Living With Skin Cancer: Part One – Embracing A Mindset Of Self-Compassion

By Holli Kenley

For most of my adult life, I have dealt with pesky skin spots and minor skin growths, not thinking this may grow into skin cancer. A trip to the dermatologist has always remedied these nuisances with a quick freezing or a simple shaving.  Unfortunately, over the past dozen years, the basal cell carcinomas which were easily treated on my back, legs, and upper chest began to surface on my scalp.  While recuperating at home the last few days after a sixth surgery on my scalp, I am well-aware that my journey with skin cancer thus far may not be as life-threatening as with individuals who are suffering from other kinds of cancer, chronic illnesses, or serious conditions. Nonetheless, I believe in the concept of shared suffering and in the healing connections which draw us together.

Therefore, my message to you is two-fold. I have learned that even though I am not be able to control the progression or the outcome of living with skin cancer, I can embrace a mindset of self-compassion and self-care along the way.

In Part One,  we will explore healing properties of Embracing a Mindset of Self-Compassion in three areas:

  • Knowing and Honoring Your Truth
  • Releasing Your Past
  • Infusing Yourself With Gratitude

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Embracing Self-Compassion

Knowing and Honoring Your Truth

As cancer and other diseases or illnesses have become more prevalent or at least our awareness of them has increased, we often become somewhat desensitized to their intrusion into our lives. In addition, because we are incredibly inundated with troubling news from all aspects of life, we are quick to acknowledge the presence of health issues but we tend to detach ourselves from them for the sake of our own wellbeing. In addition, it is understandable that most folks are doing the best they can trying to take care of their own families, prioritizing their energies and their resources.  Thus, when we are hurting or struggling, we are not always prepared for the lack of compassion from others or accustomed to its lack of sustainability. However, we have within us the ability to tap into our self-compassion, as much as we want and whenever we want. This is not about having a pity-party for ourselves. This is about knowing and honoring our truth.

For example, three years ago I went through two more surgeries on my scalp: one to remove the skin cancer and one to reconstruct the disfiguring to the scalp as a result of the extensive Mohs surgery. The entire experience was further traumatizing due to a lack of standard of care within the physician’s practice.  Therefore, when I discovered four months ago that I was going to need another surgery on my scalp for a new skin cancer, I was quite fearful. I began reliving the surgical trauma and experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Although I am a private person when it comes to physical health issues, I found myself sharing my anxieties with others. I believe that most people mean well but after hearing comments repeatedly minimizing or discounting my condition, I stopped disclosing any information. For me, an insensitivity to or a lack of awareness regarding my situation did not contribute to the emotional support and compassion I needed at the time.

More importantly, I reminded myself that no one else knows my truth.  I and I alone know what I have gone through. I know what I will most likely be required to go through again. Thus, I talk to myself, gently and tenderly. I applaud myself for the courage and strength I have shown before and after my operations and during the healing process. I pride myself in the positive attitude I embrace and in my desire to set an example for others. In the quiet of the night and in my private thoughts, I embrace self-compassion by knowing and honoring my truth.

As you go through your personal healing journey, welcome compassion when others offer it.

When you are in need of further comfort, turn within and tap into your self-compassion, knowing and honoring your truth.

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Releasing Your Past

There are thousands of diseases and illnesses where causation is known or where there is probable correlation to precipitating factors. On the other hand, there are hundreds of conditions where the genesis or origin is unknown or at best there are possible factors of causation. Either way, we are fortunate to live in a time where research is constantly in motion and on the cutting edge of new treatments and therapies. Along with the medical advancements, increase in accessibility to technology has benefited us in a plethora of ways, informing us of protective and preventative measures. Every day on the news, we hear of what foods to eat and what to avoid, how much exercise we need, and what the latest trends are in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Although I believe most folks want to live a vibrant and long life, we also want what we want. And so, each and every day we make choices about how we live our lives, healthy or not.

Consequently, many times we make choices which may not affect the quality of our lives in the short term, but do so in the long term. We are only human. We all think that when we are young what we do will not affect us, or at least not significantly. And there are times in which we do not know the consequences of our actions because the evidence is not available to us. Either way, when health issues surface as a direct result of our own behaviors, we can feel tremendous guilt, fear, and shame.

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, I spent a great deal of time in the sun. I loved swimming and hanging out with friends at a local university pool in our town. During summer, my sisters and I spent almost all our time outside playing. When it came time to attend college, I chose a university located on the beautiful coastline of a Southern California beach. After class and on weekends, I baked myself. In fact, my friends and I basted on baby oil and fried ourselves. Most of my childhood and young adult life, I did not feel pretty or have a strong sense of worth. I thought being tan made me look more attractive, and thus, I felt better about myself.  Because of school and work obligations,  I did cut back on tanning myself, especially as I entered into my twenties. During this time, no one spoke of the dangers of the sun. Or at least, I wasn’t aware of them. It wasn’t until my early thirties when I started to notice some unusual spots on my skin and began seeing a dermatologist on a regular basis.

