During the five years my husband, Bob, struggled with prostate cancer, I neglected my own medical life.
No tests, no checkups, no blood work. And also, very little moving around, as I sat with him, conducted my psychotherapy practice, managed our small army of home care people, and tended my back-deck garden. Mixed in, I sometimes felt frustrated and angry. From early in his illness, Bob, the amazingly strong and competent neurosurgeon, became an insecure human being who didn’t want me to leave his side. Given that freedom is highly important to me, I struggled to continue to be loving while also feeling imprisoned, frustrated, and angry.
A year after his death, having cleared out and sold our home and temporarily moved in with my son and his family, I decided to “catch up” with medical tests. As we determined what to test, my doctor said that mammograms were performed only to the age of 75. “Well,” I said nonchalantly, “I’m 74. I better get a mammogram now!”
Only a few weeks later, to my utter surprise, I was given a diagnosis of breast cancer.
It was small, less than a quarter-inch wide. It was very slow-growing, two to four percent a year. It was invasive, yet it showed no signs of having spread. I was assured that this type of cancer rarely released rogue cancer cells (though no guarantees).
Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you I’m seldom ill, even with a cold. I’m accustomed to being healthy. When I met Bob, the neurosurgeon, on the Internet on a Mental Health Bulletin Board in 1994, I told him candidly that as an Alternative Medicine Type, I had spent most of my life trying to stay away from people like him (doctors). This time, I married one! And this time, I was being diagnosed with The Big C.
When I handled the news with calm and aplomb, I wondered why? I saw cancer, like any other challenge in my life, as an opportunity.
Ever since I had accepted that our Earth is a Giant School to which we all come in order to learn and grow, I had taken my life experiences as “opportunities.” I had been challenged with, and learned from, many such opportunities, like marriage at age 19. Two divorces. Single parenthood for 20 years. Overwhelming anger, fear, fear of rejection, guilt, shame, worry, and too many years of being a victim.
When I became a single parent, I created a method for parenting children consciously that I have now taught worldwide. When I realized how angry I was, I researched and created a way to understand and work with anger that allows me to claim “Recovered Angry Person” status and share it worldwide. The approach also worked with other emotions. I’ve become a pioneer in Emotional Literacy, having written (early 1990’s) some of the first manuals to help parents teach their children about working with emotions. I became the Queen of taking the lemons of my life and making delicious lemonade!
So now, the challenge was Cancer. The Big C. What opportunity was this?
My first thought was that I wanted to experiment to see if I could heal the cancer. As I poked around, I found that many people have been successful in doing so, particularly when they do not follow the usual pattern of modern medicine, which I describe as cutting, poisoning, burning, or applying hormones (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy). As I ate my raw diet, practiced Qigong and took my supplements, I also began to look at the emotional side of this cancer.
I asked myself:
“What am I trying to teach myself by developing this cancer?” Here’s What I Found:
- It was time to stop giving lip service to “self-care.” My body did not experience “love” by putting others, and many activities ahead of my own health and well-being.
- My body needed me to move and exercise it. I am about moving. Emotions are about moving. My body clogs up when I sit down and don’t move. I thought of bodies as “like dogs.” I love dogs, so it was a positive image for me. Like dogs, bodies need food, exercise, pats on the head, and a comfy place to sleep. Most importantly, they need to be loved. Spending time with a dog allows it to feel loved. It was time to stop taking my healthy body for granted. My body needed my time, caring, attention, and appreciation.
- “Relaxing” had been made easier by a frequent evening glass of tequila. Eating healthy foods and washing them down with tequila for a few years did not work for my body. I was sure this had contributed to the formation of cancer. Instead, I needed to feel.
- Even as an expert on emotions and emotional mastery, I had not paid enough attention to feeling, working with, and releasing the emotions that arose in me. Instead, I pushed myself to handle them perfunctorily so I could complete the tasks at hand. Some of this is okay, and even necessary when a loved one is ill and dying. Too much of it causes the caretaker to become ill and die, too. Never again!
By developing this small, slow-growing, invasive breast cancer, my body had somewhat tactfully pointed out to me that I needed to balance my selflessness with more attention to myself!
During the ensuing year, I set life up so that I had no one to think about and care for except for myself (and my small dog, Pi, who helped with those tasks). Even though the cancer did not disappear, it didn’t grow. I could feel my body (which had worked very hard to keep the cancer contained) celebrating for days following the surgery to remove it, healing fast and eagerly.
When you learn the lesson presented through your experience, you are finished and free to move on!
Be sure to check back here next Friday where I will share what cancer taught me about support from others!
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Ilene Dillon, MSW, has dedicated her life to helping people resolve personal challenges once and for all, then design life to be what they want it to be. A Transformation Specialist, she has worked 50 years as a psychotherapist and 15 years as a coach. She is a global speaker, Amazon International Best-selling author (The Wellness Universe Guide to Complete Self-Care, Volumes 1 and 2), podcast guest, and plans to give her first TEDx speech (on Anger) later this year. Ilene is also the author of Emotions in Motion: Mastering Life’s Built-in Navigation System and End Manipulation: Stop Being Jerked Around by Toxic, Energy-draining People. With her little dog, Pi, Ilene lives and travels full-time throughout North America in her RV, writing, teaching, and speaking along the way.