Get over it or get past it (or both)?

No! I didn’t get over it already. What’s more realistic is I’ve gotten past it. Trauma is like flowers that bloom, go dormant, and bloom again. Get over it implies the impact ended. Get past it implies overcoming the impact. Overcome and end have different finish lines. I’ll get over the cancer experience once there’s a cure.

Here’s evidence I’m past it:

  • Less intense panic attacks
  • Fewer decisions I’m too paralyzed to make
  • No need to explain that quadruple mastectomies dictate my wardrobe choices.
  • Haircuts are haircuts, not flashbacks about being bald.

What’s the ‘it’ I’m past?

The radiologist, who I’d never met, entered the room, stared at the screen, and declared with certainty the abnormalities on my breast ultrasound were benign. The ultrasound technician looked shocked but didn’t contradict him. The radiologist missed the cancer. When my doctor did follow up, one year late, I was four months from dead of advanced breast cancer. Treatment left me exhausted, underweight, brain-fried, and angry the cancer wasn’t diagnosed before it required heavy artillery.

They made mistakes where they’re supposed to be experts. But, most decisions rely on imperfect information; even experts can’t know every variable. My diagnosis was in time, if not timely.

I’m grateful. I’m past it.

I got news that trumped Fear with Optimism

I met the man who owns my left breast. I chatted with a stranger who said he’s a Medical Researcher studying what breast cancers spread to bones. I said I’d donated the tissue formerly known as my breast to his research project. He said my breast’s in a petrie dish in his lab freezer, and I asked if that’s next to the vegetables.

He said he owes me because without tissue donations he has no research. Now that I’ve had time to process the encounter, I owe him more.

Fear of meaninglessness

I’d searched for the disease’s bigger meaning, overlooking I’d donated my breasts to science. Quadruple mastectomies, chemo and radiation hid the memory. So long as I got my breasts off my chest before they killed me, I didn’t care if they froze or incinerated. They weren’t coming home in a jar.

Now he’s given me hope my tissue can help, especially since the cancer was rare Triple Negative. Unintended, but he reduced my Fear the cancer meant nothing.

Meaninglessness of Fear

Like so many with cancer diagnoses, I experienced numb shock, waves of terror, and masses of esoteric information. Daytime, distracted and busy, I almost forgot Fear. But at night, or when tired, oh, Fear roared.

Where’d Fear’s dizzying power come from? How’d I let Fear dominate me into I’m-gonna-die, world-gone-nuts, paralysis?

Turns out, Fear, you don’t act alone, you get help. Lots of help.

Fear rides with powerful friends

Fear, you shape-shift as Triple Negative Breast Cancer or a herd of stampeding horses, or whatever terrifies. But you boost into big time with government, media, and corporate injections of Fear into anxious mortals. Election cycle, news cycle, and economic cycle – there you and they are, with thin explanations, replaying your message du jour.

Fear, you’re sometimes effective when people feel they lack power in uncertain times. Negative campaigns rely on you – Boo – we’re scared into voting your way, buying a product or service, believing a stereotype.

horse7

What’s the opposite of Fear?

The Medical Researcher invested me with Optimism in the best sense of the word: curious, and informed. Take that, Fear, and negative attack ads. I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer; I gotta have game. Fear, you’re a cycle in need of breaking. And I’m breaking up with you.

Now, I want a name for the state of non-fear. Dictionaries offer antonyms: courage, fearlessness, bravery. But those can co-exist within a stew-pot of fear, stress and anxiety. So they don’t fit as names for non-fear.

How about curiosity or optimism? Research suggests Optimism is both genetic and can be learned to shrink Fear, so I owe my grandparents too.

I’d welcome suggestions: what’s the name of this tentative state of being that’s the opposite of Fear?

 

Escaped from Death again, now exploring Life’s purpose

Death brushed me again, but couldn’t keep a skeletal hand on me. Stunned at the close escape, I clung to the mountain side as eight horses stampeded within an inch of me on the narrow dirt path. Their galloping hooves pounded choking clouds of dust into my eyes and lungs. Their sides were soaked from their hurtling run down the mountain ahead of the two gauchos pursuing them.