Each time I sat in the waiting room of the dermatologist’s office, I noticed older patients suffering from very serious skin issues. Although most of the patients were in very good physical shape, their skin overall looked unusually weathered and incredibly damaged. From the dark leathery patches on their skin and their suntan patterns, I presumed some folks were avid swimmer, along with many golf and tennis players. They, like me, enjoyed the sun. They, like me, were paying the unintended consequences.

After a few appointments and lengthy discussions with my doctor, I immediately started making life-style changes. However, I also needed to tend to my feelings of guilt over the years of sun-worshiping. Once again, I turned toward a posture of self-compassion. I chose to release the past and the choices I made. Each time a new skin cancer surfaces, I continue to do so. I have learned that self-blame and self-shame over my earlier choices do nothing to advance my healing journey. Releasing self-deprecating toxic emotions cleanses me, making room for peace and acceptance to take hold.  In addition, letting go of regrets propels me in positive ways as I continue to embrace healthier life choices.

For those whose illnesses or diseases may have no correlation to life choices, it is also important to free yourself from any kind of negative emotions which may accompany your mindset. Fill those spaces with messages of nurturance, kindness, and gentleness. Wrap yourself in a warm blanket of self-compassion.

It is human nature to live life on your terms?

Whether you find yourself struggling with the consequences of your choices or feel betrayed by forces beyond your control, reclaim your self-compassion by releasing your past along with your pain.

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Infusing Yourself With Gratitude To Heal Skin Cancer

Over the past several years, we’ve become more accepting of the power of our minds and its implications on the state of our wellbeing. More and more research is being done on the healing properties of mindfulness, especially as the race for our attention is being pulled in multiple directions because of our digital dependence. While folks are filling their minds with more information or incessant stimuli, studies have shown how many people are feeling overwhelmed and less satisfied with their lives. Thus, many individuals are experiencing a natural draw towards slowing things down, calming their minds, and appreciating each moment before them.  Although many people understand the benefits of maintaining a mindset of gratitude, most find it difficult to sustain. Why?

It is human nature. When we face difficult situations or after we have navigated a crisis, we are more appreciative of what we have, what we lost, or what might still be at stake. Usually those feelings of gratitude linger with us for a while, massaging our weary minds and bathing us in a much-needed reprieve from induced stresses and anxieties. Before long, life goes on and we slowly slide away from a posture of gratitude to one of expectation. The cycle repeats itself, although it does not have to.

This is important. Gratitude never leaves us. We relinquish it. In doing so, we forfeit a sustainable source of self-compassion. As we are facing life-threating health challenges, or undergoing another painful treatment, or wondering if we have the strength to keep fighting, we can refuel ourselves with self-compassion.  We can reclaim our gratitude.  It is right within us.

A week ago in the early hours of the morning, I lay on a gurney closely observing the nurses, the support staff, and the doctors as they prepared me for surgery for skin cancer. Thinking about my life being placed in the hands of others, I was overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability. Even though I had experienced surgery many times before, for a few moments I was frightened. Warm tears slid down the sides of my face. Then, I turned to face my husband, sitting next to me. As he held my hand, I thought about how grateful I was for his love and his generous care-giving spirit. I thought about the many times he had taken care of me and how blessed I was to have him in my life. The lead RN saw my tears and quickly leaned in to whisper a few words of comfort. I whispered to myself, “Thank you. I am grateful for you.” I thought about my doctor, whose kind gentle persona, is exceeded only by his extraordinary surgical talents. After he checked in with me, I quietly gave thanks for him. As another RN started my IV and I was rolled me into operating room 10, I saw the bright lights and the smiling faces of the team. I once again reminded myself of how fortunate I was to be where I was with support for healing skin cancer, with trusted compassionate healers, and I closed my eyes infusing myself with gratitude.

In closing, as we work towards becoming more mindful and incorporating gratitude into our lives, this is important.

We cannot experience two opposing emotions at the same time.

For example, we cannot be fearful and be grateful. We cannot feel vulnerable and be thankful. We cannot feel empty and alone, and be appreciative for those who are caring for us. Most importantly, we need not wait for crises to come and go, tethering ourselves to intermittent or fleeting external sources of gratitude. We can live each day embracing our own.

It is only natural to feel discouraged, angry, and fearful as you confront the many challenges of your wellness journey. Breathe. Be gentle with yourself. Begin paying attention to the sources which surround you.

Then, infuse yourself with gratitude as you acknowledge all the good in your life. Feel your self-compassion soothe your soul. I hope my experience and guidance can help you deal with your journey with cancer and recover.

Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children 

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