Cancer was never on my radar. I think there’s a lot about our life-yet-to-come, our future probabilities, call it destiny even… that we can tune into ahead of time. But cancer at age 33 was something I never foresaw. It absolutely blindsided me.
At the time I was a successful Business Coach, with high profile clients scattered across the globe. But in the years preceding the cancer I’d experienced a business failure (which wasn’t supposed to happen according to my picture of success, nor my professional identity as an ‘business advisor’). The stress it seems, had far more devastating consequences in my system than I realized at the time.
When I first noticed the lump, I was living in Italy, I had a partner, a Corporate Training business, and I was pregnant. And while the lump was hard to ignore, protruding about an inch or so out of my armpit, ignore it I did. Being one of those optimistic types, I said “The lump came up, it can go down. Anyway…I don’t have time to deal with it right now.”
But it didn’t go down. And it turned out to be a Grade 3 cancer.
That was seven years ago.
Yet in retrospect, having cancer has been one of the most stunningly awakening, profoundly transformative experiences of my life. Since then, I’ve worked with many who are just beginning the cancer odyssey. Friends and clients often ask “what did you do to survive?” … so I’ve been researching and writing a book on the subject. And some repetitive themes have emerged.
Dealing with overwhelm
Unlike a heart attack, where one moment it’s life-as-usual and the next you’re dead, one of the gifts with cancer is that, relatively speaking, you’ve got gobs of time to make the adjustments. Most of those diagnosed usually have weeks, even months in which to turn their ship. And the ship does need turning.
You are probably aware that there are changes that need to be made… but where do you start?
Overwhelm at this point is common. Akin to a herculean task requiring great courage, fortitude and skill, cancer initiates a series of inner and outer challenges that you’re suddenly faced with navigating.
- You’re having to adjust to the fact that you’ve got a directly or indirectly life threatening disease
- You’re trying to make sense of the meaning behind it… the question “is there a deeper purpose?” may haunt you. And in my opinion survival chances are radically increased if you can find your personal answer to this question
- You’ll be navigating the emotional maelstrom – the reactions of loved ones around you
- You’ll be learning to discriminate how much trust to put in the allopathic system vs taking an alternative pathway or a hybrid of the two
- You’ll try to figure out how to assemble a healing team – which pathways, modalities or treatments are best for you
- And from this you may start to question how much reliance to give the Doctors vs your own internal ‘knowing’
- You’ll be learning how to do your own research – and thereby maintaining some of your own power – you may even notice conflicts within the seemingly concrete nature of empirical science
- You’ll have the whole journey of navigating treatments ahead of you
- You’ll be questioning how you’re going to financially survive the ordeal – and whether you can or should you stay working full time
- You may be grappling with the fact that it doesn’t even feel that real… “I don’t feel sick in any way, should I be feeling something more than I am?”(is something I hear consistently) … but in spite of this you may still have the knowing you should be making more radical change
- And throughout, you’ll probably get in touch with your feelings about mortality and possibly a fear of death
It’s easy to see why many have trouble digesting the enormity of it.
Tuning in to the ‘Message’
“Humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die.
If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged,
we will always end up re-creating the same world,
the same evils, the same dysfunction.”
– Eckhart Tolle
Not long after diagnosis, I stumbled across an article that announced “The top 50 Cancer Causing Contributors.” Scanning the list I could tick off a disproportionately large number of ‘influences’ that I’d had in the preceding 12-24 months. But the list was singularly physical phenomena – things like living under power lines, exposure to chemicals, eating frozen foods etc. What was never addressed, or even hinted at, were any emotional contributors.
The mind-body-psychological interface is fairly widely accepted today, and exploring cancer from this perspective is the FIRST place I recommend clients start.
Every disease has an emotional origin, and if you investigate deeply enough, you’ll find some kind of imbalance that created it.
Consider the body as a finely attuned instrument, which reflects your state of balance or imbalance. By the time disease has manifested physically, it’s likely there was a message or two that was overlooked at an earlier time.
So lets consider the basics. We have a physical body, an emotional body, a mental body (and as some of the spiritual traditions teach – we have what is known as a ‘causal body’ – or soul). The physical body is the most dense aspect of these. What goes on in our thoughts (mental body) and feelings (emotional body) will often crystalise in the physical body. The body, the emotions, the mind, (and the soul), are all part of a living system. So if you’ve got an imbalance in one, it impacts the whole.
And by the time the imbalance has manifested as a disease, it’s like one part of us (the subconscious) is trying to convey a message to another part of us (the conscious mind), using the body as the scribe – the messenger. It’s saying “Hey! You need to have a look at this thing you’re not addressing. You need to make a change and I’m gonna make sure you can’t ignore it this time round”.
When someone comes to me with a new cancer diagnosis, the FIRST thing I get them to do… is look at the ‘message’ the body is trying to communicate about the cancer.
I’m convinced that if you can get this ‘message’… the chances of survival will increase. I have seen a quantifiable trend in the cancer patients I’ve studied. The ones who live are often those who respond to the requirement for change internally and externally.