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

A few hours before, my hiking companions and I had seen the two mounted gauchos with their six pack-horses heave their way up the mountain fully loaded with supplies for the hut at the top. The eight horses laboured so hard they stumbled and the gauchos urged them with the Spanish equivalent of what our cowboys would in English. We’d already started down the mountain so stepped aside for less than a minute to let them pass.

We felt an urgent need to get to the bottom before we were stranded on the mountain. The hike over the pass and into to the valley had taken more time than anticipated, we’d started from Estancia Peuma Hue later than planned, chosen a more distant route than discussed, and we’d stopped at the mountain climbers’ hut longer than expected. We were late, dusk was punctual. Dark would soon make the descent treacherous.

the pass up; Brian M photo

Frey climbers’ hut; Brian M photo

climbing the pass; Brian M photo

me in the pass up; Brian M.

 

The path was wide enough for one person to walk at about a 35 degree pitch in some places, steeper than that in others. To the right was a fierce drop into a crevasse. To the left, the undergrowth was thick on the mountain wall. The forest was silent, and
smelled too dry.

our party’s scramble over the pass; Brian M. photo

 

I’d fallen behind the others, quads screamed in agony, knees too sore to bend, fiery pain stabbed my rigid hips, and toes hammered into the front of my hiking boots from hours and hours of rock scrambling downs steeper than mountain climbing ups. My left hand was scraped from clinging to sharp edges, my right was cramped in a vise grip on a climbing pole. Both arms ached from hauling my body over boulders. Everything except my earlobes stung, hurt, groaned, creaked or blistered.

And then, I heard the horses.

I looked back, my tired body twisted to see what was happening less than ten feet away.

The lead horse was unable to stop his mad descent, crowded from behind by the other seven. He was propelled along, two horses trying to pass him on a trail wide enough for one person. He tried to slow when he saw me and was broadsided from behind. His herd mates were running unloaded and empty towards their night’s rest and feed. They were in as much of a hurry for the same reasons as us, and much faster. The lead horse half-reared to turn, but had no choice except to continue galloping straight at me.

I ran. Not sure how, but it felt like a run.

“Brian, the horses.”

Iroamtheworld.com

Iroamtheworld.com

Brian McCutcheon heard my yell and turned. The danger was so obvious and the solution so wasn’t. Cliff down, rock face covered in underbrush up, or trampled in between. Brian must have assessed it all in less than a second.

The lead horse’s head was at my shoulder when Brian grabbed my left arm and the strap of my backpack. He threw me backwards and leapt onto the cliff after me. As my feet flew up, they touched the horse’s flank and the next horse thundered past and the next and the next … We had no place to move. As one horse hurtled past with empty propane tanks strapped around its girth, Brian shoved the tank away from hitting us. The two gauchos were last, still urging their lathered and exhausted horses forward. The gauchos were as motivated as the horses to get home.

Then they were gone in a dust cloud and we were left, shaken and unhurt. Had Brian taken a second longer to react, eight horses would have trampled over me.

Brian grinned. “If they’d been prettier horses I’d have grabbed one for you to ride down. They weren’t pretty enough.”

We found my partner, Decker, waiting ahead. They overtook him at a wider section and he simply stepped off the path as they barreled past. We all made it down, in the darkness, feeling our way after 14 hard hours on the trail, Brian’s iPhone our only light. Our wonderful hosts met us with flashlights and guided us to a waiting dinner.

A few years ago, Death in the name of late stage Triple Negative Breast Cancer had me in its sights. Decker felt something even though there was no palpable lump. The oncologist said that, untreated, Death was at most nine months away. Three days ago, Death was at most nine seconds away. First Decker saved me, and then Brian did.

So what am I to make of two such close escapes through the grace of two extraordinary rescuers?

What, I ask, is the purpose of the extra time I’ve been given? I’ve struggled with this as so many cancer or disaster survivors have. Where is the lesson, how am I different, who does it all matter to? The only answer that means anything to me so far is that I haven’t finished writing yet, or done enough for the environment yet, or seen our grandchildren grow up. Even these aren’t enough, so I search for more ways to be of use, to make a difference in this extended lifetime I’ve been gifted. I will write, do what I can for the environment and play with the grandchildren until whatever truth I’m supposed to know appears. I read of those who find their life’s calling from some horrifying misadventure.  If something’s calling me, I don’t hear it yet but at least I’ve woken up enough to listen until I do.

