9 Lessons Learned from my Experience with Cancer
When Adversity Calls
“We are all doing the very best that we can.” Brené Brown
I have come to realize that with each choice, every decision, whether labeled good or bad, we are all doing the best we can in life. The single mother of three who works fifty hours a week to provide food and shelter for her children is doing the best she can. The drug dealer who finds himself addicted and needing another hit is doing the best job that he can…. given the tools he has in this moment now.
My life is a dance of being in my thoughts, in the past, in the future and then to the present. This is a continual, never ending pattern and part of being human. No matter how evolved or how screwed up I feel, life is still this beautiful, sharp, messy, fascinating, experience and I believe we are all doing the very best we can. This realization has changed the way I experience others, and the way in which I move through life. I believe I take less personally and in turn experience more empathy for others.
On June 3rd, 2014 and at the age of 41, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. The moment my doctor told me the news, my life started on a new trajectory. To this day when I hear the stories of the moments people learn they have cancer, I am easily moved to tears. I remember how altering, disruptive and flat out terrifying it was. I was pulling from and searching through all the resources I had. I was analyzing and trying to figure out and assessing what I needed to do next. I wondered if I had what it was going to take to survive it…. It felt like a tidal wave.
I can look back on this moment with love, gentleness and gratitude, as this was the end of my life as I had known it, and the beginning of something new and transformational. And by transformational, I don’t mean that I turned into something different and outside of myself but rather started a practice of shedding the layers of protection and habits that I coated myself in that no longer served me. The next year and a half was filled with chemo, ivs, surgeries, hospital visits, the range of human emotions, friends, family and divorce. Cancer has a way of deepening some relationships and bringing others to an end. In the case of my marriage, it was the later.
During my time with cancer I started practicing daily meditation and mindfulness. I would get up at five thirty each morning. Some days were easier than others, as there were times I was sick and didn’t know how I would get out of bed, but each day I did. I would sit on my back patio, look at the mountains, the cactus, the blue sky and then close my eyes and focus on my breath.
Meditation has been a practice of being where my body is and has been a huge gift to me. It has taught me many things and has opened a new understanding of how the world works. It creates space, quiet and allows for a reset. If there was one thing I could take to a deserted island, I would take my meditation practice, although I would lobby to also take a hot man whom I had a connection with.
I experienced a transformational and pivotal moment when I was amid my chemo treatments. I was bald, sick and sitting at my vanity. I remember seeing myself in the mirror, looking at my reflection and recognizing my soul for the first time. I felt such compassion and care for this soul. I cried and told myself I loved me and vowed to take the best care of me that I possibly could. A different kind of care, as we are all doing the best we can. This care is one of a new awareness, gentleness and love for myself and for others. I wanted to take care of me like I would a best friend. An elevated ‘best I can’, if you will.
This is written for you- my friends and family. What follows are 9 of the lessons I learned during my experience with cancer. It has become my ‘pre-flight check’ before starting my day, being faced with an important decision or when I feel unsure or frightened. I share them with you humbly as a gift in case you find them helpful or in case it opens the door to you discovering your own. I believe we are all connected and we must lend a hand to one another, as we go through this journey of life.
I was so loved and taken care of by all of you during this time and I continue to be! I have not been able to thank you properly and have felt this tension that is only somewhat relaxed by writing to you. There may be elements that don’t mean anything to you or don’t have the same affect in your life as they have mine. I am willing to take that risk. Oh, dear God… Thank you! I am here and have been so blessed by you. Your visits from all over the country, the gluten free meals, the texts, cards, phone calls, gifts, thoughts, prayers and shaved heads in a show of solidarity kept me going when times were tough. I have experienced so much love in this lifetime with you. Know that even though I haven’t known how to thank you, I am filled with gratitude and awe and carry you with me always. You have taught me on a deeper level what it means to love and to be love.
