Getting our Facts Straight

We made a new friend.

My daughter and I had the most wonderful day yesterday. We went out for lunch, did a little shopping (and laughing) at the mall, and went bowling with some friends. I honestly did not think about cancer once. Why? Because at this moment, my cancer is gone from my body, thanks to modern medicine.

After I got home from our wonderful girls’ day, I was resting on the couch checking Facebook. I noticed an article being shared around. As I read it, my heart started to pound and my hands started to shake. I wanted to scream at my innocent little phone screen. For there it was, another article about cancer survival rates being the same as they were a century ago and the “cancer industry” being all about making money and not about curing cancer. The author makes reference to a documentary that refers to the treatments I’ve had (radiation, chemotherapy and surgery) as “burn, poison, slash.” They make a claim that if people would only use natural approaches to cure their cancer, the rates of survival would be higher.

I am not a medical doctor, nor a scientist, but as a cancer patient I have done a lot of reading and research. When someone looks you in the eyes and tells you that you have stage 3 cancer, you sit up and you take notice.

When my cancer care team came up with a treatment plan for me, I researched it. The decisions they made were based on years of clinical trials and millions of dollars of research. If I had grown these tumours in my body 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, I would be on my death bed at this point. But here I am, bowling with my little girl and taking silly pictures at the mall.

When I made the decision to undergo 12 heavy rounds of chemotherapy after already having gone through so much, I did the research first. My oncologist explained to me that the chemo would reduce the risk of a recurrence of my cancer from about 65% to 25%. I read the journal article that laid out the research that was done in clinical trials with my chemotherapy regime. The people who took part in these trials had the same cancer as me. And their outcomes were better because of this course of chemotherapy. Thankfully, now I will get the same benefit. So I will be forever grateful to the researchers, doctors and nurses who ran these trials, and the clinical trial participants themselves.

These days, I’m following immunotherapy research. If my cancer does come back in the future I may benefit from this research. As a matter of fact, I have met people online, many who are living with stage 4 cancer, who are being kept alive today by new, cutting-edge methods of treating cancer such as cyber-knife technology, targeted drug therapy, or immunotherapy.

Image result for nobel prize for immunotherapy
Allison and Honjo were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 2018 for their work in Immunotherapy Research
Image result for nobel prize for immunotherapy
A little breakdown of Immunotherapy research by Allison and Honjo. Many patients’ cancers have been put into remission with this therapy. Some of them were only days from dying at the time.
https://www.cancerresearch.org/immunotherapy/stories/patients/emily-whitehead

I take a holistic approach to my health, and always have. Before my diagnosis I ate well and exercised and generally tried to take care of my mental, physical and spiritual health. Throughout my cancer treatment I have been going for massages and acupuncture treatments to relieve my symptoms and help with my general well-being. I use mediation, yoga and visualization to calm myself and deal with the psychological toll of this experience.

I believe that integrating Eastern medicine approaches into my treatment plan has helped me immensely in my recovery, but there was no “natural approach” that was going to shrink my big tumour and its’ little sidekick deposit. Cancer got radiated and shrivelled and cut out of me just before it ran rampant through my body. My insidious little batch of mutated cells were marching their way into my lymph nodes, but my surgeon and her team halted their progress. These people are my heroes, and I can’t help but get upset while reading an article that suggests that they are only in it for the money.

The article I read yesterday suggested there was no cure for cancer. But, in fact, cancer is entirely curable if caught early enough. Researchers and medical professionals know this. This is why we have screening for colon, prostate, breast and cervical cancer to name a few. Again, years of research and a lot of money has gone into developing screening tools and treatments for pre-cancer or early stage cancer, as well as approaches to prevention.

