Even the most stalwart of souls are shaken by a cancer diagnosis. It's no wonder: The latest statistic is that one out of three people will get the disease.
In 2006, when I got my first diagnosis of anal cancer, the news was mind-bending. I simply didn't fit the profile. For years I had written or edited books about health and nutrition. I exercised regularly and attended weekly yoga classes. My husband and I were solid, I had two storybook kids and I was joyfully engaged with my community and a robust spiritual life. I was doing all the right stuff. What I didn't know was that the profile for who gets cancer was broadening. Widely.
The shock of the diagnosis put me in a temporary mental paralysis. As the surgeon recited the names of the radiologist and oncologist assigned to me, what my protocol would be and for how long, I simply nodded. I was barely able to feel my arms and legs much less construct a sentence. Somehow, I managed to turn my eyes from the pale, ghost-like face of my husband to the extreme and obvious discomfort in the body language of the resident surgeons who wallpapered the back of the room.
Eerily, after receiving a cancer diagnosis, most people -- like me -- enter another world: the Cancer Culture. It's a world that many don't know exists, even after they step through the invisible membrane that separates the "regular" world from that one. Dr. Candace Pert, neuroscientist and author of "Molecules of Emotions," describes it as being thrust onto a "cancer conveyor belt." In that world, both the diagnosed and those who love them operate from collective and ubiquitous fear, and all of us almost immediately relinquish our power. When we're scared out of our wits, we want to be compliant patients.
How and why the Cancer Culture was created is understandable, but we are all complicit in maintaining this atmosphere of fear and acquiescence. And it is up to each one of us to step outside of it so we can reenter the land of the self-empowered.
I have experienced not one but three cancer diagnoses -- all within three years. With each one, the prognosis became grimmer but my state of mind became sharper. This was in part because my docs offered fewer treatment options, but also because I became keenly aware that I am not a statistic. I am unique. I am a mix of biology, mind and spirit. I began asking questions that reflected the complex dynamic of who I am, including how nutrition, spirituality and natural or homeopathic remedies could help me on my journey. My well-meaning cancer doctors didn't have answers to most of the questions I asked so that I could make it -- my way -- through the cancer journey.
There's no blame for that. Medical schools don't teach more than a few days of nutrition and nothing about homeopathy. It's not their field. Thankfully, according to Dr. Larry Dossey, who has been studying and writing books about spirituality and remote healing in relation to disease for years, there are increasingly more med schools offering students a global understanding of the need for spiritual respite when people get sick. But for anything outside the established Cancer Culture, we have to go elsewhere.
I chose to change my diet and investigate my inner emotional landscape to make sure I wasn't carrying around old grievances that could be impacting my health. The Cancer Culture snickers at this, believing that cancer is solely a biological disease. It doesn't recognize that we are multi-faceted beings in which our emotions and thoughts are in constant communication with our bodies. But after I began regarding cancer as my wake-up call to (among other things) embrace the cancer as my own, release toxic foods and relationships, and to heal emotional wounds that were buried deep within, I was ultimately empowered.
After stepping outside of the spooky and narrow world of the Cancer Culture, I was able to recognize that there was an essential element missing from most of the conversations that took place with my doctors. Me. Only when I brought my true self to the table was I able to define how and what I wanted to do to heal. There's a bonus in this approach, too. When we take our entire self on the journey, we have the opportunity to heal on every level. This doesn't promise that we will be cancer free, but it does yield a more meaningful and happier life, which can boost the chances for long-term health and well being.
Regardless of where you are on the cancer journey, make sure you're asking questions and making choices that give you the authority of your own experience. If your doctors don't have the answer or tell you that the subject you're inquiring about doesn't matter (such as diet), do your own research and come to your own conclusions. That's the first step back into a world with less fear and where all of you matters.
Here are a few resources that helped me define my own journey which led me to a clean bill of health:
"The Biology of Belief" by Dr. Bruce Lipton
"Anatomy of an Illness" by Norman Cousins
"The Journey Through Cancer" by Dr. Jeremy Geffen
"Anti Cancer: A New Way of Life" by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber
Leigh Fortson has been writing and editing books about health and nutrition for decades. She is the author of "Embrace, Release, Heal: An Empowering Guide to Talking About, Thinking About, and Treating Cancer" (Sounds True, 2011). To learn more, go to embracehealingcancer.com.