Moving Forward: A Cancer Survivor Explores Bold New Directions

woman in fiield

When I plopped into the opening night welcome circle of the Kripalu Healthy Living program Radiance: Create an Amazing Life After Cancer, I was exhausted. That morning, I had attended the memorial service for my dear friend, Dara, who had passed a week before. A couple hundred people gathered to share stories, laughter, tears, and outrage that this beautiful, lively, loving soul had left at age 40, from cancer.

And now, a train ride and time warp later, here I was in the branch-filled Berkshires, sitting in a back jack, meeting eight cancer survivors and our coleader, Maria Sirois. In that moment, “life after cancer” looked to me like throwing a rose on my friend’s coffin and hearing it thud. It looked like crying myself to sleep every night for the last two weeks. But as I settled in and heard tales of diagnosis and survival, I remembered: Oh. We’re all still here. In my fellow workshoppers—eight people from their 30s through 50s—I saw stress and fear and bravery and resilience and resistance. I saw myself. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma seven years ago at age 31, I had almost been forgetting that I was a survivor, too.

For a while, I was able to help Dara with my veteran knowledge. But she quickly surpassed me as she entered surgery after surgery, chemo after chemo. In comparison, I felt like I hadn’t survived very much at all, and started to feel like just a medical tourist who had had a chemo fling and was very, very lucky.

But here, taking turns talking while passing around a skein of rainbow-colored yarn in a circle, making a cat’s cradle of connection in the middle, I was back to me. Back to my fears about recurrence and panic about living as healthfully as possible, despite my penchant for chocolate and coffee. I shimmered with recognition when one woman spoke: “I can handle anything that comes my way, but I don’t want to.” Yeah, I thought. What she said.

The next day at lunch, I went for a walk in the snow-globe world outside. Feeling the flakes land on my face, breathing that lung-scrubbing air, and sensing that this was the perfect place to be, I thanked Dara. I had decided to come here just four days after she died, and it felt like her magic had brought me to this place that’s been my spiritual home for nearly 20 years. Our afternoon session was on “thriving,” which, Maria explained, “depends on having a still enough center that you can choose wisely.” So, basically, mindfulness—focused, open attention to the world inside and outside of us—is a key to vibrant living. Regularly practicing mindfulness with a simple meditation that focuses on the breath, Maria said, has been shown in studies to decrease body tension, fear, anxiety, and depression, plus boost energy, positive thoughts, and feelings of happiness. It can even increase the sense that we’re living a more authentic life—being ourselves, speaking our truth, and reaching for our dreams.

As a longtime yogi and off-and-on meditator who’s been writing about this stuff professionally for years, I notice I’m a bit jaded to the message. I condescendingly think that freshly learning about mindful and healthy living must be so nice for the people who haven’t heard it. How life-changing for them. I catch myself. Ah, right. One of my classic distancing methods. Superior/inferior. If I feel better-than or less-than I can avoid feeling, well, anything else.

So, I dig a little. Am I practicing this, daily? Am I thinking positive thoughts more than negative ones? Am I living a fulfilled, self-actualized life? Am I indulging in my personal poison, procrastination, more often than not? I notice the answers are a string of bad news. And this sends me into a familiar freak-out mode. If I know all this stuff and yet still cannot make a fundamental shift that might free me to be who I really am, is there any hope? If none of the lifesavers do more than keep me floating, how can I get back on the boat and sail? Because floating is not sustainable. Not only am I egotistical and lazy, but I’m also hopeless. Unlovable. From my self-flagellating fog, Maria’s voice, which sounds soothingly like a more poetic version of Susan Sarandon’s, cuts through as she quotes a friend: “There’s nothing we can’t make worse by beating ourselves up about it.” It makes me smile and brings me back to center. Ha. There I go again. And here I am again, laughing at myself. Cool.

Later on in the session, bundled in purple yoga blankets, we hear that even micro-doses of meditation can help us return to this alleged center. Five minutes a day, every day. This makes sense. Just enough time to bushwhack the weeds growing around our still, core essence.

At some point, Maria shares one of her own internal battles. In her 20s, she promised to look in the mirror for 30 days and say, “I love you.” It was weeks before she could even get the words out. Eventually, she faked it. Then, she made it. Months later she was able to say the words and feel them true.

