Life & Style | Health

Saying 'bah!' to cancer

UK-based Stephanie Butland was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago - and has battled it with a positive attitude and laughter, discovers Christine Fieldhouse

  • By Christine Fieldhouse
  • Published: 00:00 July 6, 2012
  • Friday

  • Image Credit: Supplied pictures
  • Left:Stephanie believes it’s important to be true to your feelings when facing a challenging situation. Right: An old photo sees Stephanie showing off her hair regrowth after her treatment

With a flask of coffee in her hand, Stephanie Butland wanders to her studio at the bottom of the garden where she will spend the morning writing. Her daughter Joy, 15, has walked her rescue greyhound Hope and has gone to school while her son Ned, 17, is away studying.

After a morning's work, Stephanie will join her husband Alan, a semi-retired learning and development specialist, for lunch.

If she fancies going out, she heads off to an art gallery or to a museum or the theatre, or she'll just give Hope another walk around their quiet village, or she'll do some knitting. On days when she is working as a trainer, she'll help corporate clients think more effectively, a job she still feels passionate about after ten years. It sounds idyllic and Stephanie appears to have an enviable lifestyle. Yet much of the way she lives her life today is down to her experience over the last three years, since finding a lump in her breast at the age of 37. After diagnosis she went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and ongoing drug therapy, but throughout all of that she has managed to laugh at life.

In response to the 40 or so friends and relatives who phoned every few nights to see how she was getting on, she started writing a blog. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always truthful and to the point, she included snippets of conversations with medics, tips on what to say and what not to say to people who have been diagnosed with cancer, and information and advice for people going through treatment. Now that blog has been turned into a book, How I Said Bah! to cancer, and published by Hay House. "My friend Jude coined that expression," laughs Stephanie. "After I was diagnosed, she sent me a card and she wrote lots in it about how I was going to use the time to do lovely things and watch girlie films and say ‘Bah!' to cancer. Everyone who looked at the card repeated ‘Bah!' And so the Bah! attitude was created!

You can choose how to think

"The Bah way of thinking is about several things. It's about being informed, being sensible, being in control and not beating yourself up.

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"Part of it is also about remembering you can choose the way you think. You might not be able to choose your treatment but you can change how you think about it. I'd seen from my work how powerful our thoughts can be.

"People often think positive thinking is about pretending to be happy and denying those less-than-positive feelings that come up, but it isn't. It's about thinking: ‘At 2pm I feel really lousy. Should I get my mum to come round, or go for a walk?' For me, saying ‘Bah!' is about authenticity, and being true to my feelings."

Once her blog got under way, Stephanie found it became a form of therapy for her, as well as a way to provide practical advice for others going through cancer treatment.

"You can't write something sensible and interesting unless you process it or come to terms with it," she explains. "After I had posted it, I felt better. I also found there are a lot of websites around but not a lot of the information is particularly helpful.

"For example, I wanted to know what would happen to my hair with chemotherapy. Would it come out in clumps, or just drop out one day? When I lost my hair, I posted pictures each day on my blog so readers could see exactly how I was losing it. I wrote about my nails splitting vertically, which was excruciatingly painful.

"After I posted a blog about getting cramps as a result of chemotherapy, I got more than 100 emails from people crippled with cramps, unaware it was a side effect of their treatment. I felt Bah! was becoming a focal point for all the little things, none of which were covered by the medical profession."

As her treatment got under way, Stephanie took a good look at her life and worked out what was important. Two casualties were her Open University Psychology degree and her cake-making business. She also learnt to ask for help.

"Until that point, I'd been in charge of what we'd do at weekends, what we were going to eat, but I found I had to let go. I also had to stop pretending I felt great when I felt lousy, and as soon as I did that, the children asked what they could do to help. They ended up cleaning my PICC line - the catheter with a valve for medication - every week and I was so proud of them for doing that.

"I'd lived in London since doing my first degree but I started to wonder why I lived there, when my family were about 480 kilometres away in Northumberland so we started making plans to move North, which happened in September 2010."

Stephanie is equally down to earth about her new literary career which saw her first book being published in October. She boasts an agent from one of the UK's leading agencies. "I won him in an auction on twitter!" she laughs. "You could bid to have your first three chapters and your proposal assessed. I put in a bid, then a lot of my friends saw I'd bid and they chipped in too, so I got him. He asked to see the rest of my manuscript, then he asked if he could represent me. It was just brilliant."

The gift of perspective

Stephanie says, "When I first held my book in my hand, it felt like such a big achievement. Here was something that I had made that was going to be good and helpful for other people."

There's no doubt that cancer has changed Stephanie's life, but has it altered it for the better? "Every kind of life crisis helps you to look at things in your life and ask if you're living in the right place or if you're in the right job.

"I think I'm more satisfied and settled now. I'm living in the right place and married to the right man. I've been able to discover what matters to me.

"When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a writer, but that gets forgotten as you get older. Then suddenly I go and fulfil my childhood dream!"

Stephanie's tools to cope with cancer

Stephanie, one of 40 Master Trainers in de Bono Thinking Methods worldwide, offers these techniques she used in dealing with cancer:

Six thinking hats

This is a tool used by Edward de Bono whose thinking methods I train people in. Each coloured hat signifies a different way of thinking. The white hat represents information, the red instinct, the yellow made me look at the benefits, and the black at the risks. The green hat is for new ideas and the blue for managing the process. It's easy to let your feelings take over, but if you use the different hats and separate all that's going on, it's easier to see things more clearly.

Language

Be careful how you refer to your condition. I used the term‘a cancer' because something that was a few centimetres across was taken out of me. It was relatively small. When you say "I have cancer" it sounds as if huge monsters are rampaging through your body and you lose perspective of what you're dealing with.

I got fed up of hearing how people were battling against cancer, or how they had lost their fight. It isn't about losing or fighting. It's about not being able to go on in the face of unbearable difficulty.I chose to say I was "dancing with cancer" because no one ever died from dancing. Sometimes it's a tango, and after chemo it was a jive. Now I say I am "thriving after cancer".

Visualisation

To prepare for surgery, breathe deeply and slowly and wait until you are calm. Then imagine a series of people, a bit like a line-up at a wedding, coming up to you and smiling at you and embracing you. Imagine your surgeon telling you the operation couldn't have gone better, a nurse saying your wounds have healed so quickly, your colleagues saying you're back at work very quickly and everyone saying you are fully recovered. When I was having chemo, I asked to hold the tray of drugs in my hands. Then I pictured every syringe and bottle containing little balls of light that would bounce and ricochet around my body, pinging cancer cells and making them explode like fireworks.

Fact Box

How I Said Bah! to cancer is published by Hay House, www.bahtocancer.com

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