“You have breast cancer.” The world changes at that moment, and you are not the same. At that moment, the mind shouts, “Why me?”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and as one who had breast cancer, I am aware of the impact of the words, “You have breast cancer.” You are not the same. Everything within you and outside of you has changed. You are raw and vulnerable in a way your mind did not grasp even a second before.
At that moment, my emotional mind and self shouted, “Why me?” But the answer, came swiftly, “Why not me?” Who would I choose to go through this for me? Or even more selfishly, instead of me? What do you do when you are faced with the impossible to imagine? How do you respond when all the thoughts you held close seem no longer possible?
At the time, I was 43 years old, and my children were 12 and 15. Having cancer and dealing with this inescapable reality was not in my plans. I was needed, necessary. Had a business to run, a family to raise, teaching and writing to do. Death was a long way off in my “plans.”
I had often considered death, witnessed death, meditated, and contemplated physical and mystical death. Still, the reality was quite different from the theory in the safety of my healthy body. I mourned the shattered illusion of long life with time to fulfill future possibilities.
Shattered Illusions There is only illusion. And I mourn the loss of innocence. I mourn as my illusions fall from me and leave me naked in this moment. Childlike, I am no child but seek the embracing arms of my Mother.
Why not me?
I was struck repeatedly by the number of people I knew who had cancer or another mental, physical, or spiritual all-consuming event in their lives. I recognized that I was part of a story we could not share readily. Only experience made it tangible enough to share in the living. As a player with words, I tried to capture these elusive threads.
I lack the naïveté I once had to think words could capture meaning. This seems such a hopeless task, to put on paper what is so ethereal it cannot be made as solid as words. It is too elusive. Vibrating faster than the solidity of words. How can it be captured with such a heavy, dense form when it is continually unfolding? It cannot be so set in time as to be solid words. It unfolds faster than words can keep pace. How can it be transmitted if I cannot give it form? What is there for me to do? Just be. Become what you see.
Thinking of Death
The very nearness of death makes one vulnerable, raw, open, and easily touched. We share birth and death with all humanity, but, that is theory until we know we can die at anytime. For example, if you knew that the new car you bought would be the vehicle of your death, you would indeed approach getting into it differently! In the same way, to approach the moment of having your body modified is like being in a speeding, out-of-control vehicle and having no idea of how to get out. Consolation is offered, but the reality of death becomes its modifier.
Do I have a choice?
I was fortunate because I was permitted an awareness of a transcendent meaning to life. After years of following a spiritual path, it allowed me to unfold and discover the connection between the personal, the human, and the Divine. When approached broadly, I discovered pain, be it physical, mental, or spiritual, could be a direct route into self-pity and despair, or, into connection. One may not have many freedoms in living through life’s experiences, but we often abandon our greatest freedom – the freedom of how we respond. How do we choose to understand?
Given a choice, I would have turned away. Given no choice, I choose to stay.
I began to call this approach “active acceptance.” You do everything you can: Read, research, ask for assistance, make the decision, and then, accept whatever the outcome is.
I would sometimes feel that I was “losing my grip.” My strength was gone, and I had to come to terms with this new limit. Others had to assist me, they had to do tasks I had done, and I felt I was causing incredible pain. Their love for me made them vulnerable. I could see it in their eyes, the panic of uncertainty, and I was feeling like I was the cause.
How to receive help?
One day my recently widowed mother tearfully, said to me, “I feel so selfish.” This was after she had done the laundry, cleaned my home, and prepared a meal for my family. “Selfish?” I asked, and realized the wonder of being needed. Since my father’s death earlier that year, she had not felt “needed.” Her beautiful, loving spirit recognized that her joy of “being needed” was hinged on my suffering. And we really needed her. From that moment on, I understood the beauty of allowing others to show their love by accepting assistance. It is not a burden but an opportunity to express love in an evident and tangible way.
The line between these two points is so small. Acceptance became freeing. No longer seeing myself as helpless and a burden, I could see myself as a soul that could accept the help of others and allow this exchange of love to expand beyond me and pour into others. I visualized myself as an open doorway for others.
A Doorway Opened It was a possibility locked in time until now. Many have passed this way and more will follow. I pass through, leaving clear trails so they can find their way. My standard. Live. Be present. Be.
I discovered that support and assistance were not personal. In the beginning, when people “felt sorry” for me, it felt like a burden too emotional to handle because now I was responsible not only for my reaction to what was happening to me but I also felt responsible for them. But when I came to understand as a soul, it was freeing. I recognized that though I was going through cancer treatment, it was a moment in time. It was not mine to own or to carry as identification. My body had cancer; I did not.
How to come to terms with my feelings?
Extreme Exposure I observe the two extremes. The polarity that seems to divide caring and not caring the me and the they. I observe my mind searching for bridges between the two. Linkage. So, they are not so separate, so isolated from one another. Between these polarities, I observe I am neither. Yet, I am both. I accept what I reject.
There were moments of sheer panic. One tries to bind the panic of the body and mind with the quiet of the spirit. I found myself in a dialogue with myself, offering consolation when there was none left. How to accept the unacceptable? How to choose a standard that my hand refuses to grasp? In many moments of despair, I thought of others who had gone before me and those who would follow. Then I could persevere and, in my struggle, find a way.
