What adversity can teach us

Challenging times can teach us some important lessons, something writer Kirsten Lester knows from harsh experience…

In March 2017, I was diagnosed with a rare cancer (gastric neuroendocrine tumours). I felt scared and vulnerable; any control I had over my life disappeared. Three years later, when the pandemic hit, I saw those same fearful feelings in others. But as we (hopefully) slowly emerge from lockdown, we might see some silver linings – what researchers call ‘post-traumatic growth’. Because adversity can boost resilience, courage and wisdom, and this is something I know to be true. Here’s what my own tough times taught me.

‘We are human beings, not human doings’ (Dalai Lama)

Before my cancer, I felt guilty if I wasn’t always busy. But surgery and chemo ground me to a halt, and allowed good things to happen, such as reconnecting with old friends and napping in the day. But most important were walks with my then 8-year-old son: we’d spot trains and chat football and wobbly teeth. I still do this with them both (I’ve another son, who’s 5). Talking, listening and observing puts you in the moment, where you can enjoy ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.

Self-care can bring back a sense of self

Chemo wreaked havoc on my body: sunken cheeks and eyes, grey skin and a turned-down mouth. Every time I caught sight of myself, a little more energy would seep away. So, on the days I didn’t succumb to nausea and tiredness, I learned the benefits of self-care: luxuriating in the bath, putting on make-up and my fave top. These small acts made me feel in control again. And as we all discovered recently, even getting dressed up to go ‘out-out’ via video calls on laptops can help us feel a little more like ‘we’ve got this’.

Enforced change can be good

After stomach surgery, I had to eat soft, easily digestible foods – creamy, cheesy stuff I usually dislike. Out for a post-op lunch with a Gorgonzola-loving friend, we ‘menu swapped’: I had her cheese-smothered pancakes (surprisingly tasty!) and she had my salad. I also shared my blog publicly, resulting in a swathe of unexpected support from friends and family. The lesson? Things you can’t imagine doing under normal circumstances can feel surprisingly achievable during – or after – hard times.

Appreciate the unappreciated

As a parent of young children, my eardrums often take a battering. But after the eerie quiet of the chemo ward, with only the hiss of the drug-pumping machines, returning home to my kids’ shouts and screams made me appreciate their vitality and the strength they gave me. From suddenly feeling grateful for the bin men making a racket at 6am to finding a corner shop that stocks loo rolls, a new-found sense of appreciation fosters positivity.