Sacred what? It’s amazing what happens when you let yourself believe, as Carol Ross Edmonston discovered when she faced down breast cancer – and won.
I was standing at the kitchen sink of my Fullerton, California home, looking out the window and taking in the beautiful spring day when the phone rang. The voice at the other end said the words no woman wants to hear: “We need to repeat your mammogram, can you come in this afternoon?” Instantly my mind jumped to the extreme: “Am I going to die? Is my son going to lose his mother, my husband his wife? How could this be happening to me? I’m too young to die! I ate well, exercised and I meditated.”
A great Sufi saint once said, “the difficulties of life do not exist to make your life bitter, they exist to make your life better.” Well, you couldn’t have convinced me of that. Instead, l was frozen with panic. The final pathology report came back positive for breast cancer. That was October 1995. I was 47 years old.
My doctor reassured me that following a lumpectomy and six weeks of daily radiation therapy, my life should return to normal. I’ll never forget the first time I went to the hospital for radiation treatments. Tears began to well up in my eyes as I lay on the table realizing I had absolutely no control over what was happening at that moment. I was so nervous, wondering if it would hurt. My husband waited patiently outside and afterwards I reassured him that the five minute treatment was painless and I really didn’t need him to come with me thereafter. By the end of December, 1995 I completed radiation therapy and I was relieved when my doctor pronounced the treatment a success.
But my relief was short lived. Exactly two years later in October 1997, I went for routine mammogram. Two weeks later I got the call—again. A suspicious result, probably cancer.When I came home I remember, once again, standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window staring at the trees as they swayed with the wind. With tears in my eyes I stood frozen with disbelief, as I opened the window and yelled out to God, “where are you? If you’re really there, please help! I’m scared.”
The next day my husband arranged to have my care transferred to the City of Hope National Cancer Center, in Duarte, CA. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a painting in the lobby that said, “There is no profit in curing the physical body, if in the process you destroy the soul.” As tears welled up in my eyes, I took a deep breath knowing that everything would be fine, although I wasn’t quite sure how.
This time around, the malignancy required removal of lymph nodes along with a lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of daily radiation therapy. Fortunately, all went well with the surgery and no nodes were involved, so I didn’t need chemotherapy. I did begin, and successfully completed, a five year course of Tamoxifen, a drug used to reduce the likelihood of another cancer developing in the other breast.
But, like the sign in the hospital said, that was just the physical. What about my spirit? My medical journey through cancer also became a spiritual adventure that has completely transformed all aspects of my life.
A Journey, and a revelation
|My spiritual journey actually began well before the cancer diagnosis, in the fall of 1988. Although I hadn’t been consciously searching, I did have a yearning to know of God was there. As a little girl growing up in a Jewish household I was curious about God, and the wonders of the universe, yet never had the opportunity to attend Temple or go to Sunday School. It just didn’t seem to be on the family agenda. And as odd as it sounds, I grew up believing in Santa Claus, who was the epitome of love in my eyes.
Around the time I turned 40, several friends mentioned a mediation ashram in upstate New York, led by the meditation master Gurumayi, as a place to explore my need for a bigger spiritual life. Though skeptical, I decided to give it a try. I got on a plane by myself and ventured the 3,000 miles to the ashram.
Those four days marked a turning point in my life, as I listened to the talks by Gurumayi, participated in the beautiful chants, meditating in the Temple, contemplating on my own, writing in my journal and just breathing in the beauty and serenity of the beautiful site in New York’s Catskill mountains.
Since that first visit and in the years that followed, I have been shown a world larger than I ever knew existed- a world filled with joy and happiness, peace and contentment-- where courage, faith and trust thrive. A world where I could connect with my true essence- that divine spark of light that illumines my soul and shines brightly out in the world. What surprised me was that this world was not out there, but right within my own heart. To imagine my heart was actually the portal to connecting with God-- to taping into the inherent wisdom and pure love within--was beyond my wildest imagination. My frame of reference had always been my logical mind, where things made sense and had scientific studies to back their theories. Instead, I learned to let go of the limited beliefs I had unknowingly clung to out of fear, in exchange for experiencing the world with greater vision. I was beginning to understand what Nietzsche, the German philosopher, meant when he said, “you need chaos within in order to give rise to a dancing star.” I was the dancing star and the cancer was obviously the chaos. WOW!
One of the great teachings that helped me navigate through breast cancer had to do with the power of surrendering to the present moment-- It’s all we truly have. The past is gone and the future is yet to be. Gurumayi once said “if you give everything to the moment, the moment will give you everything back.” Initially, I wondered how to do that- how can I give everything to the moment when the moment feels so scary?
One thing I know for sure is that the only way a teaching has ever become part of the fabric of my being is through life experiences, through the challenges that sometimes pop up in our lives when least expected.