If you are interested in reading about cancer rates, treatment, or research globally, I’d suggest you start with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). One of the recent articles posted there discusses the recent rise in survival rates in wealthy countries for certain types of cancers. Of course, their information is based on properly conducted scientific research.

https://www.iarc.fr/news-events/new-iarc-study-reports-increasing-cancer-survival-and-progress-in-cancer-control-across-high-income-countries-since-1995/

I hope this post helps to explain to people that, when they donate to cancer research, they are really making a difference. I also hope that, if your life is touched by cancer now or in the future, you have access to the kind of care and treatment that I have had. My doctors and nurses have been nothing but compassionate and informed. They made, and continue to make, educated decisions for me and my health, and here I am.

I still have a way to go in my cancer experience. I am not the same as I was a year ago, but I am alive. I am bowling and writing this post. I am kissing my daughter’s cheek during funny moments at the mall.

And to the “cancer industry” that yesterday’s article presented in such a scathing light? All I can say is “thank-you.”

Waiting for a scan in this classy get-up. MRI machines are just one of the amazing technological developments that help diagnose and treat cancer.

Cutting Through the Food Noise

Fresh seaside calamari at Sansome’s Lobster Pool in Hillgrade… not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure!!

I clearly remember the first time that I started to think about my food consumption. I was eleven years old. I had gained a little weight, as many kids do during their pre-pubescence, and my pants were tight. I was sitting in class and I coughed, and the button popped right off my pants and flew across the room.

It could’ve been an embarrassing situation, but I don’t recall anyone else really noticing. I just remember an arrow of a thought deftly skewing my happy childhood oblivion – You have to lose weight!

Like most kids of the 80’s, I sometimes ate cheez whiz and chips ahoy. We barbecued regularly in the summertime on charcoal, and on Sundays we happily filled a brown bag with penny candy at the neighbourhood shop to enjoy after leaving family swim at the Y. But we always had plenty of fresh local seafood and home-cooked meals every night, and Mom usually drew the line at sugary donuts, chips and pop, unless it was a special occasion like a long car ride. We almost never had fast food, because my father refused to eat it. He referred to it as “cardboard.”

In my family, I was the one who loved food the most. Mom says that on those long road trips, when I would get cranky and fight with my brothers, all she would have to do is ask, “Where should we stop for lunch?” and I would instantly drop my fists and cheer up.

So, at age eleven, when I first started worrying about my diet, my parents helped me to make healthy choices and limit myself to eating three meals a day, reminding me to eat when I was hungry. My mom encouraged me to listen to my body. As I grew and stopped eating whole sleeves of crackers out of boredom after school, my weight leveled off. But after that moment in grade-six, I was always wary of food. I think most of us are.

We are now bombarded with “information” about food, and sifting through it can be exhausting. There are so many different types of diets, many of which advocate removing whole food groups from your life. Throughout my thirties I was dealing with bowel issues, and I spent a lot of time reading about food and adjusting our family’s dinners to make them cleaner, more plant-based, higher in fibre, more organic, and on and on.

After my diagnosis, I read that cancer cells love sugar, and that diets such as the keto, which are absent of sugar, can help slow the growth of cancer. Now, the keto diet is generally high in animal protein and red meat consumption has been linked to bowel cancer, so I didn’t know what to think of that. Most books I read that specifically detailed an anti-cancer diet promoted a plant-based diet that is chock-full of fruits and veggies, legumes and whole grains. These are some of my favourite foods. But, after my surgery, I developed stomach issues and even the thought of a raw fruit or veggie made me really sick. This has continued throughout my chemotherapy regime. Raw food sometimes makes me feel gross, and if it is cold it causes nerve pain in my throat. For the first number of weeks of chemo I ended up eating a lot of immuno-bark and white things, so thank goodness for my friend Vi’s tea-buns.

So there I was, eating chocolate and white things and wondering whether I was doing enough to discourage the growth of cancer in my body. I was trying to avoid dairy, meat, and sugar, while eating lots of vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains, but I was failing miserably.

And then one day, a conversation with my friend Robin turned it all around for me. I was telling her about my food difficulties and she said, “What makes you feel good?” I stopped and thought about it, and I wasn’t sure. I told her all the conflicting nutritional information I’d read and she said, “You need to forget about that, and eat intuitively.”

