Today I had a new patient who has survived breast cancer.  She mentioned that her high stress job and poor diet may have contributed to her becoming sick.  Many of my patients are aware that these are important factors to living a healthy life.  However, despite our best efforts illness can still show up.  And its not our fault.

We Are Not In Control

The most powerful grassroots health movement of our time is the 12 steps or other peer support groups.  Why is this?  These groups are based on giving up the illusion that we are in control and can do it alone.  Surrendering to this makes us more receptive.  We can then access our own inner wisdom and invite help from others who are struggling in similar ways.

There are many factors that influence our health that we have limited control over.  From environmental pollution to whether or not we were breastfed and even how our grandparents lived all weigh in.  It can be difficult to accept this lack of control and it pushes us to face the reality of death.  Oftentimes those who come into contact with their mortality begin to live more fully.

Getting sick does not mean that we somehow failed. That we “didn’t get it right.”  When I met with my patient today I emphasized all her strengths.  Her willingness and honesty about slipping back into old habits now that she is back at work is remarkable.  But what is more remarkable is that she’s at work at all and that she loves what she does!

Taking Responsibility

Accepting that we’re not in full control doesn’t mean that we don’t  take care of ourselves. But we can release the guilt and shame that would otherwise come with a chronic illness or disease.  This helps us respond appropriately.  This patient told me how she will only work with people who are also committed to health and creating a positive work environment.

Self-compassion, kindness and empathy is what cancer survivors or survivors of any kind deserve.  Somehow its easy to forget in our culture.  I see and hear the words ‘don’t play the victim’ or ‘you need to take responsibility’.  This often comes out of people’s own discomfort and is a reaction fueled by fear, anger or blame. Five young women around me are breast cancer survivors.  These women are warriors and ought to be honoured for their strength.

So, what does it mean to take responsibility for your health while recognizing that you’re not in full control of it?