Biology offers a few clues about the deeper meaning behind cancer. Cancer cells are essentiallyrebel cells that start growing according to a non-uniform growth pattern, thus ignoring the growth pattern of normal cellular activity. At a cellular level, what you’ve got are renegade cells that are running contrary to normal cellular development. We’ve all got them floating through our system, but in a healthy body, the immune system is strong enough to eliminate them. What cancer will tend to do is go to the weakest part of the body where those renegade cells start to cluster and multiply. As I investigated the subject, a most intriguing question emerged… “what is the REAL purpose behind these rebel cells?”
What I discovered, is that cancer is a precise physical metaphor for a metaphysicalprocess occurring within.
There’s a call on YOU to evolve which is not being recognised, so it goes to the physiology. Translated it would be this… your soul has been trying to message you with an evolutionary directive that you have been ignoring, so the body, out of kindness, has taken up the call and shows you in a way you’ll find it hard to ignore. What’s left to do now, is attune to that call to evolve, decipher it, and act on it. There are changes that need to be made.
Where the cancer is, and how progressive it is, will give you quite a clear indicator of the areas of life you need to look at.
In my own case, my cancer was probably one of the most obvious examples of this. It was a very rare cancer (only 1% of all cancers diagnosed), and it was a cancer that men get aged 50 to 70. And I was a 33 yr old woman. Even without deeper investigation it was easy to see that it was ‘something’ in the area of misuse or overuse of my masculine energy.
Fighting with Life
“Death is a stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to “die before you die”
— and find that there is no death.”
– Eckhart Tolle
I’ve observed three ‘positions’ that people take when they hear the cancer diagnosis. There are those who will ‘fight to the death’ – those who are gripped by fear – and then there’s a sort of enlightened middle group who just accept it.
From the ‘Fighters’ you’ll often hear comments like:
- I’m gonna beat this thing
- I’ll go down fighting
- I’m not gonna let this thing get the better of me
- I’ll fight till the bitter end
And I’ve noticed from my work with cancer patients, that this inquiry of ‘how much do I fight… how much do I accept?’ is one that subtly permeates the cancer journey.
Cancer in the Chinese healing system is considered a disease of excess Yin (yin being the female principle of surrender or yielding). What that effectively means is someone with cancer will become increasingly more ‘yin’ … eventually until they die. So one way of viewing the disease, is as a kind of forced surrender at a cellular level.
You can clearly observe this erosion process at work in those with cancer. People around them will comment, “It’s like they’re fading away, wasting away.” What they’re witnessing is this yin surrender at work.
My fairly blunt take on this question of ‘fight’ is this. If you take a ‘fight’ position with the disease, you’re doing the exact opposite of what your body is fundamentally trying to get you to do… which is to surrender. Your body is forcing you at some deep level to put your hands up in a ‘surrender’ asana (‘asana’ is a Sanskrit word which means the mastery of sitting still).
“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power
than defending or hanging on.”
– Eckhart Tolle
It’s asking you to put your hands up metaphorically, and start waving a white flag to Life… to God, saying “ok… my way obviously isn’t working.” It’s a requirement for a deep psychological, emotional and spiritual surrender. It debilitates you in terms of exhaustion. The natural thrust, the dominant force is towards surrender, whether you like it or not. By agreement or otherwise, it’s taking you there. If you don’t surrender enough, you go down fighting, boxing along into death (and I understand that the contracted state of angst and resistance is a very painful way of dying).
BUT here’s the rub…. it’s like balancing on a knife edge. Too much ‘fight’, and you’re working against the innateness of the situation. Too much ‘surrender’ (which is easy to do given it’s happening right INSIDE your own system)… and you can end up fading completely away. So it requires a kind of vigilance. It’s a very Taoist way of looking at it. Not too extreme on the resistance, not too extreme on the surrender.
What I found for myself, was a kind of middle road opened up. A quiet acceptance of the presence of the disease as being some kind of wise guide, showing me something through my own physiology that I was unable (or unwilling) to get at an earlier point in my path. The work was in welcoming it as an honored guest.
I noticed that the cancer acted like a ‘gun to the head’. I stopped fighting… and started listening. In the eerie post-chemo stillness I realised how much I had fought with life. Fought to build businesses, fought for survival, fought for success, fought to create my outer life to match the picture I had in my head.
I have come to understand that this is the way of it for most people.
And the abiding gift in the chemo process which was a completely unexpected treasure, was the quietening of the left cortises and opening up of the right. I was chemically assisted in putting the sword down. Almost overnight I was brought utterly to my knees where there was no fight left in me, there was nowhere left to go, there was nothing left to do. I was stopped dead in my tracks.
And life profoundly opened.
“Always say “yes” to the present moment.
What could be more futile, more insane,
than to create inner resistance to what already is?
What could be more insane than to oppose life itself,
which is now and always now?
Surrender to what is.
Say “yes” to life —
and see how life suddenly starts working for you
rather than against you.”
– Eckhart Tolle
A Brush with Death
“My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly
has been the presence of friends.”
Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011
It is utterly mind-blowing, what occurs when you have a brush with death… and for me, the experience was far beyond the clichés that people talk about. We’ve heard ad nauseam about how death brings perspective, but what does that actually mean? Many speak about the sudden awareness of the value of family and friends… but I think there is more to it than that.
