Me, Cancer, and A Heart

Many of you who know me are aware that I had cancer as a child. Many of you who know me may not be. It was one of the defining moments of my life. I was 8 years old.

Ironically, getting cancer was the scariest thing I could have imagined. I remember thinking mere months before the first lump appeared, “I hope I never get cancer. That would be the WORST thing that could ever happen. I would probably die.”

And then it did. On Christmas, my most favorite of holidays. And at my grandparents' house in Angwin, one of my most favorite places.

I would not call myself the most courageous child. Intense, yes. Brave…I was prone to bursting into tears at the mere mention of a doctor visit way before cancer appeared on scene.

And yet. There stood the truth, in all its wretched, terrifying reality, demanding my answer.

What’s it gonna be, kid? Shrivel up inside your fear? Kick the bucket? Or Fight.

I had no idea what my answer was until I found myself lying in bed at Stanford Children’s Hospital listening to a team of doctors discussing my case as if I weren’t there.

“She’s got about a 50% chance of survival.” They speculated, never making eye contact with me.

Something inside me fired then. Primal. Truer than the Truth of Cancer.

I will NOT die. I WILL LIVE.

I knew it in my bones, just like breathing goes in and out.

And you know the end. Still here.

There was victory, but there was also a high price to pay. 

When faced with fight or flight, I chose fight and never blinked. It didn’t matter what my heart felt or what my brain said, every cell was turned towards survival.

Which, to my everlasting gratitude, kept me alive, along with the ceaseless efforts and care of my devoted parents and community.

What I didn’t realize was that I shut down every non-essential system to focus on physical healing, including the ability to accept the fear, the pain and the ever changing landscape of my body. I essentially remained in animal survival mode for the years during and following my cancer treatment.

Since then, I have spent most of my time trying to understand and heal from the effects of shutting myself off from the rest of life while in survival mode.

One thing I have learned for certain is that the more open our hearts are to life, the more authentically we are able to show up for ourselves, our families and our communities when the shit hits the fan. And also, the more adaptable we become to bouncing back from the hard stuff.

That’s what I keep returning to these days. Especially with all the crazy hard stuff I’m learning about our society, what we have ahead of us, the suffering around us and my responsibility in the midst of it.
Keep the heart open, even when the mind and emotions are freaking out.

But how do I do it?

I’ve got a lot of gratitude for my yoga and meditation practice these days. One calms and grounds my body in the present moment. One centers my mind in the here and now. Moment by moment, move by move, I experience that everything can be challenging and conscious simultaneously.

I can be working hard or mentally busy and still keep coming back to watching my breath flow in and out, my body reaching in opposite directions even as I balance.

And because I am giving my body the oxygen it needs and the focus it craves, my heart is able to stay open. My compassion and empathy have more space to work.

To be agile in this world of expanding extremes and polarizing opinions, we don’t need to be RIGHT, we need to be OPEN to really hearing people, regardless of their political leanings, moral compasses or stances on abortion.

And I know for many people that’s like getting diagnosed with your greatest fear. But really, all we need to do is look around us at our relationships, at our vulnerable communities, at our elected leaders to realize that we are deeply sick.

The question is, will we give in to the disease of fear, prejudice, hate and demonizing the “other”, or will we fight to keep our hearts open so that we can truly heal this systemic imbalance that is eating away at our ability to thrive individually and collectively?

I would love to hear your thoughts around this because like any true progress, movement must come from the consciousness of the masses. 


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