Today is my 2nd cancerversary. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on the past two years, and most of them aren’t coherent.
Today, I stumbled across the phrase “The only way out is through,” and I’m reminded that it took on another meaning for me at some point in the recent past. Before, it always meant, “Put your head down and run as fast as you can through hell.” It seems logical, no?
But getting diagnosed with metastatic cancer is not a normal, everyday occurrence. It is a call to change. To Awaken. To look Death in the eyes and decide who I am now that I can no longer ignore my mortality as I’ve been conditioned to do my entire life.
So to go “through” this thing no longer means running as fast as I can, skirting the reaching branches and glowing eyes. It means slowing down. Looking around. Walking off the worn path and moving into the deep woods. Meeting what lives in the forest, talking with it, and being changed by the dryads and wise, old tree spirits who live there.
Going through the whole experience, not running as fast as I can to the other side.
I’m no longer the person I was when I was unwittingly thrust into this journey, but in a way, I actually am — only more so. Like when a sculptor says she’s chipping away at the marble to reveal what already exists underneath, so have I been chipping away at my social conditioning and deep-seated fears. Underneath is me, only better than anything I could have hoped for.
I’ve taken a giant step back from the messages from our capitalist culture, the ones that say I’m not thin enough, pretty enough, young enough, smooth enough, rich enough, enough enough. In a way, I was forced to because chemo takes you out of life, but as I started fading out, I was glad. I’m sick of listening to shit about how I’m not good enough. It’s old. Boring. Annoying. I don’t want to think I’m a piece of worthless trash anymore. That’s not how I want to live life.
Going inside and finding who I am and loving myself is balm. It’s peace and harmony. It is, in my humble opinion, the only way. There are many paths to it, many ways up the mountain, but only one destination: understanding myself, loving myself, and letting the light of who I am shine through.
Fear has been the hardest part. Someone once said to me that there are only two emotions, love and fear. I doubted her at first, but two years later, I can tell you it’s absolutely true. Anger, sadness, grief, frustration — it’s all just fear, if you go far enough into the pain to recognize what lies beneath. And we’ve all been conditioned to live in those emotions, which means we’re a frightened group of people stepping on one another, like crabs in a bucket. That is, until we Awaken and start to remove the blinders from our eyes and see what we’re truly doing to ourselves and others.
I’ve pondered deeply what the nature of evil is. Even in secular culture, the idea that there’s a force of good and a force of evil has penetrated our collective psyche. But honestly — that’s a lie we’ve told ourselves to deal with the fear of what lies inside ourselves. It’s like when you look at Nazi Germany and say, “I would have never!” It’s telling yourself that, because you can’t deal with the idea that you would have, because you’ve never been forced to face your fear. The thing is, you have Very Good Reasons to go along with the status quo. To keep yourself safe. To keep your loved ones safe. So why not?
That’s all evil is — the sum total of selfish, fearful decisions that spill out onto others and add up to real hurt and pain. There is no Satan whispering in your ear. There’s only you, deciding for yourself, and isn’t that even more frightening than a demon that takes control of your body to do terrible things to others? Of course it is, or we wouldn’t have made up a fantasy of spirits who make us do bad things.
But we don’t have to be living in a dictatorship to be on autopilot. Indeed, most people are. Life sucks us in. Awakening to the reality of life doesn’t happen unless we’re forced to, and it definitely isn’t a one and done thing. It’s gradual, and it happens every day and in every moment. So many times I’ve heard stories of my cancer siblings going back into work and getting back into the emotional rut they were in before they were diagnosed. Running the rat race, the hamster wheel, the marathon that feels like a sprint. And what, exactly, are you running so fast toward?
So if you are lucky enough — yes, lucky enough — to Awaken to the lies you tell yourself, to the Reality that exists under your perceptions, then you have to feed it every day, again and again, lest you return to sleep.
But all of that is extremely abstract. It means something to me, but it probably doesn’t mean what I want it to mean to anyone else.
For me, it means that there is no longer any reason to be afraid of anything. If I’m going to die in six months or a year or ten years or fifty years, what the actual fuck am I doing right here, right now, allowing myself to be afraid of doing whatever I want to do? I spent most of my life doing what I was supposed to do. Making money. Living for the weekend. Keeping my head down at work. Nodding and smiling. Allowing the things I knew were wrong to keep on going on. (That’s what Fear looked like for me. It looks like something different for everyone, although I imagine a lot of people can relate.)
