I would like to spend some time talking about what cancer took from me. But before you assume that I am trying to evoke a pity party, please hear me out. Yes, there are a few obvious and painful things that were taken from me during (or as a result of) my cancer experience: my hair, my job, my ability to have any more children, my ability to walk, my sense of control, my home, my cat, my car, my independence, my pride, my son, my plans, my boyfriend, 30% of my body weight, my appetite, my strength, my blood in its entirety… you get the point. What made those losses so painful was that I thought I needed all of those things or that they needed me. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how life could go on. Even now, after coming out of it, thinking about the loss of all of those things (whether temporarily or permanently) seems unfathomable, devastating, and unrecoverable. But thankfully, cancer knew what it was doing, even if I didn’t.
Cancer continued to take things from me (and here’s where it gets good). Cancer took from me any questions I had about my capacity to love or be loved. Cancer took away any of the unrealistic expectations I had for myself as a parent, daughter, friend and lover. I saw so clearly that the love of my friends and family was not dependent on the way that I was able to show up in their lives. They loved me even when I could do nothing in return for them. This also took away my need to please everyone around me. I saw so clearly how I could never please everyone through my actions and through the giving of my time. Just existing pleased everyone that truly loved me. Cancer took away my illusion of control, forcing me to surrender absolutely and completely in every aspect of life. Because of this, cancer also took away any lack of faith I may have had. After I surrendered, and only after I surrendered completely, I was able to see that everything unfolds exactly as it should. Just because it was out of my control didn’t mean it wasn’t under control. Cancer took away my pride and selfishness, replacing it with a level of compassion and empathy that I craved so deeply, but could never seem to find on my own. Envisioning children the age of my son and younger going through this process, and seeing that no matter how bad my situation seemed, there was always always someone who was worse off than me. This really helped me to maintain a level of humility and gratitude that I was never able to embody in the past. It also showed me the difference between being selfish and being self loving. Trying to manipulate a situation to get what I wanted or to avoid pain, or closing myself off to protect myself, or not accepting help to save my pride…that was selfish, and stupid. But asking for help and doing what I needed to do to get better so that I could be there in the future for those I love, that is self love. Also, allowing someone to have the joy of helping someone in need, that is also love.
Cancer also took away my ignorance about so many things: my ignorance about what it means to suffer, my ignorance about how amazing nurses are and how hard they work. It took away my ignorance about the healthcare system, western medicine, drugs, the body, the immune system, cancer, rehabilitation, the number of things that could go wrong with any body, and the miracle therein when it doesn’t happen.
Cancer took away any confusion I had about who I am and what my purpose in life is. It also showed me that I was going about figuring it out all wrong. It took away the blurry, fuzzy nature of much of my existence and decision making (or lack thereof) by showing me clearly where I was on the right path and where I was heading in the wrong direction.
Cancer took away my job, allowing me to admit to myself that it wasn’t the right job for me in the first place. It wasn’t clear to me until it wasn’t my job any more, but now I see that I was supporting and tagging along on the road to someone else’s dream. I didn’t believe that my own dreams for myself were valuable, solidified, reasonable, or attainable. The next best thing was to support other people’s dreams; at least their vision was clear and I believed it was valuable. Whether it is for a paycheck or not, we all deserve to be spending the majority of our time and energy in a way that is the most authentic and that utilizes and nurtures our highest selves. Most of us think this is a luxury we can’t afford which leads me to the next thing that cancer took from me. Cancer took away the misunderstanding that I was trapped in my current situation. By trapped I mean, I was quite convinced that my options were very limited, and by “my situation” I mean all of the things that made up my current life, whether I wanted them or not. All the things that made up my “current situation” were taken away. This showed me that I could have walked away, at any point, from any of the things that were not best for me. Not carelessly, not rebelliously, but intentionally and consciously. Now that would insinuate that I knew what I should be walking away from, which I did not, but this is yet another area where cancer brought clarity. Only until they were all taken away from me could I see clearly which things I should consciously choose to add back into my “current situation”, and which things I should not. I don’t know when we, as a society, decided that what we do for a living is more important than living itself. I will be going back to work eventually, but ideally for myself mostly, focusing on my life coaching career and writing (shameless plug: http://www.istartnowwellness.com).
Although it wasn’t by choice, I quit my job, moved out of my house, stopped making the (barely managable) income I was making, broke up with my boyfriend, stopped driving, stop doing just about everything I had been doing, and life went on anyway. Everything was ok without me. It was a paradox, both arrogant and insecure, to believe things would not be ok without me. I didn’t even realize that I was setting myself up to be needed because I didn’t trust that I was wanted. At first, it was scary and disappointing to see that the whole world does just fine without me, but once my ego got over it, what followed was a huge sense of relief and peace. Relief that everyone would be fine without me whenever my time comes to leave this world, and peace because letting go of the ego allowed me to finally see that even though I wasn’t needed, I was wanted.
