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18 Oct, 2009

Coaching Myself Through Breast Cancer

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: Coaching Articles|Life Coaching Articles

Coaching Myself Through Breast Cancer - Coaching Blog

I had already booked my weekend on The Coaching Academy’s residential course when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was a shock as there was no history of breast cancer in her family and she’d always seemed invincible. At the age of 66, she wasn’t exactly young, but then she wasn’t old either and her great energy, enthusiasm for life and sprightliness made her seem much younger. When one of my sisters remarked that the three of us daughters would have to be vigilant about checking our breasts, I could see her point but wasn’t overly concerned about our health. So, when I found a lump in my own breast I was worried but felt reassured by statistics. I had only just turned 35 and so most likely, it would be a cyst or a benign lump.

I’d been looking forward to The Coaching Academy weekend with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. I’d always made a beeline for the personal development articles in magazines and had used Susan Jeffers’ Feel the fear and do it anyway to get me out of many a sticky mental hole. Through my work as a counsellor for Childline, I’d seen how having an empathetic person at the end of the line helped children to learn to believe in themselves and to see that they did have some power. Our job as counsellors wasn’t to give advice but to listen and help children vocalise what was going on for them. Many a time I came off the phone feeling helpless only to receive a note or a phone call from them the following week to say how much our conversation had helped them. So, when I’d read about coaching something inside me told me it was right for me. And I did indeed love the residential weekend and tried to forget about the hospital tests I was going to the following week to ascertain what exactly the lump was.

The doctor at the hospital was confident that it was benign. She pointed out the darkened area of concern on the scan and said that its shape seemed to indicate a non-cancerous mass. My mother, ever concerned about my health despite the fact that she was currently battling breast cancer herself, was in high spirits as we left the hospital. The visit to get the results the next week seemed to be a mere formality.

I went alone and looked around the waiting room feeling sorry for the women whose results would turn their lives upside down and in the worst cases, foreshorten them. How lucky I was that my results would be clear. But when the same doctor who told me a week before she was 99% sure that everything was okay couldn’t make eye contact, I was less confident. When she told me that it was definitely cancer and the lump was already three and a half centimetres I knew that I was one of those women I’d felt so sorry for. I called my mother who was on holiday and she sat on the edge of the bath and wept while my father tried to get his head round the fact that his wife and daughter both had breast cancer. I walked up the Archway Road and back to Crouch End in a state of numbness and spent the afternoon drinking champagne in my garden with two close friends because we didn’t know what else to do.

But even then, on that dark day in a sunny garden, I knew that it was up to me how I handled this and that the coaching skills that I was learning could help me. It seemed right that I had made that walk from the hospital to my home on my own because ultimately, however much I was loved by friends and family, the resolve to beat this thing had to come from me alone. I did bemoan the fact that I didn’t have a partner to hold my hand through the mire but knew from the things that I’d read and stories of friends of friends who’d fought the disease that having a boyfriend or husband brought with it an extra set of worries – worries about how they would cope and whether they’d find you unattractive when you lost your hair through chemotherapy. I had my inner strength and my growing toolkit of skills to get me through this. And when I encountered doubt and fear, my friends and family would support me back on my pathway.

Encouraged by a book I’d read that stated that statistics show that women who plan futures tend to fare better, I started off by setting myself precise goals. I wrote with conviction a detailed description of my ideal world six months, one year and three years from that date. I chose a postcard of a picture I liked to write my goals in short and read it every morning and night, visualising my positive future.

I read accounts of people’s recovery from cancer, avoided self-help groups that felt too scary and sought out role models, like Wendy, a fantastic lady in her sixties who was a friend of my friend’s father. She had eschewed the mastectomy advised by her doctor when she was diagnosed in her thirties and had instead followed a route of alternative therapy. When her cancer disappeared from her body, the doctors were bemused but it was clear to Wendy that this was the result of the pathway she had chosen for herself. Whilst I wasn’t about to cast aside conventional medicine, I admired her conviction and determination to make decisions that were right for her. What felt right for me was to back up the chemotherapy, lumpectomy and radiotherapy with anything I could do to help myself.

I used my course work for my Diploma in Life Coaching as a way of keeping myself focussed and my sights firmly set on the future. And with a prolonged period of sick leave, I was able to use my ‘well’ spells to throw myself into my work and back it up with lots of reading. I applied the principles of the self-help books to my own situation and in the dead of night, when I woke alone and full of fear, I learned to calm my thoughts and to look for a flicker of hope somewhere inside me and fan it into a flame.

