A licensed mental health therapist by training, writer at heart, Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW has an unbridled passion for empowering others to live their best life, even in the midst of crisis. Follow her award winning blog to read about therapeutic tools designed for coping with adversity, valuable life lessons, book tour updates and breakthroughs in cancer treatment.
My story begins on a random Thursday night. I was getting ready for bed and did a quick breast self exam. I found a lump that I suspected was a cyst in my right breast. It felt very similar to the one that I had in 2003, so I didn't panic. I called the next morning and scheduled an appointment with the oncologist that I had seen for several years after treating my cyst in 2003. I was due for a mammogram and expected her to tell me it was a cyst and everything would be fine.
I went in the following Monday, 10/15/12. I was right, it was a cyst but she also found something in my left breast. I had felt a small ridge of scar tissue from a biopsy back in 1999 but my doctor had a look on her face that was concerning. I walked to the back of the building for a mammogram and ultrasound. The ultrasound tech found not one, but three cysts on the right side. As expected, they were fluid filled, what a relief. I knew there was a problem when she told me she needed to step out and speak to the radiologist. I looked at the big round clock on the wall. It was 3:05. I thought, "10/15/12 at 3:05pm....the day my life is going to change forever." She came back in after five long minutes of staring at the minute hand moving around the clock and told me I needed a biopsy on the left breast, as it was a solid mass.
It started out as a bedtime ritual after prayers when my boys were young. A simple question:
“What’s your favorite part of the day?”
A form of expressing gratitude, my little boys would recap their day and share their innocent version of the world. My own answers were shaped by the child that I was snuggling at the moment. But it became a way of life and the effects have been far reaching. But how can one simple question wield the power to change your life? Let’s find out…
Let’s all be very honest...life can be challenging. Whether coping with a life changing situation such as breast cancer, divorce, job loss or just the small daily struggles, life is not always easy. We often become mired down in those dark days and forget to appreciate the little things in life.
Gratitude is a matter of choice, pure and simple. Believe it or not, an attitude of gratitude can change your life. Multiple research studies support this theory and I’ve experienced it personally.
Gratitude helped me with my journey through breast cancer, beginning the very day of diagnosis. After enduring one of the most challenging days of my life, I found myself wandering my dark home in the wee hours of the morning. I checked on my sleeping boys, still innocent to the fact that their mom was in danger. I reflected back to the day that I gave birth to them and was overcome with gratitude for the gift of simply being their mother. I thanked God that it was me who had cancer and not my boys. This would set the stage for my approach to my long journey through treatment and for the rest of my life.
"I thanked God it was me that had cancer and not one of my boys."
Developing an attitude of gratitude takes practice but anyone can do it. Most studies encourage the use of a gratitude journal. That’s my challenge to all of you over the next 21 days...keep a daily gratitude journal!
We all want to help when a friend is in crisis. But how we help can make all of the difference. I can tell you from my own personal experience and from talking to people throughout the world that those words, “How can I help?” are not always the best approach to making a difference.
Why? First of all, we’re often exhausted from coping with the crisis at hand. We don’t have the time or energy to figure out how you can help. Please keep in mind that we hear those words from everyone. It’s such a common response and we’re not really sure if you truly want to help or if you are saying it to be nice. It’s nothing personal. We are just trying to keep our head above water in overwhelming circumstances and need to keep our focus on staying afloat.
So what can you do to really help a friend or family member going through a life crisis?
DO something, don’t just offer. Here are ten tips to help you get started!
The Friday after Thanksgiving has been a sacred day of decorating for Christmas since we started our family. Every year we put up a small tree with a mix match of beloved ornaments that have been collected as far back as my early childhood. My boys have helped decorate this tree since they were very young, adding a new ornament every year. The big tree in our great room has always been our “show tree”. Three coordinating colors of ornaments placed perfectly, standing tall and ready to impress our guests and wait for Santa to lavish the base with gifts on Christmas morning. Over the years I have spent hours perfecting the lights, garland and ornaments throughout the entire season.
Last fall brought an unexpected Stage III breast cancer diagnosis and a new perspective on what really matters in life. My sacred day of decorating came three weeks after my bilateral mastectomy. I couldn’t lift anything and I grew tired after minimal effort. For the first time, at the ages of seven and nine, I allowed my boys to help decorate my “show tree”. A hustle and bustle of excitement lit up the room as the ornaments were placed haphazardly. We stood back to look at the finished product: dazzling white lights highlighted the unorganized colors and bare spots begging to be fixed. I turned to see two little boys beaming with pride and I was filled with peace and gratitude. My boys were enjoying the holiday season amid a difficult, somber darkness that only a life threatening illness can create. My philosophy that the kids will be okay if the parents are okay continued to prevail as we enjoyed our beautiful tree.
