How to build individual resilience and why there’s nothing ‘individual’ about it!

22 Nov 2023

“It’s malignant unfortunately”, the dermatologist told me over the phone. I’d just walked through the door after having stitches removed from my hand following a biopsy — a medical test to examine bodily tissue — of what looked like a big freckle. 

I didn’t take in much of what was said after that, other than that I’d need to have a further operation at a specialist cancer hospital to ‘get the rest of’ the melanoma. 

That operation didn’t take place until nearly 8 weeks later, 8 of the worst weeks of my entire life...  

This news followed the sudden death of my aunt, with whom I was especially close, just over a month previously, which came almost immediately after a repossession notice for the apartment I’d been renting for 8 years and would now have to vacate within 2 months… 

Could things get any worse?! 
How would I cope? 
People had always said I was ‘resilient’ and now I would have to prove it. 

Resilience: What is it? 

But what, I asked myself, does resilience really mean? 

The dictionary definition of resilience is: ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’. 

Psychological resilience is defined as: ‘the ability to cope mentally or emotionally with a crisis or to return to pre-crisis status quickly’. 

But surely resilience is, and should be, about more than just ‘recovering’ and ‘getting back to where we were’. Crises should be seen as opportunities for growth, to be BETTER than we were before, shouldn’t they? 

But I was jumping many steps ahead. Firstly, I needed to find this magical resilience quality deep within me. But I couldn’t do it on my own. 

So, I reached out.  

Some people, I knew, would want to keep a cancer diagnosis private, albeit ‘just skin cancer’ – more on that later. But I wanted, needed, to tell people. 

I needed to connect with people, for them to help me ‘solve’ or at least ease, my problem – ‘Two (or more) heads are better than one’, as the saying goes. So, I did, in the following ways: 

Work 

After confiding in my colleagues about my diagnosis, I was encouraged to ‘push back’ on work requests if I needed to – I didn’t, but just knowing I could do and that the people I worked with understood my situation and viewed me as a person and not simply a work ‘resource’, reduced my anxiety.

Friends 

I’ve never been very good at asking for help. One of my best pals once told me I’m ‘a very low maintenance friend’, something I then, stupidly, tried to live up to! But I found when I told them about my situation, they offered their help without me having to ask. They helped me move, came to medical appointments with me and just checked in with me regularly. What had at first seemed a series of problems I had to solve in isolation, had now become a team effort. 

Family 

My family was my first point of call, and they helped me by listening and just being there for me. 

Charities 

I spoke to a couple of well-known cancer charities in my quest to discover as many different perspectives on my situation and get as much advice as possible. 

Online forums for people with melanoma 

This was a route I took and then abandoned as it didn’t work for me – the posts were often medically inaccurate or just made me anxious reading about what had happened to others. 

Medical professionals 

I went to those first appointments with a list of questions as long as my arm! Knowledge is power, as they say, and a better understanding of my diagnosis helped me to feel more resilient. 

Social activities  

I continued to go to my salsa dance nights and confided in a select few of my salsa friends about my situation too. The physical release of the dancing made me feel strong and telling those few people strengthened my ‘team’. I also carried on competing in my Online Quiz League, as it forced me to focus on something else and gave my brain time to stop worrying, even if just for an hour. 

Why did these things help? 

Confiding in a range of people from different parts of my life provided me with different ideas of how to tackle the problem – in this case, my feelings of anxiety and depression. It showed me different ways to handle the crisis. 

Hearing about others’ personal trials also gave me empathy and the ability to see things from a different perspective – something which is as useful in my work, dealing with multiple stakeholders, as it is in my personal life!

Framework for Business Agility 

And sure enough, when we look to the Framework for Business Agility, we see that ‘people are more creative when powered by diversity’. They are more able to solve problems, more agile and ‘for organisations to be truly agile, they must be populated with agile people’.  

Agile culture is about creating an environment that is underpinned by values, behaviours and practices which enable organisations, teams and individuals to be more adaptive, flexible, innovative and resilient when dealing with complexity, uncertainty and change. I had certainly had to deal with those, and still do! 

Getting ‘back to normal’ 

Now let’s return to the prevalent view that melanoma is ‘just skin cancer’.  

It isn’t.  

In my case, I was lucky – the melanoma was ‘thin’ and had been caught early but if left untreated, they can, and do, spread throughout the body and be fatal. 

But it was cut out, removed, right?  

Well, yes, for which I am eternally grateful, but, as anyone who has had any kind of cancer will tell you, the real fear of it coming back or of getting another tumour, makes it difficult to immediately, or indeed, ever bounce back to how you were before the crisis, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I look at it as a learning experience. I am now less complacent, more grateful and more vigilant. 

Sounds positive right? But, to be fully transparent here, the diagnosis initially sent me spiralling into the abyss.  

Relationships 

So, what really helped me build myself back up again? What contributed towards my resilience? My inner strength and determination played a big part, for sure, but there has been one other invaluable thing: my relationships – with friends, with family, my social interest groups, with medical professionals and with colleagues. 

To plan or not to plan 

Another thing I’ve learned on my melanoma journey is that planning too much for the future is pointless as you very often don’t do what you think you’ll do when you get there because other factors intervene and you need to, or want to, adapt your plan, or even abandon it.  

And if you simply have no idea what to do in the first place, know that that’s completely normal! This quote from the famous Persian poet and spiritualist — and agilist before his time — Rumi helped me: ‘As you start to walk on the way, it appears’. What a revelation! 

It may sound trivial, but post-diagnosis I became fixated on thoughts of sunbathing – I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore as 86 per cent of melanomas are caused by sun damage. I wouldn’t be able to do what I had always done, what I had always enjoyed, what had worked for me in that it enabled me to get a tan.  

How would I deal with this situation when abroad on holiday? Well, first I would have to mourn the loss of a tan and the pleasure of lying in the sunshine. I would use a self-tanning cream instead, even though I favoured having ‘naturally’ sunkissed skin.  

I would deal with sunny holidays by obsessively planning precisely what I could and couldn’t do and how long exactly I would allow myself to be out in the sun for.  

Okay, so using a self-tanning cream if I wanted to look tanned was quite a good idea but trying to plan for every eventuality probably wasn’t… 

The danger of ‘safety behaviours’ 

This overly detailed planning, an example of what psychologists refer to as a ‘safety behaviour’ – an attempt to prevent fears from being realised and to feel more comfortable in an anxiety inducing situation, was in fact not only unnecessary, redundant, it made me feel more anxious.  

And, newsflash: worrying more doesn’t make you safer either. It doesn’t prevent bad things, the unexpected from happening.  

What does help ease anxiety is resilience. It takes time and effort to become resilient, but once one person is, and demonstrates the quality day-to-day, it becomes contagious! 

In organisations, resilient leaders breed resilient teams. Worrying and over-planning isn’t the answer. That won’t futureproof your people or your organisation, but resilience will and developing this strength isn’t a one-person task.

Rather it’s a team effort, whether it’s to develop resilience in your personal life, work life or both!

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