We’re constantly inspired by the stories we hear from people who have been able to improve their wellbeing through gratitude, empathy and mindfulness (also known as GEM). As we know community and connection are so important to mental health, we wanted to share some of these “Everyday GEM” stories with you too.
We were recently humbled to chat with Emily Quinlan, a kindergarten teacher from Ballarat who, at just 25-years-old, was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.
For the past eight months, Emily has spent her time between intense chemotherapy sessions generously sharing her story via her Instagram page (@soitbegins__) and speaking to young people about how they can fill their cup every day. She attributes GEM has the source of her strength and the reason she is able to remain grateful and positive, even on the hard days.
Emily, being diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age can’t be easy. Can you tell us how practicing GEM has helped you?
At the start, I didn’t believe it was cancer. It was just the last thing on my mind, so the day I was diagnosed, I was so shocked. I was upset and heartbroken — and furious! I felt really ripped off.
But on the second day, I woke up and I knew it was real and it wasn’t going to go away. I didn’t like the headspace that I’d been in during the 11 days I was waiting to find out if I had cancer. It was eating me alive. But when I think about it now, I know I wasn’t doing things to help myself. I was just blocking it out, hoping for the best but also dreading the worst. But as soon as it was confirmed and I realised that this was my life now, at least for the next 12 to 18 months, I knew I needed to look after myself as best as I can. And whenever I’m practicing GEM, I’m at my best mentally.
How were you introduced to GEM?
It was back in 2019. I went to a talk with The Resilience Project in Ballarat for work. Before that night, I didn’t know anything about it but afterwards, I read the book and got the 30-day journal. I started writing down the three things I was grateful for, and I noticed a change immediately.
To be honest, I practiced it on and off over the years. But whenever I wasn’t feeling like myself or didn’t like the place that I was in, I knew that I needed to practice GEM to get back to where I wanted to be. So as soon as everything happened with the diagnosis, I was really conscious about making an effort to look after myself. I know my head works the best when I’m practicing GEM.
How would you describe your mental health and wellbeing before you started practising GEM?
I’ve always loved my life, but I hate now when I think back to my life before I found GEM. I wasn’t necessarily wishing my time away, but I was always waiting for the next thing: a weekend or a holiday. And I think that’s the worst thing we can do as humans, to not be present. Time is such a gift.
GEM has given me the headspace to find the positives in life. Even with my diagnosis, things just kept going wrong. First, it was in my breast, then the doctors were like, ‘We think it’s in your lymph nodes too’ and then, ‘Actually we think it’s at this stage now’. Nothing was going to plan. So I constantly had to find the positives in the negatives. On my bad days — and there are bad days — there is still lots of good that I can find. That’s what I focus on.
Have you been able to use GEM to help others?
I never used to like asking for help. But now I know it’s ok to ask and people will always want to help you. And I want to help people now too! And because I’m not allowed to work at the moment, I feel good trying to help others by telling my story.
I have an Instagram page, which initially started as a way of keeping everyone updated on scans, tests and results. But now I use it to speak about how I am feeling too. Because when I was diagnosed, I had no point of reference. I felt really alone, especially because of my age — most people who are diagnosed with this type of cancer are a lot older than me. I didn’t know anyone else going through this. And now there are people who follow me on Instagram who have been diagnosed with cancer too and I’ve shared how much GEM has helped me and now they’ve got the book and are doing gratitude journals and all the rest.
My friend Kelly is a teacher and she asked me if I wanted to talk to her class about the ways I’ve helped myself using GEM. So I went and spoke about the days where I really struggle, where I just want to stay in bed, but how I know future Emily would be so much happier if I got up and did something that would fill up my cup. Whether it was getting a coffee with a friend or going for a walk or reading a book or journaling. It was wonderful sharing my story with the class, who all seemed to really respond to it.
What is your advice for someone who hasn’t yet begun their GEM journey?
No matter what you’re going through, having these tools will change your life. They’re something you can have forever and even if you stop for a bit, you can always pick it right back up again. The Resilience Project have so many resources to help get you started. And once you have started, you will see that it works. Getting started is always the tricky part but once you’re in, you’ve got it for life.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading Emily’s story (thanks so much for so generously sharing it with us Emily!). If you have also had a positive GEM experience – or know another “Everyday GEM” – we would love to hear from you. Please contact us at [email protected] or through a Facebook message.