And now for something completely different

I have been buried in deadlines and a spread of work this week, and suddenly I look up and it is the weekend again already.  It might sound exotic working in a tropical environment and so often it is, but let’s be honest, much is the same the world over.  Reports, proposals, email in boxes and meetings are integral to my kind of work, no matter where my desk is located.

One of the reasons I have been under that bit more pressure this past week or so is that my deadlines are not flexible.  And they are not flexible because, all being well, I am off on a another adventure on Monday.  And this is completely unlike so many jobs around the world  Indeed after 11 years in this field, something which continues to enthuse and inspire me professionally and personally.

At the crack of dawn on Monday morning I will be heading out of town, towards the delta to visit our projects and staff.  While I am in one of the countries through which the Tropic of Cancer crosses, I can’t wait for this respite from my own Tropical Cancer.

Out there

My eyes were caught by a very interesting tweet this week, from blogging friend Bringing up Goliath where she asked “Wondering when to tell a new friend my breast cancer story. Has this happened to anyone else? How did you bring it up?”

This is something I immediately identified with, and there followed a flurry of tweets and Facebook discussion which quickly revealed that this is a dilemma faced by many of us.  This was developed into her blog post which appeared later the same day.  The post beautifully describes the quandary we find ourselves in when connecting with someone new, developing a friendship and when and how to “disclose” such an important piece of personal information.

At the crux of this is the fact that although many of us are not in the midst of heavy treatment, we have been and we live with the knowledge that we may again be.  That is just the reality of the diagnosis.  It is not about being negative or positive, it is just a fact.  It might not be visible but it is there.  so this means it is an important part of who we are now, it is a Big Deal and it is Never Over.

This is a predicament I often find myself in, living overseas and amongst a community of transient people.   In my professional and personal life I meet new people regularly.  One of the first questions we tend to be asked, after name and what are we doing here, is “how long have you been here?”  And that is where it starts to become difficult for me.  I have been here, in Myanmar, for over 2 years.  But my first year was the lost year and I don’t really feel that I can truly say I have “been here” that long.    But the question is usually asked far too early on to be able to clarify.  Depending on how much I feel I connect with this person I might say nothing, or I might drop a bland “I missed most of my first year due to ill health”.  And then I try to move the conversation in another direction so that I don’t have to “come out” so soon in a possible friendship.  But that then gives the problem that if I connect with that person more regularly, if we develop a friendship, then when is the right time and how on earth do I disclose this?  I have a strong urge to share this Big Important Fact, which has become an elephant in the room.  But I am the only one who knows it is there.

This reminds me so much of a similar disclosure question which I also struggle with.  Someone very important, close to me, is gay.  Lets call that person A.   In our own home context, disclosure, while never easy, is familiar ground.  However, in different parts of the world this is not an easy subject to broach and it requires a very sensitive reading of a context and situation.  As friendships and working relationships span a wealth of diversity in terms of nationality and background, so too do the values and beliefs held.  And that is something which must be respected and understood.  I remember misjudging a situation horribly in one country I lived.  I had been there for a number of years and developed some very close friendships.  One particular friend and I were very close.  We worked together on issues of diversity and equity which were deeply rooted and challenging.  We had also supported each other through a number of personal crises and problems.   So following a visit from the aforementioned A with their partner, I had a long chat with my friend.  Now A is very open and comfortable about disclosure, and I have “carte blanche” to be open about their status.  A signal was given and I shared with my friend the fact that A is gay.  To say that my friend was visibly shocked is an understatement.  I instantly realised that I had misjudged the situation and that she was most uncomfortable.  But like a disclosure about breast cancer, it cannot be retracted.  Once revealed it is well and truly out there.  We both changed the subject, and did not return to it.  I felt dreadful for having made her so uncomfortable and for not respecting and realising just how deep rooted beliefs are, even though we had worked together on diversity and discrimination.  But the incredible thing was, that months later, she raised the subject with me herself.  She asked if the friend who had visited with A was in fact their partner.  I confirmed that they were in a relationship and we were able to move forward.  It taught me such a lot about the complexity and diversity of deep rooted beliefs.  And she is still one of my closest friends nearly a decade later. But with every new friendship, if the topic of friends and families comes up, I always have to stop and think whether it is appropriate or not to disclose that A is gay or whether a little white lie is easier for everyone.

The awkwardness of sharing the fact that I have been diagnosed with Breast Cancer might have different reasons for its discomfort, but the result is similar. This is often further complicated in this overseas context where friendships are formed with people I might not connect with in different circumstances.  I live in quite a small city and in terms of expats (I really try and avoid using that term but find no choice here) it is like a small village.  And that means that word gets round.  It is no secret in social and professional circles that I am “the woman who was treated with breast cancer” but that does not mean I know who knows it, and that makes it more complicated.  And let’s face it, over a year after the end of the visible treatment and sick leave, it is not necessarily something which is still mentioned.

Another aspect of this mobile and transient life when coupled with the internet and technological advance, is the reconnection with people I may have lost contact with.  This has happened a number of times, thanks to Facebook and Twitter particularly and I am delighted to reconnect with friends around the globe.  But the same question arises, and is really difficult.  When and how do I tell them that I am not the same person in many was, as I was before.  And I am not talking about the differences due to surgery and treatment, but the difference in my mindset and psychology.

In all of these situations, I find that when I get to a stage that I feel that it is like “keeping a secret” not to have disclosed, then I try and seek a signal or opening.  I also drop little hints, being on long term medication, having been medivacked, having a serious illness hep to lay the foundation for the Big Disclosure.

This is a situation which keeps coming up and is not likely to stop doing so any time soon.  So when I am introduced to someone new here, and I am asked “How long have you been here?” I feel myself hesitate before I hear myself reply “Around 2 years……..”