Today, instead of hiking, I went for a horse-back ride, a safe, controlled canter through the Patagonian countryside, to savor the joy of living.

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

photo credit Evelyn Hoter

 

Bogart’s character Rick in Casablanca: an optimist or pessimist?

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Humphrey Bogart as Rick

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Humphrey Bogart as Rick

Rick says to Ilsa: I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world[1]

Then, Rick gets noble and becomes a bean that matters on a hill of beans. He leaves Isla and strides into the fog to fix the craziness in his little corner of the world. Cynical Rick? A hero? What the …? 

Today, Bogie leans against my kitchen wall; his eyes smolder in the shadow of his fedora; he snarls at me, “Sweetheart, if you can’t do much about how crazy the big world is, pick some little problem nearby.”

“Bogie,” I say, “That’s not nobility, that’s optimism.”

Pick a hill of beans

Like most people, I want a life that matters. Having come so close to dead, my quest to live that life has some urgency. Quick! Where’s the accelerated search engine?

Okay, it’s not my destiny to win the peace prize or cure cancer. But, what if Rick was right at Casablanca’s conclusion, when he focused on one little local problem with one small impact? The movie ends before we learn its bigger consequences, but it implies he made a difference. Or is that the optimist’s view? Rick changed his pessimistic outlook and affected – the audience is audacious with hope – the outcome.

Optimistic / pessimistic ambidexterity

What next? Chemotherapy imploded my natural optimism into a pessimism so deep I couldn’t recognize positive action if it stroked my face. I entered one Friday treatment believing the best would prevail. Sunday exhaled a swirling pit of panic and despair; a chemo-induced brain makeover in thirty hours that clung three years.

The upside is my brain now operates as ambidextrous, functioning in optimism and pessimism with equal dexterity. To paraphrase Sophie Tucker, I’ve been optimistic and I’ve been pessimistic. Optimistic is better.

Risk management is a conflict competency

Guess I should thank chemotherapy for the opportunity to live as a pessimist so I can weigh both options and opt for optimism.

Optimism is more than hope, or what I call the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude. It’s also risk management, which is a conflict competency. Recent research suggests that pessimism is an advantage because optimists depend on happy endings. Is this a fair categorization of optimism? Not all optimists treat lottery tickets as a retirement plan, just like all pessimists aren’t good savers for retirement. I seek to mitigate risk whichever outlook I use. Where optimism has it over pessimism is belief in my ability to make a positive difference in outcome. I’m more motivated when my outlook is that my actions might matter. So go ahead, buy the lottery ticket AND save for retirement. Integrate the inner optimist and pessimist.

Adapting to change is a conflict competency

And that’s a conflict competency; integrating the two outlooks is more adaptive than their competing for mental bandwidth. I had an example in conversation with my bio-daughter Beth.

“It scares and saddens me,” Beth said, “that my generation is the last able to do whatever we want. My son won’t enjoy that freedom.”

Pessimism reality check. History and experience suggest that Beth’s correct, everything we enjoy won’t continue. Optimism alert. Other enjoyments await.

Optimism doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to leave my grandson a better world but it’s relief from pessimism’s paralyzing fear and sadness.

What’s next? Well, which problem should I prioritize for 2014: climate change, social upheaval, or 2013’s leftover personal turmoil?

Bogie tips his fedora, glides through my kitchen wall, and is gone.

Wonderful words from optimists: (or, words from wonderful optimists)

“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” ― Desmond Tutu

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank

“Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” ― Nelson Mandela

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese Proverb


[1]Casablanca is a 1942 film about an American expatriate owner of an upscale club and gambling den in the Moroccan city of Casablanca who meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Casablanca_(film)

Resilience helps after a quadruple mastectomy (yup – 4 of ’em)

Oops, I did it again. As in two original breasts, four total mastectomies. Think of that when ordering a double double coffee at Tim’s. After the shock of the first two mastectomies, undergoing another two was – well – a shock. I mean, who has four mastectomies?

Paul comic

“Decker,” I negotiated with my partner, “since you have two nipples to my none, how about a nipple donation? Then you’ll have either a left or right, your choice, and I can have one transplanted to the middle.” He declined.

