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The Power of Positive Thinking

Hooray, Hooray! A Brand New Day!

Life can be overwhelming no matter what your health situation. But add the extra stress of an ostomy on top of a new diagnosis, work responsibilities, caring for an aging parent, or raising small children, and it can feel like you'll never get out from under the anxiety. It never helps when someone says, "Stay positive!" or tells you to "tap into the power of positive thinking." Like anything else, learning to stay optimistic is a skill we have to practice every single day when even the smallest opportunity pops up.

I begin every single day now by cheering, "Hooray, Hooray! A brand new day!" Most mornings, I'm awakened as soon as the sun comes up by my two very enthusiastic dogs jumping on the bed and licking my face. I'm not thrilled to be getting out of bed at 6:30 a.m. but there I am, dragging myself behind the excited dogs as they lead me to the back door to let them out. Instead of grumbling and feeling annoyed at them (because let's face it: they don't know anything about clocks or that I had plans to "sleep in" until 7 a.m.), I now cheer "Hooray, Hooray! A brand new day!" The first few times I did this, I thought I was being ridiculous, and I was a little embarrassed by having said it out loud to the empty kitchen. But an amazing thing has happened -- a year and a half since I first tried this morning routine out, I am now doing it without fail. It has served to make me appreciate how wonderful it is to be alive and have the opportunity to wake up.

Because the first time I cheered with the dogs, I had just come home from the hospital after a major abdominal surgery that diagnosed me with Stage-4C colon cancer. Suddenly, "tomorrow morning" was no longer something I could take for granted. How many "tomorrow mornings" would there be for me? I didn't know. So today, I am going to be thankful to be alive. "Hooray, Hooray! A brand new day!" has a deeper meaning than just trying to keep up with the dogs before I drink my black tea.

I hardly need to say it, but I have taken something as simple as being grumpy when I wake up and turned it into a positive moment to start my day. If my day begins like this, then I have given myself the power to do this throughout the day.

There may be nothing "positive" about having cancer or having a chronic illness or having an ostomy, but life is filled with positive things that can distract you from those for just a few minutes. As I said before, though, you have to practice positive thinking when life is easy in order for you to be able to do it when things get tough. There's no need to be "positive all the time" because that is unrealistic -- even for someone as upbeat as myself. Just like I need to practice positive thinking, I also need to release some of the grief, fear, and anxiety associated with my situation. I like to call it "Being Human."

Being diagnosed with cancer was the most frightening experience of my life. Finding out that the doctors didn't expect me to survive more than 6 months was akin to being clobbered with a sledgehammer repeatedly and at every turn. How could I get out from under this heavy burden? Every day, I tried to think of things that I was thankful for: my husband, my son, and my dogs. And not that these weren't good things to focus on, but these are the obvious things that I should be hanging on to anyway. But, I will admit, this was not always enough to get through those difficult private moments of doubt and terror. I had to find other things to latch on to.

Other than having cancer, I was a healthy and normal 47-year-old woman. I was still hiking, running, and doing yoga. Each of these activities gave me another thing to add to my "things I am thankful for" list. I would sit on my yoga mat and hug my knees in and say, "Thank you, Legs, for carrying me." I would reach the top of a trail and turn to look out at the San Fernando Valley below me and say, "Thank you, Body, for getting me here so I can see this view." And, even more simply speaking, I would sit on my patio watching the hummingbirds at the feeders and think, "Thank you, Lisa, for being here." Breaking down my accomplishments, no matter how small, made me appreciate just how amazing it is to be alive. To quote Gary Go: "Cause we are all miracles wrapped up in chemicals; we are incredible, don't take it for granted."

I won't, Gary. I won't.

Shockingly, coming to grips with my new colostomy was much more difficult than wrapping my brain around my cancer diagnosis. Perhaps this is because we are surrounded by cancer already -- in the movies, and on tv, friends, and family are diagnosed. We, as a collective species, live with cancer, we know cancer, we witness it, and we have developed coping mechanisms. But a colostomy! This was something completely new to me. What is this thing hanging off of me? Is that seriously a piece of my intestine hanging out of my skin? I'd never heard of a colostomy and I'd certainly never seen one before. This was going to be a heavy lift to figure out how to turn this into a positive experience.

