How A Sudden Cancer Diagnosis Forced Me To Reevaluate My Mental Health
I was completely in denial about my health for a very long time. I'm a very focused and driven person, so when I went to school for psychology and cognitive neuroscience, I completely buried myself in my studies. After graduating, I immediately jumped into a master's program, started planning my private practice while I was only halfway through the program, and opened it the day I graduated.
In other words: There was always one thing after another in my life, and I neglected every aspect of my health in the process. In my eyes, my mind and my body were two separate things.
In my eyes, my mind and my body were two separate things.
Looking back, there were so many signs that something was off, and it was clear that I was starting to get sick (for instance, I came down with shingles in my 20s, which is pretty much unheard of). But I just stayed focused on my career and family. I didn't think about myself, I didn't think about what I was eating, I didn't think about how I was treating my body—I was too busy taking care of everyone else. So when I received my diagnosis, it came as a complete shock.
I was getting a routine checkup at my OB/GYN when she noticed that something looked off.
She told me it was probably nothing since I'd never had a single symptom or an abnormal Pap smear. But she decided to do a Pap smear anyway, just to be safe.
I received a phone call later that day, and my OB/GYN asked me to come back to the office ASAP to do some biopsies. After getting the results back—the week of my 30th birthday—I had a cervical cancer diagnosis.
In some ways, I was very lucky because I was diagnosed with Stage 1 cancer, which is extremely early. And in other ways, I'm very unlucky, because cervical cancer is one of the slowest progressing cancers that there is, especially for women. That means, getting to Stage 1 should have taken years—however, six months prior, I had a Pap smear with no signs or indications that anything was wrong. The cancer moved very quickly in my body, and as a result, I had to urgently begin surgeries.
Each surgery was progressively more aggressive. The first was a cone biopsy, in which they removed a portion of abnormal tissue from my cervix. When that came back positive, I had to go back in again for another surgery. Then, I had a full hysterectomy, just to be really sure all the cancer was removed. At only 30 years old, I was very young to be going through this procedure. Fortunately, I was done having kids. I may have felt even more devastated if that wasn't the case.
My cancer journey was fast and furious. I was diagnosed in December 2018, and I was completely cancer free and cleared by April 2019. The major surgery meant that I wasn't really healed until about July.
After the whirlwind treatments, I started to feel really sorry for myself, and I got very down about my life. I knew I needed to figure out a way to move past this and to make it feel like it wasn't for nothing.
My journey prompted me to start thinking about what causes illness in the first place. Why do some people get sick when other people don't? So I did something I felt very capable of doing: I dove into research. I pulled out all my old textbooks and looked at all the research articles that I could find online. During this process, I found something really remarkable: Researchers have found a very strong link between illness and stress1. So for me, that was an invitation to really understand stress, how it impacts us, and how we can prevent it—which is how I found shadow work.
My journey with shadow work.
When I look back on my life, I realize that shadow work was always there. I just didn't see it because I had tunnel vision. When I studied cognitive neuroscience and psychology in undergrad, I learned so much about Carl Jung and his work with the unconscious mind. It came up again while I was working on my master's degree and later when I was teaching courses as an adjunct professor at Penn State. As a result, I understood the impact of the unconscious on our body's physiology and emotions, but I've never thought to use this knowledge for myself.
However, as I was researching the most effective ways to deal with stress, shadow work was staring me in the face again—I took it as a sign that I needed to learn more and really try it for myself.
I ended up reaching out to UK-based shadow worker Allison Kelsey, and I booked an appointment with her for the very next week. Kelsey and I did sessions together weekly or biweekly, for a year.
For a bit more context, "shadow" is just another term for the unconscious mind, which is at the deepest level of your psyche. It's the moments that make up your personality. It's the things that shape your worldview; it's what makes you who you are as a human being.
For a lot of us, these unconscious processes are traumas. The reason this happens is something called a subconscious feedback loop. Every experience that you have is sensory—as you take in those senses, it internally creates a chemical reaction, your emotions. Those emotions create a physical reaction in your body, which is also chemical, and that physical reaction sends a chemical reaction back up to your brain in the form of a thought—that loop repeats over and over again.
For instance, many people are triggered by the holidays and spending time with their family because of unpleasant past experiences from childhood. That is your shadow: You may not even remember exactly what memory is triggering, but your body remembers.
Shadow work is the process of bringing up those memories slowly and intentionally, usually through meditation. Then, you work with a practitioner to interrupt that subconscious feedback loop and change how this memory exists in your brain. One way to do that is through breathwork because your breath can stop some of those chemicals from producing and interrupts that feedback loop in such a way that it can change the neural pathways in your brain.
During my own journey with this work, I released so much trauma and I learned more about myself than I can even begin to put into words. I was a different person within weeks. And by the end of the year, I didn't even recognize the person that I was before.
After this journey, I started to shift my own practice to focus on shadow work. Now, I work with thousands of people every single year through group courses that I host, I speak all over the world about it, and I recently wrote a book called Shadow Work. My life is now completely different from what it was before my diagnosis. So while cancer is, in some ways, the worst thing that happened to me, it is simultaneously the best.
What my well-being routine looks like now.
Through everything I experienced—with my cancer and mental health journey—I now put my health at the forefront.
I've continued shadow work, and I do sessions about every three months. I made my bigger breakthroughs early on, so now the practice has become more exploratory, focusing on how I can make things even better.
I practice breathwork and meditation every single day—just enough to help me feel centered and calm. I'll also occasionally do reiki to help support awareness in my own body. These practices allow me to be the best version of myself for my kids, my husband, the clients I serve—and for me.
I also prioritize movement, but that means something different every day. I'm never consistent with my workout routines—sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes it's yoga, sometimes it's more mindful movement practices—whatever I'm in the mood to try. I've really learned to love my body and feel connected to myself through moving.
Ultimately, I'm not taking my health for granted anymore. I support my body and prioritize preventive practices.
I hope people gather a few takeaways from my story: Don't neglect your health for any reason, prioritize your mental well-being, and get Pap smears on a regular basis. Be preventive; take care of your health. Don't wait; your life is too important.
Danielle Massi was diagnosed with cervical cancer right before her thirtieth birthday and her whole world was turned upside down. She became curious to find out what caused the disease and learned that the root cause of cancer and other autoimmune diseases is stress. It was this discovery that led her to shadow work, a holistic healing practice that aims to reduce stress by releasing traumas buried in the unconscious mind.
Now, as a cervical cancer survivor, Danielle is helping thousands of others to learn how to heal their minds and bodies using shadow work. Using her shadow work programs and her new book Shadow Work, Danielle gives in-depth instruction on how to practice shadow work to live a happier and healthier life.
Other than being a best-selling author, Danielle is also the CEO of The Wellness Collective and the founder of the SELF(ish)philly conference. In January, as a part of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, Danielle has decided to partner with Philly businesses to hold fundraisers for cervical cancer research.