The last thing I want to be talking about is cancer.
As I am writing this, it’s been one year since my fourth and last surgery, one and a half years since my 16th and last chemo treatment, and two and a quarter years since my original diagnosis.
I’m annoyed that I’m still so easily able to articulate these metrics. I was sure I would have the entire experience placed in the nice box with the pretty red bow on top by now. But I know better: life doesn’t work that way. We can’t force an experience, but rather need to be open to the lessons it wants to reveal.
Cancer has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to face. Sure I’ve known disappointment in relationships, struggles in my career, and loss of loved ones that devastated me. But nothing like facing my own mortality.
And yet, in the midst of such darkness, I found a light inside. For what felt like the first time in my life, I felt awake. As my body was literally being broken down, I found myself feeling more whole.
We all have these catalysts in our lives. Marriage, divorce, birth of a child, loss of a parent, an illness, a new job, a move — anything that propels us into a moment of uncertainty.
It’s in these moments where life clichés become so obvious: don’t sweat the small stuff, count your blessings, make the moments count, cultivate gratitude and so on. Through it all, I’ve learned that clichés exist in large part because they are true.
And the more I try to put closure on my cancer journey, the more the lessons become crystallized. These aren’t just lessons about cancer, these are lessons about life — and living our lives from the inside out.
1. Life is a love journey.
I was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day, so the message of love was literally in my face on that fateful day. I chose to embrace it and see it as the compass to help guide me as I navigated such unchartered territory.
Even in the midst of hardship, struggle, and pain, love can show up in the most subtle ways if we’re open to receive it: a supportive friend, a smile from a stranger, a hug from a child, a cuddle from a pet. It requires us to flex our receiving muscle and embrace the moments.
2. Mindfulness is a game changer.
I was fortunate to have a daily meditation practice going into my diagnosis.
This helped me in a variety of ways — from the simple act of deep breathing each time I got blood work, to using visualization before each chemo treatment and surgery, to simply being able to surrender in those moments when my body hit its limit.
With so much out of my control, my daily practice became my homebase. As a result, I was able to actually embrace some unexpected joyful moments. For example, chemo days were ironically a very nurturing time. I got to spend quality time with my family and friends, I brought some of my favorite nourishing snacks, and I would curl up with the coziest of blankets as I would doze in and out of sleep. I knew the fatigue and nausea that was waiting ahead for me, but I was able to be present in those moments.
It’s only in hindsight after becoming a certified meditation teacher and having an understanding of the science behind meditation that I realize I was simply experiencing the tangible benefits.
My ability to stay focused in the midst of pain, discomfort and fear. The deep connection I felt to myself and others. And my ability to navigate as I was forced to make such life-altering decisions about my body. These were just the practice at work showing up in my life.
3. The body can be our greatest teacher.
I always tell people that I was the healthiest person I knew before I got cancer. And I believe — and my doctors support — that this was a key factor in managing and tolerating the chemo and healing from the surgeries.
I feel more connected to my body than I ever have, and despite obvious imperfections, I’m proud of its strength, beauty and grace.
4. It takes a village.
I’ve always been independent and, until my diagnosis, I was convinced I could do almost anything on my own. Being forced to rely on others would be one of the greatest hurdles I would face.
But to my surprise, I learned what true nurturing feels like. I trusted that people loved me and wanted to help and I learned to simply say yes. When my family insisted on showing up at every doctor appointment, treatment, and procedure, I said yes. When friends wanted to throw me a kick-off chemo party, I said yes. When my cousins arranged to have weekly flowers delivered during the course of my treatment, I said yes. When loved ones traveled across the country to just sit and be with me, I said yes.
Letting people love us, support us, and care for us can be the greatest gift we can give ourselves.
5. One day, one moment at a time.
The truth is, all we have is this present moment. When we’re faced with an unexpected event, we can meet it with fear or we can meet it with compassion.
Cancer crystallized true compassion for me. Compassion for my body, my spirit, others and compassion for this world we live in. It doesn’t mean we get rid of unpleasant or undesirable feelings or circumstances. It simply means we allow whatever happens just to happen without judgment, and with kindness and curiosity.
Editor’s Note: Originally published via MindBodyGreen under the title: I’ve Had 4 Surgeries & 16 Chemo Treatments. Here’s What I’ve Learned