How I Learned to Love (Instead of Fear) Having Cancer
So…I have a little confession….
I’ve always been kind of a major overachiever.
I know I know. That may not actually be a secret for many of you.
But really—about 10 years ago, if you looked up “go big or go home” in the dictionary, you’d probably see my very proud photo displayed there.
I was always at the top of my class in school (at some of the best schools, at that).
I was always at the top of my sport.
Very early in my profession, I climbed to the top of that too (with a ridiculously long resume to support it). I was well liked by patients and developed a sought-after reputation and method in my field.
I applied my go-getter mentality to anything and everything I could lay my hands on.
So it was only fitting that when I was diagnosed with cancer at age 31 that I would apply it to that, too.
I coined the hashtag #takethatbenedict to the tumor I lovingly named after one of the greatest traitors in American history (shameless Hamilton reference, for those who are fans). Benedict had no chance against this overachiever.
And squash Benedict I did…
But not without some very interesting twists and turns and personal transformations I never thought I would experience.
When I was diagnosed, I knew I would need to have surgery to remove the grapefruit-sized tumor from my lung.
At the time, I was really not a big fan of surgery.
Not only was I a go-getter, but I also liked to be in charge. And someone putting me to sleep and doing things to my body did not quite mesh with my idea of remaining “in charge” of my body.
Needless to say I felt immense relief when my medical team told me that we’d try genetically-targeted chemotherapy first to try and shrink Benedict before we—ahem—they—took him out.
During the 6 months I was on the chemo, I poured my heart and soul into fighting cancer holistically as well. I wanted to create a healthy “terrain” in my body to not only fight cancer, but also get myself ready for surgery.
I put on my collegiate swimmer mentality and went into “training” mode.
I read all the blogs and books I could get my hands on about “anticancer” lifestyle.
I listened to podcasts.
I saw specialists regularly: functional medicine, acupuncture, massage, health coaching, holistic gynecology (because cancer will fry your hormones), nutritionists, estheticians (because chemo will fry your skin).
I completely changed my diet, lifestyle, and supplement regimen. Gone were the days of gluten, dairy, sugar, grains, toxins, processed foods, and alcohol.
I dedicated myself to daily workouts: Pilates, swimming, cardio, and strength training to build up muscle, strength, stamina, and endurance so I would be in tip top shape for surgery and recovery.
And lo and behold—Benedict did shrink!
That is, until one fateful day in March when my oncologist said “The tumor has stopped shrinking. It’s time for surgery. And to ensure that it doesn’t start growing again, you need to have the surgery in 2 weeks.”
“GAME ON!” I thought, and sprung even more into go-getter action mode.
I called friends who had been through similar procedures and took pages and pages of notes on “insider tips.”
All those things I was doing before? I went into overdrive with them.
I made and drank bone broth and collagen smoothies daily to help with tissue building and healing. And I froze gallons of them in advance so my husband could bring them to me in the hospital because I told myself that hospital food was not cancer friendly.
I set up a meal plan with extremely detailed stipulations of what people could or could not bring me (to everyone who participated and rolled with my crazy requests—THANK YOU!)
I felt as ready as I could be…
One day, I called my life coach with the intention to briefly fill her in on what was going on. I knew she would be proud of all the empowered action I was taking.
For the phone call I perched myself on my back patio enjoying the early spring warmth that so often graces us in Atlanta.
I started to list off all the things I was doing to prepare….juicing, extra acupuncture sessions, twice daily Pilates and strength training…
...and she interrupted me. <Rude>
“Um, back up a second. What do you MEAN you need to ‘prepare?’”
I felt instantly annoyed and simultaneously confused at the very suggestion that she’d be questioning what were obviously brilliant and logical intentions.
I couldn’t quite find the words so I paused…and responded:
“Uh…because Cancer is like a battle I’m fighting? Like a sport? I wouldn’t want to go to a sporting event or a battle without having prepared?”
There was a clear upward inflection in my tone and a question mark at the end of every sentence as I spoke it…indicating that even I wasn’t sure about my answer.
How dare I need to prove myself? Everyone else seemed to support what I was doing. Who was she — one of my biggest supporters — to question me?
After what felt like a 10 hour long pause of silence (one of her craftiest and most painstaking tricks), she spoke again…
“Yeah…um, you can call it a battle if you want. Go ahead and tell yourself that story. But I’m not sure that’s what you really want? ‘Battle’ and ‘prepare’ imply negativity. They imply that there is a win-lose situation.”
“Do you really want to take a chance in manifesting a win-lose situation? Because it also means you could be on the losing end. And that means you’ll be full of fear, dread, doubt, and plenty of stress and overwhelm.”
“I wonder if you’d be more interested in looking at this as a win-win situation. If so, what would you call it?”
I didn’t really have an answer.
She continued, “What is this actually about? All this preparing?”
Those 5 magical words “what is this actually about” rang shout straight to my heart like a bolt of lightning…
I stared at the vines that were overgrowing our retaining wall, contemplating when to remind my husband to trim them as the tears poured down my face.
