From the moment I received my diagnosis, my world as I knew it was no more. “Like Persephone, I had suddenly descended into a completely different landscape,” I wrote in my book, PURGATORY TO PARADISE: How Cancer Helped Me Design an Authentic Life. “Like the Underworld, this landscape was carved with rivers of chemo that burned the cancer cells growing inside of me.”
The rhythm of my days was usurped by the protocol that was laid out by my healing team, and I willingly submitted. The better part of 2019 and a portion of 2020 was taken up by my cancer treatment. I got to know my radiation technicians by name, asked about their weekends, and shared my favorite 90s EDM with them to play in my room. I spent 12 hours at a time with my capper and a bevy of attentive nurses, where we bonded over the room I was designing for the Brooklyn Showhouse, which landed on the cover of Hamptons Cottages and Gardens that November. I saw my doctors more often than I saw my friends! And then, we became friends.
I recently watched the journalist and author, Johann Hari’s TED Talk on addiction. Why am I bringing this up in relation to cancer survivorship? I will tell you. “Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond,” he said quoting the eminent sociologist, Peter Cohen, from the Netherlands. Addiction was a symptom of isolation, he posited, and those who had good social connections were less likely to become addicts. I am simplifying this concept here and I highly encourage you to check out his talk. But the idea that almost 95 percent of heroin addicts coming out of the Vietnam War were able to stop using drugs defied the common societal premise of the chemical hook. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s connection.”
While I was undergoing one of the biggest health challenges of my life, I found my connection with my healing team. As a single mother and an entrepreneur, I made the decision to keep my cancer a secret—I did not want it to sabotage new prospects as a self-employed interior designer. I did not share my diagnosis on Facebook nor on social media. I did not even share my hardship with my extended family until after my treatment was almost over. I relied on my healing team to see me in my authenticity, in my scars, in my burns, in my swollen, hairless, bruised skin. They held space for me to face each hurdle with dignity and grace.
What no one tells you is that after your medical treatment is over, there is a massive amount of healing that still needs to happen. Survivorship doesn’t just mean you can go along your merry way and skip into a happily ever after. My oncologist told me it takes many months for the body to detox after chemotherapy. It takes years for inflammation in my body to subside after surgery. Even after my medical treatment was over, my healing had only just begun.
However, I missed seeing my team! After seeing them every day, I felt cast out to sea once more after my release from treatment. I felt so incredibly isolated in my survivorship. I had bonded with my healing team and now I had “graduated.” I had been employing my designer’s background to create healing modalities for myself while I was undergoing treatment. Using beauty and pleasure as a vehicle to healing, I created rituals and techniques to get my sexy back. I took these tips and began to lead workshops for other survivors. And what I discovered was that they all felt as isolated after finishing their treatment as I did! What we found in our shared experience was that we had become initiates into the Underworld, like the Greek goddess Persephone. We survivors had a shared vocabulary and an unspoken bond.
I had girlfriends who shuddered when I said the word “cancer” and often tried to change the subject when I brought it up. They acted as if it was cooties they could contract by its mere utterance rather than an illness I was still feeling the effects from. “It’s over now—why do you need to bring it up?”
Their inability to cope made me even more invested in trying to reframe cancer as a doorway that gave me insight and agency. I was not a victim—I was an initiate. I was not less, I was more. There was no going back to the person I used to be—I didn’t want to go back! I wanted to own my present, and that meant being real about my body and my mindset.
What they don’t tell you about survivorship is that you lose a lot of fake friends— friends who benefited from your voice being stifled, your needs staying unmet, and your boundaries being trampled. If connection is the opposite of addiction, then my claiming my own voice was the opposite of self-abandonment. I was reconnecting and bonding with me. And I was forming bonds with those who allowed me to share my journey uncensored.
Healing is an action verb. It is not a passive thing that happens to you. You heal actively through your mindset, through daily practices, through seeking the right people and spaces, by asking more questions, and staying curious and engaged in your life. You heal in layers that are sometimes not linear but cyclical. I actively sought different modalities of healing through nutrition, exercise, myofascial massage, and physical therapy. I healed through writing my book, sharing my wisdom in workshops with other survivors, and actively defining my survivorship as a reconnection to myself and others.
I went from keeping my cancer a secret to sharing my story for the world to read. I wanted to normalize the shadow in all of us. Perfection is the farthest point from authenticity and my survivorship meant that I continue to share the parts of me that make me human—my trials, my challenges, my less-than-perfect bits. I am still healing, both in body and soul. And what heals me the most is my deeply rooted belief in myself. I don’t want to box off what happened or try to forget it ever did—I want to integrate my pain with my joy, my shadow with my light.
Like Persephone who traverses the Upperworld and the Underworld, I too want to commute between the parts of us that need healing and the parts of us that are healed. To give space to the depth and breadth of this thing we call life and transform my survivorship into thrivership. To thrive is to flourish, and I believe that being able to speak about our reality is the first step toward doing exactly that.
Joining groups like Twist Out Cancer and becoming an Inspiration for their Brushes with Cancer Program was so incredibly healing for me. In the words of Johann Hari: “The core of that message— ‘you’re not alone and we love you’ has to be at every level of how we respond” to someone suffering any calamity, whether it’s addiction or cancer. Connection is healing. We must continue connecting and healing together to truly thrive. Creating a safe space for survivors to share their stories is such a nourishing tea for those of us carrying the elephant on our backs. I feel like I can sit down and unburden myself for a while. We are not alone—and yes, I love you, too.
This article was featured in the March 2023 Unseen Challenges of Survivorship issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.
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