Saturday, 13 July 2013

Howe do you do... breathing?

So here's the thing. This part of the recovery process is not so straight-forward. Various people told me that this time, the time after cancer would be tough. I thought, meh, it'll be fine... because I didn't understand the whys and hows involved.

In some ways, for me it is harder than the chemo; that takes resilience and patience. They're pretty straightforward qualities when that's all you need. There's no organising, no pressure, no shoulda, woulda, couldas. For the most part I had one mantra: just breathe. And because I have a lovely family, that's all I had to do.

But the landscape, where I am at the moment is one of intense balance and perpetual concentration. Picking up strands of my life again, while trying to fundamentally change myself is a full-time job. For me it is an important one.

I have tentatively dipped my toe back into my old career as a mobile holistic therapist. My background and beliefs about stress and how we get out of our body what we put in, are founded in the foothills of my holistic training; so I recover holistically.

I consider: my diet, my posture, my supplements, my beauty regime, my exercises, my physio, my holistic treatments, my medical treatment, my time management, my pace of life, my use of technology, my spiritual leanings, my mental atmosphere, my social life, things that make me feel good, even the candles I burn and the sunscreen I use. And not just consider them, but pore over them as if trying to fathom quantum physics. Am I getting it right, am I doing OK? Have I changed? Have I changed enough?

These might seem like a strange questions, but yes I do feel that what was going on in my body in the run up to my diagnoses had a lot to do with it. I fit no other breast cancer markers other than stress. Note to self - running two businesses, bringing up two small children while striving to make it as a writer does not make my body shine!

It's true, you can't help but search for a reason. What's also true is you can never go back. I can never go back to not having had cancer. It has fundamentally changed me, which is a good thing. A necessary thing. A thing that gives the experience meaning and justification. But it is also a sobering thing, where I am different to the average Josephine who doesn't consider whether her smoked salmon is carcinogenic. These things are all important to me, because I really want to be alive for the foreseeable. From the list above, you can see why it might be a bit overwhelming, to top it off, I take my eye off the ball and it can feel in any one of the areas that I'm back to square one, that no progress has been made at all.

Michael Winner often pipes up in my psyche: "Calm Down Dear!" because there's no use blathering on about all these things, agonising over their efficacy, if I'm chasing my tail and heating up my stress levels, so we're back to trying to find balance on another factor. I have to balance my balancing!

Anyway while racing around the other day, organising various things, gleefully achieving things which for months I have only been able to dream of, I checked in with myself to realise that my body still didn't feel good. I wondered why for a while... then it occurred to me. I wasn't breathing! The more I paid attention, I realised I wasn't breathing a lot! I thought back to the time before diagnoses, in the months that lead up to it, trying to get a training business off the ground, I. Just. Didn't. Stop.

I thought it was O.K. I thought not stopping was just an ill of being a 'Have it all' Yummy Mummy in the 21st Century. I even had some perverse pride in it. I also thought I have no choice. Dumb-y Mummy!

And you can bet I didn't breathe either! And I've got a feeling that has a lot more to do with my getting cancer, than using fragranced shower gel!

My specialist, although surprised at my diagnoses at 33, has seen a growing number of women my age developing breast cancer in recent years. For me, and I know I'm not a scientist, but I can't help thinking that the sort of pressure on women in our generation has got to have something to do with it.

In line with which I want to share with you some information that I hope will be the key to my success. It is something I researched for a course that I used to teach on the subject of, wait for it... Holistic Stress Management (well this is embarrassing!) You see I know all of the theory inside out but had only been paying lip service to it, not actually taking the road less traveled and changing my habits positively. So now is the time, and it's a crawling pace that I've set, with hurdles and falls aplenty. I feel caught in No Man's Land, not the old me, but not the new one either.

All that aside, this is what I know about breathing...

  • Breathing accounts for around 70% of the body's detoxification.
  • You can survive for weeks without food, but only minutes without oxygen.
  • Every time you deprive your body of oxygen, your body starts to not work properly.
  • Many of the things that feel really good, regulate our breathing: singing, eating, making whoopie, smoking (I know I enjoyed it once!).
  • Consistent deep breathing feels really good. If you want to relax, it should be your first port of call. It costs nothing, has no hokey side-effects and if done right, the results can make you go WOW!
  • Kids breathe properly. It is thought that before children learn to control their emotions, they breathe properly into their bellies. Have a look if you don't believe me - you'll find little babies with Budda bellies. When kids reach about five or six years old, two things happen, they learn to control their emotions (apparently) and their intercostal muscles develop, meaning together: bye bye Budda belly. This isn't such a good thing, I could fill up this page with negative physical repercussions sited for not breathing properly so it's something that we can learn from. Through Full Belly Breathing i.e. using your stomach to breathe and reaching a full breath, almost like a sigh, you are providing your body with plentiful oxygen to operate in tip top condition. Children tend to do cyclical breathing, where they breath naturally with no pause between breaths. I'm going to start doing a simple breathing exercise at bedtime with mine, so that they get a good idea of what proper breathing is.


  • Stress causes us to shallow breathe. Shallow breathing causes stress. Stress causes acid in the body. Cancer luuuuurves acid. Ergo, breathe properly, kick cancer's no good ass. This can be a tricky area to navigate because sometimes stopping breathing can be a sign of enthusiasm. Often when I stop breathing, I'm really focused on a task, not feeling particularly stressed but not breathing properly all the same. Sometimes it can be when I'm feeling rushed and this stimulates a fight or flight response, which once initiated, is hard to turn back - I often feel like this at approximately 8.35am and 3.25pm. The point is, if I can notice patterns I can start to reverse them.
  • I'm hazarding many people don't like having their bellies hanging about, full belly breathing or not; it's just a fact of our social/cultural climate. I've held my tummy in in a vain (ha ha) attempt to look slimmer for so long now, to not do it feels quite alien; that doesn't however make it right. Again this is a tricky one to get one's head around, its the question of health versus vanity and sad though it is to admit it, it will be a reality for as long as models and  are more waif than wafer biscuit with a chocolate sundae attached. 
  • Finally the good news. We can change our habits: 

"Just by observing how we breathe, we actually change our breath pattern.

Respiration is slightly different from the other physiological functions of the body. While it is a self-governing activity, we can easily influence it by bringing our awareness to the breath. By observing our breathing, we automatically deepen and slow its pace to produce calm." 


  • Studies show it takes around 70 repetitions before a habit is changed but change it will.
    Woo hoo! Let's make like the kids and get our bellies out!!



Aside from anything else, life's too short to not be doing it the way we want. If you want to change something and it's important to you, stop what you're doing, and do it now. I'm going to start with breathing...