At least this double mastectomy, on 18 September, was preventative, not because cancer returned. Whew.

remaining breast tissue crop

The July chest ultrasound revealed the bulges were remaining breast tissue and not pooled lymph fluid as we’d believed. Quick consensus followed. Yes, mastectomies may not improve survival. Still, it seemed unwise to leave a potential home for an aggressive cancer while my risk of recurrence is so high. I figured the worst that could happen if I repeated the double mastectomy was that my wardrobe would need adjusting. The worst that could happen if I didn’t have it repeated was too awful to accept as reasonable risk.

Dr. Kanashiro masterfully retraced the incisions she’d made the first time, flattening me further. ‘No’ is still my final answer to reconstruction.

The third and fourth mastectomies were just as miserable an experience as the first and second. Compared to the chemo blowing out my brain, when I fell deep into a non-functional state of profound sadness, repeat mastectomies were only inconvenient. 

Seriously? Have body parts amputated sequentially, endure life alterations in what I’ve dubbed Post Change Syndrome (PCS), and just bounce back? Well, yes. Although ‘bounce’ might be defined as dragging myself up a ragged mountain wall, but that’s where resilience comes in.

In 21 August’s post, I mused about the four qualities that supported my recovery after chemo beat me up:

Resilience, Mindset, Optimism and Discipline.

Once again I relied on these four qualities to recover from drastic change.

The Resilience Project defines resilience well: “In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways.”

I use conflict competence skills to navigate through adversity and negotiate for resources to make my body inhospitable to cancer. But which came first in my case – resilience or conflict competence? I had to trawl my memory for this because, as a professor once said: “scratch a theory, you’ll find a biography.”

Scratch my theory that conflict management is a great skill and you’ll find my biography included battling parents, a home with hostility expressed in screaming insults, leaving me insecure and prone to outbursts. I sought conflict management training to deal with my biography and wound up with a rewarding career and the skills to get through PCS. In my storyline, through negotiation training I gained conflict competence and became resilient.

Grandparents Etta and Meyer Switzer

Grandparents Etta and Meyer Switzer

But I my path to resilience was easier because of one stable person in my childhood – my grandfather.

My new theory: the influence of one stable person plus conflict competence help in adversity. I’m grateful for so many things, including my family and Resilience.

 

The Secret for Recovery from Post Change Syndrome

sadWhether change is from a death, disease, divorce, depression, disappointment, or other disaster, hey, the trauma ended, move on; get over it. Were it so simple. So, I’ll share a secret here first. I’ve figured out what ‘cured’ my PCS (Post Change Syndrome).

Two years ago, Dr. Simpson, exasperated, asked what kept me in sadness when the cancer was in remission. Tears were my silent answer. My risk remains high, so imagine my wonderment that (for the most part) I did get over PCS. But someone recently reminded me of my low time in PCS. Now, with my brain finally engaged again, I’m on a quest to belatedly answer Dr. Simpson’s question.

Origin of the Quest

Trail on the trail 8:2013Trail the Westie’s sensitive terrier nose worked the ground zig-zag, seeking the source of some fantastic smell no human nose appreciated. His determined quest was to sniff the butt of the dog ahead. My intent, compatible with his, was to stay close and keep him safe.

2011-08-05 09.05.22We overtook a shy blind dog that dove behind her human’s legs. Larry, the human, and I untangled leashes and exchanged names. While the dogs lapped sun-warmed glacial water, we admired the magnificence. Larry is also an aspiring writer so next we traded domain names. And then Larry’s reaction to my blog on living  breastlessly: ‘wow, you have a great outlook’.

This response still surprises me. During and since diagnosis I met many with outstanding outlooks. I expected my blog on joyful breastlessness would prove mundane. A chance encounter plus a brain freshly freed of chemo fog launched my quest.

The Questions for the Quest

Being passionately curious, I unleashed my inner terrier:

  1. what is a great outlook?
  2. what are the qualities that facilitate a great outlook despite adversity?
  3. are those qualities common? and
  4. can those qualities be taught, learned, or are they innate (you got ‘em or you don’t)?

I asked my research assistant, Dr. Google, for data on great outlook after adversity. Hmm, 31,100,000 choices. Nap time.