It took every ounce of my being to tell the deep vulnerable truth, even to someone I trusted with all of my heart.
“….Of dying on the table. Or of them not getting all of the tumor. Or of losing my ability to function or use my arm.”
It turns out, when my oncologist had said “you need to have surgery in 2 weeks” I heard “You have 2 weeks left to live.
“And all of this preparing is helpful…how?”
“Um, it lessens my chances of experiencing any of those things?
“No it doesn’t.”
She was right. And I really didn’t want to admit it.
“You have prepared enough. You don’t need to do anything else. In fact, I challenge you to stop doing everything and focus on being still. Your only homework and “preparation” at this point is to sit for 3 hours per day — at minimum — and meditate and surrender.”
Ha! I thought. Meditation is something I can do!
“Great! I’ll use an app!” I said.
“No app. Just be still and quiet.”
“How am I supposed to do that? For 3 hours?”
“You’re a go-getter. You’ll figure it out!”
Well…it took me a couple tries (and maybe a little bit of googling for “instructions), but eventually I did figure it out.
In those 3 hours of meditation per day, I figured out something very interesting.
Uncertainty and not having total control over our health and lives is just a fact of life.
We spend an awful amount of energy, time, and money trying to control and predict the future, which 100% of the time is always uncertain.
Does that mean we just lay down and do nothing?
No, that’s not surrender. That’s quitting and accepting helplessness.
Surrender doesn’t mean giving up. It doesn’t mean that we don’t take action.
We can set intentions and create favorable circumstances to set ourselves up for success. I call this “control the controllables.”
We can only act and “control” in the here and now.
And the universal truth is that no matter how hard we try or how many gold stars we get or checkboxes we check to “prepare,” there is no guarantee that any of those actions will lead to the outcomes we want.
And I realized an even deeper truth:
I thought I was doing all of these things to prepare out of love for myself—and in some respect I was. But there was a hidden intention there. I was so afraid. And I didn’t even realize it.
I couldn’t have known better at the time—but each time I acted unconsciously out of fear — an invisible water balloon stretched itself fuller and fuller inside my heart.
That meant that it only took 5 little words in the heat of the moment “What is this actually about?” to act as a tiny lynchpin to explode that water balloon (and myself) into a puddle of tears on my patio.
In fact, as many elements of our culture (and maybe even you) would support—as I started to really weigh the idea of moving from the words “battle” to choosing a new way to look at this health situation, I realized that I had a deep belief I was supposed to be afraid of cancer, afraid of dying, afraid of losing control.
I never realized that I had any other choice but to be afraid.
Everything in life is uncertain—including our health problems.
Uncertainty of health problems is no different than the uncertainty we have every day about whether it will be rainy or sunny.
And how is it that we can be so surrendered to that uncertainty, but not to one by which we think we have control?
And what about adventures that we label as “fun” like a hike on a trail we’ve never been on, riding a roller coaster like Space Mountain (where we literally can’t see what’s coming next), or opening a birthday present?
Those things are all uncertain—and we label that uncertainty as positive and fun.
By looking at it this way, I realized that fear is just a label we so commonly put on uncertainty.
And because we feel fear—we tend to control, manipulate, or maybe even overachieve.
We tell ourselves “if I just do XYZ perfectly, or enough times, or in the best of ways…then I will be ok.”
But none of that is true.
It’s just fear. And yes, it absolutely may feel scary and that is normal. And we will always be ok whether we do those things or not. Always.
I chose to look at the uncertainty as an adventure. After all—what if I did die on that table? Did I really want to spend my remaining 2 weeks of life living in fear and running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to control and manipulate a situation over which I had no control?
So just like that, I surrendered. I let go of control. I allowed myself to just enjoy the ride and the adventure. In fact, by making that very mindful shift, I felt almost excited to move forward.
Nothing had ever felt so right.
You can probably guess how things turned out. Yes, there were snafus and twists and turns (what’s a good adventure without them)? But surgery and the other treatments I did for cancer went well.
Now I write this as I celebrate almost 3 years of no cancer growth.
I also don’t call myself a survivor—because that also implies that I went to battle against something. I just say it was an experience—in fact I see the beauty in how shifting my mindset around my health applies to so much more than my health.
And one gift that came from that was how I coach and work with clients. I realized that — unconsciously—I was teaching them to be afraid of things in their health, too. I—like them—labeled things in their lives as bad, as to be “controlled,” or maybe even as a “battle.”
I realized that I was contributing to their own inner fear monsters.
Instead, I decided to completely change my language and approach.
And what was the result?
Clients’ health started improving rapidly, with way less effort.
The Pareto principle is a universal law that states that 20% of our actions result in 80% of our outcomes. This applies to everything manifest in the Universe—including our health.
They required 20% of the “interventions” they usually needed. They—like me—were spending so much time and energy on things that probably weren’t helping—in an effort to hide from or manage fear and uncertainty.
I started to teach them—like I did myself— to just own the emotions and learn to eliminate them from the source rather than simply manage or put “band-aids” on them.