How Cancer Saved My Life
Let’s get this out of the way: I had breast cancer, but I am not a cancer evangelical who believes that “everything happens for a reason” or that “everything is a blessing.”
I made a conscious effort from the moment of my diagnosis to view cancer as a thing that happened to me but was not me. It's not my defining feature nor do I ever want to attach myself to such an ugly, frightening and destructive experience.
I never did and never will refer to myself as a cancer survivor, thriver or patient. (Perhaps this is reverse superstition, meant to ward off recurrence by not transforming myself into "that woman who had cancer.")
Also, I'd always abhorred corporate pinkwashing, even before I was diagnosed, so getting the damn thing certainly wasn't going to make me want to festoon myself in pink or walk for the cure — no matter anyone else's best intentions.
But I still say that cancer saved my life and I’m sticking to my story.
When I found out I had cancer, I was in my mid-40s, and finally hitting my stride in the “having it all” department. (Even though I know “having it all” is a dangerous concept and one that’s exploited in books and TV.)
I’d spent 20 years building what I thought was the strong foundation of family, health and career. It wasn't always easy. I'd worked hard to get through medical school; I struggled with postpartum depression when I had to leave my baby at home to return to residency, and I breast fed for 19 months (dammit!).
I did community service and was even on the board of the preschool co-op! (Hell, my kid was actually IN a co-op preschool!) As I was trying to grow my family and my career, I returned to yoga, learned to meditate and studied Ayurveda. I made my own medicinal ghee.
I was a striver and seeker. The knowledge, experiences and people that came into my life enriched me, my practices in conventional and integrative medicine, and my family.
I stand behind everything I did, said and wrote during that time.
It’s just that there was something deeply amiss. And that is when the cancer came a-calling.
I was so good at taking care of others and distracting myself from what should have been a primary focus on self care — which, ironically, I was cajoling, begging, and teaching others to do — that I went missing and I forgot how to find me.
I felt caught between my duty and honor to serve others and take care of myself. Delivering more than 100 babies a year is a big sleep interrupter. Sure, I meditated and exercised when I could and I ate as clean as possible, but working 60 hours a week, caring for my family, and being the main breadwinner took its toll. Despite being grateful for my life's calling, my dharma as a healer, I was rapidly burning out.
My marriage was faltering, and I experienced tremendous guilt for being away from home due to my long work hours and travel schedule. I resented this, and I didn’t see a way out of what had evolved as my role as primary breadwinner.
In the end, my body’s desperate cry for attention was the only thing that shook me out of my mounting discomfort. I could hardly ignore a cancer diagnosis, could I? The crisis of cancer forced me to look at things. I saw the truth, which was that I deserved care and attention and a break.
Over the last 18 months since my initial diagnosis, I have altered my work schedule to end my day early and learned not to sweat stuff that isn't life threatening. At times my work does include threats to life and health, so I prioritize my stressors. If something's not gonna kill me? Awesome! Deep breath, insert joke if possible, move on. Not gonna kill my patient? Fabulous! It can wait until my full and calm attention is possible without draining me.
I have learned to say no, without guilt or conditions. I have practiced the art of asking for help, relying on my partners, family and friends. I allowed my marriage, sick for so long, to perish in order to make space for my family to grow into a more healthy unit.
And I credit my decades-long meditation and yoga practice along with my training in Ayurveda and integrative wellness with assisting in my recovery.
We all know that our time on this planet is limited. Mindfulness and meditation are now all the rage and I’m grateful to see the mainstream talking about “living in the moment.”
But there is nothing quite like staring down the reality of your own actual physical death to clarify what really matters.
And what I’ve been able to see clearly is that the person who needed the care and love and the convincing all along was me. Not so easily accomplished but very simple. My healing journey is just beginning.