Three little words

Just as 2009 was drawing to a close, my attention was taken by a friend’s note that she had selected three words to guide and inspire her in the coming year.  It instantly resonated with me, as I reflected back on the cruel and unexpected surprises which had landed in my lap during the year. 

The passing of a year is an important transition to me.  As are dates. I guess I am a “remember the date” kind of girl.  I attach significance to dates and can remember all sorts of fairly banal events and the date they happened.  A colleague of mine mentioned yesterday that it was nearly a year since he had arrived in country.  I took a few moments to think, and then corrected him.  I told him that the anniversary of his arrival was actually 2 days previously.   I just have that kind of memory.  There was not big deal to remember his arrival, I find it easy to associate things with other events and dates stick in my mind.  Heavens, I wish I could remember if I turned the gas off, or locked the front door as easily!!

So dates and years matter to me.  As we leave one year behind, I always have a feeling of being able to put baggage behind me and embrace the opportunity to click the refresh button in my life as we move forward to a new year. This notion of selecting a three word mantra for the year came to me at the most perfect moment in 2009.  Although I was in the thick of treatment, I desperately wanted and needed to be able to look ahead and indeed beyond the days when cancer and treatment were relentlessly dictating so much of my life.  I spent almost a full day deciding which words I would select for the coming year, and had a real sense of optimism and achievement when I finally settled on my words for 2010 “Recovery, discovery and laughter”.  I took delight in playing with the extra layers of meanings within these words.  And more than anything else, I relished returning to these words throughout 2010 both as an affirmation as well as an incentive and encouragement.

This is how I described my words at that time:

Recovery – this is obvious.  I still have months ahead of heavy duty treatment.  This will be followed by long term medication and screening once (and, if we are honest, if) the oncologist and surgeon are satisfied that the breast beast has been truly banished.  It also refers to mental and emotional recovery – being able to sleep at night without waking and worrying, and being hassled by the scary thoughts.   And on another level, it could even refer to lovely white scalp which very much looks forward to being re-covered with real, if grey, hair!

Discovery – this has so many dimensions.  Most of all, it is a great way to approach absolutely everything!  There is so much to learn and discover at all levels.  Professionally it is important to be continually learn and developing, especially in my role!  Discovery is lovely way to view learning – exciting and bringing surprises.  I am also at an early stage in life and work in our new place, and I have so much to find out.  I have much to learn about the country and city we live in, and get to know our new friends.  There is a real opening for spiritual development and discovery which is appealing and healing.  Most of all, I want to make sure my eyes are really open to what is going on around me and to see the new and interesting in everyday life, rather than wallow in the tough stuff.

Laughter – this is probably not a surprise!  Many people joked when I had my surgery, that the knife did not find wherever my sense of humour was located.  Most wished it had!!!  This journey has shown me over and over that I cannot change what is happening, but I am the only one who can control how I approach it.  Humour is a tool for me, and a survival mechanism.  Of course I have cried (diagnosis time, hair loss time and other vulnerable points which are often unexpected) but whenever I can, I try and turn the wobbles into giggles.  It’s also a great excuse for truly dreadful jokes and puns so this is advance warning that 2010 will see a proactive effort to bring smiles and fun into life.

I was delighted that these words really worked for me, and i did revisit them time and time again throughout the year.

In December last year, I started thinking about selecting 3 words for 2011.  It was not so easy.  I had particularly liked my 2010 words.  It took more time, more deliberation and to be honest a greater number of words to choose from.  Finally I settled on Harmony, vitality and adventure for the following reasons:

Harmony is the main essence of how I want to see the year.  It represents the need to maintain a balance in life, especially between work, health and leisure.  It shows the importance I hold in keeping a space for creativity in my life.  It also shows my dislike of conflict and wish for peace, in my life and in the wider world.  It also has the dimension of being in harmony with my body.  Much as I wish for NED I know that there are no guarantees.  So no matter what the year throws at me, I intend to be at one with how I handle it physically.  And in a very different vein, harmony in the musical sense shows my love of music and its importance in my life.

Vitality covers my wish to feel the full benefit of feeling well, and enjoying life to the full.  In a wider sense, I feel it can also cover a broader approach to life, embracing each new day and new challenges.

I decided to pick adventure as my third word, as it also has a range of meanings which I feel will guide and inspire in the coming year.  It shows that I want to push myself and reach for new experiences.  If we look at its origins – (I knew learning Latin all those years ago would have a use) the word is made up of the verb to go, or move.  The prefix “ad” brings the notion of forward to the motion.  So adventure also represents moving forward.  I most definitely intend to keep moving forward, no matter what the year throws at me.

This choice has also worked really well for me.  I am still aiming for harmony, even though it is not always easy.  I keep cranking forward the physical exercise machine, swimming daily before work, working out (bleurgh but it is good for me!) and paying great attention to my wellbeing.  And adventure!  Gosh, I have been amazed at how much I have been able to regain confidence, and have had a number of adventures through the year, including a return to field work in remote parts of the country, a trip to Chiang Mai by overnight train and my wonderful birthday holiday around the ancient Angkor temples.  And now I am plotting an adventure for Christmas……..  watch this space.

So that brings me to an interesting place.  If I found it hard to pick this year’s words, and went through quite a process of deliberation to arrive at the words I did.  And that paid off for sure.  I regularly refer to these words, both in my mind and more explicitly.  And they have been the perfect fit for 2011.  So now I feel that my task of finding three words for 2012 will again not be easy.  However, arriving at a sense of the key areas in my life which I want to focus on and then play with the various words which can express that is in itself an inspiring exercise.  It is one, which I think will take a bit more time this year.  And that’s why I am starting to think about it now.