I had a choice when it came to how I wanted to journey through cancer. And I was quick to realize that my choices were based on how I perceived things to be. I realized that I had the power to choose between feeling like a victim or rising above. I chose the latter as I truly felt that breast cancer could teach me about learning to trust in the process of life, exactly as it unfolds. I thought to myself, “what’s the point in being on a spiritual path if I’m not able to trust that every turn on this path brings a gift from God? I had spent my life creating structure, hiding behind well planned beginnings, middles and ends. I did it that way because it made me feel safe; at that time I didn’t know another way, for I didn’t know where God lived. I wanted to know the outcome ahead of time.
But there’s no way to plan how breast cancer will turn out. God doesn’t give any guarantee, nor do doctors, that everything will be fine forever. For me that was one of the scariest places to be. Yet, by immersing myself in that scary space, stepping off into the unknown, my spirit began to soar. I knew I had found the place where God lives. Though I still experienced the fear and the “what ifs” sometimes, I was determined to find God’s wisdom along the way and see a rainbow in the sky every day.
In case there was any confusion, or doubt, about connecting with this new level of consciousness and awareness I was coming to know, an interesting thing happened one day. As I found myself nervously waiting at the doctor’s office for the final pathology report from my initial diagnosis in 1995, I asked the nurse for a pen and paper, and began to doodle as a way to take my mind off the worry. After awhile, I noticed that the more I doodled, the more relaxed and calm I felt. In fact, I had so much fun with this new-found creative art-form I continued to doodle when I returned home. I even bought a special spiral notebook – my doodle book!—to take with me wherever I went, especially to the hospital. The amazing thing that happened was that others who were also waiting became interested in this art-form and wanted to learn how to do it. As I shared it with them, they would bring in their one-of-kind doodles the next day. This fun, little diversion opened the doors for creating a sense of community with one another, not only in sharing our creative talents, but for sharing about our medical journey’s and how we’re doing. As strange as it seems we looked forward to coming to the hospital to be with one another. One woman I met, Rochelle, has become a very close personal friend. In fact, we actually discovered that we went to the same junior and senior high schools.
A lesson learned and shared
At some point, I decided to give myself a guideline: to begin and end each doodle outline at the same point without lifting the pen off the paper, and complete this in 5-7 seconds. The more I created, the more beautiful the art was becoming and I was beginning to wonder what this art was trying to teach me. I thought, “if I, a left-brained person, could begin to trust in a spontaneous moment in time while I doodled, why couldn’t I do the same while journeying through cancer, or any other part of my life?”
This was the “aha” moment, and I began to see the world differently. Doodling was no longer a meaningless and frivolous activity. It had become a powerful tool, as vehicle that took me to another level of being. The doodles I was designing were truly beginning to re-design me and in no time this became a profound spiritual practice, like an open-eyed meditation. My mind had become so focused and one-pointed, still and quiet, and I felt so peaceful as I created this art. It was a magical time as I began to see the correlation between this art form and life itself, for both are about immersing oneself in a journey between two points, trusting that everything you need, you already have within.
You don’t have to go through something as serious as cancer to benefit from doodling. This is great stress reduction tool for dealing with the challenges of everyday life. Doodling is something everyone can do, regardless of age. It’s inexpensive and you can do it most anywhere- waiting in airports, the car wash, for a business meeting, at after-school activities. I even found myself doodling while waiting to get a flat tire fixed. This type of doodling has nothing to do with what you create- it’s all about learning to enjoy the process and not worrying about what it might look like.
Although Picasso is no longer alive, he understood the magic of doodling when he said, “if you know exactly what you are going to do, what’s the good of doing it? To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered at all.”
I was one of those kids who loved to use the ‘paint-by-the-number’ art kits, where you were guaranteed a perfect result every time, if you just followed the rules. What I love about doodling is that there are no rules and it requires no special artistic skills. You don’t even need to know how to draw a straight line. You can fill it in however you want- with hearts, circles, dots or anything that comes to mind. There is no right or wrong when you doodle.
It’s been 8 years since my initial diagnosis and I’m living a full and normal life. Since then I have been speaking and sharing my story to audiences of all ages, both in the USA and abroad, inspiring others to become the artists of their own lives. I have written and self published 2 books, Connections…the Sacred Journey Between Two Points and Create While You Wait…a Doodle Book for All Ages and have developed a website, SacredDoodles.com. I have also developed a program for the City of Hope National Cancer Center called ‘Create While You Wait’™ which offers patients a fun diversion as they wait for doctor appointments and treatment. This program is also being implemented at Christie Cancer Center in Manchester, UK.
I saw that I had options.
I could choose to feel like a victim of breast cancer or
I could choose to rise above.
I chose to rise above.
My sacred journey between two points, the beginning and end of my medical adventure, began with one step—one step towards embracing my own inner divinity. That’s what helped me to heal. The greatest gifts I’ve received from my journey through breast cancer is that I’m not as afraid of welcoming the unknown into my life. I’m learning to embrace what the universe has to offer, and I can do this with a greater sense of trust and faith as I discover my own inner treasures. I know I may not always have a choice about what comes into my life. But I can choose how I respond.