Beating bowel cancer together

How neuro linguistic programming helped me after being diagnosed with bowel cancer

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Tasha Thor-Straten, 47, from Essex, was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in 2017. Since finishing treatment she has changed careers and become a neuro linguistic programming (NLP) practitioner to help other people manage life-changing experiences. She shares with us what NLP is and techniques you can try at home.

In February 2017 I was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. The letter from the hospital said “it is unlikely we would be able to offer her any chance of a cure”.

I planned my funeral and my fiancé and I shared the news with our blended family of five children and close loved ones.

I was 44 years old, considered myself to be fit, healthy, and with no family history of the disease. I was very aware of how diet and exercise affects mental and physical health, so the never-ending question of ‘why me?’ dominated my thought process. However, this wasn’t helpful, so I changed my response to the diagnosis.

I talked about working with my body, rather than fighting it. I took the pressure off and stopped blaming myself for causing the disease. Instead I talked about my cells being ‘confused’.

I was determined to be part of my recovery, exercising, getting outdoors as much as possible, not feeling guilty about consuming bags of salted vinegar crisps after chemotherapy, and accepting that my body and mind needed time to recover. I was reframing my situation to suit me, enjoying the extra time at home with the children. They knew I wasn’t well, but they were able to talk about it and ask any questions, knowing we would answer them and not over-protect them from something they might have to deal with.

Instead of being the busy working mum I always had been, I had to shift my energy into accepting I needed time to recover. This meant that dinner was sometimes hashed together, homework was sometimes missed and, yes, we enlisted the help of family and friends for school-runs and after school playdates. We kept asking for help and our loved ones were happy to do something useful.

Fast forward six months, and after invasive surgery (resection) and four rounds of chemotherapy, I received the all-clear news.

I was expecting to feel elated, with a spring in my step that would make Bambi jealous. Instead I was knocked sideways by an overwhelming fear of never being able to go back to ‘normal‘. My consultant literally said ‘off you go, live your life’. I mean, come on, how is that even possible when six months previously they told me I was going to die? Did I even want my past life? All of these questions were buzzing around in my mind, with no sense of direction or clarity. I began to ask myself some deep questions about my identity.

I knew I needed help, so engaged with end-of-life counselling, which allowed me to articulate my need to build up a sense of identity and build a revised sense of purpose. I also had to go through a grieving process of letting go of my past life.

In 2018 I stumbled across neuro linguistic programming after needing help with presentation skills. I decided to train as a practitioner and soon learned some communication skills and strategies that completely changed my daily experiences at home and work.

I like this description of NLP:

“A literal translation of the phrase 'Neuro Linguistic Programming' is that NLP empowers, enables and teaches us to better understand the way our brain (neuro) processes the words we use (linguistic) and how that can impact on our past, present and future (programming). It gives us strategies for observing human behaviour and learning from the best (and worst) of that!” (ANLP)

Even though I considered myself to be resilient, knowing that I would be able to deal with results from routine scans, I experienced intermittent outbursts of crying that I couldn’t control. I felt I had grieved, so why was this happening? It was no longer helpful for me to release these negative feelings because it actually didn’t represent how I was feeling.

I asked my NLP trainer for help, so we completed a simple exercise called the ‘Collapsing Anchor’ technique. Ever since then I have never cried about a scan, appointment or medical letter arriving in the post.

We continued to work on building up the areas in my life I could control and create certainty around. I have this pinned to my desk and continue to change its content. I’m currently focusing on:

  • doing more of what makes me happy
  • limiting the news feed
  • giving myself a break
  • asking for help

This technique helps people (and their carers or loved ones) go through diagnosis and treatment as it develops certainty and control. It improves their focus and quality of thoughts. Remember that saying ‘You get what you focus on?’.

Being diagnosed with cancer made me question my career choice. It had become joyless and repetitive. Considering how much I learned from being coached, I retrained to be an NLP Master Practitioner. I enjoy sharing simple self-care and wellbeing techniques that help with all areas of people’s lives, especially those dealing with life-changing illness.

I write in my diary every day and have created a motivation checklist that keeps me on the self-care road to balance.

Are things back to normal? Definitely not. This is a conscious decision. I have adapted to my current daily experiences. I can be flexible in the way I deal with any kind of change because I have an awesome toolbox of communication skills that I tap into daily.

The only thing I miss is baked beans. My new love is broccoli!

NLP changed my life and I now help others change their lives for the better too.

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