 Methodology of the Quest

in perfect repose 8:2013From the hammock under the apple tree I undertook conflict analyses, rigorous research, and thinking about PCS. No apple fell so I studied Trail’s perfect repose for inspiration.

Findings from the Quest

1. what is a great outlook?

A great outlook is whatever gets someone through PCS feeling sane and healthy on the other side. If it isn’t sane and healthy, it likely isn’t a great outlook. The twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude are privileged as the ‘right’ way to weather PCS’s aftermath, but there’s different adaptive capacities. Cancer Curmudgeon, for example, has a feisty attitude that brooks no guff. It works for her and I always read her posts.

 2. what are the qualities that facilitate a great outlook despite adversity?

In my hammock-based analysis, there are four qualities that made it easier to walk through the PCS goop that clung to my shoes. In order that I employed them, they are:

        1. Resilience: treatments for Triple Negative Breast Cancer were horrible and toxic and I felt gratitude.
        2. Mindset: I don’t quit.
        3. Optimism: it will get better.
        4. Discipline: if that’s my goal, whatever it takes, I’ll do.

3. are those qualities common?’

There are loads of blogs about how breast cancer made someone better, wiser, or nearer God or to life’s meaning. But the qualities that enable the process for doing any of those (should you want to) are not commonly joined together in the blogosphere. These qualities haven’t, previous to this, been identified as the cure to the PCS I invented.laugh

4. can those qualities be taught, learned, or are they innate (you got ‘em or you don’t)?

I’m pleased to report the four qualities of a kick-ass great outlook are indeed quantifiable, measurable and attainable. Resilience and Mindset are teachable traits, Optimism is learnable although it’s also associated with genetics, and Discipline is just a bitch that has to be wrestled to the ground like a runaway.

Conclusions from the Quest

We’ve fragile creatures, body and soul; anyone’s a diagnosis away from disaster. A sudden verdict or invitation can spin us like a tilt-a-whirl midway ride. Recovery from dramatic life altering change is a process. If PCS isn’t a real condition, it sure felt like it when I was inside its grip.

Each person’s cause of PCS is path dependent. Mine can be summed up as: “how do I avoid premature death?” My experience was of PCS as a giant mental vacuum. For me, PCS was the suboptimal edge of panic over what foods to eat, how to rest enough, when to exercise, who’d diagnose new symptoms, where to meditate, why no follow up treatment for Triple Negative Breast Cancer.

Dr. Simpson asked a simple question: what was keeping me stuck in PCS? I didn’t know the answer. The answer I now give Dr. Simpson is to a different question: what got me unstuck from PCS?

Resilience     Mindset     Optimism     Discipline

The next four posts will muse about each quality.

My medical choice is different than Angelina Jolie’s

For anyone who missed Angelina Jolie’s May 14, 2013, NY Times Op-Ed My Medical Choice, she announced her prophylactic (preventative) mastectomies. Now that people have stopped talking about it, I have an answer to the questions I’d dodged about her letter. Oh, to be as quick with a quip as say, Oscar Wilde. Nope, I needed weeks for a comeback line. And here it is: all breast cancers, like all breasts and all risks, are not the same. So the choices are different.

Pretty lame huh? Yeah, pathetic that in two months I couldn’t come up with anything wittier. Except, it’s my truth. Here’s a few ways her experience and mine are different, and then an answer to the big so what?

Angelina had a risk of breast cancer. This was not like facing Triple Negative Breast Cancer. Angelina has small scars, nothing that would make her children “uncomfortable”. That’s different than scars from armpit to sternum on both sides of my chest. Angelina feels she had “a strong choice that in no way diminishes [her] femininity.” I took less than two seconds to choose not being dead over being feminine. Angelina had reconstructive surgery for new breasts that are “beautiful.” I choose to live with a chest as flat as the prairie whose photograph I picked for this blog. Angelina traded her perfect breasts in for other perfect breasts. I donated my perfect breasts to the tumor bank for research without regret or request for visiting privileges.

That’s the ‘what’. And the ‘so what’ is: We have in common we’re both women who weren’t born with breasts, won’t die with our own breasts and didn’t want to die because of our breasts.

