In 2004, at age thirty-five, I was newly married and thought the biggest change in my young life had already come, until I found out that I had breast cancer. I had no idea my life was about to be transformed for the better.
While visiting my mother in the Pacific Northwest, I had a profound dream. I was standing waist deep in murky water, and on my left was a beautiful, silken haired woman emanating a golden light. On the shore was a dark woman veiled in mist. In the water between us was an alligator. I said to the woman on the shore, “Be careful, the alligator will bite you.” She began running around in fast motion, frightened and being chased by the beast. She yelled, “Look, you don’t have to let it get you. You can run from it!” The alligator slipped back into the swamp and swam towards the woman and myself. I warned her, “Watch out, the alligator will bite you.” She smiled calmly, and looked at me her eyes filled with love, then, at the alligator with his nose floating just above the surface of the water. She gently cupped the chin of the reptile, lifting his snout to her mouth and kissed him softly. As she released him, he chomped through her right thigh. Opening her arms wide she put her head back, and looked up, as if towards heaven, all the while smiling peacefully through the awful experience and projecting white light.
A few days later, my mother and I were in church witnessing a moving sermon on pain and spiritual growth. “When confronting pain, your first response is to curl up into a ball and tense against it,” he said –“but this makes it so much more difficult. If, at that time, you can remember to open your heart and let the pain wash over you, it makes it so much easier to bear. In other words, as an old Buddhist parable goes, may you have the strength to kiss the dragon and let it bite you.” My mother and I looked at each other with shock, for she was there when I woke from the dream.
Within weeks, I found a large lump in my left breast. After a long awaited “routine” sonar appointment, the doctor diagnosed me with invasive breast cancer. At the very moment when I was about to be overcome by panic, the face of that goddess came to me and calm encased my spirit. The memory led me to stretch my arms and heart wide open and say a prayer. “I know that if my feet are on this path, they are there for a reason. I know you will send me the wisdom I need to get through this with grace.” Perhaps the great mother came to me to share a secret. It is not what happens to you– but how you respond to it that makes all the difference. As that wise man in church had stated: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”.
Thinking back on that dream, I realize what the lesson was. The great leaders of history have acted just as that goddess did. “Everyone loves a man who smiles on a sunny day, but the true worth of a man is a man who can smile when nothing is going his way.” Facing the toughest moments with calmness and benevolence, even when facing one’s own mortality and pain, is the true test of a human.
Although there were certainly times when the world felt sideways and blurry, cancer taught me acceptance and gratitude. To struggle against unfolding events, to me, seemed a truly worthless cause. Remaining balanced in the face of adversity was its own reward–its own opportunity. This is a lesson that has truly freed me.
My experience with cancer transformed my vision of the world and my place in it. When seeking out resources to help me, I was rather shocked at the complete lack of access to anything outside of medical diagnostics for people with breast cancer. In the best city in the world, New York there wasn’t one breast cancer resource where I could receive access to services that were proven to improve quality of life for people with cancer.
I had come from a long line of women who were in natural health. I had always followed that path through working with others, and did the same in my own recovery. As a vocation, I was working as an artist, a project manager and musician. But cancer, and my gratitude for my own outcome, offered a drive to fully realize my ability to heal myself and to help others behind me. I now wanted to work for a cause, not for applause. So I set about dedicating myself to just that.
So, this is how I healed and regained my composure as a survivor. I had a lumpectomy in June 2004. I then used things that had the most scientific evidence behind them, and that I had experience with. From my experience in working with women, I think it is wise for a person diagnosed to consider ALL therapies and use them in combination for the best possible outcome.
In 2004, I asked questions about integrative medicine from my doctors, it was frustrating. There was mostly stonewalling and little consensus on what was acceptable practice in this area. I was met with a lot of resistance and ambiguity. It was my observation that it would be beneficial to patients to have a non-biased source of integrative services and consistent information, to create community unity in what we are telling people with cancer was good for them. I felt it was important to develop a path to help the women behind me obtain relief and education so they could focus on healing and transformation, because it was my belief that every challenge in life can be turned into a transformative experience with the right tools.
“Each story has power, each one of use can make a change I believe that wholeheartedly. Sometimes the catastrophe is really a blessing in disguise, I know it offered me the courage and vision to use my life in a way that otherwise may not have transpired.”
A huge part of my recovery was community service. We know that healing goes far deeper than surgery and treatments; healing is something that happens in an environment where you feel safe and embraced. Healing, is addressing the physical and psychological causes and effects of dis-ease. It is impossible to talk about my healing journey without talking about the community service aspect of healing for me. I felt so strongly after my diagnosis that I would be a better stronger person because of this diagnosis if I could get outside the suffering and into the gratitude and pleasure of being of service to others, finding meaning. For me this was a big step to a higher state of healing.
I founded a non-profit in 2005 one year after my own diagnosis, and began with patient peer support and navigation. I attended scientific conferences and advocacy training creating a website and a presence with other survivors. By 2007 I had acquired space to be donated for acupuncture on Sundays. Mobilizing practitioners in the community who feel kindred to the idea of easing the journey for people with breast cancer, and asking them to give of themselves and their skills. Quite swiftly we were poised to make a real difference in after care and breast cancer support services. Since that first small center we have grown through three centers and now operate in a 10,000 square ft space in the most bustling part of New York City. We provide integrative therapies, navigation and education to people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer in order to reduce symptoms, relieve stress, obtain balance and implement healthy lifestyle practices. The ultimate goal is to empower other survivors to live healthy and transformed lives after being diagnosed with breast cancer by providing combined wisdom and real tangible support to get through it and not just survive, but thrive!
Everything needed to live healthier and create a survivorship plan was placed under one roof, so people with cancer don’t need to try to relax in the same buildings they receive treatment, or run around town getting a bunch of different integrative services from practitioners who don’t work together. For those who cannot afford services, donations from another thriver support their treatments, a truly utopian vision was born.
It is my belief that access to care should not determine suffering from a diagnosis, so I worked to give in service all the things people need to address the whole person regardless of income. A replicable program was born, a new movement in after care and survivorship, by the people and for the people. This is my cancer story. It’s about love…
“Lifting love beyond a mere personal relationship and turning it into a large scale social force for good.” – Martin Luther King