In my 42nd year, I was diagnosed with Stage 1B breast cancer. When the first post-visit summary indicated that they discovered a “suspicious finding” in my mammogram, I was utterly floored. So many thoughts blazed into my mind at once, setting off a wildfire of fear and anxiety. More tests were conducted, more exams, biopsies, lumpectomies and such were completed. With each pathology report and subsequent doctor visit, I became numb to the experience—but more importantly, I became numb to everything that was happening in my life.
It was as if someone slowed down the speed of my life, and everything happened in slow-motion cinema production. I could see the angles, the foreshadowing, and the plot, as it thickened clearly.
I was blessed to have found a doctor who practiced humility alongside a gracious staff in their approach to caring for their patients.
Having Stage 1B breast cancer isn’t an easy diagnosis to accept. There is a gray area where one can ultimately become fixated. It isn’t Big Cancer—it’s little cancer. But it’s still cancer. I would repeatedly ask my doctor how serious my diagnosis was, and his matter-of-fact reply was always, “Serious enough that you’re here.”
“I have cancer,” I’d find myself silently muttering as I looked around and wondered who among me in the grocery line also shared in my condition. I’d run the statistics over and over again in my head, until I became overwhelmed with anxiety.
The gray area to which you become accustomed to doesn’t stop at the diagnosis. It surrounds all the tests, the follow-up visits, the excruciatingly long waits between those tests and results, and it colors the faces of the doctors and nurses who serve you.
Future plans are put on hold. Dreams are shelved. Moments that once seemed dull or mundane now suddenly have a new meaning. Every moment takes on a new dimension. Everything is slower, clearer and less cluttered than it was before.
I’ve memorized a Sanskrit mantra that is appropriate for a cancer diagnosis: “Om, asato maa sad gamaya, Tamaso maa gyotira gamaya, Mrityora maa amritam gamaya,” which translates to, “Lead me from the unreal to the real, from the darkness (ignorance) to the light (knowledge), and from death to immortality.”
The process one undergoes from diagnosis to treatment to recovery is a process of discovery that starts in darkness (ignorance). We and our doctors fear this is not good news. We and our doctors do not know what lies ahead for us in terms of health and longevity. But as we conduct more tests and choose our treatment options, we start to let go of our need for control, and we learn to accept that we are powerless in manipulating our destiny. Our doctors are not gods.
As we become enlightened (filled with knowledge)—and usually, this knowledge is full of a knowing that we don’t know anything at all—we finally learn to accept that we are inevitably led from death to immortality. We soon realize that this material plane, with all our possessions, aspirations and perception of control is nothing more than an illusion. It is temporary. Death, the fear of it, and the ultimate demise of ourselves as a result of it, is no longer a threat, because we become acutely aware that we are immortal.
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, writes in her essay, “In the Gray Zone,” which is found in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” that the wish to control floats like a buoy above the hidden reef of fear. And to me, this summates my entire experience so far. My wish to ignore the diagnosis, my wish for a sudden flood of benevolence from long-lost lovers, my wish for vindication for all those who’ve transgressed me, floats above the fear that I somehow deserved this. That somehow I made this happen.
As Jason Mraz sings, even the stars burn, and some even fall to the Earth. That to which we pin our most desperate hopes are subject to change, evolve and even meet their ultimate demise.
How many times have you felt like your wishes and desires would burn a hole in your heart? When you felt that intense desire, did you ever stop to recognize that you, yourself, are made from the very same elements that make up the stars? We are all concoctions from the original elements that came from the Sun’s expansion and the planet’s violent birth and evolution. Without the gruesome conditions from which we came, we’d not be here to express the special, gentle beauty that is all of humanity.
My 7-year-old son was very concerned about my condition. I was pretty honest with him, and strove to share my experience with him in a way that I thought he could understand. I told him I had kryptonite in my body, and that my doctors were working with The Avengers to get it out. He now sees my scars as beauty marks—signs of strength and adversity. This is all very magical for me, because, for a long time, I suffered from my past. I had been through things that were traumatic for sure, but I couldn’t seem to get over them mostly because there was no evidence of them ever having happened in the first place.
Just prior to my diagnosis, I had told a friend I was wishing I had a big scar I could point to, to show others the journey I endured. Because without a scar, it’s just words and my story, and that could easily be construed as conjecture and victimization.
And now, here I have these two beautiful scars that represent so many things: miracles in modern medicine, an ability to listen to my body and recognize signs requiring self-care, an acceptance of the death of an old pattern of my life, and a movement toward a lighter, more illuminated way of being. (And yes, this whole thing is still a little unreal to me.)
I believe, as Dr. Remen states in her book, that I lived in fear for much of my 42 years of life. This diagnosis was a gift from God or Universal Spirit to help shake me up, make me realize my gifts, and show me that even huge friggin’ stars can burn out.
I choose to live freely and openly amidst the tangled hierarchy of humanity. Who am I to beat myself up if I don’t get what I was hoping for? Who am I to judge my progress in life based upon the Facebook posts of my peers?
To love oneself in the midst of crisis, to hold oneself up in the midst of defeat, to forgive oneself in the hour of despair, is one of greatest gifts we can bestow—not only to ourselves, but to the world that needs us just as much as we need it.
To close, I will share a quote: “Love is not written on paper, for paper can be erased. Nor is it etched on stone, for stone can be broken. But it is inscribed on a heart and there it shall remain forever.” Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
Jill Sarick Santos-
Jill Sarick Santos is a daughter, granddaughter, mother, sister, lover & friend from the Pennsylvanian woods with an appreciation for intelligent, introverted, spiritual ecology. She lives with her son Ziggy and her dog Chulo in Ventura, CA. She fights hunger and food waste by day as Branch Manager for Food Forward and writes copious essays and blog posts on sustainability, spirituality, femininity and motherhood by night. You can find her blog online at: https://medium.com/@