This week we hear from the ever-inspiring Doctor & Blogger, Lauren Macdonald. Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2015, Lauren has proved, against all odds, that she’s a survivor. For the past 18 months she has been disease-free and making the most of every moment. She lives an amazing life, has travelled extensively and is currently dividing her time between the UK and Aus. She’s also a great friend of Wanderlust Life founder, Georgie. Lauren recently set up The Holistic Healing Project to help inspire, guide and educate others on their health and healing. If you’re ever having a wobble and need some reassurance, let Lauren put it into perspective and get some honest health care advice at the same time.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and aspirations you had as a child?
I was lucky enough to grow up in North Devon with my parents and two younger brothers. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a career but I was fascinated by people and the inner workings of the human mind so I studied Psychology. I then fell into a job in advertising for a while but I knew it wasn’t the right career path for me - I wanted to make a real difference to people's lives and help those who were suffering. I eventually made the decision to train as a doctor, with the aim of going into Psychiatry.
For anyone that doesn’t know, Lauren writes an incredible blog which explores her journey through life so far. Could you tell us a bit more about your inspirations for the blog and how your journey through cancer has affected you and your relationships?
I started my blog around my 30th birthday - my cancer had recently progressed to stage IV (the final stage) and things were looking pretty bleak. I was fortunate to have an amazing support network and wanted to let them know what was going on, but I was growing increasingly tired of repeating the same information. I was also keen to share my research examining the lifestyle factors which might impact the outcome of cancer - things like exercise, nutrition, gut health, meditation, yoga, visualisation etc. The blog began as a cathartic outlet and way to communicate with friends, but as my journey has progressed, it become a way to connect and support others going through similar experiences. I know when I was first diagnosed I looked to other blogs as a source of hope - it’s great to know my blog now provides other people with that.
With regards to my relationships, cancer has definitely had a huge impact - in both a positive and negative way. I found it fascinating how my diagnosis either pulled people towards me or made them run in the opposite direction. My close friends and family were all amazing and I’m so grateful to have had them by my side. Overall I was blow away by the love and support I received. I was particularly touched by how many old school friends rallied around me - people who I hadn’t seen in years. One amazing lady checked up on me a few times a week for the best part of six months - despite not having seen me for 15 years! It was incredibly humbling to know that I had people praying for me all across the globe. I’ve also made some beautiful new friendships as a result of getting cancer - it made me cross paths with people I’d never have met otherwise and for that I’m forever grateful.
For anyone out there that knows someone with cancer, what should they do as a friend and are there any experiences you can share with us on female friendships when going through a traumatic life event?
When a person first gets a cancer diagnosis, they’re often so overwhelmed they have no idea how to ask for help or what to ask for - but they definitely need your love and support. One of the best things my friends and family did for me was to make sure I never attended a chemo session on my own - even though I insisted I was fine to go alone. The chemo unit can be an unfamiliar, daunting place so it’s always better if you’ve got some company. If you can’t make it to appointments, make sure you you at least message them to let them know you are thinking of them. And even if they don’t reply, keep messaging them!! I know I was often too drained and exhausted to reply, but I was so grateful for the messages of support. It’s worth adding “no need to respond” to the end of your message to take the pressure off them replying. Another suggestion is to set a calendar alert reminding you to check in with a quick hello or offer of help on a regular basis.
The pain caused by experiences like severe illness, divorce, break ups, job loss, financial catastrophes, etc., are universal, and we are all guaranteed to be challenged with suffering at some point of our lives. It rocks you to the very core and makes us question the purpose and meaning in our lives. Fortunately, these experiences need not break us. Instead, with the right love and support, they can be opportunities for growth and awakening. When we have good relationships and a sense of belonging, we are much more likely to cope well with incredible adversity.
Do you have a daily mantra for wellbeing and / or can you share your insight into how to live a healthy lifestyle?
It goes without saying that lifestyle factors such as eating well and exercising are really important. But for me, wellbeing is so much more than that. The mind-body connection is incredibly powerful and what’s going on inside your head can influence the physical body. Personally, I think the best thing you can do for your wellbeing is to to take a moment each day to notice the positive parts of your life and feel grateful for them. I know lots of people rave about keeping a gratitude journal but I’ve never kept a diary so this isn’t the way I do it. I practice vedic meditation so at the end of each meditation I “integrate” for a few minutes and think about how grateful I am to still be alive. If I get to grow old, I will be so grateful - and that gratitude makes my life deeper, richer, and meaningful.
For any women out there who are experiencing something similar to what you went though can you give us an insight into what helped you most when fighting and recovering from stage four cancer? eg Close friendships/relationships, eating well, mindfulness techniques you found useful etc.
My resilience definitely increased during my experience with cancer and I put it down to a few key things:
- I accepted I couldn’t get through it on my own. I had to become comfortable with asking for help and leaning on friends and family. The main lesson I’ve taken from this whole experience is that community and connection is the only thing that really matters. Everything comes down to relationships.
- I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I had to slowly acknowledge that being vulnerable is a sign of strength and courage, not one of weakness. Starting a blog was one way I let myself be more exposed.
- I let go of control. Trying to control everything is exhausting. I realised the truth of the quote that "life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you choose to react to it.” You cannot control your external circumstances, but you can be in charge of your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and actions.
- I learnt to breathe. Rather than taking short, shallow breaths I made myself stop and take deep, lung-filling breaths whenever I felt anxious. Connecting with my breath enabled me to become more mindful and helped me to empty my head and silence my busy thoughts. Focusing on my breath always brings me back to the now and stops me living in the future.
- I learnt to respect and appreciate my body. Throughout my surgeries and chemo I spoke kindly to my body, supported it and nourished it. Starting a daily yoga practice enabled me to feel strong and healthy - despite having tumours growing inside my body.
Anything else you think would fit our theme of embracing female friendships, female empowerment and an honest portrayal of real life women.
I suggest all your followers watch the TED talk on Vulnerability by Brene Brown - a “researcher-storyteller” or social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”
I also love this quote:
“Most of us are very selective about the stories we choose to tell. We especially avoid sharing experiences that make us feel foolish, vulnerable or boastful. More often than not, we simply can’t imagine anyone would be interested. But sharing our experiences with others is not only empowering, it can help to light the way for those who are walking a similar path. My experience has taught me that supporting one another to fulfil our individual and collective potential is why we are all here. Sometimes, all it takes to connect with someone else is sharing our vulnerable story, lending an ear or a shoulder, and just being present for them. ~ Sahil Dhingra