It all started with my weight, as it often does for women. I’ve always had issues with weight growing up – I was never a skinny blonde, but oh how I wanted to be! Just to fit in with the popular girls in high school was my secret and shameful dream for a long time. Eating the right foods and getting enough exercise never quite seemed to “work”. I grew up in the 90s at the peak of the low/no fat craze. Lots of over processed margarine to replace butter – in fact, over processed everything! Fruit roll-ups, Spam, processed cold cuts – no wonder it was difficult! I wasn’t very active naturally, but my father encouraged me to play a wide variety of sports which has since led to a love of sport, lifelong friendships (and injuries!) for which I’m ever grateful. I think one of the most damaging lies I bought into over the years was the calories in vs calories out. Is 100 calories of broccoli equivalent to 100 calories of chocolate bar? Surely not. Surely the type of calories you consume had a huge impact on your well-being – and eventually, your weight.
Since my breast cancer diagnosis in 2015, I’ve started to explore the other sides of well-being, aside from diet and exercise. Learning about how much the mind and body are connected, the physiological impacts of prolonged periods of stress for example. The power of meditation and mindfulness. Of positive thinking, visualisation and the power of suggestion. These are not new concepts – I played on my university’s field hockey team and we had a sports psychologist support our team ahead of important matches. She led us through visualisation exercises, encouraging us to close our eyes and picture the most perfect play we’ve ever done or best goal we’d ever scored. And run that tape over and over in our minds.
The problem with these approaches is that they are so difficult to measure. Would we have lost the game if we hadn’t spent that time visualising? It’s impossible to know. We can make some logic leaps by relying on evidence from studies of these techniques, but often efficacy is driven by how much you believe in it anyway. In fact, Harvard Medical School has been doing some fascinating work researching the mind-body connection, such as the benefits of meditation. “After adjusting for age, sex, sleep, depression, and other possible confounding factors, researchers found people who meditated had a lower prevalence of high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and coronary artery disease compared with people who didn’t meditate.”(1)
The year before I was diagnosed was a very stressful and anxious year for me. I drank a lot. I wasn’t particularly happy. And worst of all, I was having doubts about my relationship. This anxiety negatively affected my performance at work – I wasn’t able to concentrate and had to excuse myself at lunch, taking long walks around the block to avoid panicking. I do believe the extreme stress and unhappiness I experienced that year contributed to my diagnosis (on top of a myriad of other physiological reasons).