This has taken me some time to write. I procrastinated, doubting that what I had to say was worth sharing or that I would not know what to write or how to write it…. all the same human stuff that keeps me from moving forward and creating new possibilities in life. The resistance has been strong. Not today though. I am not stepping over it any longer. I am tapped in and will let this flow from me. This is interwoven with part of my story of love, transformation and compassion. It is my beautiful mess to share with you.
1. Full body problem solving
A few short years ago I didn’t know my heart very well. I knew my head, or rather; I was in my head most of the time. In fact, my head did most of the heavy lifting, over functioning and overcompensating. I also underutilized my heart and my gut instinct. After one of my surgeries, I realized that the cancerous tumor had been right in the path between my head and my heart. After the tumor was gone, I felt different. There was now a clear path between my head and heart. Miraculously, my heart and I are currently in an avid love affair and I am learning what it means to trust my gut. I spent so much time in my head that I was missing what was going on right in front of me. The thinking part of me is constantly hungry, like a ravaged tiger constantly searching for food. How strange that we do this and it is also the part that makes us human. When my head takes over and allows no space for my heart, I miss the beauty of what is right here and right now by constantly scanning the horizon for the next bright and shiny thing or analyzing what I see. This chatter can be loud.
Isn’t it amazing that I can be sitting across the table from you in a restaurant drinking wine and eating food and you and I can have very different experiences? Even though our physical surroundings are the same, the way we experience it all is so very different. The words that we say and hear are perceived differently. The server asks us what we want to eat and she may remind me of someone that I knew, or her tone might trigger something that reminds me of the way a teacher used to speak to me and then I am off having my own experience while you are just enjoying the view and thinking of what you want to order for dessert.
I am grateful that now my head, heart and gut are working much better together. They are an effective team. My body is the vehicle that moves me through life, while my gut is the fuel, my head the steering wheel and my heart, the navigational system. I no longer must push rocks uphill, spend so much time in my head figuring it all out, running from pain or looking outside of myself for something to fulfill me. What I do more often, is hold loosely and fully this moment in my heart. I recognize this moment will pass, but for now it wants to show me something, so I feel it and let my heart be my guide.
2. Choosing Love
In this busy world, we are faced with choices constantly. How and what I choose determines my next step. Part of what determines my choices, is my personality. It is the lens through which I see life and typically determines my first habitual response to any given situation. Some psychologists and scholars say that somewhere between the age of two and seven, as humans, we try on different ways to cope with our separateness. Before that time, and before cognitive thought, I was unaware of any disconnection. This is part of our human development. One of these strategies for how to be loved, to survive, or how to find my place in this world worked, and from there my personality continued to develop. If I was operating from this non-conscious strategy, I believed I had the best shot of being ‘ok’. This served me in many ways, but like all things in life, it also has another side that can hinder me. Our personalities determine what our knee jerk reactions will be. It is my habitual response. I can respond to things the same way over and over, but somewhere along the line; I realize that this does not serve me as well as it once did. My awareness of my personality gives me the understanding of that knee jerk response and now I can choose a different way to respond to situations.
I want to choose love in this moment. When I slow down and with conscious awareness I can ask myself and deeply feel ‘what is the loving choice here’? It becomes clear! Do I want to spend my life on the rat wheel turning and spinning? I have heard insanity explained as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. At any given moment, I can jump off that wheel and do this differently. I feel bright and grounded and what is inside of me and around me is beautiful. The secret is being right here, right now and to be awake to it. This also allows for me to create new possibilities in life. I have all that I need in this moment. I don’t need to look outside for something I have lost. New possibilities open in front of me moment by moment. The question is, will I see it? For love, calls everything into being.
3. Letting Go
“I don’t have a past. There is no past, only now.” Adyashanti
Ouch. This one stings. I cling, resist and can be afraid of what will happen if I let go. I do real battle with this one. I saw a magnet on a refrigerator that said, ‘let go or be dragged.’ During my time with cancer I was dragging and beat up. I also eventually let go of some elements of my life as I had known them; a marriage, a best friend, a home and many of the stories I had told myself for most of my life. It stung and hurt. Then I realized letting go is not the most painful part. The pain was coming from the white-knuckle clinching, or the closing my eyes and holding my breath, which results into running into sharp things, scratches, bruises. Yes, there are times when I desperately try to hold on.
