Spending this holiday with my family has reminded me of everyday sacrifices and resurrections made for and born out of love. We make sacrifices to be with the people we love when it’s needed: my brother’s family endured a long car ride with a two year old and a dog to reach my father’s steps Toronto. I flew across the Atlantic and endured in-flight rom-coms starring Adam Sadler to be home for Easter. As onerous or mundane as sacrifices might be, when done for love, sacrifices are more often than not often performed without question. Parents spontaneously sacrifice sleep for their newborn babies. My brother and his wife sacrifice hours upon hours to care for my young nephew. My own father as well as extended family and friends have been making sacrifices to extend their support to me as I face cancer.
It’s almost as if all good things born from love and commitment require some sacrifice; it’s almost as if a degree suffering must be endured at times for joy to emerge. When I lie in bed in the morning and think how nice it would be to skip yoga and stay under the covers, I remember the small sacrifices that result in a joy that only comes from fitting in a full early morning practice before I start my day. Getting out of bed when I'd rather to lie in pushes me into a little bit of suffering, but the satisfaction of honouring commitments I’ve made to myself gives birth to a deeper joy. Attending a silent meditation retreat requires sacrifice of time, patience and finances, but the feeling of renewal, spaciousness and lightness at the end of a retreat can feel like a figurative resurrection. Writing this blog entry requires sacrifice too: I had my mind set tonight on a hot bath and an early night, but something else was calling me to write, to keep up this deal I’ve made with myself, for I am already two blog entries behind. So here I am, surrendering my bubble bath and enduring tempered thought and typing late so to unwind in the waters of words.
As I think of the weeks that have passed since my diagnosis with breast cancer, I’ve been contemplating the sacrifices that go towards healing. Change is vital to surviving cancer, and with that upheaval in states of mind and habitual lifestyles come sacrifices in all forms and variations. Whilst there hasn’t been any ritual slaughter – at least not yet – there have been a fair game of resignations, renunciations and relinquishments I’ve made for healing. I left a stressful job. I gave up sugar. I’ve had my last glass of wine. I’ve offered up a good chunk of my day to energy work. I’ve surrendered myself to a pile of research on holistic cancer care. I’ve started a gratitude journal. I’m sacrificing time to sit with myself and listen for any guidance my body might whisper to me. I’m staying as soft and as tender as I can be with myself – soft with all the fluctuation of emotions, tender with all the transformations that are shaking me out of my comfort zone. I feel I’ve got a long way to go, but though all those sacrifices, I sense I’m developing deeper intuition and relationship with myself. Perhaps eventually, a resurrection will happen: Nancy will emerge, like a phoenix from the ashes of cancer, physically, emotionally, and spiritually vibrant, provided all these crazy cancer therapies don’t burn her out first.
In my more existential moments, I ask myself: why am I making all these sacrifices? For whom? For what? For myself? For my family? For God? It is Easter after all, shouldn’t I be thinking about my relationship with the Almighty? Whilst I have no fixed perceptions and conceptions of what or who God is, I sense this journey of healing is as spiritual as it is physical. Healing disease involves addressing the imbalances in the whole self, and the whole self doesn’t stop at the limits of my skin. As I address cancer, I’m confronted with just how connected I am to the world around me. How many toxins are swimming in our polluted cities? A typical beauty cabinet is stocked with chemicals that can initiate rogue cells to fire off in the body; a common refrigerator is loaded with carcinogenic condiments; under the bathroom sink, a host of toxins with prolonged exposure to human skin can alter cellular function and DNA. As I confront not just the outer world and its rogue contributions a cancerous environment, I confront my own inner environment. I have started to notice acutely the thoughts and feelings that fertilize disease, and through that I have begun to seek a more profound balance in my emotional well-being. I sense that begins with relating to myself and to the world in a way that is genuine and compassionate.
With that shift in focus, or rather the immediacy I feel in changing not just how I think and perceive the world, but how I live and act in it, I sense subtly that my relationships have been shifting alongside the inner shifts I have made towards healing. I have been seeking a more meaningful level of enquiry into the sources of this cancer, and through that, a more meaningful level of enquiry into my life. I have begun to see the journey of healing evolving into something as collective as it is individual. It is a cancer in my body, an imbalance I must confront privately, but with that I meet myriads of others– not just other humans, but animals with whom I interact and help heal me, with the earth and to the grass beneath my feet on which I walk, to the leaves in the teas from which I drink, to the flower remedies from which I ingest and that make up my medicines. I sense there’s a mystery to this illness, and that I can never know the ultimate cure or the cause, but through enquiry into its healing, I sense I am receiving guidance by life’s interdependence. Dreams are guiding me. Intuition is guiding me. Synchronicities are guiding me. Nature is guiding me. When I resolve inside to heal this cancer – and not just the cancer itself, but all the physical, emotional and spiritual imbalances that may have precluded this bodily symptom – life starts co-operating in my healing.
Like the sacrifices of sleep mother makes for her child’s wellness, I have been making sacrifices to heal my body. Like the sacrifices of time a father makes for his family’s wholeness, I have been making sacrifices to heal my emotions. Like Christ’s sacrifice of his body for the life of the spirit, or like the Buddha’s sacrifice of fasting and meditation to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, I am too in my small ways, making sacrifices to heal my spirit. And like all those sacrifices – of mother, of father, of Buddha of Christ - the right sacrifices made on my own journey of healing will be primarily ones born from and for love.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was one toe short of being paralyzed with complete bodily fear. Much of orthodox cancer approaches function on fear. Entering into discussion with oncologists about medical procedures and possible outcomes, I seized up in fright; I mirrored the panic I could see in my doctor’s faces as they began to describe what was happening in my body and what I had to do to rid myself of this terrifying disease. In that state of mind, I could only think of cancer in the most threatening way possible – a malignant, mindless, greedy clan of cells out to colonize my tissues and eat me alive. In that light, all weaponry had to be unsheathed to slash, burn and poison the terrifying mass from my breast and stop it at all costs from returning.
But whether in sickness or in heartache, fear has never been entirely successful in bringing me any closer to genuine health. When I approach the condition of living with cancer with greater softness, greater nurturance, greater patience, greater love – when I begin to see the cancer in my body as a process unfolding, a sign that inner conflict needs resolving, a signal that profound healing must happen, I feel empowered, courageous, and less burdened by this fate. I wouldn’t go so far to say cancer is a gift – if it is a gift, I’d like to return this mass of cells with a full refund, or perhaps a gift certificate at the department store of diseases? Or perhaps I could exchange cancer, for say, hay fever? Whilst cancer is no gift, I do see this disease as an opportunity focus on self-nurturing. It’s a time to heal - not just the rogue, multiplying cells in my left breast – but it’s a time to work on my whole self. I am giving myself full permission to address all the emotional and spiritual places of stagnation that need clearing. Cancer is the raven, the omen, the cipher, and the ideogram from which multiple things can be read. “There’s no time to waste.” “Investigate you life.” “Be soft with yourself.” “Listen to your inner voice.” “Heal your heart!” Maybe through this life journey, cancer is the sacrifice that has to be made, and the resurrection will be a more profound feeling of what it means to truly love. Here’s hoping.