Cancer, a New View: Unexpected Heroes

Like most people who go on the bizarre and frightening trip of cancer, I needed a way to find comfort and hope. After my third diagnosis, I was filled with despair, not knowing where to turn. With the help of my therapist, I decided to write a book.
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"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." -- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Like most people who go on the bizarre and frightening trip of cancer, I needed a way to find comfort and hope. After my third diagnosis, I was filled with despair, not knowing where to turn. With the help of my therapist, I decided to write a book. If I could hear and write about the stories of people who were given a grim prognosis and still came through after conventional treatment failed them, maybe I could believe healing was possible for me, too.

During the months that I constructed the book, an amazing thing happened: I heard testimonies of the hero's journey. I didn't expect that; I merely thought I'd learn about exciting new alternative treatments and a miracle or two. What I gathered instead were complex stories about how these people worked with their physical and emotional bodies, state of mind and, if they had it, faith, to turn their cancers around and experience remarkable recoveries.

After each interview, I was energized, joyful and enthusiastic about life. These were normal people who had gotten cancer. Most had undergone conventional treatment (although a few chose to bypass them) and just like so many others, they were people for whom the standard treatments did not work. These were everyday folks who were told they would die or that there was nothing more modern medicine could provide for them.

This is when the hero's journey began. They were scared -- who wouldn't be? But something happened deep within them, and in their own ways, these typical people became extraordinary examples. They took full responsibility for their health and the path they would choose to get well -- if it was at all possible. They followed their paths even though there was little guidance or direction and often disapproval from loved ones. They forged their way knowing little more than the need to perceive the disease as more than a physical condition and embrace the whole experience that would lead to ultimate healing.

I found it especially enlightening that each one of them accepted that their emotional wellbeing was at least partly responsible for how they got the disease -- either because they gave their power away, forfeited a dream, allowed the stresses of their life to overwhelm them or were engaged in toxic dramas with others. Each one made profound changes in their lives to relieve themselves of the weight of those dynamics. And in the end, they all believed that changing their emotional tenor was a necessary part of becoming cancer-free or thriving.

These were not the only heroes I met as I wrote the book and carried out my own healing journey. I also encountered an inspirational and rare order of doctors and researchers -- practicing in both mainstream and alternative circles -- who are doing their best to bring innovative, holistic and nutritional information to the world of cancer treatment. Their menus also include honoring how the power of the mind plays into healing. This phenomenon is so significant that it challenges the very foundation of how we do health care in this country. Many life-changing books have been written about it, but those books aren't read in medical schools, nor, ironically, is the power of the mind given much thought among pharmaceutically-trained doctors.

After I finished writing my book, it was quickly picked up by a reputable publisher and, gratefully, it now has a life of its own. But I miss talking to people who surfaced from the underworld. I miss glimpses of how benevolent the universe really is. I miss the excitement of hearing how the impossible can become a matter of fact.

With my book complete, I started looking for heroes in the pages of my everyday life. I heard a radio interview about an unjustly accused prisoner who learned to forgive his prosecutors. I opened a magazine and read about a celebrity who has suffered severe health challenges and is now funding and operating a non-profit that helps others. I stumbled across a TV show that illuminated what an ex-gang member is now doing to help stop the cycle of violence in the inner city neighborhoods where she used to trigger it. The moment I began looking for heroes, they showed up, quietly, all around.

The other night I noticed five buds and a breathtakingly beautiful blossom appearing on the lone stem of an orchid I received almost a year ago. It was only by some great mystery that this plant was still on my table. I'm not good with plants, and I didn't know how often to water this one. Didn't know why it had such wiry roots punching through the small pot of soil. Didn't know why one of the three green leaves turned brown and why, for the longest time, it seemed stagnant and probably lifeless. I told myself the plant was finished, but I kept it around. Now, I'm in awe of the promise of the buds and the shape, color and luminosity of the flower -- despite being given a bad prognosis. It reminds me that there is something incomprehensible and just plain sturdy within every living thing. It can astonish us. Or change the course of our lives.

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

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