Basically, she said to listen to my body and give it what it needs. She said that if I eat something and it is no good for me I will know. And she gave me some really great tips about easy snacks to prepare.

It sounds so simple, but I’d spent so much time reading and digesting information and trying to make sense of it that I’d forgotten the basics. Eat intuitively. Your body is wise.

Food is one of the pleasures of life and I am fortunate to have access to affordable, healthy food. I thought about my grandparents, who worked so hard to feed their families simple, nourishing food. I remembered the basic guidelines I’d been teaching my kids as I’d been taught – cook fresh food for your family and eat together at the table and don’t eat when you aren’t hungry. I decided then and there to eat mindfully and enjoy my food as much as I could and to stop feeling guilty about it. My choices have been mostly healthy since then, but when I have a treat I delight in it and I tell myself it’s okay.

On a recent getaway to Knight’s Landing in Moreton’s Harbour, my friend Jenn delivered Asher and I a lovely, healthy breakfast. We thoroughly enjoyed it!

To lead healthy, mindful, fulfilling lives, sometimes we need to cut through the noise that is all around us. The food noise is big, and looms large on the internet, in book stores, and on television. I’ve cut food research out of my life for now, and I am happier for it.

Is there anything you’ve had to stop investigating, dear reader, for the sake of your own mental health and wellness? If so, I’d love to hear about it!

If you drop it, we will eat it. And we won’t feel bad about it at all!!

Art and Life, Intertwined

Book Crossed Lovers, 1997

I have always measured my life in books in the same way we categorize events by the song we were listening to at the time.

1990 – Riding around Badger Lake on my dirtbike with Robin, my best friend, hanging off the back balancing a ghetto blaster, while my dog Midnight tore up the road behind us? It could only be John Cougar Mellencamp ringing out loud in that memory. And what was I reading at the time? Cynthia Voigt, Norma Klein, Stephen King, and as many weird and dark accounts of para-psychological misfits as I could get my hands on. I liked strange, oppressive, scary or sad things in my art. I still do.

The other day, Deanne, a friend and book club buddy, nominated me for a book challenge, which involves posting a picture of a book you love every day for seven days on facebook. What fun! I started scanning my bookshelves and digging through old boxes. I had dozens of books I wanted to share, but in the end I picked mostly recent loves and one old childhood favourite – The Secret Garden. I read it 18 times if I read it once.

As I dug about in my pile of books, I came across a forgotten pair.

Literary Criticism, 1996

This pair of books were purchased separately in early September, 1996 by myself and Asher. When we bought our books at the Acadia Bookstore we did not know one another. But this particular novel was one of many on the list for the Literary Criticism course that Asher and I were both enrolled in as a requirement for our English degrees.

We met on the first day of class. I was walking up Linden Street, carting a backpack full of groceries. He was jogging lightly down the street in boxer shorts and a t-shirt, on the way to the corner store to get a newspaper.

When I saw him I did a double take, and not just because he was running down the street in his underwear. He just had an aura. He was happy, he was comfortable. I just knew he was a good soul. Of course, as we neared one another, I was faced with the unnerving prospect of running into him head on. I felt very Meg Ryan as I swerved one way on the sidewalk. He, true to script, swerved the same way. Our eyes met, we giggled, and then we both swerved the other way. We stopped, laughing, and he hopped aside while performing a gallant sweep of his arm, indicating the direction I should take.

I went home and told my roommates about this interesting young man I had met on the sidewalk. I still remember them laughing as I told the story.

Two hours later, I walked into Literary Criticism. Guess who walked in behind me? We looked at each other and grinned and both said, “You’re the girl/guy I ran into on the sidewalk earlier!” He sat next to me and the rest, as they say, is history.

