I was watching the movie A Wrinkle In Time and there was a line where they mentioned a quote by Rumi:
The wound is a place where the Light enters you.
I remember reading this quote before, but hearing it out loud and in the context of cancer, it struck me deeply because I quite literally have wounds — two across my chest — but in a place where sunlight never physically touches. The irony. These scars I carry were once open wounds where I felt pain. How do I now allow Light to enter via the same channels that once caused me so much dread and anguish?
I had my mastectomy just 2 weeks after my diagnosis. I was fortunate enough to have a Breast Surgeon and Plastic Surgeon that got me through the 4 hour surgery in very little pain. And while the physical healing was underway, I could feel a dark cloud come over me and it grew worse with every passing day. I would burst into tears while eating dinner, and I would have panic attacks while in the shower. My mind was trying to process what just happened to me and it was running a thousand miles an hour in a hundred different directions, with each direction seemingly leading to a quite literal dead end. I couldn’t outrun my thoughts — those negative thoughts laden with fear and doubt and worst-case scenario.
I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling, I didn’t know how to say the simplest and most fundamental of all fears: Am I going to die? People kept telling me to be strong and stay positive, but when you’re presented with a serious, life-threatening disease, it’s not so simple. It’s not like entering a boxing match where you just have to stay standing and punch back (besides, boxing requires ridiculous amounts of training and preparation whereas being diagnosed with cancer at a young age comes out of nowhere and gives you zero preparation). I felt weak and broken. I was like a child that just wanted to be swaddled and rocked to sleep. Nothing was enjoyable anymore – not my favorite dish, not my favorite TV show, not even shopping. It was as if day-to-day problems were so trivial compared to what I was going through so I took on the attitude of why even bother. It was like true happiness was a ruse, a fairy tale, so I could barely bring myself to smile let alone laugh genuinely. I was at the bottom of a very long pit and I needed help clawing my way back up.
When I found out I had to do chemo, it tipped me over and I knew that if I wanted to get through four rounds of treatment, I not only had to take care of my body, but my mind as well. It was then that I decided to get help.
It was odd at first. What search parameters do you enter for a good cancer therapist? I scrolled through names and got recommendations from the social worker at my hospital, but none of them felt like a match for me. Until I came across the profile of a therapist in NYC who specializes in disease-induced issues like cancer, and employed mindfulness strategies to help cope with the trauma. I distinctly remember the first phone call with her. She had a kind voice and asked me why I thought I needed therapy. After 10 minutes on the phone, she agreed to take me on as a patient and gave me details of her location. Up until that first session, I only had the stereotypical notion of how it was to see a “shrink”: drab walls, leather chaise to lay down on while she sat by the top of my head scribbling on her notepad. It was quite the contrary — her space was cozy, full of paintings and colorful throw pillows. She had tons of books spanning literature, poetry, academia, and buddhism strewn on the wall shelves and on the floor next to a variety of potted plants. There was indeed a sofa, but a simple gray one probably from Ikea.
“How does this work? I’ve never been to therapy before.”
“Well, we can start off by talking about anything you’d like to talk about or get off your chest.”
Our initial chat was very open and I was surprisingly comfortable sharing everything I was feeling, that the hour we had together was almost not enough. Every week, I met with her and spilled all the contents of my mind, heart, and soul. She listened so intently and met me with so much empathy. She was like a warm hug and a cup of peppermint tea all wrapped into one. We talked about anything that was bothering me that week — treatment side effects, my relationship with my family/friends, my relationship with my husband, fear of the unknown, how to get my life back, but most of all, she guided me through my relationship with myself.
When I came to her, my thoughts and feelings were so jumbled up. What I learned from her early on is that it’s ok to not be ok, that whatever it was I was feeling is valid, and that I had to be patient with myself first and foremost. This was such a difference from the advice I had been receiving, and in general how I had approached my life thus far. Her message wasn’t to “stay strong” (though, how do you define strong in the first place and is it the same for everyone?) and “just don’t think about it”. She invited me to welcome all the fear and disappointment and whatever the hell else I happened to be feeling. It felt so liberating to know that I didn’t have to always have the answer, that I didn’t have to always keep it together. That it was ok to not be ok.