What does this have to do with cancer? Well, in my story—and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone—there’s a lot of self-blame and selfloathing. A part of me still believes that only emotionally sick people get physically sick. In New Age yoga land, there’s a lot of talk about how our thoughts create our reality—our health, our wealth. So when one of those two slips into the Dumpster, it’s almost impossible to not reflexively think another toxic thought: “I manifested this.” Followed closely by: “I am a loser.” Not helpful, but there it is.

And with my darling Dara too, I had the constant feeling that I had not done enough. That if had I done more—forced a second opinion out of my own oncologist, done yoga and foot rubs with her twice a week, tracked down some magical Amazonian healer—she would still be here. For months, I’ve had this guilt that has grown stronger with her death. I take a breath. I hear in my head the quote from Kripalu’s spiritual founder, Swami Kripalu, that I’ve memorized: “Every time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.”

At the next session, fittingly, we learn to feed ourselves. Our nutrition session teaches us that food influences genetics; we can eat ourselves healthy with a balanced mix of plants, grains, and proteins—a Mediterranean diet, almost vegan. We learn about how cancer relates to inflammation, gut bacteria, sugar, antioxidants, and, of course, the non-helpfulness of highly processed foods. “Anything that comes from a box isn’t going to heal you,” says nutritionist Annie B. Kay, who reveals things I didn’t know about low-GI carbs and the evils of isolated soy protein. I’m actually getting excited to retest my vitamin-D levels and blend up a forgotten fave: a kale-avocado-banana smoothie.

Later, a journaling class has me facing my slackerness—even though I’m a writer I haven’t been writing, really, for me. The instructor’s prescription is 20 minutes a day. She shares a study in which people who wrote about the facts and feelings they had each day improved their lives—emotionally and situationally. She had us write a dialogue with our bodies, which is dangerous ground for cancer survivors. Our bodies hold secrets, even from us. When I got sick, I thought I was just detoxing. For months I wrote off coughing and fevers and nausea as allergies, a cold, an emotional response to stress. So did my doctors. Finally, my body’s toxic secret was revealed by scans, blood tests, and a biopsy. So now, seven years later, asking, “Dear Body, what’s up?” is a scary question. If it’s stealthily sick, I’m not sure I want to know. But apparently, what’s up is that my body wants me to wash my hair. And eat less sugar. And breathe. Take naps. Lay off the technology. Be in nature. Do slow, chill yoga.

That day, my body sends one of its frequent but still mystifying messages: I get a thundering migraine and vomit for six hours. Maria brings me mint tea and ice. The next morning she says, “It looks like you crossed over something.” I’m not sure exactly what she sees but I suspect I glean it. I feel cleansed and much more calm.

Then a session on happiness gives us the basics of Positive Psychology: Happiness is a balance of pleasure and meaning. We’re told of 12 happiness boosts, including practice gratitude; cultivate optimism; avoid over-thinking; do acts of kindness; learn to forgive (especially self-forgiveness); and more. There’s also the importance, says Maria, of merging intention with action no matter how small the motion may seem. “In order to change anything, you have to change something,” she says.

I find myself doing this in a tiny but significant way. I had dreaded one element of the program: sharing. I’ve got Post-Traumatic Sharing Disorder from past sharing circles gone wrong. But I’ve taken to our coteacher Aruni Nan Futuronsky’s share circles like a golden retriever to water. I forgot that I process by speaking. And by listening. One day Aruni shares a haiku from the Japanese poet Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.” A circle of nods. As survivors, we’ve all seen our barns—our bodies and more—burn down. And we’ve all glimpsed a grace obscured.

After only four days filled with sharing, listening, making expressive art, eating more legumes than we thought possible, hot-tubbing, dancing, doing gentle morning yoga, and being given permission to have our souls come forth and play, we are all glowing. Looking around our closing circle of gratitude, we all say how shiny everyone looks. We have been using glitter in some of our exercises and now it appears to be in our eyes, on our faces. There is a definite glow and I want to explode into a giant hug for these fellow warriors. One woman says she will start living her life outside diagnostictest-to-test increments, but as a flow; she will make plans. Another commits to daily journaling; someone else will be mindful about food. I decide to meditate 10 minutes a day. I also realize I want to celebrate the milestones in my life (getting married recently, having essays published) while enjoying the process in between them (not beating myself up for all I haven’t done or impatiently wanting to fast-forward my life).

Aruni invites us to lovingly see each other practicing our promises—at home, away from this bubble of allowed health, in the world. We do.

—Valerie Reiss