Adenocarcinoma. Cancer. Lodged quietly in the tissue of my uterus. I forget to breathe for what must be a long time. Everything around me goes out of focus. Outside the windows the sky is blue and the world is humming right along without a skip. But I can’t move.
In the Japanese language, the word crisis is denoted by two symbols: one represents danger, the other opportunity.
At first, my own crisis felt very much like falling, and all I could register was the danger. The painful mass in my abdomen had turned out to be a tumor. Once removed, there were decisions to make. My doctor laid out an aggressive plan of attack. He wanted to wage a war on my body that was supposed to give me a chance, maybe even save me. But I wasn’t so sure. My instincts told me chemotherapy wasn’t my road. And then there was the clear ring of my Grandmother’s voice, her adamant words pushing up through layers of childhood memory, a nurse’s warning for anyone who was listening---“chemotherapy and radiation treatments are nothing more than poison, don’t let the doctors fool you.”
So, I sat down at the computer, ready to arm myself with all the knowledge I could find to help me make and defend my treatment decision. I expected to be shouted down by my doctors and my family when I announced that I would take a naturopathic approach to healing myself.
I read case histories, one after another, seemingly similar to my own, but always with their differing details. I studied drug trial results with their vague conclusions until I found myself slumped in the blue glow of the computer screen, confused, unsure, and terrified by the radiation bath I must surely be absorbing.
I powered down. I sat alone in the dark and asked myself what I wanted to do. First, I wanted to live. And I wanted to live well. Be healthy. I wanted to be free of all that had led me to the point where I was having to make this one terrifying decision that would define the rest of my life; whether that life would be months or years I did not know.
I did know that something important was happening to me.
When I began my search, I assumed I would find answers, know what to do, and do it. But as the questions mounted, it became clear that this would be a process with several possible outcomes. I wanted a guarantee, clarity, and I wanted to know that I was making the right decisions---the ones that would lead me back to health. I wanted a sure thing. What I got instead was the opportunity to trust in myself.
The great discovery in this tortuous process came when I recognized my pattern of looking outside myself for answers. It became suddenly clear to me---I would have to be my own advocate, my own authority, my own caretaker. Every decision about my health was mine and mine alone to make.
I had agreed to chemotherapy in a fog and a funk. I knew my father would be relieved. He thought I should listen to my doctor. My family felt safe this way. This, more than the cancer itself, was my crisis.
The chemo room is cold and clean. A circle of recliner chairs and IV’s strung with bags of clear, innocuous looking liquid. I stepped into the circle but didn’t feel for a moment that I belonged in this place.
I already knew that I was healing. I already felt wellness brimming inside of me. What am I doing here, I kept asking myself. When the needle was inserted into my right arm just above the elbow, taped down securely, I wept.
Prior to my surgery, I felt safe and sure. I slept easily in the belief that the cancer would be removed and I would awake on New Year’s Day to a new life.
But on the night following the chemo treatment I had the first of many nightmares. Every night, and in every dream, I died. The message was more than clear to me. I had betrayed my own best instincts. I knew what I had to do.
It was a radical shift in perspective: I decided I would trade anything for health, even if it meant walking away from everything I knew. Here’s where things began to get easier. I listened for my own voice, followed my gut, cancelled the chemo treatments, and sat down in my sunny backyard in California. I was finally learning to listen. My crisis, and the opportunity it offered reshaped my entire life.
The shock of serious illness was a violent shove over the edge of my old life. In that fall, I lost my health, my sense of strength, my wild mane of hair, all the things I defined myself by. It was only in the process of peeling away all those layers and looking deeper that I discovered my real strength, found my true path, and took back my life.
I was nearly fearless as I gave up the career, the house, the stuff of my old life. Once I was feeling healthy and well, my husband and I made a sojourn. We camped in the Rockies just after the last snow, and among the Lodge Pole pines in Montana. We drove across the empty places, so beautiful and sacred we lost our urge to speak. One night, in the pitch black of the Tetons, we stole up beside a pair of deer, motionless, mesmerized, as we were, by the flashing Northern Lights.
Eventually, we made our way here, to Portland. Of all the places we’d ventured to, it was clear this would be our chosen home. And because the path of yoga had helped me come home to myself, I set my sights on teaching, and went off to study. I hoped to one day teach at Reed College, and I’ve been there for over five years now.
Joseph Campbell counseled, “To have the life that is waiting for you, you must give up the life you have planned.” In that planned life of mine, a photo of a Roman ruin hung over my desk and I looked at it, and those words inscribed below it, everyday. And everyday I imagined another life---the one that was waiting for me. The way I see it, I fell over the cliff edge and learned to fly.
There is the still place, like a clearing in the woods, where we can stop and discover that even in crisis, opportunity shines down like sun through the trees. At a moment when I felt lost, unsteady and unsure, I rooted myself in the immediacy of breathing right into that moment and I was able to hear my own voice. I followed my inner wisdom, and a whole new life opened up to me. I reached out and I grabbed it!