October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

An Unexpected Gift


In June of 2018 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was shocked to say the least. Even though as a physician I was well aware that cancer was on the differential when I required a biopsy of the lump in my breast, it never actually occurred to me that the result would be positive. In that one moment when my PCP called me with the biopsy results, my life as I knew it fell apart. I was angry at the world, angry at my body, and angry at God. How could this have happened to me?

I had zero risk factors - no family history, I don’t smoke, I’m not overweight, I barely drink any alcohol, and I nursed four kids. Little did I know, however, that this would turn out to be one of the greatest gifts in my life. It was, in fact, the turning point in reclaiming my life.

You see, at that time my life from the perspective of society seemed to be perfect. I “had it all”. I had an active career as an ER physician, I was part of a great group, I had some administrative responsibilities that allowed me to further contribute in a useful way, and I was well-liked by my peers. On the home front I had four healthy children, a loving husband, a mother who lived nearby and helped out, and a group of amazing women who I have the honor of calling friends. Yet, I was not happy. Every day as I woke up and set my feet on the floor, I dreamt about the moment when the day would be over. I felt like nothing I did was ever enough. I felt like I was always running to just “catch up”, and as I neared the finish line, something else would come up and once again make it unattainable. I lived waiting for my next vacation - an opportunity to slow down, to leave some of my responsibilities behind, and to just be. However, even during vacations I found it difficult to simply enjoy the moments. I set expectations of how the vacation “should” be that kept me trapped and didn’t allow me to live what was. And, of course, within half a day of being back from vacation, I was back to the same point where I had started, if not actually worse.

My cancer diagnosis and the required treatment threw me off the hamster wheel. I physically and mentally could no longer place all the same expectations and “shoulds” upon myself that I had lived with until then. My chemotherapy treatments made sure of that. So, I found myself with some time to just “be” and consider how I was living my life. When one’s health and mortality are challenged, priorities shift and it is much easier to achieve clarity around what it is that truly matters to one’s being.

The clarity that I achieved while undergoing the treatment allowed me to appreciate many details I had previously taken for granted. It created a path for me to bring gratitude into most of my interactions and experiences and detach myself from specific outcomes. It made it possible for me to enjoy the life that I was living (in spite of the discomforts associated with my treatments), instead of constantly wishing for the life that “should” be. And, it helped me come to a place where I was much more comfortable with who I was, and did not feel the need to prove myself to anyone.

"I was enough."

However, as I got through my chemo treatments, surgery, and radiation, and closer to returning to my baseline state of health, I noted that maintaining the clarity I had achieved became harder. Life and society were pulling me back into the vortex of my prior way of being, and I was terrified. As crazy as it may sound, there were moments when I wished for my cancer to recur because I did not ever want to lose myself in the merry-go-round of an unintentionally lived life again. So, I promised myself that I would do whatever I needed to develop my ability to maintain focus on my deepest values and live my life with clear purpose.

It is this endeavor that solidified my belief in coaching. At that point I had already participated in a few coach training programs, and had definitely found the coaching beneficial. But, I was unsure as to whether or not the skills I had learned would hold up as I reentered “normal” life. I committed to continue coach training and obtain my certification, while maintaining a relationship with my personal coach. Three years later, I can wholeheartedly say that was the best decision I have EVER made.

Now I wake up every day with curiosity and excitement for what the day may bring. Are there moments when I take things for granted and complain, or get angry, or frustrated, or anxious? Of course there are. Many of them. But, I am able to recognize these reactions as that, and no longer blindly accept them as the truth. I am able to intentionally shift my mind and heart to a place where my values and passions are tethered and I can find empathy, curiosity, gratitude and joy. And, as I continue my practice, this becomes a slightly bit easier every day.

I wish this intentional living for everyone, but most especially for my fellow physicians. I believe that most of us entered medicine because we have love and compassion for others in our hearts. However, the stressors of our careers and the pressure for perfection over time take a toll and force us to hide our hearts. We believe that in hiding our hearts we will be protected from the pain of loss, failure, uncertainty, etc. The problem is that as we try to keep these negative emotions out, we keep ALL emotions out. It becomes more difficult to experience connection, joy, gratitude, and love as well.

I urge all physicians to not wait for illness, or a fractured relationship, or a tragic loss to reclaim their hearts and their lives. It is within your power to begin living the life you have always wanted TODAY.

Make a commitment to yourself and seek a coach with whom you can partner. You are certainly smart enough and capable enough to do this for yourself. Imagine how it would be if you could fully love yourself, and bring empathy, curiosity, patience, intention, and clear-headed action into every interaction. This is what coaching will help you work towards. No greater gift can you give to yourself and to all whom you touch on a daily basis!

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