Healthy Sakura | Health, Life Work... and all that | Professionelle

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

Healthy Sakure

For the last two years I have been dealing with a life-threatening disease.  I have written about it on a few occasions and had wonderful feedback from the Professionelle community.  I deeply appreciate that feedback and have found it extremely helpful and encouraging in some of my darkest moments.

Now that I’m seeing the tail end of this enormous battle, I felt it was time to repay your kindness by sharing with you what I did to stay sane, regain my health and continue to build my personal and professional life whilst undergoing rigorous treatments.  To be honest, I’d really rather just move on and not think back to some of these dark times, but I do feel it is my obligation to do because I know so many women deal with health issues on a regular basis, and if I can, in a small way, encourage us all to share our stories and coping mechanisms, that would be a really GOOD thing – and I am all about finding the good in everything.

Where am I now?

I am now almost cleared of all medications.  We recently went to stay with friends on Waiheke Island and we all joked at how when we went about a year ago I travelled with an A4 size box full of meds!  I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to only take pills once a week instead of many, many times each day.  I can now sleep properly, I have my energy back, and I am almost back down to my original size.  Drugs save lives but they also take a huge toll – and that is part of the battle of dealing with chronic, long term diseases and conditions.

Biomedical care

Indeed, my number one advice is to make sure you get the best medical care possible. Get second opinions, by all means, and ask lots of questions and challenge the doctors. But you must also remember that ‘traditional’ medicine or the biomedical model, does indeed save lives. Had I not taken those awful drugs I wouldn’t be writing this today, two years and 3 months after my diagnosis. It is extremely important for us to understand that science and medicine is the first point of call for dealing with serious health issues.  I was diagnosed early in the first and final stage of Churg Strauss Vasculitis. I was treated aggressively and efficiently with both chemotherapy and steroid therapy, and because of this swift action, I didn’t suffer organ damage and now I can hopefully look at a life free of medications!  Without the medical model I would not be here.

Nonetheless, to cope with the biomedical cures and medications which were in themselves really harsh I used many and varied techniques including complementary approaches.  Looking back I can now pinpoint the things that made the most difference to my recovery. These are my hard won insights that I will take along with me for the rest of my life and I do hope I’ll never again have to use them to deal with something as terrible as this. So here goes:

Staying fit!

As I write to you now I am sitting here in my gym clothes after quite a full on gym session. While I am still on chemo drugs, I am really fit and feel really strong.  One of the most insidious feelings I had to deal with for the first twelve months was feeling weak. I have always been a physically strong woman which is something that has always been integral to my sense of self and confidence.  Losing it was devastating.

I resolved to keep up with my yoga, walking, and aqua jogging throughout the entire period – including weeks where I underwent chemo.  My yoga was of the restorative variety with the wonderful Melody Bachelor of Herne Bay Yoga.  Just doing the little I did meant that the moment I could do more I was able to get into it because I’d kept up a modicum of flexibility and ‘yoga state of mind’.

The aqua jogging was a great way to be with my wonderful girlfriends and get some gentle exercise. It was also really helpful with the needles as there was a time my veins refused to cooperate with the needles, which I assure you, was really distressing.

Exercising is my number one tip: make sure it is at an appropriate level of exertion for your health, as overdoing it presents a whole lot of risks, but keep doing it.  The benefits are numerous and, most importantly for me, exercise helped me fend off some of the darkest demons of dealing with serious health issues, such as depression, lack of sleep, and the insidious aches and pains following treatments.

Finding your spot on the continuum of being well and being sick

That is probably the hardest and most important thing I had to do on an ongoing basis and still, reassess it continually.  Let me explain. I see health and sickness as a continuum especially when it comes to my or anyone’s state of mind. At one extreme you perceive yourself to be a healthy person and you push on no matter what.  At the other extreme you see yourself as a sick person, and so you drop out of life, dedicating yourself to dealing with your sickness and the treatments.

For professional women, it is very tempting to be at the healthy extreme.  I never looked THAT sick, and the physical changes were mainly due to the meds, but I also knew that if I ignored the sickness and what my body was going through, I could jeopardise my long term prognosis.  On the other hand, I certainly wasn’t prepared to give everything up and just be *sick*.  So I walked a tight rope. I kept working, but rested the moment I felt I was getting tired.  Most of the time I got it right but sometimes I did overdo it and had to re-calibrate.

