A Fish Called Cancer
This past Easter, a group of us from church were asked by our Pastor to provide a short testimonial for several scripture readings that are presented at the yearly Easter Vigil. He asked that the testimonial should reflect on how each person’s scripture reading may have had a personal impact on our lives. My reading was “Jonah and the Whale” – of course it was! I had to provide a testimonial on the big fish. I thought to myself, really? I guess the spirit finally moved me, as the following was my testimonial.
Jonah is asked by God to warn Nineveh to mend their ways. Jonah is having nothing to do with that – as Nineveh is as crazy as down-town Chicago in the 60’s, (too dangerous, ain’t goin’ there)- so he rebels and runs away on a ship. The ship crashes in a storm and Jonah is swallowed by a big fish. Swallowed by a big fish, while running away from God? (Talk about a fish tale). Then, Jonah sits in the belly of the big fish for three days singing songs of thanks that he is alive. (Jonah needs a nice, refreshing adult beverage). The big fish pukes Jonah out exactly on the shores of Nineveh in order for Jonah to complete his original task requested by God. Coincidence? I think not, although a roundabout way of getting there.
In 1992 I had a big, important 6-figure, toxic job. I was in a toxic marriage. I hung out with toxic people whom I called friends. But to everyone else, I was busy, happy and successful. I was involved in my community and in my church. Being involved didn’t mean I was living a life of spiritual growth or even human growth. I was primarily running away in my busy efficiency to conquer the world while conquering absolutely nothing. Holding down the household; dealing with a drug-abusive husband who, as a result, was killing a successful self-owned business; caring for a pre-teen daughter, and attempting to keep a high paying position for which global travel was a requirement. That, while keeping the “everything’s OK” look on my face.
So God decided that it was time for a big fish called cancer to swallow me up. When diagnosed, it was like a shot in the chest (no pun intended as it was breast cancer). And the surgeon made it clear that if I did not undergo both chemo and radiation, I would not see my 10 year old daughter graduate from high school. I left that office shell-shocked and no commitment to a remedial protocol until I could get my head around the diagnosis.
What to tell my six sisters? My mother died in 1973, as a result of breast cancer after undergoing a double mastectomy, so I knew there was too much subjectivity in my family around this issue. My sisters and I still felt the scars of my mother’s passing and I needed to make this decision myself without the influence or pressure of my sisters’ opinions. I spent years, after my mother’s death, researching breast cancer in women; causes; treatment; holistic remedies, life-styles, social cultures, diets, cancer statistics of third-world countries vs. industrialized countries, etc. I remember several articles that jumped out at me about how some physicians and researchers believed that cancer manifests from stress, mental and/or physical abuse, toxic life-styles, highly processed food diets, and chronic fatigue. External factors that cause any, all or more of these when not dealt with through some form of remedial protocol and kept internal, could manifest as a malignant mass in any part of the body; most were discovered in the form of breast cancer. I always felt that particular data point was significantly profound. Why the breasts? Because that is one part of the body that is distinctively associated with females? That women tend to hold the very things that they should talk about, inside? Pushing it down, until it can’t go anywhere else until it forms itself into a cancerous mass? I do not know the veracity of this theory but it is a provocative one that I have held on to as more true than not. In addition, chemo and radiation has proven to slow down or eliminate a primary tumor and slow down or prevent metastasis. However, there are those physicians and researchers who theorize that chemo and radiation actually kill those properties fighting against the cancer, attempting to rid the body of it. Those with certain cancers should build up their immune systems, naturally; the concept that the immune system has the ability to recognize and eliminate developing tumors in the absence of external therapy. Yet, another provocative theory I have hung on to.