Cancer also took away my relationship with my son as I had known it to be. But, this was a relationship that was far less enjoyable than it could have been, and I was entirely to blame. It is ironic, perhaps, that I considered myself to be in “survival mode” for most of my son’s life and that it took me actually being in literal survival mode to put it into perspective. I think of all times I stressed about my lack of time, energy and money. I was a single parent trying to do it all, and never succeeding. I was sure that I didn’t want any more kids because I could barely make it with the one I already had. All of the love and pleasure that comes from being a parent was shrouded by my exhaustion, stress, and worry. I saw being a parent as something that was getting in the way of my other desires. It (seemingly) forced me to stay in jobs that I didn’t want so I could pay the bills, it prevented me from feeling free to offer myself to a potential partner without the burden and responsibility of a child that wasn’t theirs. It kept me from being able to pick up and move and explore, a trait that I assumed any future partner might want from me. I never once regretted having my son, and never doubted that decision, but it felt like a cross to bare rather than as the honor that I knew it was. As you can imagine, I had an incredible amount guilt because I loved him so much and didn’t understand why that didn’t translate into enjoying him as much as I wanted to. The only thing I knew I wanted to be eversince I was a little girl was a mother. I knew it wasn’t how it was supposed to feel and I didn’t know how to make it better, but cancer did. Now, because cancer took away my job, I have all the time in the world to sleep, so I am not exhausted. Also, because cancer took away my time with my son for so long, I no longer take it for granted. I am excited when he comes home from school at 3 because I have missed him rather than dreading picking him up from daycare at 5:30, not knowing how I could possibly get through dinner and make it to bedtime without collapsing. Also, cancer took away a ridiculous vomit-phobia that always seemed to loom over me to a certain extent, knowing that children are vomit machines. Leave it chemo to cure you of that. Sometimes I am sad that I can’t have any more kids, especially now that I am truly loving being a mother. And let’s be honest, I am not sure there is anything I like more than babies, but there is also a sense of relief in the fact that I don’t have to feel conflicted about it any more. The decision has been made, whether I chose it or not. Also, I have a new openness to the idea of adoption. That is not something I could’ve wrapped my mind around before now, though I always admired those that could. How could I possibly love someone elses baby as much as it deserved when I felt I wasn’t accomplishing that with my own? Now I see that it is possible by loving without thinking. Love without fear. Love without wondering if you’re loving enough. Love with fear you’re not loving enough. Love especially when you fear you aren’t loving enough. Love anyway. Always love anyway.
Because my boyfriend and I broke up, and cancer took away my “datability” for a while, I finally learned how to be alone and how to distinguish that from loneliness. Cancer removed the “reserved” sign that I had subconsciously placed on a section of my heart a long, long time ago. I thought I needed to save it for that special someone. If I wasn’t in relationship, I was constantly looking for the person to fill that spot because my heart-felt so empty when no one was there. I would choose to be in relationship, even if it was the wrong, just to fill that space. Cancer took away my ability to seek a partner for a while, so I gave up the hunt. Once I surrendered to singledom, that empty space was immediately filled by all the other love in my life. My heart only felt empty because I had a false understanding that only a life partner could fill that space. How absurd it seems now that I wasn’t allowing myself to be filled with love because I didn’t want it to interfere with my search for love. There is always, always enough room for more love.
Perhaps the greatest thing that cancer took away was my incessant worry. One might think, since having cancer, that I would be overwhelmed with worry about my health. Wondering every minute of every day if the cancer was coming back, if my body would reject my transplant, if I would get some illness that my suppressed immune system wouldn’t be able to handle. And of course, I have my moments. However, the farther out I get in my recovery process, and the more clarity I have about the purpose in all of it, the less worry I have. Being patient enough to reach an understanding about the purpose of suffering allows for to have faith that suffering is a necessary and beautiful thing if you want to live a life of peace and joy. To reach the level of darkness that I had reached and come out the other side makes anything seem possible and reveals how counterintuitive and wasteful worry is. I only increased my suffering when I was worried about what tomorrow might bring; when I worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I never ever thought I would be able to handle it, and I always always did. I no longer worry about money: there is always enough. I no longer worry about being sick: the worry was my sickness. I no longer worry about what I will do for a living: living is what I do. I no longer worry about the suffering of others: the worry is the suffering. I no longer worry about what people think: they are not their thoughts, and I am not their thoughts, and I am not my thoughts. I no longer worry about how I spend my time: there is no end.