One of the first exercises we went through was when I told her how I felt so shitty about not being strong enough, that I was letting cancer take over my life, and that I was so far from those cancer patients in the movies or commercials that were so inspirational and graceful with handling their disease. Her response? “What would you tell your best friend if she told you what you just told me.” I said, “To shut the hell up because she is a kick-ass woman who not only has to handle surgery and chemo and a lifetime of treatment, but who is also doing this three thousand miles away from friends and family, while still supporting her husband through residency, having a full time job, and taking care of a household and two dogs. Besides, there is no perfect cancer patient, everyone just tries to do their best the way they know how and no way is right or wrong.” The fucking light bulb went off. Why is it that we’re always so hard on ourselves, setting these ridiculous standards, and yet so loving and compassionate to other people? That was the first true shift I’ve adopted — to take care of me. To be loving and compassionate to me. To love and prioritize myself. I had to refill my own cup.
During treatment, seeing her would be the highlight of my week. I made it my little refuge where I treated myself to tea and a pastry after the session. She instilled in me so many lessons and taught me the tools I needed to not just cope, but to continue to live, and thrive. She suggested I get back to dancing after she saw the glow on my face when I taught her a few basic steps, she encouraged me to practice meditation and to just hold myself and breathe during a panic attack, she never sugar-coated anything or made assumptions regarding my outcome and that taught me acceptance, she also taught me non-judgement, and was the voice of reason offering insight on behalf of my husband that I would not have been able to do on my own. She most of all taught me the difference between curing and healing in that curing may not be guaranteed, but healing is more than possible. She was my confidant, the best friend with the best listening skills, a friendly guide, a Jiminy Cricket, my very own wise owl.
As the months went on, I took to her wise words and with time, the anxiety and depression lessened. Though dark thoughts and bouts of panic come sometimes, they are not as often and definitely not as intense. A year later, I finally settled into the routine of daily life as doctors’ appointments dwindled down. I was approaching the elusive life-after-cancer, and I felt ok. I felt good. So when she hinted at ending our sessions, I felt a bit emotional. I knew I didn’t want to be in therapy forever, but I doubted if I was ready to let go of the training wheels. I went on a week long work trip where I worked on a pretty exciting project and did pretty well for being away from home alone so when I got back to NYC, I knew the time has indeed come.
I sat down one last time on that familiar gray couch, studying the paintings on the wall and admiring the plants situated by the window. They’ve grown so much compared to the first time I saw them. She asked me how I felt with ending our sessions, to which I replied with some reluctance and emotion, but she said there is a difference between wanting to continue seeing her versus needing to continue seeing her. We both agreed I fell into the former. She was such a huge part of my cancer journey and has been such a great friend…the truth is that I will miss her very much. But given our doctor-patient relationship, that was not reason enough to continue. I have to learn how to fly on my own and utilize all she’s taught me to live life as fully as I could.
At the end of our session, I handed her a small gift. I got her a baby succulent plant along with a simple card saying how much I appreciate her and that she’s helped me more than she’ll ever know. She gave me the biggest, warmest hug and I just melted into her as tears started to stream down my face.
She looked around the room and said she wanted to reciprocate my gift of life, and gave me clippings from her own plants. She proceeded to tell me that the huge supple plant by the window was grown from her grandmother’s jade plant — GRANDMA’S JADE! She also was very close to her grandmother before she passed. So she gave me a few branches from Grandma’s Jade and from her rubber plant. We said our last farewells and I headed home with a piece of her in a plastic bag.
I’ve planted the branches and look forward to their growth. It’s exciting seeing little tiny roots poke through the leaves and into the soil. In so many ways, I feel like a baby branch replanted myself, and my therapist helped provide me with the water and sunlight to thrive. She helped show me how to piece myself back together, and through those cracks, those wounds, I can still let the Light in. ❤