Two important incidents happened to me in the following two days after my diagnosis that were critical to my remedial decision making and the fact that I am still alive today. The first happened in a small card shop as I was picking up birthday, anniversary and get-well cards for the month. I had a pile of cards in my hand and was not paying much attention to anyone around me; I was deep into selecting cards. While choosing a card from the rack, I clumsily dropped all the cards in my hand; about 15 – 20 in total. Cards and envelopes flew around my feet and scattered around the floor. I suddenly noticed a woman picking up my mess with me. As I apologized, laughing at my clumsiness, we both stood up together. As she gave me the cards she had retrieved, her hand grasped mine; firmly, but gently, continued to hold on to me. Now, as I was a bit surprised, I gazed directly into her face and noticed that she had the whitest hair I had ever seen, a thick braid that hung across the front of her shoulder to her waist and she had the bluest, brightest eyes that appeared to laser right into mine. As she firmly held my hand she said, with a warm and confident smile, “Your mother says, ‘you are going to be alright.’” I had a frightened, visceral reaction and, again, dropped all the cards on the floor, and when I looked up, the woman was gone. I ran after her, out the door, looking both ways to try to catch her but she was gone. I ran back into the store to ask the store owner if she had seen the woman who just ran out. “What woman?” the owner asked. “You are the only person that has been in this shop for the last 30 minutes.” To this day, that experience still haunts me and I have a hard time logically explaining it. But in my heart, I know who or what was made present to me that day.
The second incident happened at the Fenway Health Center in Boston. At the time, we were still at the height of the AIDS crisis. I was a hospice volunteer at the Fenway and one of my clients was near the end. It was a few hours after receiving my diagnosis and I felt as though I did not have the fortitude to support him through his transition, should he be making one that night. However, I reluctantly took my shift and as I entered the Health Center, a very large, new piece of artwork hung on the wall directly facing the door I was entering. It was a charcoal sketch of a man with AIDS. The caption read: “I came here to die with dignity; instead, I learned to live in grace.” It moved me to my core.
In my life’s clutter, and my own inability to make time for the things that were truly important, I believed that God did not really focus on me. He had bigger fish to fry. But these two incidents made me realize that no matter how busy God is, God still had time for me. I knew God was leading me. It was time to clean up my cancerous life, and find the life I was supposed to be living. It was like being dropped on the shores of Nineveh.
So the journey began: I quit my job, I divorced my husband, I dropped those toxic friends. After my first, post-diagnosis visit, my general practitioner gave me a big, long hug and said, “fill your life with people with whom you can do this–all the time.” While he meant “hugging,” he also meant support, encouragement and inspiration. He was a great physician and I will always be grateful for his healing prescription.
I took some advice from a long time friend, Diane. For many years, she experienced a complete breakdown of her immune system. She became so ill, that you could see through her teeth. Her failing health was due to years consuming highly processed foods and bad eating habits. She was never a heavy person, in fact, she was always on the thin side. She was my roommate while in my first year at New England Conservatory. To give you an example, as I had witnessed it myself, she would down 2-one-pound bags of peanut M&M’s and at least a six-pack of coke every day. Just junk –and she never showed a pound of it, but that kind of food consumption ravaged her body over time. With the help of several holistic physicians, a drastic change of diet and creating a more sustaining life-style, she healed. She is healthy today. When I discussed my diagnosis with Diane, her advice set me on my own trajectory towards healing. I adopted a macrobiotic diet for 5 years, drank Essiac tea, practiced meditation, homeopathic remedies, surrounded myself with positive and joyful people and activities. There were so many people who prayed for me. I had cards, letters, and spiritual support from around the world. I focused my prayers on being healed, not on being cured. Healed into living a life of simple service to others every day without an agenda or expecting anything in return, to give thanks when my eyes opened in the morning to see another day and to always be grateful for what I have. Four years after my diagnosis I was cancer free. I never received one day of chemo or radiation.
Many have asked me, “What was your cure?” They want me to give them the pill, the recipe, the secret. But I am unable to. It was a combination of so many things. But I know that at the top of that list was a nudge from God to “clean it up” and the power of prayer; prayer heals. It may not heal the way we expect or want, but heal, it does. God’s call is just a listen away, once we unclutter ourselves from the noise. His eye is truly on the sparrow.
The story of Jonah is the only book in the Bible that ends in a question: “Can God not have mercy on His children wherever they are, even you?”