The closer you get to death, the more ideas of ‘future’ drop away. And when there is no sense offuture, what is left… is only this moment. This NOW.
We humans are creatures that live in a very mind-centric state, we are gripped by our mind, and we identify with it as being who we think we are. But to understand the implications that physical death has on the mind, we have to understand how the mind works.
What is commonly known as the ego-mind is an inherently vacuous projected entity, a collection of ideas, which we identify with and take to be ourselves. “Rachel is a woman, she lives in America, she likes to write books etc”. But it doesn’t stop at mere identification.
The mind is a picture-making mechanism, which constantly seeks ‘more’ in order to feel fulfilled. It’s modus operandi is ‘wanting’. More money, more status, more luxury, a more progressive life, more traction in business, more letters after my name, greater upward mobility, more travel, more prospects etc. It subtly messages us… “when you get xyz….. (the book written, finally have the baby, get the promotion, launch that new business, take that trip to Europe), then you’ll be happy… “
But what it never discloses, is that the shallow satisfaction of ‘getting’, is always replaced by more wanting. In other words, the whole construct is a kind of lie. The undisclosed fine print, is that no matter what you acquire, you won’t be happy. You will always be looking for something that promises greater fulfillment, to make your incomplete sense of self complete. Lasting happiness is completely unavailable through this seek-and-acquire-cycle. But for the game to survive, it requires a sense of future. Because the underlying promise of a better tomorrow, rests on the premise of future. And as long as it’s got us moving, scrambling, fighting, driving and pushing to create a better ‘tomorrow’… we remain trapped in the illusion. And it (the ego-mind), gets to remain in control, unquestioned and unchallenged in it’s reign.
“There is a difference between happiness and inner peace.
Happiness depends on conditions being perceived as positive; inner peace does not.”
– Eckhart Tolle
That’s the great secret I discovered in my death-brush-through-cancer experience. The whole game got exposed. I suddenly saw who was ACTUALLY in control.
It was an awakening to the truth of reality.
Here’s what I discovered. When death lingers on the horizon, there is no longer a promise of a tomorrow. The “when I get xyz, then I will be happy” movie, that relentlessly rolls forward out into the future, suddenly gets pulled right back, because there may not even be a tomorrow. In essence, the closer you get to death, the more that sense of future disappears, and it collapses closer and closer and closer until where you arrive IS RIGHT HERE AND NOW. And the more present you get, the more you start to realize that all the real joy, all the juice, the nourishing depth, and richness of life, is only ever found NOW in this moment… and that you’ve been missing it all the way along, in the great push to ‘get somewhere’.
“The unchecked striving for more, for endless growth,
is a dysfunction and a disease.
It is the same dysfunction the cancerous cell manifests,
whose only goal is to multiply itself,
unaware that it is bringing about its own destruction
by destroying the organism of which it is a part.”ʺ
-‐‑ Eckhart Tolle
I believe that cancer is a kind of gateway or initiation that has the potential to take us from one dimension of consciousness into another. It’s akin to having a metaphysical gun to your head, where some part of you is saying “ok honey… I know you’ve been ignoring the messages for a while now… but this time we’ve cooked up a little cocktail. This is the time you WILL get it”.
My client – Dr Elisabet Sahtoris an evolutionary biologist – once explained the biological transformation that occurs as a caterpillar metamorphasizes into a butterfly. If you were to analyze the cellular structure of the chrysalis at the early stages, you’d observe the contents were singularly the original caterpillar cells. And it remains this way for some time. But at a certain point, something new emerges from deep within the cellular structure, a kind of ‘popping’ or birthing of new or renegade cells, aptly named ‘imaginal cells’ (or butterfly cells). And then an internal war commences. The old caterpillar cells try to fight against and defeat the emerging imaginal cells. But the biological imperative is set. The design of the DNA of this creature, is for the emergence of the butterfly. It must live in accordance to it’s innate potential, so naturally the imaginal cells win the war.
It seems to me, this metaphor had a direct correlation to the process at work inside my system when I had cancer. And I’ve since observed it in the lives of friends & clients with cancer.
Something inside us is trying transform, and a war ensues.
The dying parts of us, (the caterpillar cells of the ego-mind), are attempting to remain cunningly in control, to suppress, rationalize, sabotage the emergent, evolutionary impulse that is trying to birth itself through the crystalized structures within our system.
Perhaps the cancer is akin to entering into a kind of chrysalis stage of our humanity, where the old parts of us and the new parts, fight it out. It’s a battle for territory… and eventually for life. It’s well documented that parasitic entities will happily suck the life force out of their hosts, even to the point of death, which then by turn causes their own. And I’ve noticed, this seems to be the deep ‘knowing’ of all the cancer patients I’ve worked with and interviewed. Regardless of how advanced or what Grade the cancer is, there is an awareness that there’s a fight on for survival on the table.
You’re on the journey of saving your life.
It’s a magnificent journey. You stand a great chance of being re-born at a whole new level. If you can get past the surface ‘seriousness’ of it… it has the potential to be the most extraordinary transformational opportunity of your life.