Remembering Our Most Essential Self: Re-Shaping the Story of Cancer

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The mythos of cancer certainly presents like a picture book dark tale:  A hostile take over of unwholesome, mutated, out of control cell growth that is quite literally aiming to kill us.  Talk about a chilling image!  Posing as an infamous evil force, cancer evokes all sorts of dark allegories for any of us receiving the dreaded three word verdict: “You have cancer”.

The attitudes and choices in how we each deal with cancer vary enormously, depending on age, gender, severity of diagnosis and so many more personal factors.  But regardless of the medical treatments we decide on, we also choose to adopt a story about our cancer: why we got it, how we live with it or through it, and what it means to us in the greater context of our lives.

Stories are essential for us.  Human psyche is hard-wired to make meaning, to myth itself, if you will.   Unbeknownst to us, throughout our lives it tries to connect the seemingly random events that mark and shape the map of our living, to trace the greater story behind it all.  Trying to reveal the mysterious and illusive design of what I will call our becomingness, for lack of a better word.  A sort of constant movement toward a greater wholeness that our soul is aching for by nature.  The mythic story that we seem born to incorporate.  The mysterious, precious and unique expression of life that is entrusted each of us.  Maybe the very reason why we are here.

The Hopi believed that in order for the sun to rise, they had to climb up to the roof of their kivas before dawn to coax it across the horizon. They actively partook in their creation story every morning by helping the sun rise into the sky with song and prayer.  Today, many of us assume that we are separate from nature and that it works independently of our actions.  No doubt, different stories result in different actions and distinctly different relationships.

The stories we carry have indeed great power.   They can make us or break us.  They can make the difference between intolerable suffering or amazing grace.  They can be medicine or poison.  Some stories of lineage and ancestry we are born into and have absorbed without ever hearing them being spoken.  Yet they live deep within our bones and inform our every move.  The stories that we don’t even know we are telling ourselves.  Those can indeed be the most dangerous ones.

But there are also healing stories, stories that inspire and transform us, empower and renew us, restore and liberate us.  Apart from stirring our deepest, darkest fears of obliteration, is it possible that cancer also offers us a healing story?  A story that frees us to heal our lives and shed old, unhealthy beliefs?   I dare to believe so.

For me, cancer struck at a time when I was in economic and emotional survival mode and my story was one of continued endurance.  As a single mom, I felt stuck at a stressful and unfulfilling job, struggling to put bread on the table and pay the rent.  I had known for a while that the life I lived was not sustainable in the long run and that things needed to change.  But try as I might I wasn’t able to get out from underneath the daily demands.  The day that I heard I had cancer, I remember, as the typical first reaction waves of terror, shock, and incredulousness were washing over me, one small voice rising from some place deep inside me, simply and quietly stating:  “Oh, so I wasn’t only imagining it.  This life is actually killing me”.

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As broad and unscientific a description, it does seem that stress is a core player in the story of cancer.  Science has now confirmed that long-term stress compromises the immune system and increases the chances of cancer.  And this seems to be true for all kinds of stress, physical, emotional, or environmental, if they are endured over a long period of time.  Short term, fight, flight and freeze responses are great life savers to meet a specific crisis, challenge or need.  The problem is, when we begin living for any length of time in what nature designed solely as a short-term crisis management.  Long term stress overloads our circuits and eventually erodes our wellbeing.

To no surprise there is mounting evidence today for a correlation between cancer and the chronic frenzy of modern life that promotes constant achievement oriented busyness.  Living in a global, and computer wired economy, life’s pace is ever relentlessly increasing.  Most of us no longer have the luxury of ‘down time’.   We are always ‘on’.  We work from anywhere, at any time.  We make phone calls while driving, and send job applications while watching our kids at the park.  In the hamster wheel of our times, things seem to constantly speed up and for many of us, feeling stressed has become a way of life.