Angelina wrote: “Everything else is just Mommy, the same as I always was.”

photo credit: hollywoodlife.com FameFlynet

photo credit: hollywoodlife.com FameFlynet

What else could we be but ourselves, whatever gets amputated, mutilated, rearranged or droopy? But, really, she’s the same as always? We come through trials transformed, like characters in a good novel (or even in the novel I’ve written).

But I understand, I think, what Angelina might have meant. To those who love us and who we love, we’re still here, still strong, still attentive to them. We’ll shove aside our fears and doubts and nightmares and the quivering parts of our guts that worry we’re not out of danger yet, to answer “Here I am” when our loved ones cry out their fears and doubts.

Finally, here’s the ‘what next’. I’ll hug Decker, and Beth, and Marcus, and Andria, and friends and family, and even Trail the Westie Terrier to my flat chest and assume it’s just as comforting and comfortable as Angelina’s perfect implants. Because our loved ones will hear our hearts beat for them, breasts or no breasts.

Mentors light my path like lanterns

As a kid, I didn’t appreciate the people who  tried to help me. I was sure they were just interfering adults. Looking back from this happier place 2013,  I reflect on the opportunities I was too paralyzed with uncertainty and insecurity to accept.

Belatedly, i acknowledge and thank those whose offers would’ve made me a better person. For example, the Vice-Principal at Melville Scott Elementary, who encouraged me to enter a writing contest in grade 3. I didn’t have the self-esteem and spent the rest of the year avoiding him because I’d disappointed him. I could have been wrting my whole life if I’d accepted his offer. Instead, I’m galloping now to catch up. Both the track coach in grade 6 and the captain of the swim team in grade 10 tried to persuade me i was athletic enough to compete. I refused because I didn’t believe either of them. When I finally ran marathon distances in my 30s it felt fantastic. More missed time. A friend’s mom  tried to convince me I’d be happier in grade 12 if I smiled more. I took it as a criticism and scowled for a week. I’m always smiling now and missed years of potential happiness.

The list of people who offered is long. I wish I recalled their names, so I could thank them. The list of offers I accepted is considerably shorter. I was so misguided to refuse.

mentoring image 1However, I can accept the offers I get now. After almost 2 years on disability my role’s changed from recovering cancer patient to full time paid worker. My dream job and I grew apart somewhat while we were separated. So much changed. My teammates are now my mentors, retraining me for my job.

As a conflict manager, I’m okay with that ambiguity. After all, the answer to most questions about conflict is ‘It depends’. Wow. Sounds like understanding cancer.

As my wonderful and brilliant oncologist Danny truthfully said: “The answer to most questions about Triple Negative Breast Cancer is ‘I dunno’.” Wow. Sounds like me back at work. Even experts don’t have all the answers. I had so many mentors on my path to healing and I’m so grateful to them all. Because I sure didn’t have any answers.

mentoring image 2

Returning to work was a similar feeling to the vulnerable and confused uncertainty of starting treatment. I crave a guide. I’m confounded about the ‘correct’ foods to eat or not eat, activities to do or not do. Eventually, the turbulence in my job and health will settle down, routines normalize, and uncertainties give way to competence. I’ll adapt.

41TtAl0NCdL._SX35_

In his book Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Robert Kanigel describes a mentorship chain that can account for the success of generations of people who encourage, generate and pass around knowledge.

When I look for ways to keep at bay the fear lurking in the unanswerable, I come up with gratitude about the twin blessings of wonderful mentors and of their prodding me to be more curious, more open, and more willing to accept help.

1226202418540499494davosmith_Lantern.svg.medNow that I’m back managing conflict again, I remember that a mentor is as valuable to me as a great answer. My mentors are my guides, lighting my way.

How can we make the choices better?

Asking ‘what are the other choices’ is often the right question

The oncologist offered me a choice of do nothing (die within four to nine months) or have six cycles of a chemo cocktail called FEC-D (fuck-D my dear friend Barbara called it).

Yucky options both.

We asked for a week to research other treatments. We learned of one that, although it wasn’t yet in our health system’s protocol, had hopeful outcomes for Triple Negative Breast Cancer. We brought this third option and my oncologist agreed. After treatment ended new research confirmed our choice improved my chance of survival. Whew.

Maybe this is the wrong question: How can we make better choices?

What would happen if the question was: How can we make the choices better?