I started to nurture my body with nutrients from fresh organic produce and to look after it properly. This not only meant taking up yoga and meditation but giving myself a break from the negative inner voice in my head that used to berate me about not being good enough. I knew that I had to really learn to love myself and look after my mind as well as my body. I understood now that my mind wasn’t something uncontrollable that led me wherever it felt like going but that I was in control of it and I started to see the dead ends and tangles it had led me into. I developed a different voice that was more caring and supportive; a wiser, more grown-up voice than the one I had carried with me since childhood and it told me that it was alright to be less than perfect.

I learned the principles of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and how I could make a film in my head of how I wanted my life to turn out with an accompanying internal soundtrack. I read about a useful exercise to encourage healing by creating a really strong image of a future me in complete balance and health. When the picture was perfect, I imagined turning up the colour and stepping into it.

Sometimes my new fangled ideas received opposition from others: a casual conversation with a Christian friend about how healing was helping me elicited a response that I was communing with the Devil. That did, I admit, rattle me somewhat but I learned that journeys are very individual things and that what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander. If I was feeling a little shaky around people whose take on life was very different from my own, I simply kept the details of my own approach to my recovery quiet.

I made sure that the friends I kept close to me weren’t the kind of people who would laugh at the positive affirmations I kept on my fridge door or the fact that I visualised myself being well and healthy and walking along a beach, before I dropped off to sleep every night. Instead, they supported my very individual decisions about how to proceed. They made me fresh juices and millet loaves that they knew I would appreciate. And when I needed a release from all of the virtuous living, they supported me then too: my sister drove out to buy me bacon at eleven o’clock at night for my requested bacon sarnie a few days after chemo, and my friend Gail brought me my favourite pizza when I was hospitalised for neutropenia. Together, we learned that we didn’t have to be serious about the cancer all of the time and that we could laugh at the ridiculous wig and delight in the fact that I managed to pull in a nightclub wearing it. And in the same way that they respected my choices, I learned to respect my mother’s decision to stick firmly to the conventional route and to not question her doctors.

After each chemo session had been given a chance to work, I stepped up onto the couch at the Marsden and had the lump measured with a primitive set of forceps. By the time I had my lumpectomy, it was about 4 mm. Radiotherapy seemed a breeze in comparison to the ferocity of the chemo and the subsequent three weekly sessions of herceptin were a walk in the park. Things became less charged, less emotional and life took on a more normal feel. When I was well into recovery and I could put a bit of space between the cancer and me, it felt right to coach women who were finding their way through cancer. And so, alongside my teaching job I started to coach them in the way that Wendy, and other women and men had helped me to see that I did have a future.

My favourite saying is that remission from cancer is just that, a chance to change your mission in life. Those changes might be big or more usually small, baby-sized even, but somehow they seem to take on a momentum of their own and like the ripples of a coin thrown into a pool of water they can be far reaching. Because understanding for the first time that you really will die one day and that your personal journey through life has to be of your own and not others’ making is a powerful thing to know.

By Sarah Fowler

14 Responses to "Coaching Myself Through Breast Cancer"

1 | june

October 21st, 2009 at 9:42 pm

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hi sarah
thanks for sharing your journey and bringing truth into the light,you are not alone
love and light to you,the light that dispels darkness and fear

2 | Jacqueline Pigdon

October 23rd, 2009 at 10:00 am

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Sarah your journey is inspirational. I trust you will help many many women through cancer in such a positive and healing way as you have done yourself.

It also helps others to appreciate their health and wellness when hearing your story.

Live Your Best Life!

Jacqueline Pigdon
Existentialist & Spiritual Coach

3 | Louise Riman

October 23rd, 2009 at 10:14 am

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Wow, Sarah, you’re amazing! To have created and lived the belief that you can beat this thing and to be living life with such sunny vision sort of makes me really contemplate my feebleness. You really inspire me, thanks, and clearly give so much to so many through your friendship, teaching, counselling and coaching. I wish you a fantastic future… Go Girl!

4 | Gayle Vaatstra

October 23rd, 2009 at 10:52 am

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Your story is very similar to mine and I can relate to it totally. I too, as a therapist/counsellor had to put into practice my own positive future plans, even though at times it was hard, whilst going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I know that this keep me strong throughout all of my journey with breast cancer.

