Large or small, any event that changes us in a positive way is valuable.
Sometimes it happens with a word or phrase, a small act of kindness, or a gift given without a special occasion.
Or an event turns our life upside down and changes everything we have known up to this point.
For me, January 2014 changed everything.
My favorite analogy is of the butterfly. Life continually gives us experiences that call us to draw into ourselves, process change, redefine normal, and emerge with new perspective ready to take flight in a new direction.
I had received the diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ – breast cancer. My mother died of breast cancer – I was the same age as my mother was when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. I was 28 when she died.
Now my left breast needed to be removed and my right breast was showing its own signs of trouble.
My first reaction was to cry. Then I was overwhelmed by questions, concerns and fears.
After medical consultations, I decided to have a double mastectomy followed by reconstruction.
To get the doctors, time and place I wanted, I needed to wait three weeks for surgery.
At first I was troubled by the wait, but then I realized this would give me time to prepare on all levels. I knew from the beginning that cancer was happening for me, not to me. I didn’t want to miss its message or gifts.
One of my favorite books, by John O’Donohue, is “To Bless the Space Between Us,” a book of blessings and poems for many occasions and life experiences.
“FOR A FRIEND ON THE ARRIVAL OF ILLNESS
Now is the time of dark invitation
I have heard cancer stories where people have named their tumor as a way of acknowledging its presence, and having a conversation with what is happening.
Having a breast full of ductal carcinoma felt more like a group, so I named the group my teachers. Now, if I tell you I talked to my breast, you may think I have other, more serious problems than cancer. However, that is what I did.
The clear message I received (now you will know I’m a little wacky) was I needed to withdraw and be quiet in order to hear. I began to spin my cocoon.
Author Eckhart Tolle wrote, “To every accident and disaster, there is a potentially redemptive dimension that we are usually unaware of.”
Living in unawareness was not my goal. I hesitantly put my trust in silence, solitude, and stillness as I continued to surround myself with the soft threads of my growing cocoon.
Those three weeks were an in-between time of living with the unknown. It’s hard to prepare for the unknown and unsettling to live with it.
My hair stylist and I decided a very short surgery haircut was needed because I was moving into a period where I could only give it minimal care.
He asked if it would lift my spirits to lighten my hair. Since life was feeling a bit heavy at that point, I said, “Sure, why not.”
So, while my inner transformation was not yet visible, my outer self enjoyed a surgery-ready hair make over.
John O’Donohue’s poem, “For the Interim Period,” describes what waiting three weeks for surgery felt like, as well as waiting between surgeries, waiting for different areas to heal, and waiting for the process I was in to complete itself.
“FOR THE INTERIM TIME
When near the end of day, life has drained
The first thing to come to mind was rather obvious – I had outgrown my breasts! We had been the best of friends for many years. Letting go was necessary but difficult. Since it was time to say good bye to them, my husband Curt and I decided to send them off in style. So we made it a point to fully enjoy the original breast time we had left, and send them off to surgery well-loved.
Slowly I identified other outgrown areas to address. I began to notice my needs being met from most unusual and unexpected sources as well as from friends and family.
Without any effort from me, a pattern developed where no sooner did a need present itself than it was met.
People shared quotes, articles, emails, insights, where to get after-surgery supplies, what helped them the most during their journey through breast cancer, and lots of nurturing hugs. Unexpected kindness became abundant.
It was during this time that the first of three mantras arrived representing the evolutionary process of my experience.
My first mantra arrived carrying my fears: “I am not my mother’s story.”
Before my mother died, we had time to talk together. She admitted to not paying attention to her body, even though she noticed changes and knew something was wrong.
She taught me to take care of myself by her example of what happens when you don’t. The result of that lesson has been my faithfully having mammograms, self-breast checks at home, and a yearly gynecology exam that included a doctor’s breast exam.
My last mammogram showed a lesion not there the year before; my personal journey with cancer began.
An MRI showed the left breast full of ductal carcinoma in situ and the right breast had an area of concern to be watched closely.
I chose to have a double mastectomy. I also decided I was not done with breasts yet and I wanted to pursue reconstruction.
My husband, who has been my rock through this whole process, and our son and daughter, have thanked me repeatedly for choosing to go through a difficult process so I could stay on the planet longer.
At this point, my cocoon felt complete and I slipped into a creative darkness not knowing what would eventually emerge.
Friend Marianne Johnson shared an article from Time Magazine.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light. New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground or a baby in the womb, it starts in the dark.”
With that in mind, I became more comfortable with darkness.
On Feb. 3, 2014, the double mastectomy was performed, starting with Dr. Paul who removed all the cancer, the sentinel node, and two other nodes.
The pathology report said all nodes were clear so the cancer had not spread.
Dr. Durkin immediately began the reconstruction process, and in less than 24 hours, I was back home.
This is when my second mantra developed: “I will be a gracious receiver.”
This was a hard lesson for me. I find it so much easier to be the one to give help than the one needing help. But I definitely needed help. People reached out to my husband and me with cards, flowers, meals, encouraging words, caring emails, prayers and phone calls. I began to realize, more than ever, how powerful kindness is.
A television show I watched a while back showed scientific evidence that serotonin levels rise in the person receiving a kindness, the person giving the kindness, and in anyone observing or hearing about the kind deed.
One of the most meaningful kindnesses came from our daughter Heather, who took eight days away from her 3rd grade classroom in Michigan to help with immediate after-surgery care. She used her own personal sick days, a big deal because you only get so many a year.
This was an essential teachable moment between us. Instead of seeing cancer at its worst, Heather saw what women go through even when cancer is detected early and eliminated. She was a part of everything that went on so she could take what she learned back to her two teenage daughters.
