“Cancer was the best thing that happened in my life”
I kept reading this sentence in every book I read during chemotherapy.
After my emergency surgery I had one month to recover before the 12 sessions of chemotherapy I had to follow as my protocol.
I was given the Stage 3B Bowel Cancer diagnosis at 38 years old. No family history, only bad luck.
I thought to myself
“How come cancer can be the best thing that happened in my life?
I have 2 children who are 6 and 4 and now all they see is an exhausted sick mum in bed most of the time.”
The books were about recipes and stories of cancer patients who had navigated through the “cancer tunnel”
I call it “cancer tunnel” because I believe once you go in, you never come out in the same way.
One day before chemotherapy started, I had a PICC line put on my arm and now I can’t even have a shower…
I am still not in touch with the gift of cancer…”
After my first chemotherapy session, my body was beyond a mess. I had been connected to a pump for 48 hours which was slowly releasing chemotherapy into my heart.
When the nurse came to my house to disconnect the pump, I was left in bed hanging on to my life by a thread…
And for the first time I got connected to the cancer gift…
All I could do was to breath and in that moment of desperation, I became so present that I could hear the birds chirping…
For a few moments, I had a deep sense of being alive that I hadn’t connected to in years.
Perhaps for my whole life.
How incredible it is that we breath 24/7 and don’t even realise what the breath does for us.
I could also feel my heart pumping. How amazing it is to have a heart that pumps involuntary to keep us alive.
I went from being present to being truly grateful for my life, for what my body was doing for me.
Whilst connecting to my heart, I couldn’t help but realise in that moment that my heart was hurting…
My heart had been hurting for years. I had been angry with my family for so many years…
And I knew deep inside that cancer was life communicating with me about that
That anger and resentment was killing me. But how could I let go?
For a moment I had to park those thoughts. I couldn’t deal with the thought of forgiving them yet so I decided to be kind to myself and focus on what I could deal with in that moment – I went back to my breath.
I kept reading more books on nutrition and on cancer survivors’ journeys.
Slowly I started changing my diet.
Then I read about how exercise impacted positively on cancer recovery. So I started exercising. Going for gentle walks, riding my bike outside and inside too on a wind trainer.
I went back to something that I have always wanted to do but never had the time in my life.
I started practicing yoga. I had been to one handful yoga classes but never really followed through with it.
As I kept showing up every day on the mat. I remember when the teacher said for the first time:
“Connect to your body”
I realised that I had been disconnected from my body for years. It was almost as if I didn’t live in my body.
“Where have I been?” I thought
“I have been busy running around like a headless chicken. Not spending any time with myself. Not knowing who I had become. Or maybe too scared to find out.”
Then I read another book that suggested me to write down things I love doing but never got around to doing it. The book talked about how important it was to connect to joy in the healing journey.
I simply wrote:
I have always loved reading, but life got too busy and I stopped it. I promised myself that I would never stop reading from that moment on.
“Why did I anyway? Why did I stop listening to music? When did I stop dancing?
Ok, I am the worst singer ever but I still I would like to learn. Would I get another chance?”
As the thought of dying crossed my mind, I begged for another chance…
I wanted to live so badly. There is so much more I wanted to do.
This is when I connected to the gift for the second time. I have been living a life for others and have forgotten about myself. I want to live so badly now but this time I want to live for me.
During chemotherapy I walked back to myself again. I spent so much time on my own when my kids would go to school and my husband would go to work that I got to know who I was. I built this incredible relationship with my body and mind. I thanked my body for everything it was doing for me. I stopped being afraid from my thoughts. I kept looking into them deeper. I was no longer scared to sit with them, to sit with my fears.
I thought my life had been hard. I thought my family had gone through a terrific trauma when my dad lost everything in a family business court battle. I thought it wasn’t fair that my dad had treated me differently than my brother because I was a girl. I thought the decisions my dad made after that were irresponsible and affected me immensely.
So as a type A person, I needed to do something about it so I called the Employee Assistance Program.
At the time I had quarantined myself as at the beginning of my treatment I was catching every cough and cold there was, and my chemotherapy treatments were getting delayed which wasn’t ideal.
The kind psychologist listened to my introduction over the phone:
“My name is Angelica, and I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Bowel Cancer. I am 38 years old, and my kids are 4 and 6. I have read every book under the sun about nutrition and I get that I need to change my habits and I am on a path to doing that. But there is one thing I need help with: I need to forgive my parents and I can’t. Can you help me with that?”
He paused on the other side of the phone. He was calm and compassionated. He complimented me for my courage to change my habits and my focus even though I was going through a scary time in my life. Then he told me something that made me stop and think:
“Why should your family behave like you want them to behave if you haven’t behaved like they wanted you to behave?”
I left Brazil when I was 21 years old against my dad’s will. At the time my mum and dad were so busy with the court battle, they didn’t have the strength to stop me.
I saved up my money and left. It was one of the hardest things I had done in my life but I didn’t see myself creating a life in Brazil. Breaking away from everything I knew without much of a plan, or much money was painful and scary. I also knew I didn’t have anybody to fall back on if things went pear shape.
