Sharon and Jackie enjoying Istanbul, March 2022
While living in Istanbul, I’m learning Turkish. It’s not an easy language to pick up, but it’s a fun, rhythmic, and poetic language to practice. It’s also succinct. A few words say a lot. People appreciate that I try and teach me phrases all the time. A very common parting saying is “kendine iyi bak” or “take care of yourself.”
During a recent conversation with my oncologists here, we were celebrating all things moving in the right direction (numbers, how I feel, scan results). Although taking chemo – even integratively, with nutritional infusions and naturopathic treatments – is never easy, and I miss home, that was a moment for celebration. One of the docs speaks mostly Turkish, but we’ve managed to communicate through translation and the little bit I know. So, I proudly said, “kendine iyi bak” as he was leaving. He turned back with a smile and said he would rather that I “kendine iyi davran” vs “taking care of myself.” I should know that the treatments are working, have patience, and meanwhile, “treat myself well!” I’ve come to realize there is a subtle but important difference while opting to do exactly that, over and over since.
“Taking care” is freighted with responsibility, especially if you are fighting illness. It connotes eating the right foods, getting your exercise, adhering to a sleep schedule, drinking enough water, figuring out how to adjust treatments to optimize effectiveness, etc. These are all important, but not so much fun. The idea of “taking care” is also something of a patriarchal notion, whether you are taking care of someone else or yourself. It contains the idea that there is a right way, out there, and that these rules somehow guide our ability to care for ourselves.
“Treating yourself well” takes all that goes into caring for yourself and makes it more fun. It’s like being a guest in a 5-star hotel where the concierge knows exactly what you enjoy most because you are the concierge and nobody knows you better. It also means being in conversation with your body and soul to realize what feels best at that moment, because we change and grow. It admits that the right answers aren’t always known or clear, especially where the body is concerned and healthcare isn’t always true to its name. It’s more of-the-moment and evolving.
“Treating yourself well” is more empathetic than “taking care.”
So, what’s the difference?
Here’s what “kendine iyi davran” (treat yourself well) has come to mean to me…
Rather than simply eating the right foods, you take the opportunity to dream about what would be the tastiest, healthy thing you can eat and make that. You indulge in dinner out with a wonderful friend like Sharon Sobol Jordan who was visiting for the week, if that’s something that brings you great joy (it does). As my dad used to say, “you gotta eat,” so we might as well make it celebratory. It means you get to know the produce guy well because it’s always worth the walk to get the fresh strawberries. It also means enjoying that glass of organic wine with your meal from time to time (which only has a few carbs…). It doesn’t mean going crazy eating foods that would make you ultimately feel bad, because “treating yourself well” must include empathy for your body now and into the future.
Getting exercise might still include boring reps with those 5-pound weights to build muscle, but it also means that taking the long walk to the park with your friend, sitting on the bench with a coffee, and watching the kids play might be enough of an accomplishment for a particular day. Getting enough sleep may include the luxury of a nap without any guilt during the middle of the day, especially if your main job for this period of time is to heal your body of cancer. It may also mean that you don’t accept zoom meetings that take place at 10 pm your time just because that’s when the famous oncology team that wants to learn more about what you’re doing happens to have their meetings. You are helping them; they can adjust too.
“Treating yourself well” means holding boundaries and protecting your time to heal, work, play and do the things that are nourishing for you. It means staying connected to home, friends, and family in the way and at the times that synchronize with your life and needs. It means sharing what feels right and holding private what’s your business, which other people might find triggering and hard to hold in any helpful way. If you have some options, it means saying yes to work that brings you joy but leaving for later work that is…more like work. That doesn’t mean the work you do is without challenge; it means the juice is worth the squeeze. Having a voice in the world is part of living and growing, so the chance to continue to do that even during a period that typically necessitates more hibernation to heal is oxygen for our souls.
“Treating yourself well” means doing what you have to do (e.g., truly yucky chemo days) but thoroughly enjoying a day exploring Istanbul with a friend and leaving cancer behind. I had a chance to do just that this past Thursday while Sharon was here. We had a magical day that will stay with me and rounds out what could be a full-time slog into a part-time adventure. John and I take the time to do these adventures too because we both love them. It also means indulging in TWO movies on a snowy day because today is a day of rest, or playing games because fun is nourishing too. Sharon took the week mostly off as well, which was good for her soul too. We both have a history of working hard alone and well together, so to just relax and have fun was a conscious choice more than an old habit for both of us. You don’t have to be sick to treat yourself well.
“Treating yourself well” means letting others take care of you sometimes, when you have to conserve your energy just to survive. I’m not being dramatic. This is the reality of cancer. It means letting someone fan you or get you water during hyperthermia, cooking together, and not feeling guilty if that cooking uses up all of your energy so someone else cleans up. It means relaxing with a healing massage if that’s one of your favorite things to do, even if you are a little embarrassed about the current state of your body vs what you used to be.
“Treating yourself well” means continuing to grow and learn because that feels good and keeps you connected to people, near and far. Learning Turkish is not always fun in the moment, but the return is getting to use it over and over, and connecting with kind people and a rich and storied culture. It feels like singing a song I’ve learned. Treating myself well also means continuing to reflect and share in writing and speaking because I love being in conversation with people about things that matter.
“Treating yourself well” means understanding your body, pushing the boundaries of treatment for difficult health issues, and advocating for yourself, but not perseverating or worrying once decisions have been made. It means finding medical partners you can trust, including them in your care where they best fit, and falling back into their arms, so you can finally rest in some faith that the best choices possible are being made and executed for you at any given time. The energy of fighting a system that isn’t empathic to your body and soul is exhausting; I know this from too much experience. Here in Istanbul, it’s been easier to treat myself well.
“Treating yourself well” means not dwelling on things you might have done differently once you’ve learned that lesson and not being anxious about a future you can’t control. It means giving yourself the grace to know that you did the best you could with what you knew every step of the way, even if you know better now. It’s even congratulating yourself for a difficult job well done, even when it’s always inherently imperfect. It means continuing to do your best but not overthinking, so you can rest in that empathy for your past self, going forward. It means accepting the present for the present that it is, especially after you’ve outlived expert expectations and experienced a time when you couldn’t imagine being out of pain. It means letting go of the fear of dying as much as you can because you already did the hard work of entering hospice and planning for (not just imagining) that transition. It means reaping the benefits of living further beyond that fear than you did before all that arduous work.
These are some of the small but meaningful shifts my Turkish doctor instigated with one small phrase. I wonder what it means for you.
Kendine Iyi Davran!