But back to the pair of books. We were assigned certain books to critique and given approximate dates to be prepared to present on. We never quite knew when our professor would call on us. It was a very serious seminar class and there were so many smart people there. They were always ready to present. Asher and I, getting to know one another, were not so interested in the class. We were probably really annoying to the other students. And, as the term went on, we got a little lazy. Or, at least, Asher did.

I will never forget the day Asher was called on to critique Loitering with Intent by Muriel Sparks. He ambled up to the podium and held up the book. “Flirting with Intent,” he said, “was a very interesting read.”

I felt my face grow bright red as his freudian slip registered with the rest of the class and a few people tried to suppress giggles. Asher, either not noticing or caring, continued to rate the book on a scale of 1 to 10. I felt myself slipping lower in my seat. But, Asher, always cool and calm and unconcerned with impressing others, continued by soliciting the class as to their opinions of the book. He ran a nice little discussion, thanked everyone and returned to his seat. “Well,” he whispered to me as our professor glowered at him over his glasses. “I think that went pretty well.”

He never did read the book first nor last. I did read it, and I honestly remember nothing about it. Yet, when I came across this pair of books, unenjoyed and uncelebrated yet kept for many years, the sight of them brought me right back to that fateful class. Asher and I sat there that year, getting to know one another, and we had no idea what was ahead of us.

Asher cooked fajitas and played Buddy Holly on the guitar on our first date. I wanted to impress him so I called my friend, Jude, and said, “what do I pick up to go with Fajitas?” to which she replied, “Corona, of course!” Oh, she was so much more worldly than I was! I could always, can still always, count on Jude.

We are 18 years into our marriage now. We have been busy. At one point, in the span of five years, we had three babies, moved three times, changed jobs four times, and completed two masters degrees. We have also spent a lot of time building traditions, some of them as simple as our morning coffee and chat. We spend time with our kids and our friends and families. We work hard, but we have fun together.

We never thought we would be dealing with a cancer diagnosis this early on in our lives. But, as hard as this must be for him, Asher doesn’t step back any more than he stepped back from that long ago book critique. He just does what he has to do. He doesn’t agonize over things, or wonder, “why.” That carefree, boxer-wearing, newspaper reading, comfortable-in-his-own-skin guy, he just takes life as it comes.

Dad practices piano everyday, and sometimes I like to relax and listen.

I was telling Asher over our coffee this morning that I am starting to feel this difficult time peeling away from me like the skin of an onion. The first, toughest layer is shedding off. I will get there.

But I will be looking back on this time and remembering my dad playing piano to me while I lay on his couch hooked up to my chemo pump while my mom makes me tea. I will remember how Dad and Mom and I shared books together, and these books will go in my collection and I hope I will run my hands over them in 20 or 30 years and think of this.

Minimalists would like me to toss these books, but I never will. I will never toss any of my books. I am doomed to forever carry these books around and someday, hopefully a long time in the future, my loved ones will be forced to sift through them and get rid of them, or decide what to keep. They will not know the stories of all of my books, any more than I know all of the thoughts and memories etched in their hearts, but they will know some.

Like any work of art, each book tells more than one story – there is the story the author laboured over, and the story of the life of the reader.

Why do writers write? Why do writers share their innermost thoughts, their perspectives, their observations? Even a work of fiction reveals so much about the way the author sees the world, or moves in the world.

Why do I share things in a blog? I have asked myself this question many times, and I’m sure people wonder why I put this out there. But, for some reason, I am compelled to. Mostly it is because I hear from others who have experienced similar things or who simply enjoy reading it. This connection feels so right. It is humbling and empowering at the same time.

When you write for an audience, you share ideas and experiences. You start a dialogue. You leave something outside of yourself in the world and you hope it will resonate with just one other person. Your onion skin sheds off, and you become lighter. Awareness can be raised, and changes can come about.

Deanne, the same friend who nominated me for the book challenge, gave me a book about writing through trauma just before my surgery. It was a catalyst for me. It was one of the many perfect gifts I have received lately, not the least of which is your time, dear reader.