Again and again, I returned to the methods of my spiritual path – meditating and considering all sorts of mental movements. I had preconceived ideas of what I should be and how to react. In these ideal scenarios, I responded from my highest level. I remember laughing at my humanness when I realized the gap between my perfect reaction and the real one.
How do I manage mental and emotional pain?
One day, I told a friend, “There has to have been some mistake made here. I wanted to ‘participate with humanity and feel their suffering,’ but somehow, I’m enrolled in the accelerated class and I only meant to audit!” It took enormous effort to realize this. In theory, I thought a spiritual person should not feel what I felt. In time, and with effort, I realized it was okay to be what I was and allowed myself to feel fear and identify it, feel the pain of loss and give it a name, and let myself mourn. I discovered my real human face when I reached the bottom of my solitude.
Pain The wild nature of pain tore at my breast until there was nothing left of who I was. Forever changed, I made the beast my friend. It showed me the suffering of others. Those before and yet to come. It showed humanity's face in my eyes. It placed me within a breath of dying and left me in the here and now. Hollowed out, I am hallowed within. Pain tore deep within my breast and I bled the blood of humanity. It awoke in me levels of suffering that had never seen the light. Unleashed compassion revealed connection beyond time and space. The pathway to being cleared of self debris. Made more aware of the preciousness of life of being who we are. A human being connected to the very core with what is and what will be I bleed the blood of humanity.
Who am I now?
I began to recognize the opposites within me. Life seemed raw and crystal clear. It was because I had a standard by which to measure the immediacies of life. Complexity falls away when set beside death.
It was hard to identify with myself – or was it my former self? My body was reshaped by surgery, chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant, and medications. I felt bloated, heavy with weight and thought. I could no longer do what I had always done; I wondered at what point are we most ourselves? Is it at ten, sixteen, or forty? Images of historic figures rose in my mind. Einstein with hair flying. Lincoln with his top hat and beard. Me with my cherubic bald head. Was I now myself? Who would I become since I no longer looked like the person I remembered in the mirror?
Opposites Forever altered. As if the surgeon's blade cut deeper than my breast... and exposed the very core of my being. Two pieces of skin touch and are asked to be whole. The scar left behind traces their effort. Beneath the scar, the opposites lie. Filled with emotion, I empty myself. Isolated by pain, I join humanity. Forced to be here, I choose to stay. Out of control, I control myself. Tormented, I find consolation. Isolated in time, I find timelessness. Silent, I say everything. I am the hand that heals them together stitch by stitch forcing them to exist side by side even when they struggle to unravel.
How do I live?
There were moments of extreme clarity and vital, life-altering experiences. It was as if I had awakened to the sparkling crystalline wonder of life. The very edge of living. There, the safety of unconsciousness was gone, the safety of forgetting that one was going to die was lost, and what remained was the clarity of living. The Here and Now. The connectedness of life.
I would love to say I learned these lessons and from that moment on never failed to respond in such a connected, clear way. However, the reality is that life is a process, and while these lessons seemed clear, and I could touch them again, their impact was different because I was in another place. I liken this to watching a sunset from the same spot every evening. The sunset is different. It is the same motion of the earth but never repeated. We constantly change, and our perception of our experiences changes with us. I revisit all the emotions, only now, years later, I have lived to an age I thought I would never achieve, and yet the lessons, still, are unfolding every day.
How to help yourself when facing life altering challenges.
I want to share some ideas that helped me to focus.
- Allow the gratitude of waking up to a new day, penetrate your soul.
- Breathe in this vital moment. Breathe out what is unnecessary.
- This is your experience. Own it with your unique and beautiful self. You cannot get it wrong.
- Open yourself in meditation and silence.
- Get in touch with the silence of your heart.
- Find a thought, poem, prayer, or mantra to support your human-divine connection.
- Acknowledge your limits with a softness of life’s flow.
When going through treatments:
- I thought of those who went before me, as their experience allowed the doctors to know what to give me. I sent them my gratitude.
- I thought of those that would follow me, as my experience would inform the doctors as well. I sent them my unconditional love and support.
- I focused on the caretakers, the staff, and other patients. We all shared this moment.
From the great mystic and spiritual teacher: St. Teresa of Avila: Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices
I created my mantra:
“Let nothing disturb me, let nothing frighten me. All is an illusion, only God exists.”
It is a simple, easy phrase to remember and repeated in moments of great pain and tension. These ancient words helped me center on what I could do and accept my new reality. It allowed me to receive the moment without resistance.
Moving On and Helping Others
I’m grateful, humbled, awed, and surprised by the journey I went through so many years ago. And, I offer this writing in support of all souls who may face a similar journey. Your journey will not be mine, and your triumph will not be mine, but our connectedness lies in the deepness of all our humanity. One last thing I would like to share is the poem Race for the Cure asked me to write and present at their ceremony in Columbus, Ohio. I hope it inspires you to stay connected to your humanity, even as your soul yearns for expansion – in this in-between place, we can be present, breathing in and breathing out.
Gathering We journey from separate places carrying stories alive within And together share this moment of chapters that just begin. Our stories tumble from us revealing more than words can say. And the resonance echoes around us of all who come our way. So, gather the story within you. Live it... complete and clean. For the world is waiting for it to give life what it needs.
About the Author(s)
Libbie is a graduate of Ohio State University where her degree has proven a flexible base for writing, teaching, and exploring life. She facilitates the weekly Sunday eDialogue.