Soon after my months of chemo and amid several surgeries, I received a call from my lawyer’s office. The woman on the other line said, “Merry Christmas! Your divorce is final.” These words were so peculiar to me. What was I supposed to feel? Was I supposed to feel relieved? Later that night, my ex-husband called to tell me he had decided to move back to Cincinnati. His U-Haul was packed and he was planning to leave Arizona early the next morning. I was stunned. I had never felt so alone nor so afraid. What in the hell just happened? My family, many of my friends and now my ex-husband, were all going to be in Cincinnati and yet I was in the middle of the desert in Arizona healing from the fight of my life. What had I done? I wailed this time. Even though I knew that the divorce was done, I had found security in the idea that he was still going to be close by. If we needed something, we could call one another, right? Yet now, this was not an option. I tried to figure out what I was going to do next. How could I hold on? Was there something I hadn’t thought of?
Each world religion teaches about renewal, new life, being born again. I can’t see clearly the gifts that this moment hold when I am grasping on to old perceptions, limitations, relationships and fears. When I cling, I can feel the blockages and separation in my body that sometimes take on the form of anger, sorrow or fear. Perhaps they can even take the shape of cancer. This feels like war against myself. A struggle was ensuing in my body and my spirit.
How do we learn to let go? It can be scary and who am I without these emotions? Letting go has become one of my best teachers, therapies and the lesson I catch myself resisting or trying to avoid the most. How do I surrender to what is out of my control and let go? The night my divorce was final, I experienced the impact of surrender. I had no other choice. What follows the clinching, the dragging and then the falling is that something inside or someone inevitably shows up and helps you up. In my case, I had two friends who happened to be visiting me that reminded me I was not alone at all. They were my resting place. They helped me up and I could stand, dust myself off and regain some sense of stability. I am forever grateful for them.
Feelings don’t seem to stick around for as long as they used to, and I know I am not my feelings. Feelings can come and go and they blow like the wind. I see it like this… It is as if we all have a shelf in our house. This shelf holds the available feelings that exist for humans. We all have this shelf, and we all have the same feelings that sit there, although they may take different shapes. We keep joy, happiness, fear, loneliness, anger and many others there. My suffering comes in when I pick one of those feelings from the shelf and cling to it. I walk around with it, take it to work, dinner and shopping with me. I start to believe that that feeling is me and that I am that feeling. I have come to realize this is not true. Feelings are ‘things’ and I experience the same human emotions that you do; it is part of what it means to be human.
I can experience anger, hold on tight, be dragged, let go and only then, I tend to heal more quickly. Clinging only keeps me attached to the hurt and gives me white knuckles, bruises and scratches from the dragging. I often don’t even realize I am clinging and sometimes am actively avoiding feelings and keeping them on the back of the shelf. So how do I let go and learn to dance with my emotions instead? Letting go comes through allowing…..
4. Allowing and going with the flow
In January of 2015, I walked out of my surgeon’s office and with strength said, “I am finally done!” I had completed tests, scans, months of chemo, four surgeries and now I could get on with life free of weekly doctor and hospitals visits. Nope- this was not the case. A week later I had an infection from my most recent surgery and found myself back in the emergency room. My doctors were uncertain where the infection originated, but I was told that I needed to have a line surgically implanted and would need to give myself IV antibiotics five times a day for the next six weeks. The chance of the drugs killing the infection was fifty percent. If it didn’t work, I was to be prepared for emergency surgery. I was so tired at this point I questioned if my body would make it and if I could go on. Three weeks later I wasn’t feeling well and discovered I had a fever of 104. The panic ensued. I called my breast surgeon, my plastic surgeon, my oncologist and my infectious disease doctor. I was looking for just one of them to tell me that this was nothing to worry about and that I could avoid going to the hospital. None of them did. My neighbor Carrie came over and sat with me while I cried. When I had exhausted all my options and any chance of escaping, I looked at her and said, “Ok, I have to do this. Let’s go.”
