It’s all in my head

I think it’s time to let you into a little secret, dear reader: I wasn’t surprised, in the slightest, when I was first told I had breast cancer. Shocked, yes, but my first reaction was, ‘Well of course I have!’ Not because of the lumpy bits, but because of who I am.

I don’t really fit the typical physical profile of someone with breast cancer. I have a relatively healthy diet, I’m young, I breastfed both my babies for months, there’s no family history. But for many years I have subscribed to the idea explained in Louise L Hay’s amazing little book You Can Heal Your Life that all disease is ‘dis-ease’ – a sort of existential discomfort. In other words, stress and negative emotions make you ill.

Louise specifically suggest that anything wrong with the breast is connected with ‘overmothering’, and cancer is always linked with deep anger, resentment or bitterness. Now that I can identify with. I have always ‘overmothered’ DH and been a ‘good girl’, a caring person to others, sometimes to controlling and martyish levels. I’ve also struggled with actual motherhood and feeling good enough as a mother, from anxiety and post-natal depression with DD to overwhelming, seeing-red anger towards DS when he was a non-sleeping, refluxy, noisy baby and I felt completely out of control and loopy with no sleep. This random fury then became directed at DD and we had a rocky couple of years until she started school (there’s shouting at the kids and there’s going a bit mental).

And underneath all of this was deep, deep guilt and self-loathing about being a crap mother. I used to look at myself in the mirror and say the most appalling things to myself about exactly how dreadful I was, things I would never dream of saying to another human being. I put myself under such pressure and turned such powerful negative emotions on myself about how I was as a mother (while continuing to resent all the looking after I was doing for everyone else) that I’m not even slightly surprised I’ve got breast cancer. It was sort of inevitable when combined with my dodgy hormones. And I gather cancer takes about two years to get to the point where there are symptoms. DS was born two years ago. Go figure.

Western medicine accepts that a wide range of physical illness and disease is linked to stress, from stomach ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome to heart attacks. In other words, it’s psychosomatic. Is it too great a stretch to say that all illness is psychosomatic in nature? That’s not to say it is imaginary, but that I am not just a body, that the activity of my mind and my ‘spirit’ is inseparable from my body, and every thought and feeling I have manifests itself in my body. And strong, long-term negative emotions – anger, resentment, anxiety, depression, that sort of thing – will always have a physical effect sooner or later.

There’s some completely sensible, non-woo-woo stuff on this in the Cancer Lifeline Programme, a brilliant information source/workbook developed by Dr Rosy Daniel of Health Creation (if you or anyone you know has just been diagnosed with or is on the cancer journey, I cannot recommend this highly enough, by the way). This points out that the immune system is substantially weakened by prolonged stress, exhaustion, loneliness, being too nice and hiding or repressing our feelings, depression and lack of motivation, shock and trauma, grief, and lack of purpose or will to live. Apparently these factors decrease the number of circulating white blood cells by between 10% and 30%, and the remaining ones by as much as 50%. Having an immune system operating at a third of normal capacity can leave us vulnerable to the environmental and lifestyle factors that are recognised as contributing to cancer (and we all produce cancer cells every day).

I’m actually finding the understanding that stress has combined with hormones to precipitate this disease in me extremely helpful. Because if that is true, then the opposite is also true, and we all have the power to contribute enormously to our own healing by making some quite radical shifts in the way we are in the world.

Whoah! Isn’t that the most amazing thought? I’d much rather think of myself as being a co-creator or partner in my own healing process than a ‘patient’. Different experts in this area suggest different ways of harnessing this power we all have within us, from finding ways to process our emotions to visualisation of our recovery. A simple tool again comes from Louise L Hay – the repeated use of affirmations or mantras. At the very least, these have a strong calming effect and help you to feel more in control. The affirmation I have been using since before my diagnosis (yeah, again, it wasn’t a surprise) combines Louise’s ones for breast problems and cancer:

‘I am important. I count. I now care for and nourish myself with love and with joy. I allow others the freedom to be who they are. We are all safe and free. I now willingly forgive and release all of the past. I choose to fill my world with joy. I love and approve of myself.’

Like I’ve always said, cancer is my big wake up call. I’m a work in progress but I know I’m going to like the new, calmer, less stressy Pinchy a lot more than the old one. Because it’s who I actually am – the shining diamond at the centre of me, unhidden by the layers of crap I’ve built around myself for a long, long time.

If you’re interested in reading more about this stuff, I recommend:



  1. A really inspiring and thoughtful post again! Although I am not physically ill, I often experience similar emotions towards my Baby Boy and am aware that I need to manage my anger, guilt and emotions better. I will definitely be adding the books above to my reading list and I look forward to hearing more about your journey to physical and mental health.

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Longtime fan of Louise Hay and a longtime chick who put everyone else and their needs & feelings before my own. It’s wonderful and remarkable that you are coming to this realization while in the thick of your dis-ease.

    I’ve been working hard to reverse my own life-long habits — saying yes when I mean no, etc., — and I try to remember this phrase from AA literature: HALT – never let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.

    Yeah, I known, try being a mom and doing that! But it’s when I became a mother that I good close look at how I was treating myself. I knew I never wanted my daughter to feel or behave the why I did. (Still do. I’m a work in progress, too.)

    Thank you for posting such a vulnerable and brave story. I am sending you lots of love and good wishes for a speedy healing.

    Lisa Duggan
    aka motherhoodmag

  3. What a thought provocing post. I too use affirmations and have since I had my double mastectomy. I am one of the 5% whos cancer is genetic. But I do believe that a positive attitude really helps recovery

  4. Thank you for sharing this Pinchy – very inspiring to all the mummies who probably have gone through similar feelings but even more amazing that you are so honest and prepared to share this with us all. You really are a bloody inspiration to us all. Love you xxx

  5. Honey , just so you know since i met you i have totally envied your personable character. I am crap at meeting new people and being all fluffy and warm and you do it with such ease. Even my parents were oh she is lovely. And how articulate you are and manage to juggle home life with business and the kiddies. And those kiddies are gorgeous. Then i also look at how you do all the work stuff and i wish i was as good on blog/twitter/linked in etc.. you are leagues ahead and i can just learn from you. Everything is perspective. Hope to see you soon XXXX

  6. Dear Maja,

    You are an amazing and talented person and you underestimate yourself. I admire you.

    I recognise the behaviour you describe in your blog because I do it myself-way too much; particularly since I have become responsible for another human being!

    I find some comfort in reading poetry. It makes me realise (in my more rational moments) that people have been grappling with these feelings for centuries.

    Do you know this from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Essays of the Road?:-

    “The future is nothing,
    but the past is myself,
    my own history,
    the seed of my present thoughts,
    the mould of my present disposition.”

    With lovexxx

  7. Wow, I’ve always thought that too but didn’t know there was actual literature to affirm that! Think I need to read it all. Thanks for sharing and I hope after you hospital stay last week you are know feeling better than you were.

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