The surge of fear in our car was palpable. A car was driving right towards us... the wrong way up a one way ramp. A bold interruption in our casual family conversation after dinner with Grandma. We veered out of the way and my husband rolled down his window to warn the driver. An frail, older lady peeked out of the window. My husband yelled a warning over the traffic all around us...telling her she was headed the wrong way towards a busy intersection.
Time stopped as she jumped out of her car in a panic. Still in gear, the car was rolling towards the busy intersection, the door bumping into as she stood rigidly, frozen with terror. Adrenaline pored through my blood stream as I began to open my car door but my husband was closer, already shouting over the traffic to to put the car into park. As he dashed towards her, an inpatient drive came out of nowhere, speeding between our cars, barely missing my husband. My boys and I watched in horror as the woman walked to the middle of the road, terrified and confused.
The time had finally arrived for the final step in my breast cancer journey. My last two surgeries: a prophylactic hysterectomy and final reconstruction surgery were scheduled for the next day. Today was all about surgery prep: clear liquid diet all day with a “cleanse” that evening. I had been dreading this day. I’m one of those people who need to eat...real food...every day.
I was pondering my yucky day when the words of my radiation oncology nurse came back to me:
“How do you want to remember this day?”
I made the decision to look for the rainbows through the storm.
I was enjoying an early morning nature walk through the farmland behind my home. It is my favorite place to reconnect with nature in Missouri. Long stretches of shaded canopies created by hundreds of mature trees, abandoned fields that create a home for an abundance of wildlife, dry creek beds and antiquated barns. I had missed my walks through this wonderland filled with the sights and sounds of nature at its finest. I rounded the corner to greet the over sized tree that I had come to love through the years. It is a gentle giant with limbs reaching far into the sky, providing a perfect silhouette against the field behind it. I had taken many pictures of this tree throughout the years, each season bringing with it a different type of beauty.
I stopped short when my beloved tree came into view. I knew immediately that something was wrong. The tree should have been full of beautiful green leaves, shielding the ground below from the bright sunlight cascading through the field. Instead, the tree was nearly bare...no leaves on its branches or the ground. I assessed the situation as I approached my old friend. I was saddened to see a mammoth vine had climbed up the tree’s trunk and infiltrated most of the branches. The vine was taking over the tree, squeezing the life out of it, one leaf at a time.
I felt helplessly overwhelmed as I looked up at the dying tree, wondering how I could help. I continued on my walk with a heavy heart and the goal of finding a solution. As I pondered my new found dilemma, it occurred to me that this didn’t happen overnight. The vine had climbed the tree’s trunk slowly but steadily, the tree oblivious to the danger at hand.
My keen sense of smell lures me from a deep sleep into the kitchen where I watch her. Gracefully chopping, sautéing and belting out an old 80’s tune, a bit off key but a sure sign that my mom is happy. My salivary glands work overtime as I gaze up at her with big brown eyes, my slightly excessive waistline evidence that I’ve mastered the fine art of begging. Unable to resist, she grants my wish, her latest culinary creation satisfying my taste buds and her moment of undivided attention feeding my soul.
Sanibel Island: tropical flora and fauna create a lush backdrop for sea shells so abundant that one must bear witness in person to truly comprehend. Manatees frolic carefree in canals while alligators sunbath on the river’s edge. Miles of National Wildlife Refuge lined with bike trails occupied by both residents and visitors. Everyone giddy with excitement to observe the nightly performance by the sunset, painting the sky with a palette of breathtaking color. The nightlife on the beach made up of nesting sea turtles and later their hatchlings, content to swim millions of miles to return to this sanctuary island every year. A unique tourist destination and home to an eclectic group of islanders void of stop lights or high rise hotels.
It was dark when I stepped onto Lighthouse beach on Sanibel Island. I was excited to spend the morning with the wildlife on the beach, watching the sun peek over the horizon. I was photographing my favorite piece of driftwood in front of the lighthouse when something jumped into my shot, startling me. It was a young brown pelican. He jumped onto the driftwood and sat there, posing perfectly.
I didn’t think much of it at first, but when he continued to hang out near me on the beach, I knew something was wrong. I discovered that the little pelican had fishing line wrapped around his legs. He couldn’t swim well and couldn’t fly. He was vulnerable and asking me for help in the only way he knew how.