A week after diagnosis, I saw a genetic counselor.  He described the process of cancer not so much as the premeditated destructiveness that I imagined it to be, but more as a process of forgetting one’s diversification, one’s place in the whole.  You see, cancer cells get graded by the degree of their deformation and how much they deviate from healthy cells.   The lowest grade of cancer cells is only slightly altered from its original specifics, the next level is moderately altered and so on.  Interestingly, the more deteriorated the cancer cells become, the more unspecified and rudimentary they mutate to be, the more aggressive and lethal they are.

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Hearing this, I found myself feeling some compassion for my cancer, unbeknownst to myself.  Maybe it wasn’t the bad guy it was made out to be.  Maybe those cells that had mutated in my right breast were simply breaking down under the pressure of working in survival mode for too long.  I could relate to that. Like a brewery horse, I had been leaning forward into my work load for too long, taking every day like a steep hill, with the whip always dancing over my head.  There were many times I could feel myself almost buckling under the weight, but I kept stoically putting one foot in front of another.  I didn’t feel like I had any other choice.  All I could see were the immediate and short-term needs of my children.  My worry for them overrode everything else.  Had I not also, just like those cancer cells, forgotten my place in the wholeness, in the magic and health of this amazing, much bigger life system?  Had I not atrophied myself, under the constant stress of single parenthood?  Had I not indeed become short-sided and rudimentary, having lost trust in life, and forcing myself to uphold a 24/7 production mode that only reinforced the fear cycle of worry about what would happen if I didn’t ‘function’ anymore, or needed rest, or simply snapped under the weight of it all?

If cancer was indeed telling a story of forgetting myself, and my place in the wholeness of creation, what did it mean for me to remember myself?

I never returned to my desk on the fateful day that I was diagnosed.  Instead, sick leave kicked in and I entered what would turn out to be nine months of treatment: first surgery, then chemo, and then radiation.  It was a hard time.  A really hard time.  But it was also an amazing time.  Realizing that the best I could do for my children now was to lean into my healing fully and wholeheartedly was puzzling, and juxtaposition to the self-neglect of many years.  My world was literally standing on its head.  Paradoxically being diagnosed with cancer allowed me time out, for the first time in many years.  Time to take inventory, to think things over.  Time to reevaluate and step back to see the bigger picture.  It allowed me, and also demanded of me, in the uncertainty that was ahead, to give up control, to trust that if I was only present here now, willing to be still, willing to listen to the small voice of my heart, I would find my way.

Through the various cancer treatments that followed, it was my internal inquiry, and the focus on remembering myself, that kept me going.  Where and when exactly had I fallen out of trust, had I lost faith in life and my place in the whole?  When did I begin to feel all alone in the world and without any support?  When did my existential fears reduce my outlook on life to a narrow tunnel version of survival?

Was it the divorce?  The death of the dream that I could be loved and seen for who I really was? That my children would grow up in the blessedness of a healthy family hearth?  Was it the pain of the grieving years that followed and the fear of being obliterated by the man whom I now referred to as my ex-husband?  Or was it set in motion much earlier, by the karmic formations that brought us together, or even before, by fundamental experiences in my childhood?

During the long months of treatment, debilitating as they were, I began to reconnect with my being rather than identify with my doing.   I bubbled in the cauldron of change.  Everything was up for grabs.  Not just my work but my entire life.  Accepting help was a first for me, and to this day plays a big part in my healing journey.  Realizing that ultimately I was not alone transformed the landscape of my living.  Becoming aware of and turning into my fears rather then acting from them became a new core practice.  Letting go and letting be replaced the knee jerk impulse to try to control at all cost.  Surrendering, aka dying to all that was not in alignment with my healing (instead of dying from it!) became my new mantra and has been both blessing and haunting me every day since, continuously asking me to turn into my truth and live it forward.

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Amazingly, it is the very ability of surrender, of yielding, and being willing to die for the greater good of the whole that differentiates a healthy cell from a cancer cell.  Science calls this capacity aptosis, a programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms to protect the integrity of the whole.  Healthy cells seem to identify on a broader level with the larger organism they are serving, and this connectedness and belongingness mysteriously enables them to turn into their dying when they are somehow compromised and no longer benefit the whole.  Cancer cells seem to no longer recognize, trust or feel part of the bigger life system around them, and in this isolation they atrophy into a kind of reptilian survival mode that no longer supports the very organism they were designed to serve.