I want to thank you. Your time is precious, and I am so glad you lingered here with me and my ramblings for a little while.

The Chemo Emo and her Cloud

Pathetic Fallacy in real life. (So maybe “pathetic reality?”) This cloud appeared as I was battling a terrible dark, low mood. I know I don’t look sad in this picture. I was trying really hard to be “normal.”

On our first summer weekend at the lake, I set out to do what I always do – take solace in the water. Whether it’s playing mermaids with my daughter, water-skiing, swimming, or paddling a canoe, my favourite thing in the world is to be buoyed forth, coasting weightlessly on endless peaks and troughs.

After some time chatting with neighbours on the beach, I pushed my canoe into the water and waded in. There was a sudden rush of fire up my legs and I ran screaming out of the surf, pushing the boat away from me in my efforts to escape the biting pain.

Realization washed over me. Because of the oxaliplatin in my chemo regime, I haven’t been able to tolerate anything cool for weeks. I can’t drink cold water or even cut up carrots without wearing gloves. How did I think I would be able to frolic in the lake? I stormed up the hill to our cabin in my flip-flops. I smacked trees and threw rocks in anger as the dog trailed behind me. I started to cry but had to stop as chemo-induced starbursts exploded behind my eyes. On the deck I composed myself and sent my youngest son down to rescue the canoe, which was floating off toward the beach at the base of our cove.

Like one of my wonderful chemo nurses said, “If you take a turkey from the freezer with no gloves, you’ll break a toe!”

When Asher came along I told him about the water. “I can’t even go for a paddle,” I explained, distraught. He looked at me and exclaimed, “Because if you fall in, your whole body might go into a spasm…” I finished his sentence, “And then I might drown!” Asher raised his arms and shook them about and flailed his legs up and down and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s one summer, Janine. Next year you’ll be back at it.” He was right, but I still stuck my tongue out at him sneakily as he gave me a hug.

Chemo can make one feel cranky and sad. Steroids and other medications are prescribed to ease the side effects for the first 3 to 5 days of your chemo cycle, but these steroids and the processing of the chemo drugs, and maybe my own emotional reaction to the whole process, can send me into a very dark place. My cancer care team recommended I pare down the amount of steroids I take, and that has helped, but I still have bad days. I’ve become friends with a number of people who have been down the cancer path, and we have discussed this darkness. One of my friends referred to this feeling as the “chemo emos.” I thought this was the perfect name. Physically, chemotherapy can make one feel sick, fatigued, cognitively weak and, in the case of my particular regime, can set off the nerves and muscles in bizarre ways. But the mental and emotional grind of a series of chemo cycles can be even tougher to endure.

How does one endure? One method is distraction. As Tolstoy observed of the pitiful, adulterous Oblonsky in Anna Karenina:

He could find no answer, except life’s usual answer to the most complex and insoluble questions. That answer is: live in the needs of the day, that is, find forgetfulness.

It is relatively easy for me to find forgetfulness when folding the laundry, doing things with the kids, or reading a book. I get up everyday and I stay busy. Even on the days I feel the worst, I actively engage in things. I may not have the stamina to run 5 km or attend large social events, but I can always find something to do.

I’m heading into my 5th round of chemo tomorrow, and I’ve come to respect my mood swings. I am fortunate that I get 4 or 5 really good days each time before I go back for my next infusion. And the last number of days have been fantastic – I have been energetic and happy. Rediscovering my yoga practice this week has helped immensely, and as I come close to the halfway mark of my course of chemotherapy I am starting to visualize my “after.”

I don’t want to get overconfident or to tempt fate, but in the past few days I have started to feel like I really do have this in the bag. I have not developed an infection or illness yet, my immunity has not dipped into the danger zone, and my side effects continue to subside in time for my next round of treatment, which means I am tolerating things well. Each day I run through all of these positives in my mind.

When I have a hard time focusing on the positives and the darkness sets in, however, I simply sit with it. In the style of Kristin Neff, I use a self-compassion technique.

