Laura Linney in 'The Big C'
Of all diseases, the one that is most likely to bring post-traumatic growth is cancer. It's because of this that survivors of cancer sometimes talk about the illness in almost spiritual
terms, as a ‘great teacher' or even a gift. The cyclist Lance Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer at the age of 25, has said that since having cancer, he has become ‘more complete, compassionate and more intelligent, and therefore more alive.' He has learned that ‘we are much better than we know. We have unrealized capacities that sometimes only emerge in crisis.' In her book The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening' the breast cancer survivor Anne McNerney goes even further, stating that ‘Cancer is your ticket to your real life...the life you were truly meant to live.'
To those who have cancer but only experience pain and misery, these positive comments probably seem downright bizarre, even offensive. And we all know people who, even after recovering from cancer, are left feeling intensely anxious and vulnerable, without any positive effects. Nevertheless, for many cancer can have a transformational effect. After an initial stage of devastation and anxiety, and despite the pain and discomfort the illness brings, many cancer patients do go through a profound journey of self-discovery which changes them radically.
I interviewed many people who had been through this journey in my book Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation. One of them was television writer called Carrie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. It was a massive shock, partly because in her family she'd always been the person who didn't get ill, who cared for everyone else. She had chemotherapy and radiotherapy for a year, at the same time as doing relaxation exercises and positive visualisations. And after a year she was told that the cancer had gone into remission.
‘I've had a weird but wonderful journey, from hitting rock bottom and back up again,' Carrie told me. ‘It's quite amazing how things have turned around. It's been very liberating, and led to a massive change in my values and my ambitions. I feel as if I've woken up to something.'
Whereas she used to be quite ambitious and materialistic, now Carrie is mainly concerned with ‘living as harmonious and peaceful a life as possible...I'm very much aware that I used to live a very ego-based kind of life and I feel that through being aware of it, I can drop it. Now I see myself as part of a whole. I see my life in a universal context, whereas before I didn't think beyond my own desires.'
She is also much more present-centred than before, and less afflicted with negative thoughts: ‘I live very much in the present. When you have a realisation of what really matters, it stops you getting lost in negative thoughts, which I used to do...I feel a lot more free, a lot less encumbered by anxiety and fear of death.'
Transformation Before Recovery - Irene
Carrie was extremely fortunate: she recovered from cancer, and experienced transformation after this. However, this shift can also occur while a person is ill with cancer, even while they're faced with the possibility of imminent death.
When Irene was told she had cancer, for example, she didn't break down into despair, as most people do. At the time she was 42 years old, living a hectic life as an IT Manager for a medical company. She was - as she realises now - a workaholic, constantly travelling around the country, with no real interests or ambitions outside her job.
Irene by-passed the phase of bitterness and depression most people experience after being diagnosed, and had a transformational experience straight away. As she describes it, ‘It was almost instantaneous, overnight. It was the first time I'd seen death as a reality, and realised that life is just temporary. The following day I woke up and thought "I'm just so lucky to be alive, the fact that I'm still here." Although it was raining, it was just wonderful. The air was so clean and fresh and everything I looked at seemed so vibrant and vivid. The trees were so green and everything was so alive - I was just seeing the energy of things. I became aware of this energy radiating from the trees, and had this tremendous feeling of connectedness. It was fantastic. I just felt so fortunate to be alive on this planet, to be able to walk in the rain, under this umbrella.
‘That feeling was really intense for the first few weeks, and it's remained ever since. The big thing was this connectedness and a tremendous feeling of love and compassion.'
Irene responded well to her treatment regime, which included the removal of her lymph notes, a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Despite a poor prognosis, Irene was free of cancer for several years - until a few months ago, when the cancer returned. But she stills feels a powerful sense of connection, and has found a new pleasure in just being: ‘I have this inner connectedness with other people, with the whole universe... I've connected with the authentic me - and that is such a great feeling.'
From Breaking Up to Shifting Up
I believe it isn't so much cancer itself which has transformed these women, but encountering their own mortality. Through being told that they were probably going to die soon, they gained a new appreciation of life, a new sense of perspective and connection. They have realised how precious life is, how beautiful the world is, that the future and past are illusions and only the present is real.
But perhaps most importantly, confronting death has had the effect of dissolving their ‘psychological attachments.' As human beings, it's normal for us to depend on a lot of external things for our sense of identity and well-being - our status and success, our possessions and wealth, our hopes and ambitions, our appearance, the knowledge we've accumulated, and so on. We feel like we're ‘someone' because of these ‘attachments.'
When we go through turmoil in our lives, it's usually because some of these attachments are broken. Our hopes and beliefs have been shown to be illusions, our wealth our status is taken away, our lovers or friends have rejected us, or our lives themselves are threatened to be taken away. As a result, we feel naked and lost, as if our identity has been destroyed.
But at this very point we are, paradoxically, close to transformation. When our identity is destroyed, it leaves us a space for a new, higher self to come through, like a butterfly from a chrysalis. And it seems that, for some people, cancer can help this self to emerge.
Steve Taylor is the author of Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com