And when it was all said and done, did it buy me security?
What it bought me was a life-threatening illness that I will never be cured from.
I read something that stated cancer is caused by suppressed emotions. This will require some explanation, but I’m convinced it’s true.
Imagine, if you will, the complexities of nature. How your body is knit together in an amazing and wondrous way. The three neural centers — the digestive system, the heart system, and the brain — work to keep you alive, your blood pumping, and even the illusion of separate consciousness from the rest of your environment. Each cell has the potential to go rogue at any moment, but because of the multitude of processes inside our bodies, most die off when they’re supposed to, not fearing death but allowing themselves to pass for the good of our whole organism.
Now think about the incredibly simplistic things we’ve been taught: there is one soul, kind of like a bit old blob of light that sits, well, somewhere, we’re not really sure, but somehow it’s connected to our brain. Also, everything is black and white: either you’re good or you’re bad. That person over there is good or they’re bad. A situation is good… or bad. And oh, by the way, there’s one single dude sitting around watching us and judging our every move and when we die, he’ll make another singular judgment on what happens to us for the rest of forever (which is a really long time) all by himself.
Except there’s a problem. Nature Herself, our bodies, our psyches, exist in direct contradiction to such a simplistic worldview. In fact, I daresay the worldview we have embraced is that of a child who has never grown up. (But why would we have been taught that? Ah, because children are easier to control than thinking adults.)
So then I ask: if the physical world is incredibly complex and multi-layered, why shouldn’t the etheric world, the world of the soul and what happens beyond death, be just as complex and multi-layered?
But then we come to the first question, the one we are all running from. The one I have spent two years facing, perhaps not squarely, but as courageously as I can:
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DIE? Do you believe that we are immortals living a short existence that’s like an eye blink to the eternal part of us? Or are you afraid that maybe, just perhaps, when you die, it’s all over?
I spent most of my life avoiding this question because when I faced it, I wasn’t sure. I wanted so badly to believe. It’s why I went on mission trips as a teen. Why I shouted what I was taught from the rooftops — because I was speaking to myself, trying to convince myself. It’s why I self-flagellated and spent nights bawling my eyes out in self-hatred. If only I were perfect — if only I could figure out what God wanted from me — if only I could deliver it perfectly — then the heavens would open and the dove would descend and I would have absolute proof that death is not the end.
I cannot stress how much work it took me to come to the realization that the above was my true psychological state. Because we as humans bury shit under miles of defense mechanisms. It’s an ugly maze filled with trapdoors and false beliefs, and at every turn, we are tempted to buy into a lie to assuage the fear. We do not want to face our fears, oh Hades, no.
Carl Jung called this place where we shove all the unwanted bits about ourselves “the shadow self.” The funny thing about the shadow self is that we can’t actually outrun its effects. We can delude ourselves that we are making calm, rational choices, but the more we avoid what’s lurking in our shadow, the more in control of our lives the shadow is. Think of a time when you did something that felt perfectly reasonable at the time, but then when you looked back on it, holy shit, that made no sense. I did that because I was angry and didn’t realize it. I did that because I was afraid and didn’t realize it.
That’s the shadow — and it’s more in control that we know, unless we get the fuck over ourselves and face it. “But what if I find something truly horrible about myself? What if I like to drown kittens for fun?”
So what? How are you going to change something unless you admit that there’s a problem? Would you rather go around drowning kittens and pretending to yourself that you don’t because you’re a good person and good people don’t do that? (That’s a lot of kittens dead because you’re too scared to face the fact that you’re scared.) Or would you rather look at the blood on your hands, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and figure out what it will take to stop drowning kittens?
When you do, a wondrous thing happens. When we start to face ourselves as we really are, we not only find all the skeletons we buried in the floorboards, but we also find all the gems tucked away in the attic. We decide what part of ourselves we’re going to open to the light and allow to proliferate. Should we invest our time in cleaning up the mess and then continuing to feed the beautiful things we find about ourselves? Or should we keep spraying Febreze to cover the stench of rot as we huddle in the corner?
Even the “bad” part of ourselves (which is more like selfishness and fear rather than inherent evil) is multi-layered and complex.
So I come back to cancer being caused by suppressed emotions.
