A Cancer Story

On May 22, 2012, I will mark 20 years as a cancer survivor. I celebrated the eve of this holiday awaiting the status of a thyroid nodule. In this sterile ENT office, visits from 3 ghosts illuminated the lessons taught by my “demons” of the last 2 decades.

past-present-future-smallsign1.jpg

The Ghost of Cancer Future

Like Dickens’ iconic Ghost of Christmas Future, Cancer Future is not a destiny but an awareness of what could be, of what to do everything in your power to prevent. Cancer Future and I are familiar and cautious acquaintances. We had struck a respectful truce: he stayed quietly in the background and I acknowledged him annually with scans to monitor for secondary cancers resulting from childhood chemotherapy and radiation. When a thyroid nodule stubbornly produced two inconclusive biopsies 18 months ago, I chose to acknowledge him more often. Instead of sacrificing half of my thyroid, I chose to monitor the nodule with visits to an ENT. Cancer Future and I sit together nervously on this most recent visit. Suddenly he is gone.

The Ghost of Cancer Past

The 1992 décor of the sterile ENT office has summoned the Ghost of Cancer Past. He transports me back to a Pittsburgh hospital on warm and sunny May 22, 1992— the first time that I fully understood uncertainty. My parents, the doctors, the (then seemingly) high tech equipment, couldn’t provide an answer to the news I was about to receive.  My thirteen year-old self nervously plays with a scrunchie; my parents sit quietly next to me.

Through adult eyes, I now see through their strong front. They were struggling with uncertainty too, even as veterans of adult tragedy and loss. In the era of car seats, child-proofed homes, bike helmets, antibiotics, the “good” neighborhood and school district, the illusion that they could protect their children had never felt so torn. Coping with uncertainty isn’t a lesson magically learned with age. It’s a lifelong practice.  The Ghost of Cancer Past fades away as the handle of the 1992 hospital room door begins to turn and my parents brace themselves.

The Ghost of Cancer Present

Instead of my childhood oncologist, my ENT walks through the door. “You’re nodule is stable” the doctor tells me matter-of-factly. The ghost of Cancer Present has pulled me back to 2012. She smiles at me, at the doctor’s detached tone. She has always been with me but only recently have I acknowledged her. By “Present” I do not mean a gift. Gifts can be returned. But, I now appreciate that the cancer lesson that remains was the importance of accepting and making peace with the unknown.

Owning uncertainty is what differentiates my 33 and 13 year-old selves, waiting in the doctor’s office.  It’s what enabled me to (for the most part) calmly monitor a potentially cancerous thyroid nodule and to quit a financially comfortable job that was wreaking havoc on my happiness, my soul, and my weight. This skill, learned through nutritional and lifestyle changes, is part of what I teach my clients to give them a level of well-being and comfort around food previously unknown to them.

I’m sure that you have experienced milestones and struggles that have defined your life. Many of my clients believe it’s their weight. But when they listen to their own ghosts, they are taken beyond weight to the wounds it is protecting. Only then can they heal. My 13 years of dieting and health struggles post-cancer were cancerous in their own way. Below are the lessons I would want to teach the 13-year old me. Had I viewed my own “demons” as spiritual teachers, the past 20 years would have been significantly more graceful. I hope these lessons can help infuse your own healing process with greater beauty.

1. Everything doesn’t necessarily happen for a reason. To heal, forgive, move on, etc., your Rx is to make meaning from what happens.

2. Curing is the physical end to dis-ease. Healing means allowing what is. Put equal emphasis on your physical and emotional recovery.

3. Allow grief and sadness space in your psyche and know that they can coexist with happiness. They provide access to an incredible amount of empathy and compassion for others.

4. Weight-loss efforts are an attempt at control. In reality, they control you.

5. All the experts, whether they are doctors, diet books, or mentors with successful careers, can only take you so far. You must take radical responsibility for your own health and life to reach the views you crave.

6. If weight-loss is a struggle, it’s not working! Your journey will inform and determine your destination.

7. Did I mention being thin won’t solve any or all of your problems? It’s a distraction from doing the real work to be genuinely confident and secure.

8. The sooner you work towards making yourself whole, the easier life, eating, and experiencing joy becomes.

9. Life deals tough hands, but this doesn’t that mean life itself is tough. It roots for you in weird ways that you’ll never fully understand. Try to extract lessons from what life gives you and be gentle with yourself.

10. Learn to deal with uncertainty. It’s your ticket to feeling secure. Size 4 or 0 is not a final answer. Thin people still die, divorce and struggle with depression.

While I’m living this advice now, I know there will be a new list in 1, 5, 10 and 20 years. I’d love to know what you wish you knew 20 years ago or even yesterday! Please share below in the comments.

To waking up with a refreshed perspective,

Ali

Image Credit