Cancer’s Gifts

I was born under the sign of cancer, marked for this moment in my life.

I have a new emotion I’m working on understanding. It’s not gratitude per se, for it’s far bigger, more expansive, and it makes my nose run. It gets dusty, mad dusty when this emotion comes for a visit, most often when I’m alone with my thoughts.

I have these three people in my orbit now whose gifts of unshakable compassion, swift expertise, deliberate signposting, and trademark tenacity have left an indelible mark, have allowed me to tap my own strength of spirit, mind, and body to stay in the moment of this new journey.

It’s like a void opens up in my chest and swallows me whole, and if I let myself keep experiencing this emotion, the tears collect at the corner of my left eye, sometimes my right eye, too. It feels like nothing else is present in the moment outside of this gratitude, this conquering of fear, this awe-inspiring compassion I’ve experienced on the phone, in exam rooms, in the moments of being this kind of doctor. The kind who has certainty that cancer is treatable, that their patients get to keep living, and that it’s time to cut through the system’s bureaucratic barriers to focus on the next steps of treatment and to live. I don’t know what to name this emotion yet, but I do know this gift is with me now, within reach every moment of this journey.

Over the last year, in the deep stirrings of my heart, I have committed to open up more space for slowing down to live joyfully in each moment; more space for creating new pathways for mission-driven leaders, for me, to heal from the self-inflicted wounds of caring for others above oneself; and more space for my writing. After incremental progress in the first part of 2022, I cannot help but marvel at the speed with which these aspirations have become tangible realities for me since my diagnosis.

I settled comfortably into a buddhist spiritual practice, fully owning that calling to sit in meditation and to become whole through practiced compassion, through joyful living, and through the power of breath and mindful movement. This summer it felt like I was in the Zen garden daily. In the garden I found an immovable force of negativity with roots deeply set. I was still caught up in the perfectionist’s curse of never enough. My career as an educator has been predicated on the belief that children are whole and beautifully formed as they are, they are capable of anything they set their minds to, and as adults we must melt away our deficit thinking about children, about their families, even when their identities and privileges do not match our own. This belief, however, did nothing to help me melt the deficit thinking I inflicted upon myself daily, when I said, Sarah, this is not enough, do more, work harder, make the call, set up the meeting, lead the session, write the report… And the list of not enough went on and on and on until cancer came, and I had to see myself as whole and beautifully formed just as I am and capable of anything I set my mind to, which now is the daily life of joy and presence, to heal this cancer and heal this human.

I can see now that I have not been kind to myself for quite some time. In fact, I have been harsh, quick to judge, unsympathetic, and unrelenting. I have inflicted this self-suffering in order to care more fully for others, to be a transformational leader for others but not for me. Simply put, I have lead myself to a place where I must transform. I have cancer. Now I’m a leader with cancer. I have new pathways to explore where kindness, presence, and love can be the ground where I place my footsteps and gather sustenance for the journey ahead.

This past year I have also been inviting a larger writing project into my life, one that taps my love of designing online content, making emotional intelligence skills more widely available to leaders and educators, and pursuing a research inquiry of my own design. This summer I opened weekly writing sessions in my calendar, either to publish blog pieces, fill my notebooks, or digest research. And yet I could feel the absence of a surging writer’s voice, dormant perhaps, until the bugle of cancel awoke my insatiable need to write, to muse, and to create. This cancer has brought so much light and laughter and disruption into my life; so much that I am always writing even without pen in hand or a keyboard to lightening my thoughts into legible text.

The gifts of cancer abound from this vantage point, and I see the world and myself in a warm and lovely light.

with grace

Sarah

4 Comments

  • So beautifully said:

    “And the list of not enough went on and on and on until cancer came, and I had to see myself as whole and beautifully formed just as I am and capable of anything I set my mind to, which now is the daily life of joy and presence, to heal this cancer and heal this human”

    Reply
  • Thank you for being willing to share your thoughts and feelings, Sarah, and with such beautifully written words. It is a privilege to read this.

    Reply

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