We went to the hospital and for the next several days Carrie and her husband Glen took turns staying by my bedside until my parents could arrive. They sat next to me while I was packed in ice to bring down my fever and when I had a reaction to the drugs and couldn’t swallow. I was in bad shape. I didn’t know how bad it was until Carrie and I talked about it later. I remember seeing my nurse Stacy crying in the corner of my room. Stacy was amazing. She had arranged it so that she could be my nurse for every shift that she was on that week. Stacy and I had forged a bond. After 4 days of a high fever and my blood cell counts being so low, she was worried that I might not make it. I am so grateful to her, to my doctors, nurses, neighbors and friends that took such care of me. I hope I can find Stacy one day, hug her again and tell her what she means to me.
I had no other choice but to go with the flow. I can follow my navigational system and know where I am headed, but sometimes life has other plans. I am in my own mystery novel. I am not sure what is around each corner but often, I can find peace in what is here now and then revel in the anticipation of what is next instead of feeling the fear from the unknown. Sometimes there is pain involved and I see pain very differently. It is no longer an enemy. It is an indicator to me that I need to take a deeper look at something or go another direction. On a good day, I meet pain with respect and realize that while pain is inevitable, I don’t have to suffer. Author Glennon Doyle Melton talks about pain with a powerful illustration. She says, “Pain is a traveling professor and knocks on everyone’s door and the wisest ones say come in and sit down and don’t leave until you teach me what I need to learn.” Thank you Glennon.
An amazing thing happened after my surgeries. I have a built-in alarm system that lets me know when I need to relax. My new boobs will get restricted and I feel as if someone is stretching a tight shirt around me from behind and pulling it taut. It’s true! In stressful situations, I can ‘think’ my way to relaxation but the moment I check in with my body, I notice my chest is tight and my shoulders are up to my ears. My body is tense. This is one of the humorous remnants of the whole ordeal. It is the way my body is communicating with the rest of me and reminding me, “Hey, I am a part of this situation too! Head, heart, gut…. Don’t forget about me! You need me to carry you. Check in!” A lot of times it makes me laugh and yet sometimes it flat out pisses me off. I can be hard on myself. You mean through this whole experience I haven’t learned my lessons and can’t just accept what is here and go with the flow through it all? There is stress, my chest get tight, I am hard on myself and then hopefully sooner than not, I bring myself right back to now and breath deep. When I am relaxed, life is an entirely different journey.
6. Being Still
I spend a lot of time and energy clawing my way through life and looking for things outside of myself to bring me peace. When I was diagnosed with cancer I changed direction. I turned around, and started instinctively clawing my way back to the center of the storm. It was like I knew that if I was going to survive and thrive I needed to find my way to the center of the ship and stand, strong and graciously still in this space. I can see the wind blowing, the dust stirring and the rain pelting around me but I am standing strong and still. Clarity comes more easily now that I make time for stillness.
Friends told me that I was very clear when going through my time with cancer. I attribute a big part of this to taking time to be still. I am grateful for this. I think back to 2014 and 2015 and sometimes long for the clarity and simplicity of it all. Don’t get me wrong, I never (reiterating never!) want to go through another bout of cancer. At the same time, one of the gifts of cancer is that I recognize when to slow down and be still even during my busyness, travel, work and commitments. I can be still even if my body is busy.
The world is busy enough. Starting each day with at least twenty minutes of silence allows me to show up, be present to others, to myself and to what is happening around me. It is when I am still, that I feel connected to this being that is greater than myself. I am in awe of the magnificence and wonder of this Love.
“Prayer is talking to God and meditating is listening to God.” Deepak Chopra
There are many more ways for me to listen, other than just with my ears. For one, I can listen to what my body and gut are telling me. I tried this type of listening when I chose the chemo treatments and the surgeries that I did. It is also why when I was in the hospital and receiving heparin shots I finally said enough and told the doctors “no more”! My body was weak and bruised and I knew I couldn’t take it any longer. They listened. When I started on this journey I thought I had to do what my doctors told me to do. Now I hear what they say and run it through my checklist of full body problem solving before deciding.