Is it possible then that in order to heal our life we also need to also mend our relationship with death?  To allow it to be part of the landscape of our human experience, in much the same way that healthy cells carry aptosis as one of many tools on their belt?

Yes!  Healing our relationship with death and even befriending it, learning how to die well, is essential in learning how to live well.   Turning into our dying, is just as important for us internally, figuratively, and psychologically, as it is vital for our bodies on a cellular level.  Dying practice is indeed essential for our living.

We live in a modern-day culture of denial when it comes to death, in a time of ‘great forgetting’, where we simply pretend, for as long as we can, that death doesn’t exist.  Death is not only misunderstood, but clearly unwelcome in our culture.  We are addicted to unbridled, and infinite expansion, a one way road that leads us to a dangerous amount of overconsumption on many levels, individually as well as collectively or globally.  But death is not the enemy.  It is simply the out-breath that partners the in-breath of birth.  It is the withdrawing that allows us to come forward again, the waning that enables the next waxing.  Death restores, transforms and draws us back to the source from which we are born, if only we let it.  When did we forget that?

With chemo raging through my body like a bushfire, confronting myself with death was not an abstract concept.  I got, in my bones, that life in this body is temporary.  That I didn’t own my life and was not in control of it.  It felt like something inside me died in the heat of that cauldron, and with it the fears, and formations of my old life, fierce guardians of habit and pattern, fell away as well, giving birth to a new way of inhabiting this body and mind.

When we brush up against death, through whatever life circumstances, there is a gift offered alongside the painful edge of realizing our own finiteness, a dropping away, a cracking open, and a freedom from all preconceived ideas.  A new connection is forged to our core, our essence, to that which rests in ‘no coming, no going’, ‘no birth, no death’, the mysterious, blessed, eternal, being-ness that we are.

Trust in the greater good is vital for the health at the core of our being.  Truly meeting and healing cancer seems to ask nothing less of us then to heal any trauma that is underlying the assumption that life is a hostile environment.

During treatment, I became very aware that many of my internal patterns were about survival, at any cost, fueled by the fear of death, of impermanence, of failure, loss of control and the lurking dread of a ‘bad ending’.  Looking back now, these patterns played a major part in me ending up in the dead-end road that cancer found me on.  Some of these formations had been created way back, when I was a young child.  Whether it was the undigested trauma of my parents, both small children in Germany during the 2nd world war, or the abusive relationship with my brother, there was not a single layer of my life that wasn’t touched on in one form or another on this journey.

Make no mistake.  The healing that is set in motion when we die to our old stories is like a domino effect that will go on perpetually, affecting every single area of our lives, every layer of our complex personalities and carefully constructed identities, every memory, every perception of who we think ourselves to be; all to reveal a deeper truth that frees us to remember the unique expression of life that we each are at the source of our being.

So what happened to me after treatment?  Nine months after I was diagnosed I returned to my old office, bald and weak from treatment but with clear eyes set on new horizons, and only to clean out personal belongings from my old desk.  Lo and behold, new opportunities emerged out of the open empty space, meeting my fledgling attempt to find a new way of being in the world.  Because death inevitably gives birth to life….

To no surprise I don’t resonate much with the word ‘Survivor’.  In my heart, healing from cancer feels more like recovering from a survival mechanism gone rogue.  And as someone in recovery, I feel especially committed to partner my instinctual fear of death, with a deliberate practice of trust in the Greater.

Restoring death to its rightful place within my universe is an essential part of that healing.  Risking failure, letting go of judgment, living light and lean, allowing myself to make mistakes, letting my heart guide me rather than my rational mind, listening to the river, opening to mystery and magic, practicing defeat, living with and into the unknown are all wonderful allies and great trainers for the one fine day when it’s my turn to cross the threshold into my physical death, and dissolve into the rich broth of some new making.

Cancer, and the confrontation with death, can shift our conversation of survival to an inquiry of arriving in the grace of our living.  This shift is vital in our healing process and carries a message back into the cellular level of our beings that allows us to live from love rather then from fear.  And living from love is really what it’s all about.  It is indeed the story of our most essential self.

