The following was written in September during the two weeks between the mammogram and receiving the diagnosis ~ what I refer to as “The Waiting Game.” Did I jump right into peace & joy during this time? Hell, no. In fact, I went quite the opposite route at first and it showed me just how powerful the mind can be when you believe everything it thinks. Sometimes things need to get really bad before something arises in you to make a shift ~ I’m grateful to have a reference point for what it’s like to believe all of the stories in my head surrounding a serious illness. You’ll then see how I used The Work of Byron Katie to identify and question my stressful thoughts about the possibility of having cancer. And through inquiry, how I found peace, joy, and even excitement to hear the diagnosis. Click here to learn the simple process of The Work.
It was an emotional & mental rollercoaster. Out of nowhere, I would just drop into a ball and cry for hours. A pretty low point was when my extremely sweet, well-intentioned mother sent me a 700-page book titled “Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book” and at the top it said, “The bible for women with breast cancer.” I know she meant well ~ just to educate me and help put my mind at peace. (Later, I would discover this was one of THE most helpful, incredible resources! Mother’s intuition maybe?). All I did was open the book and read the headings of the chapters..then I fled to my room to bawl like a baby. Emotions poured out of me. Anger. Frustration. Fear. Depression. Anxiety. I felt like a little girl, all alone in the world. The victim. More stressful thoughts began to reveal themselves: “I have cancer. I want the lumps to go away. Cancer will make my life more difficult. Cancer is bad. I will not be able to live a full life. I shouldn’t be so upset. It’s my fault. I failed at living a healthy lifestyle. I will be a burden to my husband. Cancer will ruin my marriage. I won’t know what to do. I need to know the results now. I can’t make any future plans. My career will be over. I won’t get to do what I love.” I knew what I could do with stressful thoughts – question them – but there were too many flooding in. All I wanted to do was crawl into a dark hole and cry. My husband was so patient and sweet through every tantrum ~ offering to hold me, pet me, rock me, listen. He offered to do The Work with me and was loving and understanding when I said I wasn’t ready yet.
One day, I finally found the courage to call the Do The Work Helpline, a free service available to anyone and everyone who is experiencing stress. Volunteers on the helpline are extremely experienced in The Work and can facilitate callers, answer questions about The Work, assist callers in finding stressful thoughts, and share their own experience of inquiry. I have served on the helpline myself, as a part of the training program to become a Certified Facilitator, and I continue to do so. I noticed unease being on the other end, that somehow by calling the helpline would reveal me as a failure at doing my own work, not living up to the “Certified Facilitator” imaginary standard I had set in my mind. As soon as I admitted that myself, I was met immediately with “that’s just bullshit Bethany, call anyways!” SO I did. And then I did again. And again. The volunteers were so helpful and supportive. They held me with a compassionate space of silence as they walked me through the simple 4 questions and turnarounds. The questions are:
1. Is it True?
2. Can you absolutely know it’s true?
3. How do you react, what happens when you believe that thought?
4. Who would you be without the thought?
Then you “turn the thought around” which is a way to look at the original thought from different perspectives.
The helpline volunteers stayed connected with me as the tears flowed through and they offered examples from their own life as I moved into the turnarounds. I experienced so much relief on these phone calls, that I was motivated to continue doing The Work with myself and I also asked my husband to facilitate me. I had no shortage of stressful thoughts, that’s for sure, and little by little, my anxiety and fear began to dissipate as I met each thought with understanding.
