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.

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Cracked open: The Nature of Grief, Loss and Illness

Death and dying are hard topics to bring up in modern day life. Society prefers to navigate around the truth of our impermanence with an unspoken yet powerful “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude, leaving those confronted directly with death and dying feeling isolated, singled out and without a place in the so called ‘normal’ workings of everyday life. So where do we turn when life has delivered us a blow from which we fear we may never recover?

Last August the School of Lost Borders, a small but well known rite of passage organization, located on the edge of the Eastern Sierras in the Owen’s Valley, hosted an offering called Grief, Loss and Illness: Journeys into Healing. For the first time added to the ‘Practice of Living and Dying’ curriculum of the school in 2013, the seven-day course is specifically designed for people whose lives are changed by a personal brush with death.

Some of the participants had encountered a life threatening trauma or illness. Some of them had met death’s irrevocable repercussions through the loss of a loved one. All of them were cracked open in some way that changed their lives so profoundly, that they could no longer return to the person they once were.

The changes that take place when we experience a trauma that changes the story of who we are, always ask of us to grow into a deeper, fuller version of our humanness. In earlier indigenous cultures such events may have been viewed as initiations and people struck by trauma not as victims but as initiates. According to anthropologists, rite of passage ceremonies arose out of direct experience with the initiatory patterns in nature. Change that was precipitated by an ordeal had the potential to be an initiation into a greater wholeness, or deeper wisdom that, if successfully navigated, the initiate was able to offer back to the community for the good of the tribe.

Floods, droughts, forest fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, while potentially devastating, and sometimes altering the landscape permanently, at the same time create fertile soil for new life forms to come. Nature is our blue print for how to adapt, how to be with change, how to die to what was and birth into what will be, over and over again, form after impermanent form. Since the early days of human kind, initiatory ceremonies have helped us mark major life changes and enabled our psyche to track its journey around the wheel of an ever-evolving becoming-ness.

Although forms of ritual vary greatly all over the world, most rite of passage ceremonies recognize 3 classis phases, severance, threshold and re-incorporation, to formally navigate major archetypical phases of change. The healing journey carries many of the same characteristics by different names, such as diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. It makes us aware, that in a very real way, life itself is initiating us all the time.

As humans have become more disconnected from nature, these rites have slowly become lost. With most of this knowledge absent in modern day culture, a major healing modality has gone missing. One that has the potential, not to medicate, fix or suppress, but instead to validate and partner the journey through grief, loss, or life-changing illness. Tapping into the power of an initiatory experience in the natural world, old grief can find release and a new life phase or stage can be consciously marked.

Holding the death of lovers, children, and parents as well as life threatening illnesses in the Grief Program, the intimacy and mutual support within the group becomes palpable within a very short time. For some participants, the grief that brought them is raw and fresh. Others mark poignant life changes or losses that occurred a long time ago, and have been held in the deep tissues of their living for many years. For seven days we alternate nature walks and solo time on the land with story council and time in circle, culminating in an optional 24-hour solo in the high desert expanse of the Inyo Mountains, a place sacred to the Paiutes who call it the “dwelling place of a great spirit”.

Participants go out on various nature assignments with the freedom to explore the territory of their grief witnessed and held by the ancient presence of the wild alone. During their time on the land, each person is inevitably met and mirrored by nature’s uncanny wisdom in form of unexpected encounters or meaningful symbols stumbled upon, evoking the very conversation that is waiting to happen. It might be the sudden buzz of a hummingbird swopping in, to hover just inches away from our face. It might be the heart-opening sight of an exquisite wildflower at a special moment in time. Or the shape of a gnarled juniper tree, chosen spontaneously for a nice rest in its shade, triggers an important memory. Nature meets, mirrors and witnesses us every step of the way.

 

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Ceremonial time on the earth has met, held and partnered humans for eons. Deep in our bones, we know this way. In the natural world, even the unbearable somehow finds a place to just be. For the earth, no feeling is ‘too much’, not the flood of seemingly endless tears or the overwhelming grief cry that longs to be set free. Nature has no need to recoil from the density of pain and grief. Here, death is simply a part of life, as much as birth is. Unexpected, exquisite beauty may emerge right next to intense suffering. It doesn’t have to make sense. No matter how lost we may feel, when we are out on the earth, we are always found. When we immerse ourselves in nature, we can’t help but remember our own nature. In the quiet and spaciousness of the wild, we naturally turn into a deeper listening, to the tender voice of our heart, to the truth at the center of our being, where a vision, a new insight, a new way of being in the world may be born.

What does it mean to come fully alive in the face of death and dying? For the young woman, who’s lover and soul mate drowned during a river rafting trip, it is spending her first night alone after the accident, beneath the thin veils of her tent, under the vast desert sky, rekindling her tender connection to life. For a cancer survivor it is baring his surgery scar as he steps across the threshold, claiming a new life, in the midst of medical uncertainty, with the deep knowing that all is well with him, no matter the outcome of his next screening. For a mother grieving the tragic loss of her precious toddler son it is connecting with an ancient bristlecone tree, marked with the blackened lightening scar from many years past, and finding she is given the deep roots needed for what this new life is asking of her now.

