A Surprise Diagnosis
April 24, 2018, I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at the age of 34. I have no family history (of any cancer!). I was a Division I athlete, maintained an active lifestyle, and was otherwise extremely healthy. The few years leading up to this point I had immersed myself into positive and sport psychology—taking courses (i.e. Mindfulness Based Strengths Practice at VIA Institute), trainings (i.e. Discovery Positive Education at the Institute of Positive Education at Geelong Grammar School in Australia) and reading multiple books as a means of becoming a better teacher and coach. I wanted to help my students and athletes not just “survive” their time in high school, whether that time was spent playing sports or in my math class, but to thrive. While not everyone needed the skills I was teaching in the moment (be they gratitude, self-talk, confidence, goal setting, mindfulness, etc.), my hope was that I could at least give them a collection of tools for their mental toolbox knowing at some point in their year or life they would need them.
I am so grateful for the journey that I had been on leading up to April, because it prepared me in ways I can’t even count. The toolbox I had been teaching others to create was the exact toolbox I needed myself. This diagnosis was just a way for me to “practice what I preach,” and awareness of my character strengths has helped immensely. I believe positive psychology, and specifically strengths research, has kept me on a path of resilience and happiness throughout my diagnosis and treatment, and I think it can help others, too, whether it be cancer or any other major life obstacle.
My top 5 character strengths (also known as my signature strengths) are love, kindness, humor, perspective, and hope.
Here is where each strength came into play:
I have two young children, a loving husband, and an extremely caring family and social network. I value close relationships with others and this has created an extended network of support during challenging times as well as motivation and purpose for getting through it.
I like doing favors and good deeds for others; I am a caretaker by nature. The tables have flipped a bit and I believe this strength has opened the door for others to do the same for me. Between GoFundMe pages, meals, rides, playdates for our kids, and general “sending good thoughts” my way, I have felt surrounded by kindness throughout this journey.
I am so grateful for my strength of humor. Even if others don’t think I’m funny, I love to laugh and also have the ability to make light of challenging situations. This strength has kept things fun, funny, and not so serious in our household, thank goodness!
My strength of perspective came into play right from the very start. When getting the phone call from the doctor that my biopsy was positive, my first words to her were: “Well, that is really inconvenient.” It was not how I planned to spend the remaining months of my sabbatical. Once I got a scan that showed it wasn’t in my lungs, I celebrated for what I had. Heck yes I had stage 3! Wow, was I ever lucky, because it could have been so much worse. I know it is worse for others. And, I think about them every day.
Being optimistic about the future and believing in the power of positive thinking is no doubt a helpful signature strength during challenging times.
How Character Strengths Impact Well-Being
Research around strengths use tells us that it is an important predictor of well-being and leads to less stress and increased positive affect and vitality.[i] We also know from research that using signature strengths in a new way each day leads to increased happiness and decreased depression.[ii] Knowing my strengths before this “detour,” as I call it, started, allowed me to know what I should focus on each day. In fact, I try to use all five of my signature strengths on a daily basis: Showing love to my family, friends, and myself; finding small kind acts I can still do for others while also accepting their help and kindness in return; laughing often (even about my circumstances at times, such as the pain and experience of trying to ice my feet during an infusion to prevent neuropathy); maintaining a perspective that it could be worse and I am so lucky to be where I am and in the hands of the doctors who make up my medical team; and, the ever-present hope that it will all work out the way it’s supposed to.
We also know that the people we surround ourselves with has a direct impact on our well-being. In his book, Big Potential, Shawn Achor talks about the importance of the ecosystem around you.
“Success is not just about how creative or smart or driven you are, but how well you are able to connect with, contribute to, and benefit from the ecosystem of people around you.”[iii]
One of his “seeds” of Big Potential is to surround yourself with a star system of positive influencers and this includes having a diverse ecosystem. To me, this includes having a diversity of strengths around me.
My Support System
My husband’s signature strengths include judgment/critical thinking, prudence, and love. His ability to weigh things fairly and think things through (judgment) helped in making decisions for how we should proceed and with which doctors. He carries a notebook to every appointment, dates the top, and writes notes on everything we are told. With so much information coming flying at us, particularly in the beginning, this strength kept us organized and able to sift through what was most important. His signature strength of prudence (being careful of one’s choices) helped in a similar way. And, of course his signature strength of love made me and our young daughters all feel cared for no matter what. Not far down his strengths list was also gratitude. He has written thank you notes for every meal that has been made for us or gifts delivered. I, alone, probably would have been overwhelmed with choices and making decisions and too unorganized to express my gratitude even though I feel it daily. We balance each other out. Using his strengths has lifted me up and, combined with the people in our life, we’ve created an entire star system of positive influencers around us.
Leaning on Signature Strengths
If each day one can mindfully engage with their signature strengths, I believe it can make the whole experience better. This is not to say there won’t be tough days or sad days. There may be days you need to tap into bravery or perseverance, even if those are lesser strengths, to overcome an unforeseen obstacle. Let’s face it, cancer itself was probably an unforeseen obstacle. No matter where perseverance falls on your list of signature strengths, I would argue you are using that strength as you make your way through treatments.
Prior to my diagnosis, part of my strengths practice included a consistent habit of finding good things in my day (which began as soon as I read Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things intervention a few years ago[iv]). I started the practice with a “Good Things Happened Today” dedicated chalkboard in my high school mathematics classroom where everyone added something when they first walked into the room.
The tables now turned, I created “The Silver Side” blog, adding good things from my days, recognizing there was always something small, even if it was the simple fact my dog didn’t poop on a walk with me so I didn’t have to pick it up. Noticing and savoring these small bright sides was helpful even during days of feeling quite terrible.
As one goes through cancer treatments, these positive psychology practices and knowing your strengths (as well as those of the people you surround yourself with) can help you create a diverse ecosystem that can help you shine and be a cancer thriver (not just survivor!). As the late Stuart Scott said, “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”