Through inquiry, I discovered that I did not have cancer. There was absolutely NO PROOF that cancer existed in my body. The only place it existed is in my thoughts. And how did I react when I believed these thoughts (question #3)? The cancer in my mind spread like wildfire ~ it painted a scary, doomsday of a future. I saw images of me and my frail body in a hospital bed, dying, in unbelievable pain. Gray skin, no hair, no boobs (I have grown to be quite fond of my hair & boobs ~ I kind of think they are my greatest physical assets. Now GONE FOREVER!). I saw images of saying goodbye to my husband, medical bills piling up, not knowing what to do, stress on my family and loved ones, no more travel, no more career that I love…dying young and becoming that “sad story” people talk about. The “I hope that never happens to me” story. I noticed while believing these thoughts, my shoulders, neck, head and jaw would tense up. I’d get headaches. My chest was caving in. I felt lethargic and didn’t want to move. I stopped my daily walks and yoga practice. I treated my husband with caution ~ not wanting to impose or ask too much. I treated my family like everything was great, afraid to reveal my fears. I refrained from announcing what’s going on to friends, embarassed that I was making such “a big deal” of this without a diagnosis. A dark, heavy cloud set over me. Everything hangs on the diagnosis: if it’s benign, I’m happy & free; if it’s malignant, I’m screwed. I became a victim and saw the universe as punishing me. I noticed small obsessions of trying to figure out what would have given me cancer ~ is it my cell phone, this face soap, or the Vitamin D supplements I’ve been taking? I began to turn on myself ~ surely, I did something to deserve cancer. I shouldn’t have drank so much in my 20’s, I could have been healthier, better, perfect. I got angry at myself for getting angry, sad at my sadness. I didn’t deserve to feel this upset. These thoughts felt so consuming, so powerful. In summary, when I believed my thoughts, it felt like SHIT.
As I sat in meditation without these stressful thoughts (question #4)…sometimes it took a lot of time to get there…my entire being shifted. I felt lighter. My heart & mind opened. My shoulders dropped, neck & jaw softened. I had more energy. I saw a sense of simplicity in this process…how well I have been following the simple instructions: Feel lump. Visit doctor. Get mammo/ultrasound. Schedule biopsy. Get insurance. Do biopsy. Hear results. Re-visit with doctor. Next step…next…next…I wasn’t even the one doing it, I was being led. Without the stressful thoughts, my mind could open to how in reality I am doing everything right…everything is on time…everything has been easier than what I expected so far. I noticed that right
here, right now, I am healthy, in amazing shape, thriving. I have energy for walking and yoga ~ during my yoga practice, I gently caress my lulus (my new nickname for the lumps) and tell them I love them and am here to listen. My witty sense of humor returns and I can tell cancer jokes (ok, so I also learned that sometimes cancer jokes can make people feel uncomfortable too…learning!). Everything is welcome in my body and mind. I see my body as a friend. Emotions are allowed to flow through me and they don’t need a name. I see images of all of the amazing people who have already lined up to support me, how wonderful the medical system is, how I know exactly what I need to do in this moment: nothing. Reality is good. I felt supported, cared for, and trusted the future. It’s not my business if I have cancer. So simple. I don’t know what’s best for me. A full surrender. There’s even a sense of inspiration about diving into the unknown! Getting the results seemed exciting.
The DIAGNOSIS transformed from a doomed death sentence to a clear direction.
The biggest shift came when questioning the thought, “I want the doctors to tell me I don’t have cancer.” I did this the day before the biopsy with my husband. I held the moment of an imagined future: when the doctor calls me with the biopsy results. After we explored the 4 questions, my mind was pretty blown when we hit the turnaround, “I want me to tell me I don’t have cancer.” Well, shit, I want this from me right now, why wait until the phone call! It’s TRUE! I want me to remind myself that there is 100% absolutely no proof that I have one cancer cell in my body. How do I know? Nobody has told me. The tests haven’t proved it. There is no family history. And even if the doctors do tell me on the phone call that I have cancer, can I really know it’s true in that moment? No, I can’t. Yet, I can still follow the simple instructions of the experts ~ the surgery, no surgery, chemo, no chemo…I want me to tell me I don’t have cancer because “I” can never have cancer. I am not this body, I am much more. I can watch this body go through cancer and be here and support it in every way I possibly can.
Another turnaround is “I want the doctors to tell my I have cancer.” Oh shit, this turnaround is scary. I notice my superstitious ego coming in ~ it says, “don’t even think it…that’s how you’ll create cancer!” and then I am reminded to trust the process of The Work. How could this turnaround be true? Here’s what I found:
- I want them to tell me I have cancer if it’s true. I don’t want them to lie to me ~ I want them to use their years and years of medical training to tell me very clearly what they think is going on in my body and how they recommend I handle it. I want pure honesty.
- So I will have a clear direction on where to go from here. I will no longer be stuck in the “unknown” territory of waiting.
- So I can continue to question my thoughts about cancer. I am already realizing that cancer isn’t the problem ~ it’s what I’m believing about Cancer (with capitol C!) that is scaring me in this moment. What if the reality of cancer isn’t so bad? What if it’s good? What if it improves my life??? How will I know unless I fully experience it? So far, the only negatives have been in my thinking…what if that is true throughout the entire process?
