Malignant melanoma. The words glowed back at me from my work computer screen as if they were highlighted in neon yellow.
“That must be a mistake,” I thought, as I glazed through the remainder of the virtual pathology report. My head began to spin.
“Cancer? But I’m only 27 years old, this can’t be right.”
Melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. It is the number one most diagnosed cancer among 25 to 29 year olds in the US. In 2015, a diagnosis of melanoma could vary immensely depending on if it was metastatic, meaning it has spread to another area of the body. As a registered nurse, I had a grim memory of discussing it in nursing school. From the little I remembered, It wasn’t a “good” cancer to have.
The next few months were a whirlwind. A biopsy of my lymph nodes indicated that my melanoma had spread. It was metastatic (insert your choice word of profanity here). A myriad of phone calls, office visits, consent forms, FMLA forms, scans, surgeries, infections, emergency room visits and more. There is no handy DIY step by step guide to follow as you navigate a cancer diagnosis as a young adult.
I leaned heavily on my family and close friends as I recovered from my surgeries and prepared for medical treatment, immunotherapy. I remember my nurse practitioner warning me not to Google or do my own exploring on the drug I’d be taking.
“I know you’re a nurse, but just try to be the patient.”
Easier said than done. The tables were turned. I was so often the one comforting and advocating for my patients. My experience gave me a whole new understanding of what my patients felt. Fear. Uncertainty. Anxiety. And most of all, completely overwhelmed.
At this point in my life, I considered myself spiritual, but not religious. I believed “everything happens for a reason” and that there had to be “something” bigger than us out there. Although I had no idea what the reason I had to get cancer was, I did my best not to continuously ask “why me?”.
Prior to my diagnosis, I had completed training as a level two Reiki practitioner. Reiki is a Japanese-derived healing technique based on the principle of balancing the life force energy within the body. In the law of physics, we are all energy, and energy cannot be destroyed; it is simply transferred from one place to another. Reiki gave me a new way of relaxing. Tuning into a space of mindful rest. My nurse brain couldn’t quite understand how it worked, but I trusted the evidence of how calm I felt after every session.
I practiced with close friends and family and occasionally offered it to patients who were open to it, but it wasn’t something I shared very often for fear of being too weird or woo-woo. However, once I faced my cancer diagnosis, I was open to whatever could help me ease my busy mind.
My Reiki teacher is a kind and generous soul, who upon hearing of my diagnosis offered to have me advance my training and become a Reiki master. She believed it would be a great tool to have for my upcoming battle of starting immunotherapy. She was right.
Each night as I went to bed, I would lay a hand on my chest and my stomach and give myself Reiki. It was my time to unfold. Surrender and trust that I was doing everything I could to face this incredibly challenging time.
Months went by and the heavier non-visible effects of my treatment weighed on me. Severe depression. Medications took the edge off, but I felt like I was simply floating through the days. One by one. And truthfully, that’s the only way I could look at it without getting completely overwhelmed. One day at a time.
I always found solace in being outside, breathing in the fresh air of nature. It had the ability to reset me, like plugging into an outlet to charge, if even for a moment. During the summer of my treatment year, I found First Descents. A nonprofit organization that funds and creates outdoor adventures for those affected by cancer and chronic illness. I went rock climbing, white water rafting and hiked alongside fellow young adult survivors from across the country. It was a type of healing that I never truly realized how much I needed.
As the fall came, I muddled through the end of treatment, received a set of clean scans and was told, “See you for a check up in a few months!”. I finally reached the finish line… but why did it feel so anticlimactic? I had been waiting for this moment for almost a year, and now that it was here, it felt so confusing. I was thrilled to stop my medication, frequent lab draws, injections, and constant cancer talk, but now what?
As time went on, my energy level began to return; however, something was still off. I recognized that the pre-cancer normal I was chasing didn’t exist anymore. I had to create a new normal. A post-cancer normal. Experiencing cancer changed me. It changed me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Over the next few years, I began to see my life as a new opportunity. I began exploring new things, what lit me up, what made me excited, what brought me joy. I was following what I like to call the “breadcrumbs.” The little nudges, synchronicities and life happenings that somehow point us in the direction to whatever lesson we may need.
One particular breadcrumb led me straight to sound therapy. Sound therapy or sound healing is the meditative practice of calming the body and mind through the immersion of sound. I had heard of it before and thought, “Isn’t that the same as music therapy?”. It wasn’t until I experienced my first gong bath that I realized it was unlike anything I had experienced before. My entire body vibrated as I lay on the floor of a yoga studio, snuggled in a blanket with an eye mask. I saw colors, visions and gravity seemed to have ceased to exist. I was in awe. As someone who has a busy “monkey mind,” I was shocked at how much I relaxed. It was a deep stillness I had never experienced before.
My curiosity and fascination for this new type of relaxation led me into a nosedive of learning everything I could about sound therapy. I read books, listened to podcasts, attended retreats, training and began to purchase sound tools of my own. It was as if a fire was lit inside me. I felt alive, and all the dots were connecting.
I created a business in the Fall of 2019 to begin to share the magic that mindfulness, Reiki and sound therapy emanated. I taught Reiki to many nurses I worked with, created sacred sound meditations and couldn’t wait for what 2020 would bring.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past two years, you know what 2020 brought. It was as if all my coping mechanisms, self care strategies and resilience I learned during my journey of cancer was being tested.
I quickly found myself on the frontlines in the ICU (intensive care unit), caring for some of the sickest COVID patients. The similar feelings of fear, uncertainty, anxiety and overwhelm resurfaced.
However, this time I had reinforcements. I leaned heavily on my mindfulness, meditation, Reiki and sound therapy practices to calm my busy mind and body.
To this day, I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons my cancer journey brought me. Despite the physical and mental scars, it taught me to be grateful, find my joy and live each day fully.
Self care isn’t one size fits all. It’s important to follow your own little breadcrumbs and take things one day at a time, for that’s all we truly have.