Nobody plans to get cancer. Nobody intends to interrupt their lives in such a drastic fashion, to undergo painful traumatic treatment regimens, to live for (hopefully) years with nagging uncertainty about a possible cancer recurrence. Yet, this is exactly what happens to thousands of people every year in every walk of life.
In the old days, cancer was not only frightening, but also shameful (just like mental illness). It was suffered in silence. There were no “support groups” until the mid-70’s. More often than not, a cancer diagnosis was a certain death sentence.
While the mortality rate from cancer is still quite high, the rate and length of survival is much longer. In fact, many people live with cancer for decades and die from other causes. Still, while medical science has developed new treatments, cancer remains incurable, to be considered a chronic condition.
One of the most encouraging and supportive resources for people living with cancer (and their caregivers) is the conference, Cancer as a Turning Point: From Surviving to Thriving produced by the non-profit organization, Healing Journeys (www.healingjourneys.org). Founded twenty years ago by Jan Adrian, the event is free to all attendees and relies on donations to support its work. Jan a woman who herself had been diagnosed with cancer over 25 years ago. She has had two primary cancers and many recurrences. Coping personally with cancer’s challenge led her to create an annual conference for cancer patients and families for the purpose of gaining information about literally how to live with cancer regardless of the prognosis.
Susan is currently on the Board of Directors of HJ and, in the past, worked as a facilitator in their annual retreats. And, Jan was one of three women who moved Susan in the direction of healthcare in the early 80’s, before she and I had even met.
It was a very moving experience for Susan and me to participate at part of an opening evening 20th anniversary celebration and the full day conference following. We were major donors in supporting this event which took place in the San Francisco bay area. On the evening concert, we performed with Dr. Emmett Miller, who is one of the pioneers in guided imagery. As part of our support for HJ, Dr. Miller, Susan, and I produced a CD of four guided imagery processes. They include narrative and original music. The title is Hope, Faith, and Transformation, and is available through Healing Journeys.
While I have avoided any personal cancer up to this point in my life, I have been touched by it through close friends and relatives who’ve died from it. Smoking tobacco is unfortunately a strong risk factor in contracting cancer. I wish my dearest uncle, as well as a recently deceased genius musician colleague, had managed to have quit smoking, so that we could have enjoyed their lives on earth for a few more years.
Between laughter and tears, I took rudimentary notes of points made by the various speakers and presenters (musicians, actors, and poets). I will attempt to present a concise summary of the deep emotion-laden truths that I heard expressed.
It is possible to live with cancer and still be healthy. One must distinguish between healing and curing. Many cancers cannot be permanently cured. But a healthy life is possible in spite of the history of and recurring presence of cancer. True health is a combination of body, mind, and spirit well-being. Perhaps spiritual health is ultimately most important, because none of us will get out of this life alive, and even death can sometimes be a form of healing.
There are many lifestyle factors that can prevent cancer or increase well-being when cancer is present. Is anyone still unaware that smoking is related to cancer? Pro-active strategies to prevent or treat cancer are: to detoxify the body (ridding the body of toxic substances), de-inflame the body, maintain hormonal balance, reduce stress responses, move/exercise, eat a healthy diet, take daily supplements, etc. Following these strategies leads to a conscious healthy lifestyle.
How do we heal the spirit? Start by asking yourself questions. Why do we do what we do? What motivates us? Where is our bliss? For what are we grateful? Why do we want to continue to live? What is sacred? Who am I?
Where we place our awareness defines our experience. We are what we identify with. We chose what we believe. Everything that happens is part of a learning self-awareness process. Life is the soul’s process that is beyond our understanding. We can spend a lifetime answering for ourselves the questions above.
Most of the speakers at the conference spoke from their personal experience of cancer. I was reminded of the old cliché, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Many speakers reiterated the experience that cancer had led them to be more present, more open, more kind, more in the moment, more awake, less attached, more appreciative, with fewer fears and inhibitions, hopeful but aware that we will all die. Healing comes through the wisdom of acceptance.
The experience of living with cancer provoked the following questions: What are we being asked to become? What are we being called to give birth to out of our souls’ wisdom? What if every broken thing is bringing us closer and in harmony with ourselves? Is cancer calling us home to ourselves to be fully human?
Except for totally isolated individuals, cancer is a family disease. It affects everyone in relationship with the one with cancer. We connect through our broken places. We listen and are touched. Your tears bring out my tears. Through you, I find myself. When I see me, I see you. When I know me, I know you. We create sacred space together. If your liberation is bound up with mine, then we can live, love, and thrive together.