There are stories of beauty born when turning into the grief of our living. Being able to simply be with what is in the ceremonial container of the natural world can provide a touchstone from which to turn into a healing process that we live forward for the rest of our lives. It doesn’t mean that it gets any easier or that it hurts any less. Sometimes it may hurt more, as we are able to feel more. And paradoxically, as we acknowledge and admit our pain, and as we continue to turn into the raw truth of this wild dance with impermanence lightness, humor, joy and compassion are born right alongside our anguish. The pain never goes away. The fears never go away. It is our resistance to our feelings and losses that changes, our relationship with them. More than ’letting it go’, which is implying that we somehow could get out of the suffering we’re in, it is about letting things be and finding the heart to live them into wholeness. There is no way for any of us to ever go back to ‘normal’ but there is something different: the potential for an awakened and initiated life that we can hone for the rest of our lives.

Note: Grief, Loss and Illness: Journeys into Healing will be offered again July 17 – 24, 2015 and August 14 – 21, 2016. For more information email petra@lostborders.org or go to www.schooloflostborders.org.

Coming Back

Radiation is a weird animal.  Easier, by far, then chemo.  Mysterious and invisible, the x-rays penetrate my right breast quadrant every day, while I lay very still and with my arm above my head to ensure correct line up as the precision machine is moving around me, carefully avoiding, so we hope, exposure and damage to any of my vital organs.

With the business of Monday through Friday treatment, and tagging on restorative Yoga, Qi Gong and Pilates classes, my life once again has a bit of a regular schedule.  Outwardly, things feel like they are beginning to resemble a somewhat “normal” rhythm.  Even if the majority of my daily appointments and chores are medical, there is once again a distinction between weekdays and weekends.

My hair takes its sweet time to cover my head once again, regardless of how ready I am for it.  Every day my hand goes over my bald head, longing for signs of stubble, or growth.  Will it really come back?  It reminds me of the end of winter,  when you know that spring is in the air,  but the land still looks barren and desolate all the same.  Until that special day, when the seeds finally push through the surface and into the light of day, for all to see.  Plain and clear:  life is coming back.  And so it is with my hair.  One fine morning a hue of gray on the sides of my head is reflected back to me from my bathroom mirror.  So slight, the difference, I wonder if the morning light is just playing tricks on me.  But slowly and surely, over the next few weeks, hair begins indeed to once again populate the various areas of my head, growing in all sorts of different tones and oddly shaped patches, soft like the first grass to cover the gray hillsides after the snow melt.  It takes quite a bit of time until the first half inch length covers most of my head.

And for how long I have waited and hoped for it, it takes me by surprise when I decide to shave it off once more.  I buzz it down to a bare sand paper stubble and love it! There is something magical about feeling the prickliness of my scalp – as supposed to the soft baldness under the chemo.   It feels powerful to choose my own bareness now, instead of being simply subject to it, as I was during the chemo.  It is my decision now, to go without, to carry my nakedness proudly, to stay honest and open at this time of great vulnerability for the many blessings that this surrender has called forth.  To walk from here on out,  into this new life that is just beginning.

Choosing to stay visible as a cancer initiate, many up close and personal encounters  with other human beings and their stories of love, healing and dying find their way to me.  Wherever I go now, in my nakedness I am invited to look under the skirt of our shared humanness, into the heart of the true nature of our interconnectedness.  And I find myself continuously amazed at the willingness of those touched by cancer to share their story, reach out and connect across race, age or class barriers, with an intimacy that is unthinkable in the ’normal’ world.

Everything is personal now.  Before my eyes, a world that has so often felt cold and un-relational has opened up to me now to share its deepest secrets, simply because I belong to this special “cancer club” that none of us wanted to belong to in the first place.  Like the woman rounding the corner in the Safeway aisle, who breaks out in this wide smile when she sees me,  and calls out:  “Good for you!  You wear your head high!  I never wore any of them damn wigs either, God they itch like crazy!”  Survivor of 17 years.  Wow!  Make my day.  May I get to pay it forward one fine day and make someone else laugh, some 17 years down the road…  Or the cashier at Trader Joe’s who tells me his mom just started treatment, and he’s afraid how she’s going to cope because she lives alone and he’s not close.  Or the fine old man who stops me at a department store, between the checkout stand and the special sales counter, putting his hand lightly on my shoulder and gently saying “I wish you well”.  His eyes full of tears, it turns out that his wife of 50 years has passed away only a few weeks earlier after a long battle with breast cancer and now his youngest daughter had just been diagnosed.  Damn!  And there we are, in a long, intimate and tearful hug, two complete strangers, in the middle of Target, in a territory that words just can’t reach, somehow managing to celebrate the blessing of love, even if it opens us up to the worst losses possible.

In my better moments, I feel such lightness, grace and gratitude for this new life.  By truly claiming my belonging in this threshold life, between birth and death, my life has become an offering for all beings.  For now, cropping my hair close to the scalp helps me keep remembering.  It keeps me honest.  I am sure that this too will shift one day.  The only constant is change.  There is nothing to hang on to.  All I know is that for now, it’s too early to go back to looking ‘normal’.  Instead, I am taking the liberty to turn into what is truly true for me, moment by moment, edgy and outrageous as that may be.  Normal is overrated anyway.

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Originally written in March, 2012, edited in Nov 2014