I’m no longer stuck to science. Science itself has proven that there are things in existence that cannot be proven by a materialistic worldview. (Just take a gander at quantum mechanics and anything having to do with human consciousness.) So I’ve accepted that there are more things in this world, Horatio, than are dreamt about in your philosophies. It kind of goes hand in hand with getting over the fear of death. (Which, to be clear, I am not completely. It’s a long road to be walked, not a switch to be flipped.)
My research into how emotions cause or heal illness — which is a fact that science has proven; check out the placebo and nocebo effect — has uncovered dimensions beyond this one. The complexity we see in the physical world is matched by the complexity we see in the world beyond our regular senses. And so, without going into all the details, I’ve accepted the mechanics of how suppressed emotions can cause illness.
And honestly, it makes so much sense. Of course I’ve suppressed my emotions all my life. I have cancer, don’t I? So much nodding and smiling and agreeing while raging inside. And when the pressure got too much, I would blow up — there’s the shadow rearing its ugly head. But most of the time, I stuffed down all my unwanted emotion, stuffed them and stuffed them and stuffed them, until body was numb and my left breast, tucked right next to my heart, couldn’t contain it anymore and the cells turned cancerous.
When it comes down to it, I absolutely want to believe that there are things I can do to help myself heal. It makes me furious to think that our society has conditioned us to believe we are victims of diseases, who need a doctor-savior to ride in on her white horse and save us. Don’t get me wrong — my oncologist has done a tremendous job. But she’s a subject matter expert, not the project manager. *I* am the project manager of this project I call life, and right now, the Health package is in need of lots of experts, not just one. When I contracted bacteremia, the hospital brought in an infectious diseases doctor; they didn’t expect my cancer doctor to take care of it.
So if there are many complexities to the physical body and many complexities to the psyche and many complexities to the etheric body, then why not bring in experts on all those levels? And who is in charge of that? The project manager. The one with the most skin, literally, in the game. The one who’s steering this complex ship of a body. Me.
As I’ve unraveled the emotional things stuck inside me, I’ve been surprised and delighted and confused. What I’ve discovered is that I’ve knotted all those things up because of fear. The fear of being uncomfortable when I relay a boundary to someone infringing upon me. The fear of being made to feel guilty or inadequate because I want something others do not. So much of my life, I was told that I was wrong, that what I wanted was not what was good for “everyone.” And I was so afraid of disapproval.
Today? I’m not perfect at letting my emotions flow, but I’m getting pretty done with that shit. I am here, and I can take up space, and I can say “no,” and I am allowed to want things and to be in charge of my life and to pursue my interests. The things I’ve wanted aren’t, like, drowning kittens. They’re hobbies that make my soul sing, spending time in solitude with myself, and deciding how to raise my children into self-assured, fearless adults.
That last one — how the crap did I think I was going to accomplish that without being so myself? Welp, good thing I got cancer, I guess.
My therapist loaned me a book, and inside were these words of wisdom about the freedoms we should all insist upon for ourselves:
“The Five Freedoms —
The freedom to see and hear what is here instead of what should be, was, or will be.
The freedom to say what one feels and thinks, instead of what one should.
The freedom to feel what one feels, instead of what one ought.
The freedom to ask for what one wants, instead of always waiting for permission.
The freedom to take risks on one’s own behalf, instead of choosing to be only ‘secure’ and not rocking the boat.”
Not only am I learning to embrace myself, but I am learning about where I am focusing my energy, especially when it comes to other people. We all have a finite amount of time in this body, and it’s ticking down by the second. To overcome my fear of displeasing people, I’m now thinking in terms of spending that currency. Do I want to spend this precious savings on that thing over there? Do I want to allow my energy to leak out and away toward this thing here? Is that person worth my time, or should I withdraw and let them stand alone in the rain clouds they made themselves because nothing I say or do is going to change their bullshit?
And even more than that — I am learning to forgive myself. For letting the energy leak out, for standing in their thunderstorm too long, for not meeting my (extremely unrealistic) expectations.
And this is where we return: to finding our way up the mountain to discover the beauty of our own souls. In order to do so, self-forgiveness is in order. Because I’ll tell you what — everything you fear leads back to feelings of unworthiness. Even the fear of death is just another spin on it. To overcome all that fear, you have to forgive yourself — of everything that’s hiding in the shadow, of everything you have been ignoring, of deluding yourself for years/decades, of wanting things that you don’t want to want.
That’s what will heal you.
That’s what will keep you healthy.
That’s what will make you whole: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.