- So I can see that other than what I am thinking and believing, I am still ok in this moment. And this moment. And this moment. So I can learn the ultimate practice of presence.
- I have already seen my relationship with my husband deepen, I am truly experiencing him as my rock ~ he would be there for me every step of the way. I can see us giggling in hospital beds, watching tons of movies, telling each other how much we love and appreciate each other. How do I know? This is already happening just thinking that I might have cancer! No more petty arguments, a renewed focus on what really matters. Perhaps all of my relationships would deepen?
- My career could take a shift into helping others cope with cancer. I see offering inquiry and therapeutic yoga in hospitals. I would have so much compassion and be able to truly connect. I have been here too. This could be amazing! Perhaps I am meant to get cancer so I can show the world what I am learning now, that cancer is not the “Cancer” you think it is ~ it is slowing down, self care, connections, meaningful moments, appreciation, gratitude, humor. The suffering is purely in the mind, it’s imagination, it’s not real.
- My family would come visit me more….ha! I am usually the one going to them. I could see just cherishing the moments with each one of them.
- So I can explore the relationship of physical pain and the mind. Through doing inquiry on my pain during migraines, I came to realize that my mind created more pain than existed in reality. The intense pain was an illusion ~ could it be the same for every step of the way in cancer treatment?
- I will meet people on this path that will be important in my life forever: doctors, caretakers, cancer survivors…new friendships & connections.
- What if I find a cure for cancer? Try some new experimental treatment that can help others do the same.
This inquiry was a complete game changer for me. I left it feeling the joy of a small child. Excited for the next step and discovering where my life will lead. Perfect timing ~ the core needle biopsies were scheduled for the very next day.
I was so surprised to discover that the day of my biopsy, I continued to feel this joy, openness, excitement, & detachment about the outcome. I had morning yoga clients, a quick lunch, and met my husband at home so we could ride together. The whole process was interesting to me ~ driving up to the hospital and seeing the big blue sign “Building 3: Cancer Center,” the adorable woman who checked me in, the paperwork, the professional sonogram lady named “Joy” (how cool!) who carefully walked me through every step of the process and took more ultrasound photos…I made sure to wear comfortable pants and bring large cozy socks so my feet wouldn’t get cold. Joy offered to bring me a warm blanket too ~ how amazing is that? I felt the support of the hospital bed, the quiet atmosphere, the wealth of information she shared.
I began to feel a little nervous about the level of pain so when Joy left to get the doctor who would be performing my biopsies, I questioned the thought, “It will be painful” ~ the truth is…no, I can’t know it – I’ve never experienced it. Zero proof. Without the thought, I’m much more at ease, open…let’s do this. And I also did not pretend myself beyond my own evolution ~ I told the doctors that I preferred not to see the needle or watch any of the procedure so they offered to put a soft towel over my eyes. Perfect. The procedure was less painful and much quicker than I thought ~ there was a lovely sound of a large POP after each sample was sucked out from the needle. Lots of deep breathing. One my holes bled more than usual so I enjoyed the extra support of Joy applying a compress to it, then the doctor, then another stranger who came in.
Everyone was so sweet and kind ~ they said they were surprised at how well I did and I shared with them the work I have been doing. The doctor said, “wow, you can really help others with this practice you’re doing.” She especially loved hearing how I see the diagnosis as a direction now. Then they decided to wrap up my boobs into a tight cocoon with ice packs tucked inside (see left). Somehow I had upper and lower cleavage. I was briefed on how to take care of the wounds, how long to rest, and to take Tylenol if I needed it. The results will arrive this week. Done.
My husband drove me home and we watched movies all day and night, ate great food…I read, talked to my mom. Today is the day after my biopsy so the only thing left to do is to answer the phone and hear my next step. I have honestly been looking for fear and stress and I can’t find it right now. I am blown away by this shift in perspective. I am so excited for the phone call: I am at peace with or without a diagnosis of cancer. I see beauty in both ways and can be happy now instead of waiting for the news. I am still open to experiencing that deep sadness and fear again, who knows, it could happen and I love knowing how I will be here for myself in that too. I welcome whatever happens. Is it possible to fall in love with cancer? Let’s find out.