I recently received an email asking for any insights or words of wisdom I could share regarding my journey through being diagnosed with and undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The email was from someone who had read one of my articles published by MindBodyGreen late last year and had read in my biography that I was a breast cancer survivor. The sender’s words were plaintive, wrought with the emotion of a new diagnosis that had come seemingly out of the blue. After reading it, I had to walk away before answering.
The memory of being on the receiving end of a diagnosis of breast cancer in June of 2009 pulsed through my body. I remembered how raw things were right after receiving such news, and I began searching for the perfect words to say, or some wisdom or insight that would make the news better. I remembered reaching out to my neighbor, who I knew had been undergoing treatment for breast cancer, for insight and direction. I remembered the days that followed — the appointments, the decisions, the treatments and the sheer exhaustion that I experienced as I tried to keep up with it all.
After gathering my composure and coming back to answer the email, I offered compassion and understanding, having been there myself, along with five things I learned along my journey through cancer:
1. Cancer scares people.
Cancer scares people, and they get uncomfortable. Sometimes you will feel like you have to support the people around you. Maybe they won’t be around you, and they will disappear. This isn’t because they don’t care — it is more likely that they are scared. The people who love you the most will be the most uncomfortable, and sometimes the most unpleasant. If you have some of these people in your life, remember: their reactions are not about you, it’s about them.
2. Everyone’s journey is their own.
I have some friends that went through treatment and knew nothing about their stage of cancer, type of cancer, or their long-term diagnosis. They just showed up and did what the doctor suggested. I know others who wanted to know everything and be involved in each decision. Relatives, friends and loved ones sometimes try to force their opinions regarding treatment on those battling the disease. Why? Maybe they are really scared or maybe they are searching for some level of control in a situation that is so out of their control. Choice is a personal thing. What is important is that your choices are exactly that — your choices — and not those imposed by others, whether they are doctors, healers, or well-meaning family members.
3. Cancer creates an opening.
I was a private and closed person before my diagnosis. From that day forward, it became an opening for healing. It has been said that whatever opens us is not as important as what is opened. I don't know how I would have received that statement early on in my journey, but I embrace it now. Not to diminish something as serious as cancer, but the diagnosis is where my opening began, and the healing continues.
4. Good health is a delicate, synergistic balancing act.
Healing can require more than a conventional medical approach. True and lasting healing may likely require a synthesis of different approaches to help heal on all levels — physical, emotional and spiritual. Yoga did this for me. I came to yoga to heal after my treatment and never left, and I now share the practice of yoga with other cancer survivors. If you have a practice, keep it up in whatever way you can. If you don’t have a yoga practice, consider starting one. It will be one of the best things you could do for yourself. There are gentle classes designed especially for cancer patients. Loved ones, especially primary caregivers, can also benefit from yoga. If you are unable to have a physical practice, you can focus on the benefits of the breathing practices, meditation, guided imagery and visualization.
5. Know that you will be changed.
Staring into your own mortality changes things. One day you will look in the mirror and realize that you walked through a one-way door with no way to return to your old life. You may come to know yourself better. You may make a promise to live your life differently. When you lean into the opening that a cancer diagnosis creates, you may quickly realize that all we have is to embrace the present moment. You may heal on many levels. You may find a deeper sense of meaning; connecting to spiritual dimensions of being and finding real purpose and joy in your life.
While I was undergoing treatment, it seemed as if everywhere I went there was someone who had been down this cancer road before me. The support, compassion and love they freely offered were sustaining. It is a club no one wants to be in, but once we are here we are here. I wish you all the best. I wish for you an opening. I hope for healing. I am happy to say that in June of this year I will celebrate 5 years since my diagnosis! I feel honored to be able to share my journey.