"You have cancer. You have a very serious, fast-moving cancer, and you need to do something about this immediately."
Those were the first words I heard upon awakening after a "routine" biopsy of a lump that had mysteriously appeared, two months earlier, on the left side of my neck. The diagnosis was stage IV throat and neck cancer. Treatment began immediately, with a prediction that if something didn't work fast, I would not be here for Christmas. Christmas was only 90 days away. That was almost nine years ago.
When life comes to a screeching halt, it demands our attention and introspection. During the initial days of my journey, I had hours and hours strung together to ponder the many questions that accompany a potential death sentence. "Why me? Why now? What did I do wrong? Where did I go wrong? How long do I really have? So many questions crawling around in my head like termites looking for the perfect place to gnaw.
Then... the most important question of all drifted in. A gift from the angels. Why is cancer the only disease referred to as a battle? This question triggered a cascade of thoughts and subsequent questions that took center stage and demanded an answer. Have you ever thought about why this is so? I hadn't.
We never hear about someone losing their battle with heart disease, or losing their battle with diabetes, or losing their battle with kidney disease. No. We only hear about it in relation to cancer. We have permeated society with this mindset of "battling" cancer so much so that the very first words of support from doctors, family and friends are, "You are facing the toughest battle of your life. You have to fight! You have to battle." Then you have to pray that you ultimately win and the cancer loses. The time has come for a paradigm shift.
The answers and soul searching that surfaced as a result of this question is why I say in my book, FROM STAGE IV TO CENTER STAGE, that the presence of cancer was the best present I have ever received. I took a deep, spiritual dive. Searching my soul for the truth about who I was. Here's what I learned.
I learned that war against war is war. Where there is a battle there is a war. I certainly did not want to perpetuate a war with something that was already potentially angry. Cancer has a lot of heat. It needs to be cooled. It needs to be loved. It needs to be embraced and befriended. I began to dialogue with my cancer as I would with a trusted friend. I gave it a name. I gave it a pen. I gave it permission to tell me what was going on. I asked: What are you doing in my body? Why did you decide to come into my life? What do you need in order for me to help usher you out of my body and on your way? These are just a few areas that were explored.
The sessions felt as if I was actually in relationship with someone who was far wiser than I. This is what happens when we are willing to let our higher selves lead the way. What I gleaned from these quiet, personal and intimate moments was invaluable. I believe it was what helped save my life. I was inspired to investigate places within that needed to be healed. There are too many lessons to share in this short blog, so suffice it to say, the top three are the most important and useful to anyone facing anyone of life's challenges. Challenges are doorways to transformation. Especially when dealing with cancer.
My top three:
1. "Stop beating yourself up for nothing." When I said I wasn't beating myself up for nothing, the response was, "It doesn't feel that way in here."
2. "The more light you can hold within, the less room there will be for me." This meant it was time to locate the places where the emotional wounds had caused blockages and find ways to once and for all, clear them.
3. "The more you love yourself, Denise, the less reason for me to stick around." This is where the rubber meets the road. The work began and continues to this day with the woman in the mirror. Our bathroom mirrors can be our most precious therapists.
I don't think I would be here today, sharing my journey with you, had I chosen to battle and fight against cancer. I would have depleted what little physical and emotional resources I had.
My mission is to usher in a paradigm shift. A shift in how we approach cancer. It's time to give people who have received a cancer diagnosis the permission they need to stop fighting and start loving themselves. If they don't have the tools, then lets equip them. It's time to let them know they didn't do anything wrong. And please, let us stop referring to those who died as people who lost their battle. They are in no way losers. They didn't lose anything. They simply died.
Two days prior to being diagnosed I had ridden my bicycle 90 miles in one day with the Pan Mass Challenge, affectionately known to Bostonians as the PMC, raising money for children's cancer research for the Jimmy Fund and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. How ironic! How perfect!