When I was first diagnosed with cancer I was told that the cancer was contained within my left breast and I, therefore, had a 95% survival rate. I left my doctor’s office satisfied that I was still one of the fortunate ones within society – I would survive. After my lumpectomy I was told that the tests were wrong, and the cancer had spread to 11 of my lymph nodes. By then I had read enough about cancer to know that my survival rate was now a mere 30%. No longer one of the fortunate in society, I allowed self-pity to take over – Why me?
Then I lost my hair and became one of the visible unfortunates. No longer was it just me that faced my mortality, but all those who looked at me came face to face with mortality. An old neighbor I barely knew burst into tears at the sight of me, a parent in my son’s school assured me that she assured her son nothing like that would ever happen to her. No, she was not going to become one of the unfortunates. I wanted to tell her that I too had been one of the fortunate, and that we do not know what fate will bring, but why ruin her illusion? It is not until one actually becomes unfortunate that one learns to come to terms with it; which is why, after living with cancer for 7 years, coming face to face with death twice and having survived, I now have a completely different perspective on cancer, death and being fortunate or unfortunate.
I used to think it was the cancer that gave me the courage to face my innermost self, but to be more accurate, it was coming face to face with death that gave me courage. After my first 9 months of treatment I hoped for the best, that I had been cured. I returned to my old life, not completely the same person as I was before. My hair grew back, and the busyness of work, taking care of my son and just getting through the day took over. Two years passed and then cancer was discovered in my abdomen. It had spread. This time I didn’t ask what my survival rate was. Similar to the first time I was diagnosed, I realized I was having difficulty with being one of the “unfortunate” ones in society.
I had taken on the role that I was one of the lucky cancer patients. It had not returned. I was feeling and looking good, at least that is what I was told, and I felt I was cancer free. When the cancer returned I was once again one of the unfortunate ones. With that perception, immediately the victim role appears.
I hate the victim role; it feels pathetic and often brings self-pity with it. I love the “being lucky” role. You feel on top of the world, loved and adored. Once I recognized these two feelings -- lucky vs. victim as roles, it became very clear how ridiculous they were and how they stop me from just being.
This recognition forced me to look deeper at exactly what fortunate and unfortunate meant to me. For as long as I can remember I have believed in equality for all and that we are all equal. Where did this separation between fortunate and unfortunate come from? In society, the really fortunate are all those healthy, wealthy, beautiful people we see on TV Commercials and the really unfortunate are only seen on TV commercials in order to raise funds in hopes of preventing the fortunates from becoming the unfortunates. This reminded me of the scrapbooks I kept as a child. I would paste pictures from magazines of the perfect house, including the interior rooms, the furniture, the perfect husband and kids into my scrapbook. I dreamed of having or belonging to the all American families I watched on TV. I was shy and often teased at school. For most of my early life, I believed that if I could be an extrovert then I would have more confidence and self-esteem. I saw the athletic, healthy, all American extrovert as an ideal. Once I became an adult I recognized this ideal as phony. Now I realize that although I saw the all American image as phony there was a part of me that believed I had achieved at least part of my childhood goal. I was one of the fortunate.
Shortly after my cancer returned I started doing a program called The Healing Journey, run by a man who previously had a serious cancer and yet survived. It is a program designed to help cancer patients become more aware spiritually and psychologically in hopes of prolonging their life. One of the exercises we were asked to do was to write a short autobiography of our lives, focusing on our feelings and then summarizing what we had learned about ourselves while doing the exercise.
The first thing I noticed when I read over my feelings about my life was that there were a lot more negative than positive feelings. I learned from my father that the suffering we encounter in life is a time for reflection and growth. This is how I lived my life and, therefore, I had always seen myself as a positive person. In actual fact, I discovered I am very negative in my perceptions. I started to become more aware of just how pervasive my negativity was in my everyday life. There is always a “but”. It’s a beautiful sunny day, “but” it is too cold. I love my new dress, “but” one day it will get old and ruined. I love my apartment, “but” I wish it wasn’t on a main street. And so on and so on, I could go on forever.
I now see that the ego self is full of contradictions. Deep within we are full of unconscious false, negative perceptions and beliefs about ourselves, and outwardly we create ways to protect our fragile fearful inner self. Often our protective mechanisms contradict the inner beliefs we have about ourselves. My belief that I was one of the fortunate - the all American, healthy, happy personality - was just a way to protect that scared little girl within that still believed she was not liked or likable and therefore was actually unfortunate.
Swami Radha, in her book “Kundalini Yoga for the West”, writes “The personalities we create to protect our low self-image is a form of survival”. Then she asks the reader “What does survival mean to them?” To me survival meant doing whatever it takes to not feel my innermost pain – that I am flawed, inadequate, not worthy of love. It is an illusion that the many personalities or roles our ego self creates will protect us from our inner pain, but it is a very strong and convincing illusion.
One of the most important things I learned by becoming more spiritually aware is what happens to us in life is not important. It is how we choose to view what happens to us that is! It is up to me if I want to view my life through my ego self, which often means defensively with cynicism and judgment or through my higher spiritual self with love and compassion.
There have been many times I have longed to return to my old existence pre cancer but, as my therapist pointed out, that is the existence that gave me cancer, and in many ways it was an unhappy life.
So what do I really mean when I long to go back? A time when death was not always lurking right in front of me, a time when I did not suffer pain, have endless visits to the hospital, have to think about my next injection, pill, CAT scan or have to worry about a further progression or set back. But in reality, going back to my life pre-cancer means going back to a time when I lived life blindly, not truly experiencing my existence, a time when my ego-self ruled the way I behaved, a time of powerlessness. Now I am much more aware when I am functioning from my ego self therefore the way I view the world is no longer some by-product of my false perceptions. I no longer think of myself as fortunate or unfortunate, I just am.