“I have had dreams, and I’ve had nightmares. I overcame the nightmares because of my dreams.” – Jonas Salk
I am writing this from backstage at a fashion show, a fashion show that I’m modelling in. That is a sentence I never thought I would write.
I have always loved performing. As a child, my favourite games were when my sister, friends, and I would make up these elaborate imaginary worlds and take on roles like mermaids, pioneering women, and drifters. In our minds, our friend’s pool was born again as an ocean, the woods behind our house a rail yard where we could sling all of our worldly possessions over our shoulders and hop a train to anywhere, and our lawn was transformed into the most magnificent stage. Putting on plays of our own creation, often born out of whatever imaginary life we had created that afternoon, were a ploy to spend more time together once our parents arrived to take us home (“We can’t leave yet! You have to see our play still!”), but they were also just so much fun.
That translated into a deep love of theatre and performance, and when it came time to think about university, I ultimately chose to study theatre. This choice was not without trepidation. What would I do with it when I was done? But I had four years to figure that out.
Four years went by extremely quickly, and I didn’t feel any closer to knowing what I was going to do with that theatre degree, hot off the press and clutched tightly in my young hand. The world is a scary place for the newly graduated. You feel as though you should be an adult by now, but you still feel very far from it. I was far too insecure about my skills as a performer, and I convinced myself that I couldn’t have a career in acting. It didn’t take much convincing if I’m being honest. It wasn’t even a debate within myself; it was simply on to figuring out what I was going to do for a career, without even once taking any serious steps towards pursuing acting.
I’ve written of this previously, but for those new to the blog I will give some context. Flash forward seven years. I had worked at a golf course and a bank before deciding to go to teachers college in 2013. I graduated in 2014 with my second degree in hand, and diligently started applying to school boards. For the next three years, I kept putting one foot in front of the other without ever really thinking about where those feet were taking me. I was on autopilot in a lot of ways: in my work, in my relationship at the time, and in my free time, which I spent mostly doing things that other people in my life at that point wanted to do and not really thinking about what it was I wanted to do. In short, I had put my dreams, my aspirations, my passions on a shelf and relegated that young thespian to the realm of “wouldn’t it have been nice.”
And then, I started to change. It happened slowly at first, but culminated in me ending an engagement, giving up a house, and starting over. It was a blank slate, a fresh start, and I took some advantage of that. But fear is a funny thing. It’s stealthy. You don’t necessarily realize it’s there, influencing your decisions, nurturing excuses that you blindly think are solid reasons for not doing something you truly want to. I continued to teach, but even though my time was my own now, I didn’t return to performing, in spite of the fact that I still dreamed about the stage and even toyed with the idea of modelling.
And then cancer happened.
Before all of my hair grew back, I asked a friend of mine who is a photographer to take some pictures of me to document and commemorate this significant period of my life. The reaction from friends and family gave me more confidence in my abilities than I had had in a long time, but I still told myself, “No, modelling and performing is not something you start when you are almost 30; it’s something you build from the time you are young.” Another excuse courtesy of fear.
Over the next few months, I realized I had been given the very real, very unignorable reminder that life is indeed short, sometimes much shorter than we anticipate, and that all we have for sure is this moment, right now. The fear of reaching the end of my life and wishing I had lived was more powerful than any other fear.
I found an agent and started modelling and acting, and I have loved every minute of it. And this summer, I did what that young and insecure theatre grad assumed would never happen: I got paid to play onstage all summer. It’s cliché, but it was a dream come true. And I have cancer to thank for it.
Since setting out to include my passions in my life again, I have come to realize that hopes and dreams do something extremely important for those facing cancer or another life-altering diagnosis or obstacle.
Fear is an inescapable part of being diagnosed. You mostly fear the future because it is so uncertain and contains so many terrifying possibilities. Will my cancer get worse? Will it come back? Will treatment leave me with permanent and potentially debilitating side effects? Will my medication turn me into an angry, unpredictable, and otherwise unrecognizable person? Will I still be me? It can be enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel.
But that’s when things get dangerous. The moment you start thinking that way, the moment you stop fighting for this life, is the moment you lose it. And it can happen so easily. This is where, I have realized, hopes and dreams become so important.
For the average person, dreaming is fun, a way to escape the everyday and move into the realm of “one day”. For a cancer patient, it can be so much more than that. Dreaming keeps us focused on the future in a way that is so very different from the way that fear does, and it is so significant when it comes to mental and emotional health. Dreaming brings hope, and hope brings strength. When we look ahead with joy and anticipation instead of fear and trepidation, our souls sing. I hope you know the feeling: that bubbling up of warmth and tingles that starts somewhere in your stomach and bursts from the back of your throat. It can bring tears to your eyes and an unshakable grin to your face. It can heal.
Your brain can’t distinguish between thoughts about reality and thoughts about things of your own invention. This accounts for the feelings of true fear, anxiety, apprehension and stress that assault us when we let our minds wander to the scary possibilities that might await us in the future. They haven’t happened yet, they may never happen, and yet our palms are sweaty, our hearts race, our breathing becomes quick and shallow. A stress response like this has more far-reaching effects as well. Our immune systems become suppressed as our bodies conserve energy for running from or fighting the threat that it perceives as real. And that is a near impossible place to heal from.
Hopes and dreams counteract this. Instead of fearing the future, we anticipate it happily. And the same thing happens in our brains: it can’t distinguish between thoughts about a dream or a hope and actual reality. You are filled with joy and your body reacts accordingly. Instead of being fixated on fear, on what could go wrong, on life ending, our minds concentrate on the exciting possibilities, on the fun that is to come, on living.
And that is a powerful place to exist in when it comes to healing, because how can we be around to experience all of this if we don’t heal? Dreaming is, in short, an important aspect of the healing mindset. It keeps us thinking about all we have left that we want to do. It keeps us in a place of joy and excitement about life. It keeps us in the fight because we are constantly reminded of all we are fighting for. It keeps us from giving up by continually placing what we would be losing at the forefront of our minds. It keeps us planning for the future and thereby setting the intention to be around for that future.
And when you get to a place with your health where you can pursue those hopes and dreams, you absolutely must. Or, if yours is an ongoing journey, do what you can when you can to bring those passions into your life in whatever capacity you are able to. I can tell you from experience, so much more is possible than we tell ourselves.
So, keep dreaming, keep hoping, keep believing that miracles are possible and that dreams do come true. Let your mind become convinced that healing is coming. Banish fear as much as you can by turning your attention to all of the wonderful possibilities that your future holds. Today is the only guarantee we have, but that means that it is equally likely that our futures contain every dream we’ve ever had as opposed to every fear. And if both are possible, why not focus on the possibility of the good? It is sometimes much easier said than done, I know, but the more you practise this shift, the easier it will become.
Happy Healing ❤️