JOURNEYING WITH CANCER
For a while now people have been asking me to write about my experience of cancer. Laura Valenti (yourself a vibrant survivor you were the first -maybe we should do a dancing with cancer weekend?) and most recent inspiration has come from Grace Ekall who contacted me asking if she could interview me about the power of dance as a healing agent without knowing about my relationship with cancer. Maybe this can be posted on MastecMode Grace? Creative gestation seems always to have it’s own timing and so it’s taken a while. Here, now, is one version of the path I have walked for the last 23 years. Cancer is a word that tends to frighten people, as well as evoking all the grief they carry about those they have lost to the disease and I’ve needed to learn to discern who to tell what as I’ve travelled so that I could focus my attention of the essential, rather than being awash in other people’s emotional reactions. It seems to me that the important thing is a life so well lived that death can arrive not as a fearful demon but as the old friend you have lived with your whole life. The one who has always whispered in your ear, live wisely. Give love. All that said, are you sitting comfortably?
I was, or rather my cervix, was first diagnosed as pre-cancerous when I was age 30. I had just come out of the most emotionally abusive relationship I’d been in and in truth I do not think that these two things were disconnected. Although I wrote an undergraduate philosophy dissertation on the question of whether medicine is a useful pursuit, I’d also been raised (by a nurse) to believe that doctors know what they are doing, so it would be a while before I took my health entirely into my own hands. Asking the medics how having a third of the gateway to my womb removed was likely to affect childbearing, I was told that they didn’t know but advised to go ahead nonetheless. So I did.
A few days later whilst staying with friends (remember the drive to Tiverton hospital Fred Ehresmann?) I began to haemorrhage very badly. To say that I entered into an altered state of consciousness in the car on the way to hospital, as I alternately watched a bath towel becoming ever more blood soaked and the beautiful landscape outside the window is no exaggeration. Blood clot dislodging the doctors said and after a night in hospital home I went to carry on with my life. Thankful.
In the meantime I trained first as a social worker and then immediately afterwards as a family therapist, working in the mental health services with some of the worst distress on evidence in our society. It is probably worth saying that much of this was rooted in my ongoing attempts to process, heal and come to terms with my own trauma based in a childhood of being both witness and subject to emotional and physical family violence.
I also manifested my more personal dream of meeting and marrying my life partner, whom I had known for a long time I would travel to India with. When we came home we had a passenger on board and although I suffered from bleeding and a potential miscarriage, Faith Mandvi arrived two days after a solar eclipse on Friday the 13th, albeit six weeks early, in a very crowded delivery suite, amidst the kind of sociable energy that has followed her ever since. I was so relieved I didn’t really think too much about the role of an incomplete cervix in the proceedings and settled into life as a new and ecstatic mother.
A couple of years later I began developing a lump in the gland in my throat which for some months puzzled me, given its residence as a growing but completely pain free presence. What I didn’t know at that point is just how painless cancer is in its early growth stages. Fortunately for me a friend cut her foot at a festival and during her treatment by our GP friend, I asked if she had time for an extended surgery before the next gig we all wanted to go to. She advised me to see my doctor. A week later having been to my own GP I “knew” from both all that went unsaid in the room, alongside the very rapid appointment delivery to the local ear, nose and throat department that all was not at all well. The long process of emotional literacy education for the succession of doctor’s who were to become part of our lives, began with the New Zealander who seemed blissfully unaware that telling a breastfeeding mother that she most likely has lymphoma without any thought to cushioning the blow, began.
Breastfeeding, which I’d imagined would stop when Faith, my daughter, dictated, ended sooner than expected, replaced by chemotherapy. Not, however, accompanied by egg harvesting, as we decided that the Goddess was quite clearly taking a large hand in the unfolding proceedings and we decided, that under the circumstances, to give her the call on whether we would be adding a brother to the family at a later date. I say a brother simply because I had had a very clear communication from a soul who introduced me to Faith and her dad in a dream, some years earlier (at the end of the horrible relationship I mentioned at the beginning of this) and had always imagined he’d be joining us. Perhaps, I’d been wrong.
Chemotherapy, meant to take six months, took nine, continuing amidst regular debates with medics about the value of herbalism, homeopathy and diet, as I was regularly aghast at the serving of chemical laden meat to patients on cancer wards. Whilst arguments ensued over steroids and chemical treatments for “side-effects” when, as a conscious dancer, I would let my body shake with fear in ways that hospital staff struggled not to jump on with IV tubing. Gradually though, they began to enjoy the raucous laughter that came from my visitors on treatment days and they began to ask me about my (clearly non-mainstream) belief systems. I rather suspect it was an education for all concerned.
