When diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, the first thing my oncologist told me was, “If this experience doesn’t rivet you, nothing will.” Having been in perfect health until that time, I sat on the examination table, a bit dumbfounded. There were no incidences of breast cancer in my family. It was simply shocking news. All I wanted was a hug, but what I realized is that he actually sent me home with words that changed my life forever. Now, thirteen years later, I continue to echo those words to myself and to others navigating the breast cancer journey.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and also a month when I remind myself of my lust for life which in many ways was inspired by a cancer diagnosis. It was about turning a negative into a positive. Whenever I encounter life’s upheavals, I reach for my notebook and that time was no different. One of the first things I did when diagnosed with cancer was to begin journaling. The creative endeavor was a way for me to turn a negative experience into a positive one as a means of transformation and growth. Many of my jottings turned into poems and articles to help others navigating similar journeys. From the experience, I also published a self-help memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.
Another way to transform negative or traumatic experiences is to journal or reflect about your dreams. What is your soul telling you to do? What are those things you wanted to do but were never able to do? What have you fantasized about doing that you can do now? Because I suddenly came face to face with my mortality, I realized that it was time to allow my dreams to reach fruition. One of those dreams was returning to graduate school. This was an incredibly transformative experience. Going back to school might not be for everyone, but you have to channel what is good for you and think about the things that make your own heart sing. There is no finer feeling than doing something which echoes the voice of your soul and relays the messages of your heart.
In her compelling book, Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser says, “Suffering and crisis transform us, humble us, and bring out what matters most in life.” Being afflicted with cancer alerted me to what is important and what to be grateful for. Dealing with difficulties is an act of creativity. You must tap into and think about ways to heal. Lesser calls grief “a tonic.” I agree, because experiencing grief or sadness not only reminds you of all the positive things in your life, but it also offers the chance for transformation and change, and paves the way for a better life. The old saying that “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” is pertinent here. As Lesser says, if you are able to use the dark energy wisely then you will get through the experience as a better person, mate, and parent. The experience also brings self-awareness and transformation.
Vicktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is another inspiring book on the subject of how a negative experience such as being a Holocaust survivor can turn your life around and be transformative. Essentially, Frankl says that life holds a special meaning under any condition, even the most miserable ones such as the Nazi concentration camps. By writing and sharing his journey, he was able to help others who were also exposed to despair and loss. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life in a given moment…and thus you are living for the deeper truth hidden in the pain of the circumstances,” he concludes.
Many terms have been used to identify this sort of transformation. Joseph Campbell called it “The Hero’s Journey.” Others might use terms such as an odyssey, quest, grail, or renewal, all implying a sort of rebirth or a new emerging person. In essence, the journey is about surrendering to a difficult time, acknowledging it and honoring it, all which lead to an understanding and transformation. The transformation may make you wiser and stronger. Lesser calls this “The Phoenix Process.” She named it in honor of the mythic bird with golden plumage that the Egyptians called the Phoenix. They believed that this bird renewed his quest for his true self every 500 years. Even though he was a new bird, he was even more himself, like a mirror of his soul, essentially changed, but always the eternal Phoenix. This renewal is what my oncologist was referring to—a riveting event in your life can be a cause for renewal and re-evaluation of your life’s path, a chance to rediscover your truest self.