Episode 1: My Beautiful Cancer and COVID Course-Corrector
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The title of this episode probably has you a bit puzzled. Obviously, the words beautiful and cancer and COVID don’t usually co-exist, but in the spirit of The Power Years Project being dedicated to the extraordinary stories of ordinary women like myself and you, I thought I’d start with my own story of what happened to me and my family in 2020.
In this episode, I’m talking about post-traumatic growth and the life-changing lessons I learned from the worst year of my life. I’m sharing this story because I need you to know that there is hope and there will be joy and smiles again. I hope my journey and the lessons I’ve learned will be of comfort to you!
Highlights from the episode
- What is post-traumatic growth?
- The massive, multi-layered trauma I experienced starting in the first COVID lockdown
- How I started to shift my perspective on my pain
- My belief that death is the ultimate reminder to live fully
- The most confronting realization throughout this journey
- My message to someone deep in grief, confusion and pain right now
- What the worst year of my life taught me
- Key factors associated with post-traumatic growth
- My revolutionary post-traumatic growth
Resources mentioned in the episode
- Arielle Schwartz’s Book | The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential
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Jenny Burrell 0:00
Doing the pandemic whilst enduring a COVID funeral that I can’t attend because I need to self-isolate in order to have a surgery, having a surgery in COVID, receiving 20 doses of radiation therapy in five battering and blistering literally blistering doses, homeschooling and explaining where Papa is to a grieving six-year-old, supporting my heartbroken husband and being petrified that my grief-stricken mother-in-law would actually go the same way as her husband and just so much more means that 2020 was officially the hardest year of my life ever.
Jenny Burrell 0:54
Hi, my name is Jenny Burrell and welcome to The Power Years Project Podcast, a virtual healing space for all women ready to embark on their Radical Midlife Redesign. This podcast is ode to all the amazing possibilities still to come, all the life yet to be lived, and how we journey to a truly self-authored life.
Jenny Burrell 1:25
Hello, hello, hello, and welcome. Welcome to episode number one of The Power Years Project Podcast. My name is Jenny Burrell, and I am thrilled. I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled that you chose to press play. Now, you’ll probably pressed play because of the interesting title, my beautiful cancer and COVID course-corrector. Because obviously, the words beautiful and cancer and COVID don’t usually co-exist. But in the spirit of this podcast, this blog, and indeed the whole of The Power Years Project being dedicated to the extraordinary stories of ordinary women like myself and you, I thought I’d start with my own story of what happened to myself and my family in 2020.
Jenny Burrell 2:24
So there’s a concept of post-traumatic growth, where you endure a traumatic event to eventually come out the other side an improved and wiser version of your pre-traumatized self. And if you’re listening to this on the blog, then just scroll down and you’ll see a summary diagram of post-traumatic growth. So as a naturally ‘glass-half-full’ type of human, I already kind of subscribed to this theory only to have it truly tested to its max during the first year of the 2020 pandemic. So here’s my torrid tale of human heartbreak, hope and in the end, some powerful post-traumatic growth.
Jenny Burrell 3:12
So it’s day three of the first lockdown here in the UK, that’s March 2020 and I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room, waiting to be called to hear the results of my breast cancer biopsy, mammogram and ultrasound. Yep, bad timing, bad bad timing. And as they call me and I spy the doctor I’d seen before, and the nurse that’s always there when women are being seen by a male doctor, and then one extra person. The nurse with the daffodil badge. And if you know, you know. If you don’t know, that nurse is the “We’re going to tell you you have cancer” nurse. And it turns out that I had a “no lump” – so there was no lump at all – type of early breast cancer called a Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS). And the best scenario for DCIS is that you have a lumpectomy and then radiotherapy. Worst scenario is that you have a mastectomy and possibly chemo and radiotherapy. Either way, I ascertain from the doctor, you know, I basically say, “Is this gonna kill me?” And he assures me it most likely won’t. And then basically, I just park it. I just literally lock that cancer away in a box. And I lock it away in a box because around 30 miles away in an ICU unit in Portsmouth, my father-in-law is on a ventilator fighting for his life with COVID. He’s been there since the previous Sunday and by Friday, he becomes one of the earliest statistics as they turn off his ventilator and loses his battle with COVID.
Jenny Burrell 5:12
So as we have all been in this global poop storm together, I really don’t need to go into details about how the rest of 2020 and indeed 2021 panned out. But doing the pandemic whilst enduring a COVID funeral that I can’t attend because I need to self-isolate in order to have a surgery, having a surgery in COVID, receiving 20 doses of radiation therapy in five battering and blistering literally blistering doses, homeschooling and explaining where Papa is to a grieving six-year-old, supporting my heartbroken husband and being petrified that my grief-stricken mother-in-law would actually go the same way as her husband and just so much more means that 2020 was officially the hardest year of my life ever. So I did promise you a tale of human heartbreak, didn’t I? But now, now for the hope and healing part. So back to this ethereal concept of post-traumatic growth.
