You knew what you had to do…
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little…
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own.
-from Mary Oliver’s The Journey
Eighteen long months ago, cancer brought me to my knees.
In a desperate attempt to feel better I tried many things, including obsessive reading, soothing music, meditation, yoga, poetry class, art therapy, walking, podcasts, eating and not eating. I searched for and found a good therapist. I was in such bad shape last year, wracked with panic, doom and depression, sometimes I saw her up to once a week.
I did hard inner work, including looking at trauma, my family of origin and all that shit.
Today my beloved therapist told me she’s confident I’ve done the work and it is okay if I stop seeing her. I’ve decided I’ll take her words as a compliment instead of a rejection. I’ll move to maintenance mode and know she’s part of my safety net if I fall again. There should not be shame in needing others.
Cancer healing is a slow and arduous process. I was privileged enough to take time off to recover and I can afford the costs of therapy, which not everybody can. I’m grateful for that. Oncologists, insurance companies, employers, families – stop rushing people to get back to ‘normal.’ There is no more normal once you’ve had cancer.
Cancer is not a gift. I’m not fixed. I’m not better than ever. I will always be a person who had cancer. I think I’ll mostly be okay. I’ll surely stumble again in my life – whether the cancer comes back or not – but I hope I now have the awareness and the tools to slowly get back up with love and support.
I wish administrators, clinicians and the world would realize that emotional healing is as important as medical treatment. Cancer is so much more than cutting out tumours. It is a life-rattling, life-altering experience. Maybe that’s why so many people in my life ran the other way when I was diagnosed. It is terrifying, both for me and my family and friends who steadfastly walked by my side.
Mental health matters for all kinds of recovery and it should be valued and funded appropriately. Take note, cancer agencies and cancer hospitals with skimpy budgets for the emotional care of patients. If you don’t consider emotional care, you aren’t caring for patients.
I promise to use my big mouth and my modest platform to keep squawking about how crucial it is to consider the whole messy beautiful person in health care. Health care is despairing today. It needs an strong infusion of compassion and empathy – for patients, families and staff and physicians alike. Let’s turn towards each other’s pain.