Yes, I’m writing!

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Wow!  Summer has just come and gone and here we are now in November!  It’s been a full few months for me, with back to back Lost Borders programs, the Washington Guides Gathering in the Eastern Cascades, and travel to my family in Germany.

My last blog post was back in June!  Writing has had to take the back seat for too long and I’ve been craving to make time for it.  So much so, that I decided to take my laptop along, to the last wilderness program of the year that I just returned from a little while ago.  With nightfall so early this time of year, I hauled up in the passenger seat of the truck at night, to sit and write (and to take a nice break from the relentless cold wind).

What began to form during my time in the Eureka Valley, is an exploration of the stories, the archetypical myths, that cancer evokes in us.  While there are many other threatening and terminal diseases, cancer elicits the confrontation with death in a particularly edgy way.  The mythos of a hostile take over of unwholesome, mutated, out of control cell growth aiming to kill us is unequivocally dark.  But that’s only one story.  An old story, and perhaps one in need of a fresh set of eyes…

But equally fascinating, if not more, are the stories that emerge in response to cancer.  Because regardless of what medical treatments we decide on, we also choose to adapt a story about our cancer: why we got it, how we live with it or through it, and how it integrates into the greater story of our lives.

The piece has given me a run for my money!  I was hoping to return from my time out with an article ready to post on this blog, but far from it.  Instead, it has stirred a deeper inquiry in me and I know it will need some more time to reveal itself.  So this is just a teaser note, to say “Yes, I’m writing (again)!” But it may take a little while before this piece finds its way into the light of day…

In the meantime, I want to share a 40-minute radio interview that I did in September, with Rev.  Kristin Powell on Cancer as a Rite of Passage.  A bit daunting because it made me realize how much I have yet to learn about public speaking 🙂 But in the spirit of beginner’s mind, here it is:

 

And here are a few short clips from it, on the topics listed below:

Diagnosis (3:37 minutes): 

Treatment (5:02 minutes): 

Survivorship (3:04 minutes):

As we are traveling into the oncoming darkness of days growing shorter, may we be able to make space for some quiet time, in the midst of this crazy human holiday business, to restore and resource ourselves.  It is so essential to allow time in the fertile cauldron of this season, where memories are stirred, seasoned and simmered into the rich broth that will feed us anew on the other side, come spring.

May we continue to risk ourselves for what we love.  Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

With all my love,

Petra

Mountain Lion Medicine

Personally, I have no idea how I would have made it through cancer treatment if it wasn’t for my relationship with the vision fast ceremony.  Throughout 9 months of various cancer therapies, I went for walks in an open space preserve just 15 minutes from my home.  Here, under old growth oak trees, I would go for what I call ‘medicine walks’ whenever I was able.  Basically, these walks are like ‘mini walk-abouts’, time out on the land, to look into the mirror of nature, reflecting back one’s inner truth, finding oneself, one’s voice and unique way.  I used them to explore some difficult questions about treatment decisions, to let go and ‘bury’ old patterns that stood in the way of my healing or simply to listen to the fast flowing river of what was moving inside me at any given time.  It struck me how readily available the spirit world was to me during that time, as if my body and mind were just ripe to take the depth and the grief onto the land, knowing that it would hold whatever I could not.

My first walk of this kind on my cancer journey was on the day before my surgery.  Just after marking my threshold, I came upon a woman runner, waving her hands up high in the air, gesturing ‘no, no’, telling me to turn back.  It turns out she had seen a big mountain lion right on the trail.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, deeply ingrained in my psyche from some scary almost encounters with them, I had a deeply rooted fear of mountain lions.  There I was, at the crossroads, do I give into the fear and abolish my walk?  Not an option!  As the other park visitors, who were alerted by the same woman, all headed back down toward the safety of their cars, I headed up the trail, now armed with a stick in each of my hands.

It seemed admittedly ironic that just a few minutes before I was worried to die an untimely death because of breast cancer.  And here I was now, my knees shaking, my pounding heart intently listening for every leaf rustle, clutching fiercely to what felt like terribly insufficient defense weapons while inching up the trail,  afraid I wouldn’t survive this very day, this very walk – what a change in perspective!

