April 3, 2023

The Enormous, Invisible Stressor that impacts our Well-Being (& how we can Overcome It).


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I have always been in denial about stress while priding myself on my exceptional resilience.

In my previous profession, as in so many others, these attitudes were mandatory. And like so many others, I had managed them with punishing hours, alcohol, nicotine, food, and a complete lack of self-awareness.

Are these the seeds of the multiplicity of ailments that besiege us in the 21st century?

As a person who lives with cancer, and in the midst of a global pandemic, I encountered the works of Dr. David Servan-Schreiber (Anticancer: a New Way of Life) and Dr. Lorenzo Cohen and Alison Jefferies (Anticancer Living: the Six-Step Solution to Transform your Health) in July 2021.

I found their wisdom so exciting that I wrote an article about it, before I’d even finished reading the books. Backed up by solid science and impressive credentials, they offer a blueprint for creating a lifestyle that Cohen and Jefferies describe as “inhospitable to cancer.” Or, more generally, “inhospitable to disease.”

Eighteen months on, as the world is still living with the pandemic, it seemed important to write a follow-up.

In my original article, I likened the process of creating this lifestyle to building a house:

“It doesn’t just spring up overnight, but is constructed carefully, one brick at a time. And with each brick it more closely resembles a construction we can live in, or with.”

Unlike the house, though, the anticancer life seems to be a never-ending work in progress.

My initial response trod a well-worn path. I jumped immediately to the chapters on diet and exercise, ready to be convinced—yet again—that everything that ailed me was my own fault. Further, if I would just “do as I was told” my world would miraculously right itself, and I could carry on as usual. 

The reality has been both easier and more difficult.

Easier because although I had spent decades searching for the right diet and exercise guru to tell me exactly what to do, I am not a person who responds well to rules and instructions.

More difficult because the authors handed over all the responsibility to me. Accepting this responsibility has necessitated a radical rethink of my priorities, a much-heightened level of self-awareness, and a transition from naughty child to mature adult.


The “six-step solution” is an identification of the six areas of our lives that need attention in order to create what Servan-Schreiber describes as a “healthy terrain.” They are presented in the suggested order of implementation, rather than order of importance:

>> Love and social support
>> Stress and resilience
>> Rest and recovery
>> Movement
>> Diet
>> Environment

For me, just this order of implementation was revelatory. It explained so much.

How can anybody implement major, lifelong change without adequate loving support, resilience, and rest? 

I finally understood the folly of my lifelong habit of piling on more and more work, goals, rules, and habits. No wonder my naughty inner child rebelled. Said no. Stamped her foot and yelled, ‘Will not!’ 

All my life, my internal dialogue had been this relentless tug-of-war between “I should” and “I won’t.”

Failure was guaranteed, as was shame and an ever-diminishing sense of self-worth. This is not a unique experience—it is so common as to be almost universal.

Thus are sown the seeds of a cancer epidemic, an epidemic of auto-immune disease, perhaps even a pandemic.

I set the books aside and watched to see what would happen.

I was lucky. The drugs that keep me alive have also robbed me of excessive appetite and my taste for alcohol. Nicotine I had conquered years earlier.

Old habits die hard though, so the first thing I did was buy myself a Cubii (an under-desk elliptical trainer) that I talked myself out of using five days out of seven. The second thing I did was commit to a vegan diet, a commitment that lasted 10 days, until I was too tired to drag myself to the kitchen. 

Subconsciously, though, the books were working some kind of magic.

Love and social support, I discovered, were like a garden filled with beautiful flowers: the more I watered them, the more they thrived.

As I reached out to connect more often with my sister and brother, my nieces and nephews, cousins, great-nieces, and friends, the more I felt the enormous amount of love there was in my life. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. And then my circles began expanding. My book club, my writing group, the women in my yoga class: I started to realise that all these people cared; they were cheering me on from the sidelines, ready to help when needed. Even the love I received from my cats seemed to increase the more I appreciated it.

Changes to my levels of stress and resilience were more elusive.

I began going to yoga classes, but with no real idea of the profound benefits they would bring. As my awareness became less clouded by destructive substances, and as I deepened my yoga practice, those longed-for changes began to occur spontaneously.

I started to make healthier choices—not because someone told me to, but because I wanted to. I used my Cubii more often. I found myself choosing salad over sugar. I watched less junk TV. Most importantly, I made a commitment to writing Morning Pages, the closest I have yet come to meditation. Slowly I began to hear that quiet, wise inner voice that counselled me daily, once I cleared enough space to listen.

Guided by that voice I made a momentous decision: I retired. 

Up until that point, every change I had made required me to add more things into an already busy life.

For me, as for so many others, this pattern was so deeply ingrained I hadn’t noticed it.

The word “should” is an enormous and invisible stressor for so many of us. In our society we praise retirees who are always busy; we think they show an admirable broadness of interests and an adventurous spirit. We don’t think to praise the retiree who sits quietly and contemplates their soul. Even in retirement I noticed myself taking on too much, making more commitments than I could comfortably fill.

Old habits, it seemed, were determined to prevail.

That quiet, persistent inner voice didn’t give up. It kept gently whispering until I listened. Both Servan-Schreiber and Lorenzo and Jefferies had stressed that, whilst we may implement them one at a time, it was in concert that their “mix of six” was most effective.

My greatest privilege is being a senior and a forest-dweller. It is my time to tend to my soul, water my garden of beliefs, and to know my true self.

I’ve finally realised that my main priority in life is the creation of this lifestyle that literally has the potential to keep me alive, and living a quality life. The pursuit of physical and psychological health ultimately turned into a quest for spiritual wellness and understanding as well. It is, of course, much easier to live an anticancer life when one has financial security and time at one’s disposal. The difficulties of putting self-care as a top priority whilst juggling children, mortgages and jobs are enormous.

Clearly, there is a need for societal change. How important are six-figure incomes, McMansions, and career ladders when we consider them against our individual and collective well-being? In a sense, it is not only people who live with illnesses who are sick—it is the whole of our society.

The Dalai Lama expressed it beautifully:

“What surprises me the most is ‘Man.’ Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future, he lives as if he’s never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived.”

Above all, living is about claiming dominion over our own life.


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