I place my hand on my heart and think, “I am having a really hard time right now,” and I breathe for a few minutes. And then I think,”What do I need to do right now to feel better?” Sometimes the littlest thing makes me feel better. A cup of tea. Sitting in the sunshine. A walk. A hug. A chat. Reading. Or, more recently, some yoga.

Yoga on the dock with my downward dog.

Writing this post has been a two-week long struggle for me. I did not want to seem negative or whiny. But I needed to highlight the importance of maintaining one’s mental health during cancer treatment. If we focus only on the physical and ignore our moods, our sadness, our anger, our thoughts and emotions, our bodies will still be stressed.

Healing requires a holistic approach. Mind, body and spirit.

Talking to a professional, yoga and nature walks, healthy food and family meals, mindfulness, visualization, self-compassion and a little old-fashioned Tolstoy-type “finding forgetfulness” (or task-engagement) are some things that help me support physical, mental and emotional health on a daily basis.

I might not be riding the waves this summer, but I am learning to manage these peaks and troughs.

We all go through tough times. See a counsellor or a psychologist if you need to. Talk to someone, develop strategies that work for you, and find a little something to look forward to each day.

Relaxing in the garden with some fruit tea and a book can make the infusion process a little more tolerable.

Some Lucky

On this particular evening, after a grueling day of scopes and pokes, we watched a blood moon rise over the South Side Hills from our table.
We felt lucky to see it.

Quite a few years ago my husband, Asher, returned from a social gathering laughing and shaking his head. “I love the way Newfoundlanders always look on the bright side!” he said. He had overheard a story about a man who had an unfortunate accident and lost a limb. After the incident was recounted, the other people in the room chimed in with a chorus of “some lucky.” The storyteller nodded his head, “It could have been so much worse,” he replied solemnly, “Some lucky for sure.”

Asher and I have used this phrase with a twinkle in the years since. One of our kids sprained an ankle? Some lucky. Ruined supper, set off the fire alarm, but managed to put out the fire in the oven? Some lucky. Wrote off the truck in a collision on the overpass? Some lucky.

The outcome of a situation could always be worse, and the people at that long ago party were right. We knew we were fortunate in so many ways, and we often talked of our blessings over morning coffee.

But last week, as I sang “Whatever Will Be, Will Be” and waited patiently for my appointment with the oncologist, part of me was preparing for the worst. As I walked in to the cancer center, I was breathless with fright. I had no idea what Mom and Asher were chatting about while we waited. The air around my ears was dense cotton, and I was doing the deep breathing I had practiced so often with teens in my office, hoping to contain my panic.

The news I received, however, was the best it could be. I had a wonderful nurse with me during the conference and she put me at ease. My doctor was compassionate and kind as she reviewed the results of the pathology from my surgery and prepared me for the next phase of treatment. Asher and Mom were steadfast in their belief that I would be fine, no matter what. I walked out feeling strong and knowing that I could once again imagine myself retired, or even old.

Asher and Mom and I bounced to the van and hopped inside, chuckling and chatting. Through the window the sky and trees beckoned me to come back fully, to return from my safe hiding space, this careful shell I have constructed over the last few months.

From the round expanse of joy in my chest, life came bubbling. The past 42 years – childhood puddles and school days, so many wonderful friends and family, Asher and our babies, the cabin, pets, trips and suppers, studying and writing and reading and working and living. Memories gathered like campfire wood to fuel the fire which would consume the pain and rehabilitation of recent months. Rising from the ashes, plans for the future with a stronger mind and spirit. A body that will, with time, grow strong again.

As Asher navigated the springtime potholes, I grabbed his hand and gushed, “Some lucky.” Mom and Asher concurred.

“Some lucky.”

We said it reverently, without a touch of irony.

It’s National Nursing Week

Thank a nurse today 🙂

Laura and I just before I was discharged from St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s, NL.

Recently, I underwent surgery at St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s and I had a week-long hospital stay afterward.