Cancer took away any doubt that there is a god, or something larger than myself, or a bigger plan in the works. I am not a religious person, but there is no way that I could’ve dreamed up this elaborate scheme that was so obviously the answer to my healing. I never would have guessed that it would take me getting very sick to bring me to true wellness. And even if I knew that getting cancer would improve my life exponentially, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to have it. Who would? I am not a hero because I survived cancer. It would have been far more heroic to come to these truths without getting cancer. I didn’t choose to get into the barrel and be thrusted down the falls. I didn’t bravely enlist myself in this war, I was drafted. I have always been a coward in that sense. I never ever would have willingly put myself in this position. But once I realized I was falling, once I accepted the fact that I was in active combat, I saw pretty quickly that there was no sense in trying to hold on, in resisting or running away. I was scared, and I didn’t know if I would make it out alive, but I followed my gut and surrendered to the cancer. I even invited it to “bring it on”. I begged it to teach me what it needed to teach me, and to please make it quick. I felt confident that once I learned what I was supposed to learn, it would leave. Immediately after battle, I looked around at my life. I was injured and depressed and all I saw were casualties…all of the things in my life that cancer had taken and I wondered why it had to take them away. All I saw was loss and I felt a bit betrayed. But, little by little, as I lined up each and every corpse of my past life, I came to realize that every single casualty was either an enemy in disguise, or something I didn’t need anyway. Cancer did me a favor. And it did it in a way that only cancer could. Like the heavy rainfall that came down the other day, dark and cold and drenching my car, thereby removing all of the dead bugs that encrusted my windshield obscuring my view; cancer washed over my life. The rain wasn’t the enemy, the bugs were. Sorry for the abundance of metaphors, I really can’t help myself. For those of you who looked at me like I was crazy or lying when I said cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me, now you know why it is absolutely true. Although I can’t promise I’m not also crazy.
As I reintegrated myself back into the land of the living over the last several months, people have asked me many questions. The most common is “how did you do it?”. Well, the simple answer is: I have no idea. It is like asking a message in a bottle how it managed to wash up on shore. There is no agenda, no sense of direction, no effort on its part to arrive anywhere specific. One day, after being carried through a current stronger than itself, through rough waters, and perhaps the roughest being right as it is approaching the shore, it is gently deposited on the water’s edge. When someone finds it, it is laying calm and still, with an important message inside, waiting to be shared. How it got there is not nearly as important as the message it holds.
Lately, I find myself wanting to share my cancer experience less and less. It is not an unwillingness to share. I am more than happy to discuss it when I’m asked. In fact, I have plans in the works to speak with a couple of different groups at a few hospitals, and I intend to share my story whenever I am called to and for as long as it is benefiting others. When I say I want to share my story less and less, I mean that the necessity or desire to share it for myself has decreased a great deal. I no longer feel the need to talk about it or write about it as a means to make sense of it; it makes sense to me now. I am no longer trying to understand why it all happened by talking about it as a way to sort it all out; I’ve sorted it all out. Although I feel quite sure I will continue to find lessons in my experience and am not fully recovered, I am far enough out of it now that I trust my new-found clarity and understanding. So in light of that, I have decided that this is (for now) my final cancer-focused blog. I had so many things that I thought I wanted to say, to the point of being so overwhelmed that I stopped writing about it altogether because I didn’t know where to begin. There are many more things that I could say, but I see now that all the other things that I could say are not valuable for the purposes that I wanted this blog to be. I could probably find a way to talk about my cancer experience for the rest of my life, but I have come to understand that it does not benefit me to see everything through the lens of that experience. I don’t want to find myself in a position where my whole identity is based around being a cancer survivor. For those of you that have attended one of my workshops, you know that defining ourselves by the experiences or labels that we have collected over time can be harmful and isolating. This may be one of the single greatest lessons I learned from my cancer experience. That being said, allowing yourself to be changed by those experiences, allowing those experiences to be used to help you reach a higher state of being and helping you uncover the truths and riches that are hiding underneath those experiences is vital to our growth both personally and spiritually. I can not emphasize this enough. This is what gives any experience its value, no matter how wonderful or horrific that experience was. This is the key to coming away from suffering with gratitude rather than anger. This is absolutely essential unless you want to be a victim of your experiences, and sometimes we really do think it is what we want. But we only want that when we don’t see our value outside of that experience. Our experiences – all of them – are our diving boards into the deep end, not the pool. We can spend a lot of time looking down, not jumping in, or even after we have safely landed in the pool we focus on how scary it was while we were falling, or how upset we are that we were shoved off when we weren’t ready. We are so focused on how we were wronged or jipped that we don’t even notice that we came out unscathed, or even better than before.
So thank you, cancer, for honoring me with your education, for being my diving board into the deepest pool I have ever encountered. Thank you for washing away the dead bugs from my proverbial windshield, thank you for revealing and killing my enemies in the battle for a centered, joyful, mindful life. Thank you for taking away the things that I thought I couldn’t live without or that I thought couldn’t live without me so that I could see I was wrong, and thank you for giving me the clarity that I needed to not only better my own life, but also the unwavering sense of peace and wisdom that I need to better the lives of the people around me. I am now ready to move forward fearlessly, knowing that I have riches to offer, both on the page, in my relationships, in my work, and for as long as I am meant to live in this body and in this world. Not because cancer put value on those things, but because it revealed the value that has always been there. Everything else is a mystery and out of my control, and I like it that way.
And thank YOU.