awakening through breast cancerEve Ensler, perhaps best known to the world for writing The Vagina Monologues, is now best known to me for writing In the Body of the World, a memoir about (in part) her uterine cancer. She writes:

“What if… when you got sick you weren’t a stage but in a process. And cancer, just like having your heart-broken, or getting a new job, or going to school, were a teacher? What if, rather than being cast out and defined by some terminal category, you were identified as someone in the middle of a transformation that could deepen your soul, open your heart… And what if each of these things were what we were waiting for, moments of opening, of the deepening and awakening of everyone around us? (p88-89)”

Yes, what if?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on October 22, 2014, one day after my oldest of two children turned nine; one month before I turned 40. Three months later, I read Ensler’s book. (I was two months into my five months of chemotherapy, with a left mastectomy and six weeks of radiation still to come.) I still remember the first time I read the above passage, lying in bed in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Wrecked by nausea and fatigue, I felt like shouting, “That’s right, bring it, Cancer!” I read and re-read the passage. I dog-eared the page. I felt not-crazy. I felt like someone understood why, after my initial crying-numbing-haze in the days after my diagnosis, I suddenly felt okay. Someone understood why, in fact, I flung my arms wide-open, happy: because I was welcoming transformation.

I want to be changed by this, I’ve thought time and again since my diagnosis. I want to take my already happy self and nurture more joy. I want to take my already happy life and build something even grander. If something as big and surreal as breast cancer is going to land in my 39-now-40-year old lap, I want it to mean something. So I have been doing my best to use breast cancer as an opportunity to stretch and blossom and outgrow myself—to, in the words of Eve Ensler, “deepen [my] soul, open [my] heart.”

Transformation isn’t particularly easy, of course (at least not for me), especially as I transition from my more confined world of life-as-a cancer-patient to a world once again overflowing with responsibility, expectation and possibility. Last week I tossed and turned about not-even-close-to-life-and-death matters, like the emails I’ve neglected to send, and that thing I said that I wish I hadn’t, and what does that colleague really think of me anyway? This weekend, I saw my post-breast-cancer-treatment bank statement and plummeted into, “Who am I to follow my dreams?! I can’t afford to follow my dreams!” Yesterday afternoon, my kids left their after-school trail of backpacks, papers and shoes strewn across the floor, and I totally sweat the small stuff (probably for the 19th time this week) all over their happy-kid energy.

Oh, how very easy it is to slip back into old patterns of thinking and doing. Oh, how very easy it is to be… well, human.

Though I’ve always felt sheepish admitting this, there are days when I miss the simplicity of chemotherapy: I had the incredible good fortune of being able to put my work on hold and to rely on my parents to help parent my children, which meant that I got to spend my nausea and fatigue ridden days on the couch, just being. (Just being. The simple act of writing that makes me breathe a little easier.) I’ve never been so still, I thought often during those months. And Type-A me, who has spent a lifetime planning-going-doing relished the feeling. I loved the quiet, the calm, the space. I loved the permission, from others and from myself, to linger in the quiet, the calm, the space.

And I love(d) all the learning—the evolving clarity—that opens up in that quiet, calm space: I am learning how to bring more quiet, more space into my everyday, no-longer-a-cancer-patient life, because I know I need quiet and space to continue “opening… deepening and awakening.” I am learning what truly brings me joy and how to bring more of that into my life, even when it’s not practical, even when it’s terrifying, even when it pushes up against me in ways that inspire guilt and shame. I am learning to shed the guilt and the shame. I am learning how to live less by habit and by reaction and more from my own, authentic self. I am learning more (and more and more) about my own, authentic self—and more about how to honour her on this bumpy terrain called Life.

Jenny Bender,

Daily Zen.

Author Bio – I’ve spent the last dozen years writing literacy curriculum and doing professional development for teachers. But my dream of dreams is to live the life of a writer, and there is nothing like a cancer diagnosis to stop thinking “someday” and start doing now. You can find me on Twitter and on my blog, WritingBreastCancer.