Sparking Joy After My Breast Cancer Diagnosis

I am generally a neat person. I like to sort and categorize and put things away. I don’t leave clothes on my floor or dishes in my sink. But look beyond my clean countertops, and you’ll see my home is cluttered with stuff.  Furniture, old books and magazines, clothes I’ve had since high school, unfinished art projects, stacks of old papers and research reports that I tell myself I’ll eventually read.

Normally, with the busy pace of life my well-hidden clutter is no more than a mild irritant I noticed only on weekends. But following my cancer diagnosis in April 2018, I was spending the majority of my days at home recovering from treatments – chemotherapy, surgery, radiation – and the clutter was becoming harder to ignore. To me, the lack of control I felt post-diagnosis was permeating into my home, what was supposed to be my sanctuary, and in the clutter, I only saw chaos.

A cancer diagnosis is such a dumpster fire of emotions

and joy is certainly not among them. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in April 2018, and I’d say fear, anger, sadness are the trifecta of emotions that dominated in those early days. One thing that did bring me joy during that time was guilt-free binge watching of Netflix. Coming home from my chemotherapy appointments – every two weeks on Friday – I curled up in my cozy basement and dove into watching everything from RuPaul’s Drag Race to Ozark with Jason Bateman. But when I saw the series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo pop up on suggested viewing list on January 1st it quickly became my binge watching priority.

Focusing on things that brought me joy

The timing couldn’t have been better. For me, my cancer diagnosis was a life-changing experience in that it forced me to stop, take stock and simplify. Up until that point, I was living my life to the fullest and carefree with a feeling of invincibility when it came to my health. But during my cancer treatment, I found daily life had a complexity to it that left me feeling easily overwhelmed and exhausted. So in those dark days, I decided that I needed to simplify both my mental and physical space, and focus on things that brought me joy – whatever that meant. It was with this in mind that on one snowy afternoon in early January, I tucked myself in bed and started watching Marie Kondo and her life-changing magic of tidying up.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of asking whether a pair of underwear or old socks spark joy initially had me rolling my eyes with a snort. But there was something about the way Marie Kondo explained the feeling of joy in those early episodes that resonated deeply. It’s a physical reaction in your body, a feeling that Kondo describes on her show by pointing one finger into the air, kicking the opposing foot off the ground, and chiming, “Ting!” like an adorable egg timer. It’s a feeling I knew well but hadn’t really felt deeply since my cancer diagnosis eight months prior. By the time I had consumed six of the nine episodes, I was hooked and ready to Kondo my way through my closet.

The process itself is fascinating

The notion that your things, even your old socks, were nearly animate, and deserved compassion and respect is a concept of Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan. Aside from asking whether an item sparks joy, a step in the process is to “thank” items for their service before discarding them.  As silly as that may seem, doing so made me feel at peace with their disposal. Thoughts like “maybe I’ll wear this one day, maybe this will come back in style, once I lose those 10lbs I can fit into this again” did not come up, which was good because those very questions tend to spark anxious guilt in me as opposed to joy.

The other appealing part of the process is the soothing simplicity of her folding technique. Folding my t-shirts per her guidance, I felt calm and focused, mindful of what I had chosen to keep and why. Arranging items as per her instructions, standing and all visible in my drawer, meant every item had its own sweet spot, in a folded and arranged state that best suited them. I was pleasantly surprised to find that sweaters arranged in a drawer on a colour gradient are joyful. Clothes hung in a closet in size order — longest on the left, shortest on the right, so that their bottom hems form a diagonal line pointing upward – are joyful. Ultimately, taking steps to control my chaos having just gone through the very uncontrollable chaotic experience that is cancer – is joyful.

Even my 2.5 year old son can find his bowls in this super organized drawer!
Matching Tupperware lids to containers is no longer an impossible task.

Life-changing decluttering aside, the series itself was charming to watch. Even though every single episode was exactly the same (apart from the personal stories and struggles of each family), it’s light — you know it will end well, and you get to enjoy the voyeuristic cleansing ritual without the dark, dirtiness of, say, Hoarders.
After going through this process, I have less in my closets, and I feel more at ease, less burdened, and happier. I’m also encouraged that others can make better use of my discarded things. But ultimately what I learned is that beyond Marie Kondo’s practical approach, her message to us is to simply have more appreciation and be mindful of the things, material and otherwise, that support our daily life. This is a philosophy that I have embraced following my cancer diagnosis….that and sparking joy whenever possible – Ting! Ashley Warburton

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