Saying no and saying yes

Also difficult was that some people around me took my outbursts of activity to mean that I was ‘OK’ and so added their own pressures on me perhaps not realising how much it took to be active considering everything.  So, I really learned to say no and now consider myself an expert on doing so…

The result of this approach was that I was able to keep my career going throughout that time precisely because I was so careful in what I said yes to. I ended up saying yes to exactly the right things for me.  Over the last two years, as well as turning Professionelle with Sarah into a Charitable Trust, I was appointed as the Deputy Chair of NACEW, as well as two further appointments, namely to the Board of the Auckland Regional Migrant Services and to the advisory group to the Dean of AUT’s Business and Law School.

Surrounding yourself with kind, positive people

It goes without saying that the people around me made all the difference.  To keep my own positive state of mind I had to be quite determined to ensure those around me were both positive and respectful of my challenges.  That meant they were supportive and encouraging and never added additional challenges and pressures on me.  I felt safe with them, knowing they weren’t judging me – which many people do without realising.  They were accepting and kind and filled me with energy.

I have since heard that some people didn’t know what to do or how to react when they found out how sick I was. To the readers who might find themselves in this situation I say, don’t over think it.  I think a lot of professional women (and men) overthink things to the point they forget how to FEEL and end up doing nothing.  If someone around you is sick, try to feel what they must be feeling… lonely, scared, tired.

Bringing food will always be welcome, helping out with their children, telling them how good they look on their good days, dropping in and bringing some good escapist reading/ watching/ listening material, taking them of the house out to have a coffee or watch a movie, all these things all of us can do and these little acts of kindness make all the difference.

Looking back I realise that I did a ‘cull’ of friendships and looking forward I can tell you that the friends I spend time with now are people I know will be there for me in the future no matter what.

Mindfulness and savouring the positives in your life

I have been a big advocate of positive psychology for many years.  I incorporate positive psychology principles into my writing, my workshops and the private work I do with my coaching clients, and I am proud to say that I do indeed practise what I preach.

I used many exercises to keep myself both on an even keel and on the positive side of neutral, but looking back I think that learning to be mindful was one of the biggest things I did for my health.  I truly learnt how to be mindful and present in the moment.  I distinctly remember being consciously mindful when I was recovering from a round of chemo, swinging on the hammock my husband put up for me, looking at the tree leaves.  Even though it was a horrible time, looking back at this particular memory is a positive experience for me.  I will not write here about the psychological benefits of learning to be mindful except to say that from experience, it really does work and makes a huge difference to the ability to recover.

Despite life being generally s**t I made a conscious effort to look for and find the positives in my life.  I made a conscious point to celebrate every single positive thing that happened, even in the smallest possible ways.  Most nights my husband and I will try to think about the three good things that happened that day.  On our family Friday night dinners, the whole family will come up with three things they were grateful for that week.  Needless to say, my health and progress was high on everyone’s list.

There are always good things in your life; sometimes you just have to look harder for them. Yes, it is hard and takes discipline, but they are there.

Being a whole – integrated person.

Now the challenge is to live life to the fullest – do all I can do and achieve while enjoying life, having fun, and more than anything, enjoying my family and my ability to do everything we used to be able to do with them.  But, I still have a condition that can potentially be life threatening – so where is the balance?

One big thing I learned is that we are integrated beings, it is not just about the body, or the mind, of the psychology, or the spirituality – it is everything.  This is my challenge now: to be a fully integrated person, mind body and all.  If this is something you find interesting and want to find more about, I recommend you read the following book synopsis by Professor Brian Broom.

It takes discipline

There are no short cuts and it was a long and very hard road.  It isn’t over either and might never be completely over.  And it takes discipline and practice, doing what needs to be done because it is the only wa.  Not overthinking it and avoiding tying myself in knots was really hard at times, and I found people I could talk to when I was heading that way.  Most of the time it meant literally dragging myself out of bed and doing what I knew would be good for me, even if I really didn’t feel like it.


I also gave myself permission to be human and on many occasions just decided that at this point, with everything I have to go through, a cup of tea and a lie down will suffice.

Here’s to a healthier happier 2013 and I hope that some of my reflections will work for some of you.

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