therefore it must serve some sort of beneficial purpose to survival. So why are we taught to perceive it as a weakness? Could it be instead that those who allow themselves to be vulnerable in social situations are actually at an advantage? As research suggests, this may indeed be the case.

Allowing oneself to be vulnerable facilitates social bonding and helps cultivate closer relationships with important individuals. Historically, this would have helped with survival because it’s good to have someone who’s “got your back” when things get rough.
Yet in the modern emotionally constipated climate in which we live, the notion of being vulnerable has all but been suppressed.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness”Brene Brown

Given the evidence, it is plausible that we are actually fighting against years of evolution for an adaptive and beneficial trait. Further, perhaps this discrepancy is resulting in negative consequences regarding our ability to function socially and build the close, intimate relationships we often crave with others. Moreover, this suppression of innate vulnerability may be fueling the increasing levels of anxiety and depression which many individuals now struggle with.

From my own experience, I’ve come to understand that vulnerability IS a good thing, but requires balance. Here’s a personal example: On February 14th 2006 I was diagnosed with a stage IV malignant tumour in my throat. I was told that if I did not undergo surgery to remove my larynx (voice box), followed by chemo and radiation, I would without a doubt soon die. I still remember lying in the hospital bed hiding under the covers, crying for hours. Then came the rage, as I angrily told everyone I’d rather die than have to end up with no voice, all alone, and unloved (oh the theatrics and naivety of teenagers haha, but I genuinely believed this would be my future at that time). I had resolved not to receive the surgery; to simply allow myself to die rather than face a future of struggle and uncertainty.

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Social bonds – my wonderful family & two of my beautiful best friends for over 20 years (June 2014)

What made me change my mind were my family and friends. I saw how much this hurt them and how afraid they were, and it broke my heart to see their pain. I’m a very empathetic person and find it distressing to watch others suffer. Fortunately, this motivated me change my mind and I agreed to have the surgery.

After the surgery physically I recovered quickly. It’s amazing how rapidly the energy returned to my body once I didn’t have an enormous tumor sucking the life out of me (quite literally). But soon after came the chemo and radiation treatments, which nearly did kill me. I underwent 6 weeks of radiation and 3 intense chemo sessions. The chemo made me extremely sick. Then there was the radiation, which burned my skin, scarring it and the underlying tissue. Due to the pain and nausea, and fact that everything tasted metallic (a side effect of the treatments) I could eat very little. But I’m stubborn and I refused to give in to my broken body. It was my anger and the walls I’d put up since my diagnosis that I believe got be through it. I’d resolved to be invulnerable. To show no weakness to the disease that was trying to take my life.

For example, the radiation suite was on the basement floor of the London Regional Cancer Center and there was a flight of spiral stairs to get from the main floor to the basement (or of course there were also the elevators). I’d decided that no matter what I would take those stairs every single day, down and back up. Though near the end I was so weak I literally had to crawl up them (what a ridiculous sight I must have been hah), I still forced myself to take the stairs. I laugh about it now, even though I recall how at the time it was exhausting for me to do this. But this was my way of fighting back and proving to myself that I was not vulnerable, but rather I was tremendously strong. Death was not an option.

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About a year after treatment (Spring 2007)

My (perceived) invulnerability had served it’s purpose: I survived. However, after all of the struggle and treatments my walls did not come down, but rather stayed up for years. Unfortunately, it took me several years to realize that I needed to let my walls come down in order to move on with my life. I needed to learn how to be vulnerable again. This was a terrifying prospect for me. I’d experienced considerable trauma and the emotional and psychological aftermath nearly consumed me. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable anymore, but I knew that I needed to learn how to cultivate my vulnerability so that I could start living again.

And so I began meditating and practicing yoga. Reading as many books as I could  (“Happiness” by Matthieu Ricard, is one of my favourites and has helped me greatly), and learning all I could on how to open myself up to others and to the world; on how to be vulnerable again.

One of the most influential sources that helped me rediscover my vulnerability was a TED talk by Brene Brown, in which she discusses the power of vulnerability in a delightfully humorous way, and how it IS ESSENTIAL to allow oneself to be vulnerable. Because, as you will learn:

Vulnerability allows us to connect with others; to experience joy, happiness and love

Please, if you do one thing today make time to listen to this talk because the message is tremendous and truly life changing, especially if you’re struggling with how to allow yourself to be open to others and the world; with how to be vulnerable and accept yourself. I still get shivers when I listen to this talk; it’s truly brilliant.

What I can tell you about vulnerability based on research that has been done, as well as my own experience, is that it is not a bad thing. Indeed, in the years since my cancer I’ve come to understand that those who allow themselves to be vulnerable are the stronger ones. It’s easy to put up walls to protect yourself from the pain and fear you may feel by putting yourself out there and being open to others and to new experiences. It takes far more courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open, knowing full well that you may get hurt and you may fail.

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Stepping outside my comfort zone and learning how to golf in Shuswap, BC. 2015

 

And that’s okay. Pain and failure suck. No one wants to experience that, and yet without it how can we grow? If we’re not making mistakes and experiencing things there is little opportunity for growth.

I would now like to challenge you to be vulnerable. Let down your walls and open yourself to life. Be curious. Go on adventures. Learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. LIVE! My experience has taught me that life is brief and can end very suddenly and unexpectedly. So please don’t hide behind your walls and shelter yourself from life, because you only get this one.

You will feel fear, and it will be uncomfortable, and that’s perfectly okay 

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Experiencing my “spiritual awakening” in magical Ucluelet, BC, Canada

Do not allow whatever it is that you fear stop you. We all have fears. Acknowledge that fear, then walk right through it. I am no longer afraid of dying. Having almost done it before, it doesn’t scare me anymore. What I’ve realized and what I now fear most is the prospect of not allowing myself to live, savor, and experience every opportunity this life offers me.

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Happiness with feathered friends in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (2016)

One of the most remarkable characteristics I’ve come to appreciate about individuals is their ability to overcome adversity, to adapt and to heal, so long as there is a willingness to be open to recovery. This requires vulnerability. It’s taken me nearly 10 years, but I have finally learned to be vulnerable, and I’m a much happier and more fulfilled person for it, able to love and accept love. Whatever walls you’ve built, for whatever reason, consider that perhaps it may now be the time to let them down and to let life in.

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Exploring beautiful Emerald Lake, Alberta, Canada (2015)

With love and gratitude,

xo Julie

ps. If you’re ready to take a step outside of your comfort zone, leave a comment about something that you fear or which makes you feel vulnerable. Simply getting it out in the open is the first step to overcoming it! 🙂