Jenny Burrell 6:35
A while back, I happened upon the same title book by Dr. Arielle Schwartz, where resilience is described as “the ability to flexibly adapt to challenging adverse or traumatic life events. And then post-traumatic growth occurring, because of one’s willingness to turn towards the pain of life’s most difficult events and eventually say: This happened to me but I have the capacity and will to rise again, powerfully reshapened by my experience.” I think that deserves a rewind, doesn’t it? This happened to me but I have the capacity and will to rise again, powerfully reshapened by my experience. So after I’d thawed out of my fight, flight and freeze, I eventually started to ask the questions: “Where’s the message in this?” You know, “What good is all of this suffering?” “What good can come from this?” And ultimately, you know, “What is the point of all of this effing pain.” And you know what, I’ve always believed that death is the ultimate reminder to live fully right now.
Jenny Burrell 8:07
I lost my own father at age 28, he died suddenly of a heart attack, and I was never the same again. I changed careers – then, I was a professional singer – and literally on a dime, I changed careers and I just resolved never to take life for granted. And to that end, I have lived a pretty full-on, take-all-the-chances life. But this time was different. Because this time, I truly got that there are no guarantees that I am going to make it to be an old lady and die naturally in my sleep full of wisdom and peace. And that fact alone has been the most confronting realization ever. So, right now all of my family is safe. I’m one year down the line, post-breast cancer and we’re all safe and well, and soldiering on and we’re seeing the light now. But I’m sharing all of this in the hope that this blog, this podcast will find its way to somebody who’s deep in grief, deep in confusion and pain right now, for whatever reason, and doesn’t know how they’ll even get up tomorrow, nevermind, smile or laugh again. I need you to know that there is hope and there will be joy and smiles again, slowly but surely. So what did the worst year of my life teach me? What are my take-homes?
Jenny Burrell 9:55
So I made a list of all the things that I’ve learned from the events of 2020 into 2021. So, number one. There is always a message in the mess… eventually. So hang in there. Just hang in there. Eventually… eventually, it all comes clear. Number two. It appears I can do all the hard things and feel all of the hard feelings without numbing out with alcohol. As somebody who was pretty much a daily couple of glasses of wine-type woman. I made that commitment in late October 2019 and I’ve endured the poop storm sober. Number three. Most of the stuff that bothers us is BS. When you’re sat there waiting to be told whether whatever you’ve got is going to take you under faster than you had anticipated. Guess what, literally, nothing matters. Number four. Notice who is there and remains there for you when that poop hits the fan. Notice that and deeply honour and cherish those people forever. They are like gold dust. So many people who you thought you could count on, disappear. Disappear from your life when things get sticky. Number five. Our health, our physical health, spiritual, mental, is of inordinate importance and we must dedicate and prioritize all daily. Let nothing come before your attendance to all. We truly are nothing without our health. Number six. Protect your peace at all costs, at all times. Remove yourself from annoying and vexatious people, places and things because at the end of the day, literally all of it doesn’t matter and disease loves stress. Number seven. Grief gets better but allow it its space. Feel all the feelings, express all the feelings. Welcome all the feelings. Sit with your grief. The way out is through it. There can be wisdom in this suffering, eventually. Number eight. Grief and sadness can sit with sparks of joy and ease and understanding and allow those too. Grief and pain and healing from grief and pain isn’t linear. Number nine. If you feel you’re going under, ask for help. Therapy works. Therapy can also be a good friend or a wonderful family member who is just great at listening. Number ten. Let it all out. Finally, I’ve learned to see tears as strength and allow them their freedom. Crying is our paying homage to our full range of emotions, from tears of gratitude, relief, joy, to the painful variety. Repeat after me. My tears are welcomed here. Number eleven. Bend don’t break and come into your body. I was never really a yoga person but by God, yoga, time in meditation, somatic work, breathwork and non-judgmental contemplation deeply help. Number twelve. Adopting a “why not me” as opposed to a “why me” mindset opens the windows of your heart to allow healing in. And finally, number thirteen. And I’ve only truly just got this one. Although I think I must have said it a million times. It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Jenny Burrell 14:37
So there’s been a lot of research into the concept of post-traumatic growth and two of the most foremost researchers are Tedeski and Calhoun and they listed key factors associated with post-traumatic growth and those include discovering new personal strengths, having a greater or a new appreciation of life, enhanced relationships and then spiritual changes. So I’d love to share with you the ways in which I feel I’ve had post-traumatic growth and what’s different now compared to before. So number one. I literally look different to the way I looked before because in a fit of like madness, I sat here at my desk and I grabbed a pair of scissors and I just started hacking away at 20 years worth of growth of dreadlocks all the way down to my bottom. It just felt so right it was like a fit of madness but it felt so right. I felt as if my hair was so heavy and it was a weight behind me. It felt as if the weight was dragging me backwards, which I think is pretty symbolic. Also, I was