For many people, a cancer diagnosis might feel like a death sentence. For me, it was the best and most powerful piece of personal feedback I have ever received.
Six weeks ago, I took myself to my local GP to request a colonoscopy. I had been having many of the symptoms of bowel cancer for several months (bleeding, swelling, and irregular bowel movements). On top of that, I was also depressed, isolated, and exhausted from pretending that I was capable of doing everything myself.
As a single parent in a small community in Melbourne’s east, I ran a successful business but had been neglecting my ‘to do list’ for more than two years. The grinding routine of everyday life felt monotonous. No matter how hard I seemed to try, I couldn’t seem to get my life un-stuck. My self-doubt was crippling my ability to make simple decisions. I had lost all ambition. I felt empty and utterly alone.
No plan B
When the colonoscopy revealed that I had a 5cm tumour growing in my sigmoid colon, I was alarmed but not at all surprised. I had known from my studies in psychology that certain areas of the body are related to difficulties in the mind. For instance, the colon is a place associated with fear and self-doubt. It made sense to me that my long-term struggle with life was now manifesting on the inside my body, in the exact location where I was experiencing ‘blockage’.
One week later, the biopsy results came back as bowel cancer. The experience of receiving this news reminded me of missing a plane while travelling around the world during my 20s. You’re there with all your baggage, but your destination has just slipped beyond reach. I instantly went into a state of deep, uncomfortable, and disappointed calm. There was no point crying, kicking, or screaming. Nothing I could do was going to put me on that cancer-free plane. I had missed it and now I was standing at the airport with no plan B, gathering myself before the disorienting task of figuring out ‘what will I do next?’
As it turned out, in some wonderful twist of fate, my surgeon needed to order more scans to determine the precise location of my tumour. She assured me that the cancer was slow growth, so taking the extra few weeks for further testing would not impact negatively on my prognosis. This gave me a gap of almost three and a half weeks to pause, to think and more importantly, to feel.
Discovering the meaning of my cancer
I wanted to know for myself the root cause of my cancer. Somehow I intuitively knew that once the cancer was cut out of me, I might miss an opportunity to discover the full meaning of what my body was trying to tell me. I also felt that if I could get to the bottom of why my body had created cancer, I would have a better chance of ensuring it would never return. I wasn’t going to waste a moment of this precious time I had been given.
What happened over the next few weeks was a series of life-changing events and insights that helped me understand myself on a cellular level. When I finally went into surgery the doctors were surprised to discover a tumour that was only 2cm in diameter. I had managed to shrink it by more than half its size in only 24 days.
This is a big call, I know! So let me explain how I think this occurred by sharing the five key lessons I learned – and decisions I made – in those few precious weeks:
Take your time
Research shows that having a sense of personal autonomy is a key characteristic of long-term cancer survivors (J.N Schilder et al. – Clinical Case Studies 3 – Oct 2004). As an educator, I think patient behaviour is not too dissimilar from student learning styles. Some of us are more kinaesthetic and need to have a more hands-on approach to our own health.
I am definitely one of those people and perhaps you are too? If you are like me, it is worth realising that you do have options in the early days of a cancer diagnosis. The plain truth is that tumours are not all the same and don’t always need immediate treatment.
No matter what the type of diagnosis, or how immediate the actions required, we always have time, even if just for a day, to pause, feel, ask, and reflect. This in itself creates a sense of well-being and can allow us to personally engage with the message our body is trying to tell us. So when it comes time for more invasive techniques, we are prepared and ready for them.
Listen to your guidance
I think guidance is available to us at all times in our life. In my experience, getting a cancer diagnosis triggered a deep survival response. My senses became heightened and I was more receptive to the world around me. I have since heard that others have had similar experiences.
My first guidance came the day before I was diagnosed. I was sitting in my local doctor’s surgery when I met a woman with cancer who told me about her experience of a European treatment called Mistletoe Therapy. As soon as she said the words, I got a stirring sensation in my heart. This is what I call the ‘YES’ response. I knew I had to start on the Mistletoe Therapy as quickly as possible. From that day on, I listened carefully for that same ‘YES’ feeling in my body.
For those interested, my personal ‘YES’ response involved several things. For example, I changed to a plant-based diet. I attended a retreat at the Ian Gawler Foundation, and underwent surgery. I started practising mindfulness meditation. And I read a book called The Journey by Brandon Bays. It taught me a powerful method of releasing core emotional pain associated with degenerative disease. Many steps to my ‘YES’.
Do it for yourself
Cancer is a deeply personal disease. As a single mother, it was natural to be petrified of the possibility that my only child could grow up without a mother. But I was quick to identify that having this as my primary reason to get well was a motivation based on something (or someone) outside of myself. I knew I needed to take a good look at my own relationship with life and discover why I wanted to live it for myself.
Luckily, I had some help and the help was cancer! Surprisingly, when faced with your own mortality, your ability to be absolutely honest with yourself is cutting edge. Everything that is not important seems to effortlessly fall away. All you have to do is ask yourself the question: ‘Why do I love life?’ If the only answer you come up with is because of your children, keep asking. I promise there is more.
Getting clear with what is important and learning to LOVE life are two of the best gifts that cancer can help deliver to your doorstep.
Take up full residence in your body
This is an important one. When I first got my diagnosis, I didn’t bother asking myself the question ‘How could this happen to me?’ I knew exactly why my cells had created cancer. I had been distracted, aloof, and detached from my body for years.
Eckhart Tolle wrote, “The more consciousness you bring into the body, the stronger your immune system becomes. If the master is not present in the house, all kinds of shady characters will take up residence there.”
After realising this, I immediately apologised to my body for not being at home more often! And I made a life-long vow to meditate daily.
At the Ian Gawler cancer retreat, I was presented with the explanation that meditation is a powerful tool that helps amplify the function of our ‘Green Zone’. This refers to the background part of our innate intelligence that grows our hair, makes our heart beat, and generates cellular health without us needing to think about it. Investing attention in our Green Zone gives our body the best chance to do what it is designed to do: restore itself to optimal health.
Learn to receive
I have always found it difficult to ask for help. Mainly because I felt I didn’t have a good enough reason to ask for it. The consistency of single parenting and the act of always bargaining for time to have a social life had put me in a low-grade state of isolation and inner poverty.
It may sound extreme, but having cancer finally gave me a good enough reason to reach out and ask for help. One of the first things I did was invite some of my closest friends over to my house. Together, we came up with a list of things I needed in order to feel supported. I found this very humbling, challenging, and life-changing. I have since learned to trust that I am worthy of receiving. This was overwhelming at first, but once the waterways were cleared, I started to thrive.
Everyone I encountered was kind and forthcoming. I was overflowing with gratitude for well wishes, meals, household chores, and donations from close friends, family, and even strangers. I realise now that receiving help is in an ancient part of our healing. Each of us are designed to lean on each other and be held in our community. It is primal and restorative.
Embracing your remission
I received so much guidance, realisation, love, and support during my cancer journey. Ironically I have never felt more alive. I benefitted so deeply from the process that I feared it would all vanish once I was in remission.
The truth is, being in remission is when the real work begins. Since my surgery I no longer rely on the threat of death to keep me so alive. These days I work every day to stay committed and follow through with all the lessons that cancer has taught me.
Perhaps all of us go through a type of cancer at some stage in our life? An event so shattering that it rocks your world into the full possibilities of living? Whatever your cancer, I hope you embrace your remission so strongly that your life is never the same again.
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