As an immigrant in Spain, I struggled to get a job and every time I spoke to my parents on the phone, I could hear their disappointment.
Today I recognize that they were not disappointed at all, they were disappointed in themselves because they knew they couldn’t help me.
My forgiveness journey didn’t stop there because forgiveness is a process, and one needs to be prepared to stick at it to free themselves for real. I kept asking God to take away all that anger from my heart and my soul because deep down I just couldn’t do it on my own. I kept focusing on my practices to release the stress and anger I had accumulated in my body through yoga. I took on meditation and started connecting to feelings of peace which I never experienced before.
Forgiveness was the third biggest gift cancer gave me. I wouldn’t have entertained forgiveness if it wasn’t for cancer.
Cancer made me stop and think: “Do you want to forgive and be healed, or do you want to be sick and die?”
Anger and resentment eat us alive slowly and I was a living proof of that. Until I committed to saying: NO MORE. I did the work and forgave my family. I stopped expecting they were going to behave differently. I opened my heart to building a different relationship with them and I did. I set boundaries at the same time and honoured my needs as I learned to be around them again.
After about 4 sessions of chemo, I ended up in hospital with a bleed that nobody could stop.
I had been told that I was going to go into menopause during chemo, but I didn’t. I was bleeding to death. Doctors were trying to give me medication to stop the bleeding until my body started shutting down. My white cells (your soldier cells that will fight for you) were down to 0. My red cells were going downhill rapidly, and I needed a blood transfusion. After 2 bags of blood and 1 bag of iron, my body wasn’t recovering. Every morning I would wake up and ask the nurses for my blood results until one day, one of the doctors came to see me on her own. She was from Colombia and spoke to me in Spanish. I could see she had come as a human being wanting to help another human being not only as a doctor.
She said: “Angelica, you need to let go. Right now, your condition is very serious, and you need to stay in here. You can’t get out there because you have 0 white cells. Anybody with a cough can cough on you and you will die. Your body will do what it does at the time that it wants to do.”
I stopped for a moment after she left. I had been trying to control everything and everyone. No, I wasn’t classified as a control freak but yes, I was a control freak. We live in a world that leads us to think we can control everything, but we can’t. Letting go of control feels lighter, holding on to everything feels heavier. I had been addicted to stress for decades now and part of it was fed by my need to control. I couldn’t handle when things got out of my control. No wonder I got sick. It is not sustainable to live like that.
This was the fourth gift cancer gave me. Learning to let go of control, accept life as it is even when it is difficult and trusting the process of life. As I let go, my cell count went back to normal and I was home in a couple of days.
These little changes I made during chemo started compounding into positive differences in my body and how I felt mentally and emotionally. I had been taking on the learnings of cancer and applying my learnings every single day.
I started getting stronger after each chemo session. I was more in control of my emotions when I had a setback. I was more patient and grateful for everything my body was doing for me. I felt different, lighter, happier and somehow healthier even though I was going through chemotherapy.
I realised I had many flaws that I needed to work on but I was an incredibly courageous human being. I had lived in 5 different countries. I had done so many cool things like walking a puma in the jungles of Bolivia. I spoke 4 languages and everywhere I went I made lifelong friends who now were calling me from all over the world.
I had created a beautiful family. My husband loved me unconditionally and we had a loving relationship. My kids were happy and we were so close as a family.
This was the fifth gift cancer gave me – I felt a deep sense of belonging with what I had created, my little family and my life. I belonged to me.
Even though I was creating my own bubble, the cancer world is full of fear and keeping my thoughts away from that negativity was key during that process.
Every time I sat down at the cancer centre reception next to another patient waiting for their treatment, they would tell me some horrendous stories about how their cancer came back and all the side effects they were suffering.
Every person I met and told them about my cancer diagnosis, they would change their facial expression to one of pity followed by an unhelpful comment that talked about someone they knew who had died of cancer. The fear of death was real.
I had the opportunity to go and see the pastor of my church. I had moved away from God and I knew I needed to connect to God again. As I sat in front of the pastor, I was bawling my eyes out.
I told him about my diagnosis and I proceed to say: “But I have 2 kids and they are only 6 and 4 and they need me”
The pastor looked straight into my eyes and asked: “Angelica, what do you think it is going to happen if you die?”
I could barely breath as I stop to think about that question. My head started going through my funeral, my husband telling my kids that I had died, my kids crying, my kids going to school after my death, their birthdays without me, their weddings…
For a split second I saw my whole family’s lives in front of me without me and I said:
“Nothing is going to happen. They are going to have to deal with it”
The pastor said: “Yes, how many kids do you think grow up without a mum or a dad?”
I left the pastor’s office feeling lighter than I had ever felt since my diagnosis. I realised I was so focusing on dying that I was forgetting to live.
I realised we are all going to die, and it is crazy that we live thinking we are not. It is the only certainty we have yet we are too afraid to even talk about it. This is the sixth gift cancer gave me: life is here and now. And tomorrow is not a sure thing. Live your best life now.
Stop waiting. This is all we have.