Knowing the family history, two female generations and all the males who love them were closely watching what was happening.
A few more examples of kindness:
A woman in Vero Beach gives a pair of silk pajamas to anyone diagnosed with breast cancer. The gift arrives just before surgery so there is the pleasure of wearing something new and attractive after surgery.
The head of the lingerie department at Dillard’s showed me the after-surgery bra I would need, shared helpful information, and called two weeks later to see how I was doing.
During an intense part of one of the pre-surgery tests, I had been told not to move. All I could do was breathe. During the most painful part, the nurse held my hand until it was over. I was already crying but she let me know she understood and I was not alone.
My sister Paula gifted me a series of after-surgery acupuncture treatments.
Lin Reading, organizer of breast cancer support group Friends After Diagnosis, offered to sit with me if I was in a hard place and needed the presence of someone who understood.
An elderly neighbor, with her own serious health issues, gave us a $50 certificate to a local restaurant where Curt could pick up dinner and bring it home.
A small book of inspirational readings arrived in the mail from my younger brother Peter.
Then there was the gift of my visiting nurse from Jamaica named Jasinth, whose big compassionate heart was contained in her very small body. We became friends.
The list goes on.
Acts of kindness, some from people I didn’t know, felt like a soft, velvety cushion that absorbed some of the hard knocks and gave me a safe place to rest. I knew I was well-supported and not alone.
This was nurturing to the evolutionary process inside my cocoon. Although I was still in the dark, I felt totally safe and at peace with my process.
To keep memory from dimming the experience, I started a kindness journal.
I feel I’m living Emily Dickinson’s quote, “Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.”
My third mantra: “Look beneath the surface.”
When experiencing the long process of surgery, reconstruction and healing, there are always unexpected challenges and a few complications along the way. My challenges added up to five surgeries in a 10-month period of time. Two were minor, which lightened the scenario.
Just as we know a lot goes on under the ground we walk on, or in the ocean we swim in, beneath the surface of what we are experiencing are gifts to be discovered.
Once I realized the richness of what was happening to me beneath the surface, and inside the cocoon, I thanked my Higher Power and became aware of the gifts this quiet time apart was offering me.
One of the most valuable gifts I received was that of getting to know myself more deeply, clarifying my priorities, and changing some personal previous choices.
A part of myself I did not know gently invited me to come closer. I felt I was coming home to a place deep within myself that was just waiting for me to arrive.
John O’Donohue’s thoughts on this subject:
“FOR THE UNKNOWN SELF
So much of what delights and troubles you
It dwells in a strange, yet rhythmic ease
It has the dignity of the angelic
It also reminded me of how hard I sometimes am on myself, especially when I get tangled in thoughts of unworthiness.
While incubating in my cocoon, I slowly began to let go of that negative attitude and draw closer to O’Donohue’s phrase of “Where all your diverse strainings / Can come to wholesome ease.”
An increased sense of worthiness continues to develop inside of me, transforming how I see myself. I am honoring my limits and refocusing my energy in a different direction.
I have a new empathy for anyone who has lost a part of their body, dealt with skin grafts, or needed multiple surgeries.
The gift of a simple touch can often say more than words. , and I have received so many meaningful touches.
One day a group of friends sat me down, gathered around me, laid their hands on me and gave me a supportive, loving, positive energy treatment.
I was so affected by the power of their caring that I was staggering as I went out the front door.
The rest of that day I remained on an emotional high that returns every time I think about that experience. Everyone’s serotonin level increased that day!
Another gift: discovering the miracle that happens when you let go of someone you love who needs to make their own way, mistakes and all, by themselves.
In my husband’s help and patience, I received the gift of more love than I thought possible. Our bond is deeper and stronger than ever. Together we are gifting each other by exploring the many expressions of intimacy that open when we risk being completely vulnerable and don’t take life for granted.
I’ve been reminded that every moment is precious. July 30 was our 51st wedding anniversary which, after facing our mortality more closely in 2014, carried with it an even fuller appreciation of still being together.
And, beneath the surface of cancer, I found the beauty of support groups who understand, as only one who experiences it can.
None of us get through life without heartaches, tough times and suffering in some form. There are many opportunities to go into and emerge from a cocoon.
Challenging as my journey has been, after all the tears were cried (and there were a lot, including an uncontrollable bout in Publix), and the losses acknowledged, looking below the surface and seeing so many gifts has more than balanced the scale.
We find our way, step by step, as we open to new possibilities and more authentic ways of expressing ourselves.
Georgia O’Keeffe said, “To see takes time.” It also takes patience.
But isn’t the blossoming of a flower, or the ripening of fruit, or the slow transformation of one’s life worth waiting for? The cocoon has opened and, after standing on the edge of what contained my transformation, I have taken flight in ways full of surprise and wonder.
Elizabeth Lesser wrote in “Broken Open:” “The longer I live, the more I learn, the more I marvel that the narrative of grace is the larger stream in which the narrative of brokenness is contained, washed and transformed.”
The person I was in 2014 is very different than the person I am today.
I am a cancer survivor who lives in a state of renewed appreciation for each day, gratitude for new life and new breasts (we are now good friends), and a commitment to giving kindness.
After receiving that life-altering gift from so many people, if you were to ask me what my religion is, I would now say kindness.
I would like to end my story of transformation, brought on by breast cancer, with a blessing written in the form of a John O’Donohue poem.
This is my wish for everyone as well as myself.
“TO COME HOME TO YOURSELF
May all that is unforgiven in you
I invite you to share your story because you never know how helpful it may be to someone else. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share mine.
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