going grey and previously I’d been dyeing my hair. And I just said, Well, if you’ve got breast cancer, you can’t dye your hair. You can’t apply cancer-causing chemicals to your own skull. There was very much a sense of being done with the frivolity of hair dyeing and attending to my hair in an excessive way and just wanting my freedom to be honest. Freedom. And it was… it was quite remarkable. As I then moved from my desk and then went to the bathroom and continued cutting, when I got to the last of the long hair, I looked in the mirror and suddenly just uttered the words, “There you are. There you are!” And it’s been so strange because when I’ve seen other people with my new short hair – you know what it’s like, when you have a new hairdo, you often feel self-conscious – I never felt self-conscious, you know, right from the get-go I was just like, this is me, the previous version, Well, that wasn’t me, this is me. And so other people seem really shocked and I’m going “What are you shocked for?” which is interesting as well. So looking very, very different. Number two. I started to own the fact that I… I hated travel. I hated even the travel that I needed to do to go to London and I certainly very much disliked all the air travel that I used to do as part of my work. And obviously, the pandemic took care of the air travel but what I wanted to do was to ensure that post-pandemic, I just didn’t have to do that anymore. I just owned that it was really oppressive and I just hated it. And so, I then sent out to the universe the hope that I could find a space near to my home here on the south coast of England. And guess what? A place turned up. And now, coming out of the pandemic, I have a space to work in and teach in that’s right next to my home. So I think just owning up to that, owning up that that was actually too much and it was a lifestyle that was not sustainable was huge. So number three. I finally worked out what matters to me. What matters to me. And literally, I’ve drilled it down to literally seven things… seven things. And because I view all the decisions I make about my life through the lens of those seven things, then decision-making has become so, so simple. So number four – and this aligns with number three. You know, I’ve let go of that business/work greasy pole. I work for me when I want to work, how I want to work, aligned with my values and my core beliefs and focused on my goals via the lens of those seven items. And I define success for myself. Number five.
Jenny Burrell 19:23
I allow myself to sleep and rest way more than I ever have in my whole adult life. And this is a biggie because previously, I was always an early riser. I’d be the type of person that would be at their desk at 6 am. You know, getting in a couple of hours work before going on to doing breakfast duties and all that school prep for my son. And now, now A. I go to bed earlier but the alarm goes at seven and I’ve got a coffee-making station in my bedroom, you know, cafetière and plunger and I have a coffee and read in my bed until 8 am before, you know, the breakfast time, pre-school madness starts. And you know in my world, this is nigh on revolutionary and it feels as if there is such a deeper level of care for myself. And guess what? All of the stuff still gets done. It’s interesting. So, yeah, I literally feel like I can’t think of any reason why I would need to be at my desk at 6 am now and that used to be a solid routine for many years. And finally, item number six. I am more than I’ve ever been 100% committed to living fully. And to this end, all of the things that I had on my bucket list, simply now are on a Live Life Fully list – #LiveLifeFully. And that list includes training to become a psychotherapist and living in Hawaii or Bali. And yes, indeed, you heard that right, living in Hawaii or Bali. And that’s because literally since I was a teen, I have dreamt of going to Hawaii. I’ve always dreamt of going to Hawaii and I thought, well, why dream of going on a holiday when one could go and live there. I’d also take Bali as well but definitely, Hawaii is on the vision board. Now obviously, I need to convince my husband, but I’ve got good form. I’ve got good form, in impromptu house moves and yeah, I’ll keep you posted on that one.
Jenny Burrell 22:19
All right. So let’s start pulling this all together. You know, my final thoughts: Do not suffer a single day living a life that you don’t love or that you’ve outgrown. Nobody knows how much time they’ve got, that’s just a given. But 100% we can all decide how and with whom we spend our time right now in the present moment. If you’re a midlife woman who was like me, just feeling out of sorts, disconnected, not grounded, feeling as if something is going on and you’re not privy to it, out of the loop of your own life, then trust me when I tell you that a self-authored life is not a luxury item. A self-authored life is your birthright and it is essential. It is time for all of us to start living our lives our way because if not now, then when.
Jenny Burrell 23:34
And the good news… the good news is you don’t need to endure a year from hell like I did. You don’t need to go through breast cancer in a pandemic to come to that conclusion and dedicate yourself to a life of your own design. And you can make that decision to start right now. So thank you so much for joining me for episode one of The Power Years Project Podcast. If you have been inspired by my story to begin your own midlife redesign, then take a look at my Midlife Transition Coaching and see whether that’s a great fit for you. And if it is, then please do book your exploratory consultation by the link on the website. Okay, thank you for joining me and see you for episode number two.
Jenny Burrell 23:45
Thanks so much for joining me for another episode of The Power Years Project Podcast. Don’t forget we’ve got lots going on on the Facebook page on Instagram and on YouTube. I’d love to see you there as well. Okay, take care for now. Bye-bye.