I am now out the other side and look to the future with more positivity than I would ever done before. My attitude to life has changed to one of ‘make it happen’ instead of ‘let it happen’!

Keep your future positive

Gayle Vaatstra
http://www.aspirationstherapy.co.uk

5 | Jose Penrose

October 23rd, 2009 at 12:42 pm

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I had colon cancer early last year, followed by chemo and used EFT (tapping) alongside my positive affirmations. I tried to live as normal life as possible around the chemo, supported by my husband and understanding friends. It’s only looking back that I realise how low I was physically with the chemotherapy but now, a year on, I am feeling fine. A positive attitude is very important, however you achieve that. Good luck in the future.

6 | david Brient

October 23rd, 2009 at 12:48 pm

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Hi Sarah,

your story and experience are a great example in so many ways of how we must help ourselves when we become sick.
I wrote a short book a while ago which is about dealing with stress and fear and how they affect our success.
I would like to send you a copy if you can provide an address.
This year my mother passed away as a result of ovarial cancer.
I am now recovering from a nasty appendicitis which resulted in peritonitis….I have found the ideas I wrote about prior to these events to have new sense of meaning. I am working on writing another small booklet on surviving thro sickness!
best wishes
David Brient

7 | Cathy

October 23rd, 2009 at 2:05 pm

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Hi Sarah. Thank you for sharing your story. I was inspired. I have been through something similar with ME and gave up my full-time job to coach from home. I am now planning to help others who suffer with ME to come out the other side of it with the healing power of a genuine positive mental attitude. If you would like to know more, or if you know of anyone suffereing from burnout, chronic fatigue or ME, please contact me at cathy@skys-the-limit.org

8 | Sama Ndango

October 24th, 2009 at 8:22 pm

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Hi Sarah,

What an inspirational strory. I am so proud of you, for sharing your story to the rest of the wold.
I beleive everyone should learn from your positive healing appraoch to what happened.

My life changed over 2 years ago when my partner and i loose an 8 months pregnancy. It is the hardest pain i ever went through and i really asked alot of questions.

You know mother nature cannot give you any situations that you cannot handle. There is abundant power in all of us that when released, we can really perfom miracles.

Infact i used the power of positive thinking, Positive visualization, meditation and alot of positive self talk to become really happy and successful.

Today i am very proud and happy that the adversity took place and that out of it, i discovered my abundant powers to help people achieve the best in their lifes. There is something good in anything that happens.

I am a Speaker and coach today because of my love for empowering people.

God bless you Sarah

Sama Ndango

9 | Susannah Brade-Waring

October 25th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

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Sarah

Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story. That in itself takes a great deal of courage. I love your definition of remission. You’re an inspiration to more people than you realise.

With best wishes, Susannah : D

10 | Susannah

October 26th, 2009 at 1:03 pm

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Dear Sarah

Your story touched a cord with me because my mother is curently battling breast cancer at the grand age of 76. Like you, I am 36, and on my own. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for you to have cancer at the same time as your mother, and I am inspired by how you found strength to overcome your difficulties and gain something from this terrible experience.

I am sure that you will be an inspiration to many, and that your experiences will help to ease this difficult path for others.

I wish you continued strength.

Susannah

11 | Coaching Mittelstand

October 28th, 2009 at 1:41 pm

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Hello Sarah, I am from Germany and I also want to thank you for sharing this story with us.
I admire your heart and your courage and I wish you all the best for the future.

12 | Bev James MD of The Coaching Academy

October 29th, 2009 at 11:43 am

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Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your story, you have clearly touched the hearts of our readers.
Your story is inspirational and practical. I also love our definition of remission!
Wishing you the very best for the future,
Bev

13 | Paula Radford

November 3rd, 2009 at 4:24 pm

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Sarah, what a beautifully written piece. I just took 5 mins out of my work routine to read this and I am so glad I did. I already feel more hopeful that there are people like you – strong, brave and generous – who are willing to share thier experiences for the benefit of others. Sincere good wishes for continued good health for you and yours. You should consider writing a book – you have a lovely way with words! You can tell from all the lovely comments above just how touched we all are. All the very best,
Paula

14 | Karen Williams

November 12th, 2009 at 4:56 pm

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Hi Sarah, thank you for sharing your story. I have realised recently that we spend so little time looking after our emotional wellbeing and what is really important to us. It often takes a time like this to stop and take stock. Good luck with your ongoing recovery, Karen

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