At the top of the park, crossing a patch of dark forest, I came to realize that there was truly no way for me to get off the trail.  Death was on my path.  One day, near or far, it would find me.  Masked as a predator, a disease, or an accident it would claim me.  Right then, when I allowed the unthinkable, instead of trying to protect myself from it, or find a way out of it, warm relief washed over my body.  I didn’t have to do anything or become anyone else.  “All” I had to do was surrender, surrender my fear and giving up any illusion of control that I thought I may have had over my life.  It was as simple as it was profound.  If I could die to my fear, I didn’t have to die from it.  I was ready.  Tossing away my sticks I came back down the mountain singing – and ready for the surgery that was awaiting me the very next day.

Don’t get me wrong.  Cancer is a hard disease and given the choice I’d never sign up for it.  And yet it gave me the gift of transforming the parts of my life that had been out of alignment for a long, long time.  Sometimes, I jokingly say:  ‘cancer has saved my life’ and there is truth to that.  What I have lost is the illusion of control over my life, of taking my body or my mind or any other part of my being for granted.  What I have lost is the illusion of impermanence.  What I was given instead is the understanding that the only thing that will remain long after I’m gone is the healing that I have brought home during my life.  Grounded in the practice of my living and my dying, I am now blessed to live this precious life forward with no guarantees, and on the edge of my seat.

I still walk up and down the park trails and I have yet to see the lion.  Nonetheless, I know it’s there, maybe minding his or her own business, maybe staring at me from the dark thicket along the winding path.   Most days I’m glad that he or she is here, helping me remember, and helping me continue to surrender.

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July, 2011

“We do not own our lives. We just take care of them.”

Les Kaye (Zen teacher) in one of the books that I am reading.  So much shifting in this journey.  Feeling my impermanence so strongly.  How short our transient, little lives really are.  Does it make such a big difference to live for 50 versus 80 years?  Death is certain at the end of the road, no matter how long or short.  To really feel that, to live it.  Now that I have been touched by cancer, I just can’t escape the truth about how impermanent my life really is.  Yes, my prognosis is fairly good but there is no security that the cancer won’t return.  I can’t take life for granted anymore and I realize that I never really could.  But I did, anyway.

Now that I feel the shadow of death in the wings, I can’t shake it.  I feel how inevitable it is.  How my thinking of what is happening is like a tiny spec of the whole picture.  And that I am not in control.  I may be afraid of recurring cancer and get hit by a bus tomorrow.  We just don’t know.  We hold (and care for) this precious life, that’s all and we don’t know for how long.  But we are here now and behold so much.

Owning our lives is delusion.  Really it is our suffering.  Born out of fear, it gives us a feeling of control and entitlement.  Truly, there is nothing to hold on to.  We don’t know where we’ve come from and we don’t know where we are going to.  Thinking we could own our lives we attempt to cheat death.  But death will not be cheated, it will one fine day have the last word….  And who’s life is this anyway?  Who is the one doing the living and the dying?  Nothing to hold on to.  We try to define who we are and aren’t, we constantly try to find substance within ourselves, to solidify our illusion of something permanent.  We think that we feel better the more in control we are, but actually the opposite is true:  owning, clinging, being attached to our lives only perpetuates our suffering.  Ironically the very pain that we try to escape from we hold on to and even feed….

But when something happens that shatters the delusion, like realizing our transient nature, our mortality, we are truly set free and given a chance to awaken to a new life.  When we surrender our lives, when all is lost, when the rug is pulled out from under our feet, who is left?  Who is that person feeling immerse gratitude for being here now?  The one that greets every moment with appreciation and wonder.  Why are the colors more vibrant than ever before and every little thing counts?

Nothing taken for granted anymore.  Giving up our “ownership” of life, in the empty and naked space of our being-ness, we are invited to begin a stewardship of our lives.  To take care of this precious life, this body, this mind and healing heart.  Unconditionally, and without attachment to outcome.  The gift may be greater than anything we can even remotely imagine.