When my conflict coaching clients produce a choice of either X or Y, and then agonize over whether to do X or Y, I ask: “What are the other choices?”

Changing the question creates a new conversation

Here’s an example from the news: Canada’s federal politicians debated sex selection abortion; that is, should there be legislation banning termination of female embryos because of a cultural or other preference for sons? Debates included the usual pro-choice and anti-abortion arguments.

The better questions weren’t asked: how do we change mindsets so that girl children are as valued and loved as boy children? What would it take to have the gender of the child irrelevant in matters of wedding costs, succession planning, inheritance patterns, and looking after parents in their old age? If women were valued the same as men, domestic security and outcomes for all children would improve.

How to recognize wrong questions?

Here are two familiar choices I consider the wrong question:

Shall we have an intact environment or have jobs fuelling the economy?

Is it better to reduce taxes so people keep more money each month or fund adequate public services so people spend less on the service individually?

And so on. The best answer is – it depends, but the question is a forced choice.

Wrong questions limit the answer. They’re easy to spot in ‘either – or’ simplified extremes pitted against each other. Does asking better questions generate more (better?) options?

Problems reduced to forced choices often result in decision paralysis. Complex human values reduced to rigid simplicity make both choices feel wrong and decisions become hard.

Choice is a blessing if the options are good

Tuesday I go to my office after almost two years on disability. Am I excited to return to work I love? Yes. Scared? Absolutely! Did I enjoy being home? Yes. Which would I rather do – go to work or stay home? It stops at a simple yes because that question is limited. In this time of transition, I’m grateful to have a choice of two wonderful ways to spend my days.

Having choice is such a luxury. The wisdom in the cancer field is that patients involved in their treatment decisions do better. So, on my last weekend before going back to work, I’m sitting in the spring sunshine appreciating the privilege of having choices because of an expanded list of options.

Worlds in our words

My resolution for 2013 is to not wage a courageous fight against breast cancer. I decline to be a soldier in the war on my disease. Nor will I win or lose or survive any struggles as a crusader on a cancer campaign. Count me out as warrior woman battling cancer.

Words are insights into worldviews. The metaphors I prefer involve collaboration and caring, not fear and fighting. The many who saved my life are my team, not my army. Confrontation doesn’t capture my cancer experience and combat doesn’t describe my mindset. Winning or losing to cancer is a random crap shoot, not something I do to or for myself. My strategy for staying alive involves love, meditation, nature, and good deeds.

A fighting mindset feels taxing and fixed to me. A peaceful mindset imports space for growth and adventure. Travel I once managed easily now exhausts me, but I find energy in how people create quality of life on this small planet. In particular, the wonderful people of Taipei, Taiwan inspired me with their tenacious individual improvements of a challenged environment. Here’s what made me happy as I wondered around Taipei.

taipei-2010

http://www.globalphotos.org/taipei.htm Taipei is a megalopolis. Hovering towers rest on unending concrete and asphalt. People live in stacked high-rises. No matter how dense the district and how little earth poked through the pavement, people put a plant or tree somewhere.

alleyBack alleys with buildings abutting the road sported a narrow line of vegetation. Streets with no pedestrian sidewalk had tiny potted gardens. Huge apartments so close together they got little light had greenery cascading from the balconies. The roof of our rented condo boasted an allotted garden for each suite.

Even in this busiest of metropolises there’s nature in cracks in the sidewalk or out of walls as I photographed in Hong Kong. This picture is oriented correctly and that is a wall not ground. I couldn’t stop looking at this tree as traffic whipped inches away.

tree on wallNo surprise that being in nature is a life affirming metaphor that crosses cultures. When it comes to resolutions for the year, my personal health issues are on my mind as is the health of the planet. Small gains towards peace and health are possible, word by word, positive action by positive action. Peaceful mindsets – not fighting ones – will heal the world’s trouble spots. As our world’s health goes, so we go.

I’m blessed to witness how conflict management improves lives, including my own. It’s been years since I’ve used ‘neutral’ to explain mediators’ work because ‘impartial’, as in balanced, is more accurate. Winning and losing doesn’t figure in my work or in my plan for my life, however long I live.

My wish and resolution for 2013: even though there are many types of carnage, may the words and worlds of nature and peace flourish for all, like trees growing from cracks in the wall.