Here’s a fun twist in fate. In 2015 I wrote a guest article entitled “How Cancer Changed My Life.” It was the story about how witnessing my friend’s mother battle with cancer impacted my life.
In the fall of 2017 I was diagnosed with cancer.
So here is the story of how cancer changed my life… but for real this time.
When they told me I had cancer they didn’t say much else. My GP got the results of the biopsy and didn’t read it until 15 minutes before my appointment. She wasn’t expecting the result to be positive so when I entered the room she was flustered. She told me she got the results and launched into the next steps but kind of skipped the “you have cancer” part. As she spoke about surgery I leaned back in my spirit and allowed my body and mind to catch up with the reality of the moment. I put my hand on her hand and she stopped talking.
“So what you’re saying is that I have cancer.”
She was taken aback. And then…
We took a moment and carried on, discussing the importance of moving quickly. I stopped her one more time and made her say it again; “You have cancer.” I had to be sure. I couldn’t let that fearful voice of wishful thinking, masquerading as hope, distract me from what I knew I would need to do. “Maybe I heard her wrong?” No my love, you did not.
I tried to ask her questions about the stage, spread, treatment and all the normal things that cross your mind when someone drops the “C” bomb into your life. No answers would be forthcoming that day. All she knew was the mass that had been found tested positive for carcinoma. What would follow would be a slew of tests to answer those same questions I had asked. For days, and eventually weeks, I would not know how severe my situation would be. At every moment, at every test, I would have to wait and learn — Will I lose both breasts or just one? Will my uterus and ovaries have to go too? Chemotherapy, radiation, or both? Can I be treated at all or is this the beginning of the end? Ultrasounds, biopsies, MRI, genetic testing… every test would determine some aspect of my fate. It was going to be a long journey and I would have to travel down a path fraught with the unknown, littered with evidence that not all who traveled before got to where they wanted to go.
So it was a damn good thing this wasn’t my first rodeo.
I’d never had cancer before but I’d been lucky enough to have two things going for me: 1. A lot of suffering and 2. The vague but stubborn notion that there had to be a better way of living life than the one I had known.
I was born into an emotionally chaotic environment. I’ll leave this part vague to allow for some privacy. Despite the detriments of a broken family home I do love them. My point here is that being raised in a home like that often sets the stage for a challenging life.
As far back as I can remember my life was characterized by a pervasive sense of anxiety, punctuated with bouts of crippling depression. Childhood confusion and trauma turned into teenage dysfunction. Dysfunction would give way to impairment and years of picking, projecting, or provoking maladjusted and sometimes abusive relationships. Then finally, after really believing that life was turning around and meeting someone who I thought would be “it” (only to find out six months later that he super wasn’t), I broke through rock bottom and landed where I most needed to be;
Completely and totally without any sense of who I was.
Suddenly I became cognizant of the fact that though I had lost all frames of reference, I had not lost myself. My life had totally fallen apart, it was nowhere near what I thought it was going to be: I lost love, home, money. My family sucked, my mind sucked, my life sucked. I had nothing left to lose.
Yet here I still stood.
When my life situation fell apart my life revealed itself. I could drop the heavy story of me, stop the struggle, and just be.
In that one moment, that holy instant by some, I went from desperate to over-joyed. I like to say I broke my brain and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It still took years more work and daily practice to grow what that moment had blossomed, but that moment altered the course of my life. Not necessarily in a material sense, though that too, but in a spiritual one. I then had a life. I felt alive. I no longer wasted so much precious time and energy on compulsive and useless feelings and behaviour, defending what did not need defense. Life was no longer reduced to one long series of struggle, false idols, and useless hustle.
I became present, aware, willing.
Flash forward to the fall of 2017. Put your money where your mouth is Che.
I’m very proud of the way that I handled that journey. There were tears and dark times, but there was also laughter, lightness, and meaning. I was thanked by doctors, nurses, therapists, and staff for bringing positive and wholesome energy to the situation — something that I did not set out to do but for which I am very grateful was a happy byproduct. I was extraordinarily lucky on every turn, and I may have missed those many blessings had I been more caught up in the heavy story of me than I sometimes was.
It would be easy, I think, to dismiss my journey because it “turned out alright.” But cancer doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way. At every turn, you never know.
If you watch closely, the most painful things are not what happen but the energy in which we greet them: “I can’t believe this is happening.” Yes, you can. You can believe it, you can get on board. Just because life is scary, or unpleasant, or challenging doesn’t mean it’s gone off, bad, or wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re unsafe or no longer whole or that you have gone wrong.
I used to feel like I was a rock on the shores of a wild ocean being beaten down by wave after wave. I couldn’t catch my breath. “If only,” I used to think, “I could just get a break.” Now I see that though the feeling was sincere, and deserving of empathy and care, I was not the rock — I was the wave. I was the wave that broke against the rock, coming back again and again, insisting that the rock was not supposed to be there.
So cancer was challenging but it was also a chance. The chance to really embrace the joy of just being and deeply understand and immerse myself in the shift that I had experienced. If that was going to be my last chance, then so be it, I would take it and end on a high note. I’m not an optimist, I’m an opportunist.
What I learned is that after years and years of mimicking what I intuitively understood to be possible, I had finally truly embodied what I most wanted to be: Happy, strong, and free.
Cancer didn’t change my life. I changed cancer.