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Last week, I started telling you about my lifetime of living with anxiety. If you have not read the first part yet, you can find it here.

When I first started struggling with my mental health, it was barely something that anyone talked about. I think we were all taught the way to deal with trauma or bad thoughts of any kind was to push them down and try to forget about them.

After having radiation for my cancer, this was no longer a viable strategy for me. Seven months after my depression and anxiety hit, I submitted to joining Wellspring and signed up for their Chronic Cancer Support Group and their Healing Journey Series. I figured I would start with these before engaging in professional talk therapy, as I believed neither would work.

I thought all talk-based therapy only benefited the therapist’s bank account and it was really a placebo effect that people responded to. I saw it as a form of organized religion. Rationally, I saw radiation as a medical tool that had done this damage, so medicine was the only logical choice to fix me.

The thought of sharing myself and my inner thoughts with others who were also living with stage 4 cancer sounded like a recipe for disaster. I was trying to avoid my diagnosis and cancer people. I did not want to discuss my issues with strangers. I was strong enough to figure this out on my own.

The reason I even joined was out of respect for my family doctor, who not only do I respect a great deal but I admire her as well. She cared enough to explain the benefits of therapy and Wellspring. At this point, I was very desperate but did not want to admit how far I had fallen. I was below rock bottom and felt I was hovering over Hell.

The first day of the group session, I was already sad and anxious before even arriving. But now I was also nervous and had no idea what or who to expect. As I was let into the online meeting space, in front of me were the faces of 15 women of all ages and backgrounds who all shared one thing: they all had a smile on their face.

The facilitator of the group welcomed me and asked if I would like to introduce myself. I had assumed I would be asked this, so I had practiced in my head what I would say. “Hi, my name is Karla Stephens Tolstoy. I live in Oakville. I was diagnosed on Oct 5th, 2018 with stage 4 breast cancer.”

I said none of that. I barely got my name out before I broke down in tears and told them I was so sad and felt no joy and was scared of my future. Not only were each of their faces so loving and understanding as they looked at me, but they all said they understood that feeling and have felt that way many times before and that we all need good cries and to let our fears out. Immediately, I felt I had met my tribe and wondered how I had lasted so long without them.

The following month, The Healing Journey Series started. It is designed for anyone cancer has touched, whether that be a current cancer patient, one in remission, or a caregiver. People in the program are at all stages of cancer.

Our facilitator asked a question at the beginning of the Healing Journey 1 session: “What is our greatest fear?” Most people said it was their cancer coming back and that one day they might become stage 4. For a moment I felt sad that I was living someone’s else’s fear. But also, for the first time in a long time, I felt empowered to speak up and tell them that I understood their fear and wanted them to know medicine has come a long way. Inroads are being made daily and my life is not so bad. This is when I realized that I have actually come a long way in the last couple of years since my own diagnosis.

The healing series is presented in seven parts and currently I am starting Healing Journey 4. A description right from the Wellspring website: 

“The Healing Journey is a program for people who want to learn how to help themselves when they have cancer. It is a practical course, providing simple but proven psychological and spiritual tools which promote inner harmony, peace and healing, methods that can help any of us become a “healed person”. 

The Healing Journey | Wellspring

My sadness slowly dissipated about a year after it first became bad, in the fall of 2021. I was feeling normal again but realized I needed private talk therapy to learn how to be more mentally resilient. Group support and the Healing Journey have helped me a great deal, but by December I started with my therapist. To be brutally honest, I am not sure how I dealt with life before her. I guess I do know. I just pushed stuff down so far and locked it away in a secret compartment, but my annoying cancer started to push things back up. 

Alongside therapy, I have also done several things to retrain my brain, including meditation and journaling. I had a coach to guide me through this work. I did a podcast on my coach and my journey using brain retraining techniques, if curious have a listen.

These practices now help me open up my mind and prepare for talk therapy. There have been several times where I have initiated healing and been able to work through an issue that might have plagued me for months or years in just one session. 

I also exercise three times a week with a kinesiologist who keeps me from slowly deteriorating physically. She has also been a lifeline for me, as I spent so much time in bed. Without her training I am scared to think of where my physical health would be at this point. 

So yes, anxiety is a weird thing but it is something we can lessen with our own combination of treatments and healthy practices. It does not need to control us or make us believe things that are not true. Anxiety is our own personal source of fake news. Whenever I have anxiety now I book a session with my therapist to find the root cause of it. We examine if that cause is coming from a genuine place of risk, fear/trauma, or if it is fabricated by my own mind. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is based on what ifs and is not rooted in truth or a practical assessment of what might be to come. 

If I cannot wait for a therapy session, I have a mini session with myself where I ask where the anxiety is coming from. I write down the first thought that enters my mind. Next, I close my eyes and ask the universe if they know where my anxiety comes from and I meditate on it for as long as I can. I write down what comes to my mind. I look at everything I have written and see which answer feels more right. Sometimes everything I write matches or is connected. Currently, I find more surface reasons for my anxiety, but it holds me over until therapy. I am still learning how to self soothe and self heal to become less reliant on therapy and have more effective tools to manage my own mental health.

I also recognize that there is so much privilege in having easy access to therapists and other mental health professionals. I wish in Canada you didn’t need to have cancer to access programs like those offered at Wellspring. If you are struggling yourself, please contact your GP and talk to them about it! Psychiatrists and many psychologists and counselors are covered by our healthcare system, though the waitlist to get an appointment can be long. I know it can be terrifying to open this door, but I believe it will be worth it!

It has taken more than a year for me to say that there are more days than not where I can find joy. I wake up optimistic most mornings and feel content when I go to sleep. I have learned a great deal about healing and I continue to learn. I work diligently on my mental health. I can still get a curveball that takes me off course, but I feel more resilient for whatever life throws at me than I ever have before in my life. This allows me to feel freer than I ever have before. Free feels really good.  ~Karla xoxo

Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC.  She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills.  Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach.  Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre. 

Check out her blog,  and her podcast Stand Up Speak Up which ranks in the top 10% for most listened to podcast.

You can find her at @standupspeakup, LinkedInKarla’s Korner Facebook group.

The Empowerment Scarf
You are most powerful when you believe in yourself, let this scarf give you an extra boost of confidence and comfort.

The Healing Scarf  this talisman was inspired by our founder, Karla’s own path to healing. Let it be a shield to protect you and an emblem to empower you.

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