“I’m so sorry, but you have cancer” is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to say. As physicians, we pray right along with our patients that the biopsy will be benign, that we will be the bearer of good news and relief rather than the messenger of the words everyone understandably fears. Even though many cancers are curable, the words, “You have cancer” can understandably thrust someone into a terrifying “fight-or-flight” stress response faster than you can say, “Boo!”
Anyone who faces a cancer diagnosis will likely need to move through the inevitable cocktail of emotions—fear, anxiety, grief, insecurity, and sometimes shame, humiliation, or embarrassment. There’s no bypassing these beautifully human emotions, which tend to get lit up when our very survival feels threatened. But what if it’s possible to move through those emotions fully and quickly? What if on the other side of these contracted feelings lives an expansive curiosity? What if cancer is not necessarily a death sentence, but an opportunity for awakening, a portal to possibility? What if cancer is a wake-up call, inviting—even demanding—us to examine our lives and enter into a period of humble inquiry about where our lives might be out of alignment with our deepest truth?
Please feel my deep care when I say, with great sincerity, that I’m not suggesting that cancer is your fault. Even if you’ve knowingly engaged in behaviors that carry cancer risk, blaming or shaming yourself physiologically impedes the healing process, so the invitation is to let those emotions move through you like a wave, feel their pain, get help if you need to, and let them go. Cancer is an opportunity to hold a paradox. What if you’re responsible to your illness but not for your illness?
Try getting curious instead. Enter into a state of wondering. Be willing to ask yourself, “If cancer is here as a wake-up call, what is its message for me?” Pay attention to the first answer that arises. In my work with tens of thousands of patients and thousands of physicians, you’d be shocked how often your first instinct is the most illuminating.
Notice next how you feel in response to what your intuition just told you. Maybe you asked your cancer, “What is your message for me?” and your cancer said, “You have to stop selling your soul at a job that asks you to violate your integrity” or “You’ve got to quit being a doormat in your marriage” or “You have to stop giving until you’re depleted and prioritize your own needs.” Maybe cancer said, “It’s time to finally write that book you’ve always dreamed of writing!” or “You’ve just got to set boundaries with your abusive mother” or “Now is the time to twelve-step codependence” or “Baby, let’s go on safari in Africa!”
Maybe your cancer is telling you to embark upon a spiritual retreat to reconnect with the Source of what enlivens you. Maybe cancer is here to help you quit smoking or to help you heal from childhood sexual abuse or get in touch with the fierce Mama Bear energy that can help you find your healthy “Rrrrrrrooooaaarrrr!” What if cancer is here to help you eat better, exercise more, and stop abusing toxic substances? What if cancer is here as a motivator to help you stop loathing your body and start treating it like a temple worthy of your devotion, care, and nourishment? What if cancer wants you to have more yummy sex and less toxic abuse from your boss?
In this illuminating book, Dr. Laura Nasi writes, “Cancer is a demand for change.” For change to stick, change requires transformation. Cancer can be that transformational catalyst, if you let it. Dr. Nasi writes, “A disease might be the soul making its voice heard.” If so, what is your soul saying? If you don’t know, may this book help you discover what wants to awaken in you.
The fourteenth-century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi invites us into this kind of awakened alertness.
The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
Across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!
Oftentimes, cancer is a wake-up call, and then surgery or radiation or chemotherapy cures the cancer, and people go back to sleep. What if this is your opportunity to become and stay awake to the mysteries of life, the truth of your authentic nature, and the depth of your fully expressed Beingness? What if—and I know this is a stretch—cancer could even be a gift of love, an invitation to not just survive, but thrive? What if you are about to embark upon a hero’s/ heroine’s journey that will change your life forever?
For four years, I created an art project called The Woman Inside, for which I cast the torsos of patients of mine who had breast cancer. I painted these sculptures with pigmented beeswax and then listened as these women told me their stories of the true nature yearning to break free from inside these plaster shells. As I listened to them tell their stories, I was shocked, as a young, naïve doctor, to hear so many of them say, “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.” How could that be? Was it possible? It seemed ludicrous, and yet some of these patients, the ones who didn’t become contracted and embittered, the ones who found a portal out of their victim stories and took on the challenge cancer offered, the ones who said, “Hell yeah!” and dove into the dark places that had always frightened them, they practically glowed with a brightness radiating from their shining eyes. Cancer had changed their life, and they were sincerely grateful. Some had not yet gone into remission, and the possibility of death still loomed, yet they were grateful even still.
I was in awe of these radiant women.
You could be next—if you’re ready. Nobody can force your readiness, and if you’re not yet ready to explore the dark shadows of your psyche and your life, be kind to yourself. Know that there is still hope for those with cancer who aren’t yet ready for the deep soul work. It takes courage to dive into the unknown. But if there’s even a spark of delicious excitement that arises, nourish yourself with this flicker. Dorothy Bernard said, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
May your fear say its prayers. May your journey be liberating. May this book be a blessing. May cancer be the best thing that ever happened to you.
Lissa Rankin, MD
New York Times best-selling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling