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What I learnt about mindset after my husband’s cancer diagnosis

Then three weeks after moving, our lives took a less fortunate turn when Chris was diagnosed with cancer. I looked across the breakfast table at this strong and seemingly healthy man who had never had a sick day in the 30 years we’d been together. I couldn’t reconcile that the specialist had used the words “stage four” the day before.

Kate James with husband Chris, who was diagnosed with cancer.

Kate James with husband Chris, who was diagnosed with cancer.

I did my best to contain my panic and focus on practical things like how we’d pay the mortgage and take care of the acreage while making Chris’ health our priority. And I thought about how I could manage my mindset in order to stay measured and calm.

Keep yourself grounded

Anxiety-provoking situations make your mind spin. It’s impossible to think clearly about the next steps when your thoughts are madly racing.

One of the most effective ways to create inner quiet is to move your body or to get into nature. Get yourself grounded by walking, running, swimming, doing yoga, pilates, or dancing. Head to your local park and lie on the grass under a tree for 30 minutes or walk barefoot on a beach.

Once you’ve found your way back into your body and onto solid ground, start to observe your thoughts from the place of a friendly observer. Remind yourself that your mind is having thoughts and you are not the thoughts themselves. You do have some control over them.

If you’re catastrophising or getting into overdrive with worry, grab a pen and paper and write down one or two practical things that might help your situation.

Balance the negative bias of the brain

During difficult times, it’s usually the small things that make life good. Work at balancing the negative bias of the brain by intentionally turning your mind to what is going well in your life.

Here are some things you might try:

Find meaning

While working in a concentration camp in the 1940s, Dr Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, came to believe that the only way to survive his ordeal was to hold on to a sense of meaning. For him, this came from helping his fellow prisoners and his deep and abiding love for his wife Tilly.

Finding meaning is different for all of us but a starting point is to define your values. Make a note of up to 10 words that describe the most important guiding principles in your life and consider whether you’re living in alignment with those values currently. If not, consider of a couple of changes that will move you in the direction of a life that feels more meaningful to you.

Kate is getting out in nature as much as she can.

Kate is getting out in nature as much as she can.

Chris and I chose the value of “making the most of now”. We spent more time appreciating our gum-scented plot of land where the resident kookaburras welcome each morning and a family of wood ducks have laid claim to the dam. On the wintry afternoons we rugged up on the deck and watched the clouds move across the great expanse of sky while the rosellas and galahs fed on the lawn.

There was no certainty about the future, but one thing we could do was to savour what we had now.

Mostly we’re inclined to believe that adversity is something we’d rather avoid but sometimes it reshapes our lives. Chris was of the lucky ones. He made a good recovery and his prognosis looks positive.

Like our encounter with COVID-19 over the past year, his diagnosis changed our lives in some ways for the better. It was a reminder that life is short and there’s no knowing when something might knock you off your feet. These days we try to spend less time worrying about the future and more time living in the moment.

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