That was a hellish week. There were times I was writhing in pain on the bed or turning in circles in the middle of the night wringing my hands saying, “I don’t know what to do.”

Thank goodness, the nurses knew what to do.

They administered meds, and changed IVs, and reinserted catheters and adjusted pillows to try to get me comfortable. They talked to the doctors about what I needed. But most of all they showed care and compassion and empathy. They held my hand and hugged me. They asked about my kids and commiserated about my totally unfair cancer. They listened without judgment. When I asked, they told me about their children and their own lives. I needed those normal conversations. It made me feel like the world was still turning.

They related stories of past patients who had the same invasive surgery as me but were now scuba diving in Mexico.

They gave me hope. They helped me understand that I would learn to navigate the changes in my body. They gently encouraged me to dream about new adventures when just walking down the hall was a challenge.

Sometimes at night I heard people running in the halls, beeps and buzzers, and yells and calls. I know my nurses were juggling a lot. At the end of a twelve-hour shift, how tired must they have been? But they always came in to say good-bye and let me know when they would be back.

I missed them when I left the hospital, and I’ve thought of them often since. Maybe I’ll go back and visit someday. I want to hear how they are doing. And I will tell them all about my latest adventures so they can pass the stories on to their new charges.

Since I’ve returned home from the hospital I’ve gotten to know some other nurses and they have eased my transition. One nurse in particular has made herself available to me every week for an appointment so she can monitor my progress. She e-mails me regularly and answers all of my questions, provides me with supplies, and reassures me when I am worried. My healing time is lengthened by the radiation I underwent prior to surgery, a fact I didn’t realize until she explained it all to me. She is a wealth of knowledge and information and I don’t know what I would do without her.

Thank-you, Nicole. I hope you like chocolate, ’cause I’m getting you some 🙂

Helping Others Process Emotions

Cancer patients, and anyone dealing with trauma, need empathy and a listening ear.

As a counsellor, I am trained to use what we call an “empathic response.” Many people think that counsellors or therapists give advice, but first and foremost what we do is listen and respond with empathy. We may ask probing questions to help our client flesh out a story or an issue, but ultimately we realize that they are the expert on their own life. We rarely give direct advice to clients, choosing instead to be a listener and a guide, or a sounding board for ideas. When a client is confused or seems to be off-course, we may issue a challenge which is designed to encourage reflection and, perhaps, problem-solving. Listening, acknowledging and affirming of emotions comes first, though.

Why am I writing this description of what a counsellor does? I’ve been reflecting even more than usual lately on how we emotionally support people who have undergone trauma. As someone who is in the throes of invasive, scary and body modifying cancer surgery and treatments, I often feel shut down by the following statements:

Be Positive. Stay Positive. Think Positive. Use your good attitude. Smile.

These are the things we say to people who are going through difficult life events in our culture.

Now, I’m sure I’m guilty of saying these things in social contexts before. In my professional role I wouldn’t say, “Well, you just have to be positive,” to someone who is wracked with sadness or anger or grief. But I’ve probably said something like this to acquaintances in the grocery store or at the theatre when they confide that they are dealing with a difficult problem.

What do people feel when we do this to them? They feel isolated and alone.

We have ignored their emotions. We have given the message that the only acceptable emotion is happiness, and put forth the idea that one must bottle up other emotions and push them inside. We have said, “Don’t share these emotions with me. They are disturbing.”

What would be a better response? How can we support others emotionally?

“It sounds like a really tough time for you,” “You can tell me about your experience,” “This is so difficult for you,” “I’m really sorry to hear this. “

Respond with empathy, make eye contact, and just listen. Offer support. That’s it, no platitudes required. Usually the individual we are talking with will feel lighter after this encounter, and us listeners will feel a sense of efficacy.

Pretending everything is fine when it isn’t drives isolation. Recognition of and sharing of emotion is what creates human connection. And human connection is a catalyst for happiness, so it’s a win-win, really!