I consider myself very fortunate. Twice, I’ve been in situations when I’ve had to confront my own mortality and I’ve come out the other side.
The first time was when I had a highly allergic reaction to nuts. Lying in my bed, struggling to breathe, overwhelmed with panic, but forcing myself to stay calm, I have never been so frightened; afraid to fall asleep in case I didn’t wake up again.
The second time was two years ago when I experienced the most excruciating headaches and physical numbness. Unable to function, I was confined to bed for weeks. I spent hours on my own in my room, just me; my thoughts and my body working through it all until eventually the pain subsided.
The severity of my allergic reaction took me by surprise so I wasn’t prepared. I had no medical backup – it was just me.
When I became ill with my head pains, I made the conscious choice not to take medication.
Something told me that the route to healing was mine alone. I had to take personal responsibility for my life and to address what was killing me inside.
The seed of this thought had been planted twenty years ago. Waiting for a friend who was running late, I found myself browsing in a bookshop and discovered a book waiting for me.
It was called “Your Body Speaks Your Mind – Understand How Your Thoughts & Emotions Affect Your Health”. The author is Debbie Shapiro.
That book transformed how I understand illness and how it plays such an important part in our lives. It has become my bible and it has never let me down. I’ve recommended it to many friends and I talk about it in my own book “Let Go Or Be Dragged” but never have I shared it in such an open forum.
This week the world has experienced loss and grief with the passing of outstanding individuals; David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Rene Angelil. Today I read the news of climate scientist Piers J Sellers who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
As I personally seek to understand the messages the world is asking us to uncover, I am drawn to the book and what it has to reveal to me about cancer.
I’d like to share this section on cancer from the book by Debbie Shapiro now. I share this in the hope that her words can give some profound meaning to understanding the causes of this auto-immune disease and it may help us all to more forward with greater knowledge and a sense of personal responsibility for how our mind shapes our thoughts.
“After heart disease, cancer is the most common cause of death. There is no doubt we are facing an enormous increase in carcinogens (cancer-producing agents) in our environment – the rise in the use of chemicals and the adulteration of food are producing substances totally foreign to our bodies, so that the ability to combat abnormal cells is seriously undermined. However, although we are all exposed to carcinogens, not all of us develop cancer. It would appear that it is a combination of environmental and psycho/emotional facts that most affect the immune system.
Abnormal cells grow in the body all the time but the immune system usually deals with them effectively and there is no residue. With cancer the abnormal cells are not stopped by the immune system; instead they are able to grow and spread. A cell that is abnormal has become wayward, even rebellious, behaving differently to other cells; rather than fulfilling its role in support of the whole it goes off on its own. In this sense, cancer can be seen as reflecting the human condition. Rather than being concerned with the welfare of all, the emphasis is on the self, but such behaviour undermines the survival of the whole. And just as the cancer cell becomes isolated, so we can become isolated from ourselves, cut off from our real feelings.
An accumulation of problems or stress can create this state of inner alienation. Stress includes emotional shock or trauma, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, sudden loss of one’s job or financial security. Such trauma can seriously undermine our sense of purpose or identity. In turn, this suppresses the body’s natural defence system. The two years preceding the onset of symptoms is the most critical time, particularly if strong feelings are not fully acknowledged or released but are buried inside, pushed away or ignored. Those feelings have energy that does not just dissolve.
There are certain characteristics and personality traits that seem to be more prominent in those prone to cancer. Their common theme is lack of personal respect or care, to the point of isolation from our own feelings. These characteristics include helping others to the detriment of ourselves – denying our own needs due to believing that others must come first; the inability to express negative feelings, especially those of anger, shame or fear; long-held resentment or guilt, often from childhood, that may never have been expressed; a sense of powerless as when another person is emotionally stronger or more dominating; feeling worthless, unimportant or not good enough; and an inner hopelessness leading to what has been termed ‘acceptable suicide’
Obviously not all cancer patients have these characteristics , for cancer is nothing if not multi-faceted and indiscriminate. There is undoubtedly a mystery factor involved here. But cancer has lessons for us all – about our attitudes towards ourselves and each other, about accepting and loving unconditionally, and especially about loving ourselves. Many cancer survivors have spoken about it being connected with a lack of self-care, saying that their healing came as they began to honour themselves more deeply. Most especially cancers give us the chance to re-evaluate, to take stock and be more honest about our feelings and to clarify our priorities.
It is important to remember that cancer is not contagious, is not something alien that enters the body and takes over. The abnormal cells grow within us – they are as much part of our being as any of our other cells. If cancer represents an alienated part of ourselves, then rejecting or isolating it further does not encourage healing. Opening ourselves to live means loving the cancer, bringing it into the heart, accepting it as an expression of ourselves.
There are many ways we can work with cancer – through creative visualisation, deep relaxation and meditation, with diet or the many complementary therapies available. Being able to share our feelings – whether through counselling, group therapy or talking to a friend – is a vital aid to recovery. When we acknowledge the alienation, the disconnection from our feelings, we can bring those isolated parts of ourselves back into the whole – understanding the function and part of the body that is affected helps indicate which part of ourselves is being ignored or pushed away.
It is essential to strengthen the functioning of the immune system – which means strengthening the desire to live. Those who develop a fighting spirit, mental resilience and vigour, who do not reject themselves, appear to have a greater survival rate. This is about developing an ‘I want to live’ attitude. It means finding what is meaningful, looking deeper to discover the real purpose of life”
Illness has so much to teach us in learning to express ourselves and to let go of that which harms us.
For me, it led me to pursue a life which gives me greater peace of mind and fulfillment than ever before.
“Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough.” Tony Bennett.
Wise words indeed.