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Finding Wellness during Illness – Ros’ Story with Bowel Cancer

bowel cancer letters on wooden background

This is a guest blog for Disabled Living’s blog by Ros Ben-Moshe, author of “Laughing at Cancer – How to Heal with Love, Laughter and Mindfulness”, part memoir, part healing guide based on her experience with bowel cancer.

No one chooses to get sick, but we can choose how we will respond. This revelation came to test me when out of the blue, at age 42 a colonoscopy revealed a polyp in my rectum. On first inspection it appeared benign, but pathology begged to differ. Within a couple of weeks, I transformed from health promotion academic lecturing about case studies and statistics, to being one.

Consultation with a Colorectal Surgeon

A consultation with a colorectal surgeon outlined three options – do nothing further and hope all is well; have a partial bowel resection which would most likely eliminate cancer but wouldn’t establish if the cancer had spread and option 3; a full bowel-resection to test lymph nodes, construction of a man-made rectum and temporary (all being well) ileostomy. Politely I stormed out of his office. There was absolutely no way I would be choosing option 3.

However, returning home to my beautiful boys, then 12 and 15, and visualising the life I had always dreamed of, the 2-5% chance of the cancer spreading weighed heavily. To secure my future I knew I needed to do whatever it would take to prevent lingering doubts the cancer may have spread. I chose a full bowel resection. From that moment I made a commitment to myself; to let the specialist and medical practitioners take charge of my illness whilst I took charge of my wellness. This was the time to gain some mastery and empowerment over a giddying change to my life circumstance and put my many professional years as health promotion practitioner and laughter yoga facilitator into practice.

Bowel Resection

A week before my bowel resection our family of four gathered around our dining table. Mindful of an active school and community grapevine the last thing I wanted our boys to hear was “Your mum’s got cancer.” We explained I had a malignant polyp in my bowel with a few cancerous cells around it. In order to make sure it hadn’t spread I was choosing to have a bowel resection, as it was the only way the specialist could determine all was OK. I would appear sicker than I really was because it was a very big operation. We steered clear of statistics, allaying chaos and fear, navigating instead towards hope and stability. We sidestepped the “What if’s” deciding that if they asked, we would then respond. The subtext was very clear, “Mum does not have the Big ‘C’, a very small part of her bowel does.” I reassured them that the rest of me was very healthy. I needed them to understand the difference between little ‘c’ and Big ‘C’.

My commitment to a wellness mindset during illness was multifaceted. Each day I tuned into what I felt I needed most – physically, emotionally, or even spiritually. Journaling was critical to this process, helping create some emotional distance, identifying concerns in need of troubleshooting and providing an opportunity to reframe things that didn’t sit well. I reframed the language of cancer into my own language, the little “c”, helping diminish some of its weighty hold. I was incredibly grateful, as time would establish, only a small part of my body housed a malignancy. Later I chose to refer to the bowel reversal as a bowel reconnection. ‘Reversal’ – infused with negative connotation of going backwards didn’t feel right. A more optimistic turn of phrase enabled me to prepare and enter this next operation with a stronger and calmer mind.

Days with Less Energy 

On even the most challenging or energy-sapping days I would incorporate a practice to shift my mood or enhance healing, even if only for a few moments, such as intentional breathing. One of my most powerful “go-to” strategies was intentional gratitude practice. It’s easy getting lost to the associated anxiety and stress a cancer diagnosis necessarily brings, but what we place our attention on grows. A gratitude practice of bringing to mind at least three things that had gone well in my day, no matter how seemingly insignificant, helped train my brain to notice and appreciate the good and distract me from thinking about things that hadn’t gone well, or worrying about what the next day might bring. If I was having a particularly challenging day, I’d interrupt my downward spiral of emotions by asking the question:

“In this given moment, what can I be grateful for?”

If something didn’t immediately come to mind, just by opening my eyes or heart a little wider, in no time it would.

It’s not to say during this time I didn’t have challenging days where my mood or pain got the better of me, but it was incredibly empowering having a range of resources to elevate my own self-care and wellbeing. Whether I chose to draw from this wellness kit was up to me, but I knew I would only feel worse off if I didn’t. Developing this mindset helped remove some of the negativity and weightiness of one of the most negatively laden conditions – cancer. My experience has placed me in good stead to weather many forms of adversity, most noticeably of late, the COVID-19 storm.

Learn More about Ros and Bowel Cancer

To find out more about Ros story and more information on her book, visit: http://laughingatcancer.com/

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