Up to this point, though, I had been practicing positive thinking basically my whole life. When I was in high school, I was on the Varsity Swim Team. Our coach had hung a banner at the end of the pool, which we could see from the starting blocks, that simply said, "P.M.A.!" Perhaps the fans on the bleachers and visiting teams didn't know what it meant, but we did: Positive Mental Attitude. We chanted it as a team before every practice so that by the time we got to our next swim meet, we were already in that mindset. I have carried this little mantra with me my whole life, and have added "being able to thank Coach Scott this past year for this gift" to my list of things to be thankful for.

Now comes the heavy lifting: how to turn my new colostomy into something positive. It took a while, because the obvious "it saved my life" platitude only goes so far. In fact, I tired of this very quickly, as do many of the people I have encountered in my support groups. It's usually followed by "blah blah blah" and then an eye roll. There is no love lost between the ostomate and their ostomy. I knew there had to be a way to get beyond this feeling. Seriously: how can I turn this into something positive in a way that actually means something?

How many people reading this blog have ever seen one of their internal organs live and in person? That's what I thought. My hand is raised: I have seen my large intestine. Actually, I've seen the inside of my large intestine (as a stoma is formed by folding the intestine over like a sock), so that's pretty cool. Once I got over the shock of having it, and saw that it really wasn't that gross to look at it, I started staring at it a lot. I took a lot of pictures of it so I could zoom in on my screen and get a good look at it. I stood in the mirror after my showers and really took in the sight of the stoma on my abdomen. I touched it (it's a little slimy) and cleaned it off. But, in the end, all I had really done was taken something that could have been a horrific experience and turned it into a fascination. In other words: something positive.

Do you know how your digestion works beyond chew-swallow-digest-poop? I do!! It began with wondering why my stoma always had output shortly after I ate a meal. I didn't remember pooping after every meal, although I did start to notice that my dogs ate their breakfast and then promptly went out into the yard to poop. This could not be a coincidence, right? I hit the interwebs and started learning about how our alimentary tract really works. The simple explanation is that your intestines have to make space for the incoming food, so as you're chewing and swallowing, everything down the line is pushing the previous meal further toward the end of the line. Without an ostomy, you are hardly aware of what's happening. Things collect in your sigmoid colon until you decide it's time to hit the loo. But not those of us with an ostomy! There's no "collection" tube, so as the intestines start doing their job, their contents get pushed out into our ostomy pouch. In my case, this would happen about 30 minutes after a meal, but I had a descending colostomy. Those with colostomies closer to the small intestine may have a shorter period to wait, and those with ileostomies have near-constant output.

But see? I learned something about digestion because of my ostomy. How is this a bad thing? And from there, I was inspired to learn more and more about the body. I learned fancy new words like cecum, ileum, diastolic, anastomosis, chyme, and peristalsis. I learned how to communicate in more technical terms with my doctors so there was no confusion as to what my concerns were. These were all positive things to come out of my ostomy. I learned stuff. And with each new thing I learned, I became less and less afraid of what was happening to me, so I was less at the mercy of the situation. I was in control because my head was in control.

Positive thinking doesn't have to be this involved, but it does need to be practiced. Every day, find small things to be thankful for. More importantly, when something seems to be going wrong, try your best to find something positive to focus on. Maybe the dishwasher did an incomplete job and you only noticed after you put away half the dishes. Instead of moaning about how you have to remember what you've already put away, find it, and reload it into the dishwasher, stop to say, "Those two glasses on the middle rack are clean! And so is that serving fork!" Ridiculous, I know. But try it.

Did the dogs just track mud through the house? Instead of being frustrated at having to clean up their little pawprints, stop to look at how perfectly formed and cute those little pawprints are. Have you ever marveled at how beautiful dog paws are? Your heart will grow two sizes thinking about how sweet their little feet are and you'll track them down to give them hugs and kisses instead of cleaning up the mud right away.

Positive thinking isn't about denying the horrible things that might happen, but about showing yourself that these things don't have to rule your life. They are just things, and in the overall scheme of your life, there are way more things to be thankful for.


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