It was very hard for me to come to terms with having chemotherapy, it seemed so counterintuitive that something which killed healthy cells in my body was going to cure me. Finally I managed to process it, by imagining it being a factory reset of the body – cleaning it out and rebuilding it post-treatment. I wanted to remember a time when I felt vital, strong, relaxed and happy, in order to revive these feelings in my body, and to help the healing process. Looking back, it was my teenage years and early twenties when I felt joyous and hopeful, as I had not suffered any major shocks, I had very little stress, and life felt full of possibilities. I had put a series of photos on my desk of my loved ones, and I included a picture of myself, at the age of 19, laughing, suntanned, and with sparkling eyes – it seemed to be a good image to focus on.
I was also conscious of the fact that I had stopped listening to music so much. I used to love dancing, and I had fantastic recall of lyrics. My music collection had disappeared due to the transfer from vinyl, cassettes, CDS and now downloads. Then my stepson Jamie got me set up on Spotify. As soon as a band or singer from my youth, popped into my head I would search for it, and then sing along in the car (especially during my long journeys to and from hospital). It immediately made me feel uplifted and would usually connect me to a happy memory or feeling.
Exploring this further, I thought about my clothes, and how I had neglected my appearance in recent years – being more practical than fun. I didn’t go crazy, but if something caught my eye, I didn’t immediately search for reasons why I shouldn’t buy it, but instead, thought ‘why not’. This was especially useful when I had lost my hair, and was not looking my best, I actually started to take more pride in my appearance – wearing make-up and maybe a cool pair of shoes, or something sparkly. It really helped and it’s something I’m going to continue doing.
Smell is also meant to be the most important sense for evoking memories. After starting chemo I read an article in a magazine with Juliette Binoche, who said her favourite perfume was Anaïs Anaïs by Cacharel. This is the perfume I always wore when I was a teenager, so a couple of weeks later when I happened to see it in a duty free shop, I put a little on my wrist to remember its smell. I was immediately transported back to my youthful self, and so I now spray a little on my inner wrist each morning to get me through the day!
Another thing, I felt was lacking in my life, was laughter, real belly laughter when you feel completely alive. It was winter, and I was going to be spending a lot of time in the house, so I found comedies online from my youth, such as Alan Partridge and current stand-ups, such as Ricky Gervais. There is something incredible about really laughing, it completely lifts you out of your current state and your body feels so relaxed afterwards – teeming with positive happy cells!
I also stopped focussing so much on the news and world events. In the run up to my diagnosis, there had been frequent terrorist attacks, Brexit and the inauguration of Donald Trump. I needed to feel that life was worth living, and so just stopped tuning in so much to the bad stuff. It’s not that I don’t care, but if I can’t do anything to change what’s happening, I feel powerless – in reality I can only try and change the environment around me, and by constantly watching the news, it was a huge distraction from what really mattered.
Oddly enough, after instinctively trying to tap in to my inner teenager, I read something similar in Deepak Chopra’s The Healing Self: Supercharge Your Immune System. He describes an experiment by Harvard professor Ellen Langer, who put seventy year old men in a sort of time capsule – wearing the clothes from their youth, and listening to music from the same period – recreating that environment actually made them healthier and more youthful on a physical level.
Later on in the book, Deepak Chopra suggests ways to cope with a delayed flight, in terms of reducing your stress levels. As I’d downloaded the book in the airport, whilst facing a three hour delay – I thought ‘yes, I’m on the right track.’