I am learning to listen more carefully to the words that people tell me. People tell me and show me who they are and there are times I try to make them something that they are not because I want to believe something else. This takes practice. I am learning to recognize what is really happening and identify what is real from the stories I tell myself. There are many ways to listen. I can hear non-verbal behavior, nature, my heart and my gut just to name a few.
8. Break open
Breaking open and staying open takes courage and being vulnerable can lead to hurt, pain and rejection. It also leads to miracles, understanding more about love and reveals new possibilities.
My life before cancer (BC:-) was spent covering up, trying to control and trying to protect myself. Life is now spent in a dance of doing those things, being aware and hopefully, often, shedding those layers of protection that don’t serve me. This is my transformation. More hours of the day, I am letting the heaviness fall away, taking the risk and showing more of my heart.
I do take more risks now and it is exhilarating! Life is more like a playground. I can try things and if I fail, I try again or try something new. After cancer, I sold my house, gave away most everything I owned and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona where I knew almost no one. I know this was a surprise to my family and friends. Many of them expected me to come back to Ohio. I have come to love the heat, the sunshine and being outdoors in the winter and I can jump on a plane every few months and spend time in Cincinnati. So, I am following my heart. I felt drawn to the desert. The sunsets are stunning, the warm weather is soothing and there is a quiet, majestic beauty about this place. My body and spirit feel better here. I also recently left the company I had been with for 13 years to do meaningful work that I love. I continue to practice keeping my heart open and trusting. I am co-creating with Love.
I love watching this beautiful six-minute video created by time-lapse photographer Louis Schwartzberg and narrated by Benedictine Monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast. This has become a regular part of my meditation practice and says all that I could say about gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for including my amazing family. My mom and dad spent most of a year with me in Arizona when I was going through my treatments, surgery and divorce. My mom is a retired nurse, a retired chaplain and an experienced, phenomenal mom! She took care of me physically, offered spiritual support and mom love. My dad took care of the logistics, mail, paperwork, brought me sweets daily and entertained the neighbors. My brothers came to visit me, regularly called me and came back to help me move. I am grateful for their strong and masculine energy. I had a constant flow of incredible friends and family who came to visit. I have colleagues that flew in and a company who genuinely cared for me while I was going through treatments and surgeries. I have had an unbelievable team of doctors orchestrated by my Oncologist Dr. Ali Madani who has blown me away with his consistent care, support and availability. Yes, I have so much to be grateful for and I am wealthy with love and powerful experiences.
The Next Chapter
“The only two things we are in control of are how we prepare for a moment and how we respond to a moment.” Devon Franklin
There is power in connection. Power is more effective when two or more come together. Something magical happens that doesn’t seem possible with just one. We have come to make power mean something very different. We use it in a way that means more about having control over others or over situations instead of “power with”. One of my favorite examples of power comes from a cartoon I used to watch as a child, The Super Friends. The Wonder Twins were a brother-sister duo and could become something that seemed impossible when they touched their fists and connected to one another. They would hit fists and say, “Wonder Twin Powers Activate!” They would follow with form of an ice crystal or an animal that would inevitably get them out of the sticky situation they were in and move towards saving the world. There is power when we connect. Imagine what might be possible and how we could change the world by coming together and bumping fists.
I am grateful that we are part of one another’s journey. We are all part of this same huge, unbelievable beautiful planet. We are connected in this world where there is so much emphasis on our divisions instead of our connections. I am so grateful and I love you. Thank you for bumping fists with me while I experienced cancer and now experience life beyond. Your love and connection gave me the extra bit of power I could not muster on my own to fight when I was down, to get out of bed, when I felt weak, to keep going when I felt alone and separate. I am never alone and neither are you. This I know. We are powerful and I am here to connect fists with you whenever you should call on me. I love you.
With much gratitude,