ONE WARRIOR with Briony Benjamin
What was happening in your world at the time?
I was working at Mamamia women’s Network as Executive Producer of video - it was a super fun fast-paced gig where with my team I got to come up with great video ideas, often star in them and watch them go viral. I was playing touch footy and squash and had a jam-packed social life and I was absolutely exhausted all the time. I had night sweats every evening, itchy skin (which I put down to food allergies) and a pervasive tiredness I could never get on top of. Then a cough started to develop - I thought all these components were random not realising they were all completely connected. My doctor was telling me it was likely stress as we couldn’t find any other cause. Eventually my parents pushed for me to go and see a haematologist, dads a vet and mum had been doing a lot of research and so reluctantly I went. That lead to a biopsy and a week later I had a diagnosis. Stage 4B lymphoma. Ah that’s why my squash was getting so bad. At least now I felt I wasn’t just crap at life - it was cancer!
Cancer in 3 words.
What. A. Ride.
What helped you get through the shit storm?
Journaling through chemo was my therapy. I started a book called the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s a 12 week course on ‘reconnecting with your creative self’ but really it’s just about going home and reconnecting to who you truly are. I became religious about journaling and started each day with ‘The Morning Pages’ - 3 pages of brain dump journaling every morning. There is no right or wrong way to do it, you just write whatever comes up for you. It’s liberating and freeing and helps you process what is going on. Research shows it also has wonderful mental and physical health benefits as it reduces stress and anxiety and literally acts as an organising system for your brain allowing you to free up processing space in your head so you can get on with business of getting through what you’re facing.
SOCIAL MEDIA: Connecting with the incredibly gorgeous Emily Somers the founder of Bravery co was one of the most important and helpful things for me during and after treatment. Good old Em didn’t know me from a bar of soap but a mutual friend connected us. Speaking to someone you click with who has been there and done that is absolutely critical. Emily guided my fears, helped me realise that what I was feeling was valid and normal and laid out a roadmap to recovery. She also showed me how to be a wonderful support person and I’ve since had the total pleasure of doing that for other fellow warriors. It’s so nice to give support and hope to someone starting their journey. To help them understand this is tough but they can do this!
LIFESTYLE THING/ RITUAL: I tried to walk most days but was very unmotivated by the end. I wish in hindsight I’d done a little more exercise and stretching. I was worried about straining my arm with my picc line in it but I wish I’d sought out some more expert help and advice during and as soon as I’d finished chemo. Post chemo is a weird old time and I think I really would have benefited from a bit more structure and routine.
BOOK/DOCUMENTARY: Watching comedy was critical!!! Ali Wong on Netflix was on high rotation and watching light and bubbly tv and films (not heavy intense shows!) you’ve got to be so careful with what you put into your mind when times are tough.
DRUG/MEDICINE: The biggest learning was that if the drugs I was being given weren’t working to use my voice and ask if there were other options. There often were and they were way better for me. For example my first round of chemo I felt so nauseous then I found a wonder drug that lasted 7 days and took care of most of the sick feeling it was a game changer. So always ask - it can’t hurt!
QUOTE/MANTRA/AFFIRMATION: ‘Every day is a step closer to good health.’ This was a mantra that helped me steady the course as I went through treatment.
When my hair was falling out I was very distressed of course. But my clever little sister said to me what about if instead I reframed the hair loss to be, ‘this means the medicine is working.’ That was really helpful for me. Of course it was tough and awful as everyone who goes through this knows but it did help lighten the pain or at least redirect it.
PIECE OF ADVICE: That it’s ok to be sad! As little miss positivity I was so in the mindset that you have to be positive and just push through no matter what. But I realised that you have to feel what you’re feeling and allow it to bubble up. Suppressing it will just come back to bite you in the long run. So let your feelings flow.
The best part of cancer?
I love being able to approach just about any situation I get thrown into these days with the attitude of ‘well this isn’t as scary as day 1 of chemo.’ It’s a great reference point to remind myself this is my one life so just go for it - seriously what is the worst that can happen? A reminder to be grateful for each day and live life boldly!
The most surprising part of cancer?
That it was harder for me once the chemo was over. However I remember speaking to Emily Somers when I was struggling a bit after treatment. She helped me to understand that it was totally normal and totally ok. That made me feel so much better just knowing that this was a normal response.
Cancer theories: Do you think you were destined to get cancer? Is it completely random? Or did something happen along the way?
In reality we just don’t know enough about what causes Lymphoma. I think it’s random crappy bad luck if you do get it but I certainly have a greater appreciation for my body now and a far deeper desire to look after it. The biggest shift for me has been a greater focus on sleep, mediation and yoga and looking at ways to calm my body and central nervous system. Our health is our greatest asset and we have to do all we can to strengthen and protect it.
Golden tip for friends and family of a new warriors.
It’s a tough gig being a support person and what different individuals will need will differ. But I think one of the best pieces of advice would be to not give advice. Just listen, sit with them, support them, let them know you love them and you will be there every step. Most people just need a sounding board not a lecture or someone to ‘fix it.’ Because nothing you can say can fix it.
Golden tip for new warriors.
Just take it step by step. Know that you’ve got what it takes to face this. Be gentle with yourself. Connect with someone you trust who has been there, done this and know that you’re going to be a superwoman on the other side of this.
WATCH Briony's video 'You only get one Life'