I decided meantime to relate to my illness as a prolonged Buddhist tonglen meditation, transforming all the emotional toxins I’d been absorbing at work, which seemed to me to be as useful a story as any and nine months of light breaths and rat poison later, I was fit to return to life as 'normal'.
In spite of my consultants huge disapproval, bless his cotton socks, our son arrived in 2004, some years after I watched the Twin Towers collapsing and wondered whether chemo would proceed apocalypse or not. He was not just six weeks early but a full two months and there is little doubt that either of us would have survived without antibiotics and the superb special care provided for him, with a little help from the water elementals. Life is really rather miraculous. If one thing is clear to me it is that it’s ‘rules’ are not defined by medical science and that despite many of our efforts to the contrary, both life and death still cling to some territory beyond the parameters of our many control mechanisms. Louey, who first introduced himself on the dream plane, is 13 in August.
A year after he was born however, after what I imagined would be a routine pap smear, one of the new GP’s in our surgery (whom I had never met before and who didn’t know me at all) called me in to tell me that ‘my disease’ was back again, in my womb this time and that given the fact that I had two children now and was ‘clearly’ suffering from a lot of anxiety (I don’t think he had heard of the concept of emotional projection at that point) that the best course of action was a rapid hysterectomy and HRT treatment.
Having been an active pagan for many years I view my womb as the seat of my power as a womban. Not really fancying being an “an”, I declined his offer and we set to digging a big hole in our back garden, which we wove a willow dome over and draped in the first power animals who ever spontaneously visited me in my 20’s, the dolphin pods. For the next 13 full moons I gathered (etherically) with a group of shamanic friends, one of whom was an airline steward and was sometimes in Mexico, sometimes in Japan and only occasionally up the road in Wiltshire. It was not uncommon for us to see the same visions on those nights.
18 months later I allowed the medical professional to do a biopsy. One of my recurring visions during the proceeding months had been of a set of concentric squares. I’d never seen them before and had no reference points for them. The morning of surgery I turned the page of a book and there they were…a legacy from Bon Po shamanism, the precursor to Buddhism, symbolizing the gateway to the other worlds. My biopsy returned clear, as I rather suspected it might.
It is currently illegal to say that we have cured ourselves of cancer and perhaps given the enormous vulnerability that accompanies the disease, this is, as it needs to be in order to protect the desperate from any who might seek to exploit them. I have known a couple of other women over the last few years, as well as the infamous Steve Jobs, who have travelled down alternative paths and been taken behind the veil rather than staying in this world. My own father on the other hand was diagnosed with terminal cancer at one stage when he was still this side of life and with the help of radiotherapy and sitting by his nearest stream (or burn as we call it in Scotland) told me that he had been slaying the demons that had haunted him since he had nursed his own mother through the disease. He had another ten years after that and continued to write several more books. Quite how these things work I do not claim to know. I do however know that they are not quite so straightforward as many mainstream medics like to think. Life and death yet remain a mystery. Perhaps the most interesting learning for me was during a time that I was having stem cell treatment and felt at my weakest, connected here by the thread that came from my small daughter’s heart. Friend’s would come and go, full of attachments to this and attachments to that. I could almost see them shimmering in the air around them. I saw that attachments, or what we might call desires or intentions, take energy. A system in transition between life and death doesn’t have that kind of energy at its disposal anymore. So that, ‘all we need to do’ when we reach that portal is let go. The really important thing is to make sure you have loved and dreamed and laughed and given as much as you possibly can during the brief flash of beauty we call life. And then, when the time comes, you can let go with grace, knowing you squeezed every ounce of juice from the fruit you were given when you arrived. Hopefully leaving sprinkles of fairy dust, kindness, gentleness, inspiration and joy in your wake.
P>S And as if to prove its point just as I finished the latest edits on this piece, the universe presenting as my oldest friend, phoned, on a break from the bedside of another old acquaintance who is dying of cancer, whilst his daughter has gone from that household to that of her grandmother’s bedside, holding yet another captive of the disease. We talked about this very particular landscape…he saying he doesn’t know much about it, me as someone who knows the map quite well…death is all around - a constant companion to life. Knowing this how does that change your day?
With Love and Blessings,
Ali Young is both a published poet and academic, with book chapters in collections on
embodiment published by
Routledge, as well as a
variety of academic papers.