One woman’s spiritual adventure through breast cancer
By Carol Ross Edmonston
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the birds singing sweet melodies and there was a gentle breeze that beckoned the trees to sway in sync with one another. I was standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window, taking all this in when the phone rang and abruptly brought me out of my momentary interlude with nature. The voice at the other end sounded rather serious: “We need to repeat your mammogram, can you come in this afternoon?” Wow! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and immediately my mind jumped to the extreme, wondering: “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.” I thought God didn’t let things like this happen, especially to people like me. Then I began to wonder if there truly were a God, and if so, what was He (or She) thinking to create such a scare in my otherwise normal life.
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 convince me of that. In the middle of what felt very chaotic I found it difficult to see the light, to know that there was a gift for me just waiting to be unwrapped. Initially, l was frozen with panic as I numbly walked through the necessary diagnostic tests until the final pathology report revealed microscopic non-invasive ductal carcinoma. My doctor reassured me that following a lumpectomy and six weeks of daily radiation therapy, which I successfully completed, my life should return to normal. There was a sense of relief, as I knew I was not going to die, although it did leave me contemplating death as I began to explore life in a deeper way.
That was in October 1995. Exactly two years later in October 1997, after a routine mammogram and a two week delay in notifying me of a suspicious result, I was again diagnosed with probable cancer in the other breast. Although there was a difficulty in getting a precise diagnosis, that didn’t stop the radiologist from telling me that he was sure it was malignant and that I would definitely need to have a radical mastectomy. Having worked in the medical community as a physical therapist and being married to a surgeon, I stared at him in disbelief and thought to myself, “how could he be so sure? A biopsy hadn’t yet to be done, therefore there was no pathology report to support his comment.” Feeling numb, all that came out of my mouth was “call my husband, he’s a surgeon.” I left his office filled with anger and fear. The fear of death left me once again wondering, “what I was doing wrong? What was I missing? What does God want me to understand? How can I possibly find the courage to walk down this road again?” And wanting to make sure that others didn’t experience the same thing, especially those with a history of breast cancer, I wrote several letters to the hospital letting them know of my experience.
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 and I decided to transfer my care to another hospital as it had become clear to me that I did not feel a sense of trust, safety and comfort where I was. We ended up at the City of Hope National Cancer Center, just outside Los Angeles, where they are known for their medical expertise and compassion in caring for patients. As soon as we walked through the front door I felt such a sense of relief as my eyes caught sight of a painting in the lobby with the words inscribed “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.
In the days that followed, numerous diagnostic tests were performed and finally I had an accurate diagnosis. There were several microscopic non-invasive lesions, however there was one lesion that was a malignant invasive carcinoma,which would require a lymph node dissection along with lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of daily radiation therapy. While I was relieved to finally have a definitive diagnosis I couldn’t help but wonder how things were going to turn out, especially if the lymph node dissection showed any cancer cells, for then I knew would chemotherapy would be indicated. Fortunately, all went well with the surgery and no nodes were involved. I did however, begin a five year course of Tamoxifen, a cancer drug used to reduce the likelihood of another cancer developing in the other breast.
But how did I really know everything would be fine? How did I get from fear to faith, from merely surviving to thriving in the midst of adversity? How did I learn to trust in life’s sometimes unpredictable process and let go of any attachment to outcome when safety meant the world to me? Through contemplating these questions in search of answers and new understanding, my medical journey through cancer became more of a spiritual adventure and one that has completely transformed all aspects of my life.
It all began in the fall of 1988 when I had the good fortune to meet a great spiritual teacher and meditation master. Her name is Gurumayi and she is the spiritual head of the ancient yogic tradition known as Siddha Yoga meditation. While I had not been consciously searching, on some level the yearning to know of God’s possible existence must have been heard. As a little girl 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 the epitome of love in my eyes.
So at the age of 40, I got on a plane by myself and ventured 3,000 miles to a meditation ashram in upstate New York. I had heard about this from a few friends, although I must admit the skeptic in me kept me at a safe distance wondering just what a guru is and imagining how my family would react. I was sure they would think I had totally lost my mind, as they did! But that didn’t stop me as something from deep within was calling out to me and I knew I needed to explore this new world. Prior to going on this pilgrimage of mine, I began to read some of the sacred texts related to this path and appreciate how something as complex sounding as God could be conveyed in such a profound, yet simple and loving way. ‘God dwells within me as me’ is the cornerstone teaching and something I truly wanted to explore on a much deeper level.
My plane arrived at JFK airport at 6:30 am and I was met by a driver who drove me, along with four others to the ashram, a spiritual retreat site in the foothills of the Catskill mountains. Everyone in the van was eager to share their stories of how they came to this path and reassure me that my four day stay would be extraordinary. I must admit, I was beginning to feel my nervousness slowly melt away. As I entered the ashram I noticed how welcoming everyone seemed, smiling and greeting me with such warmth, which helped me feel more relaxed and comfortable in these new surroundings. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering and exploring and observing everything I could. My four days in the ashram marked the beginning of something very special and a turning point in my life. While I was still somewhat hesitant and cautious about this new adventure, I did allow myself experience everything that was going on-- the talks by Gurumayi, the beautiful chants, meditation in the Temple, contemplation and journal writing, and just breathing in the beauty and serenity of the ashram in general. There were well over a thousand people from all over the world, representing all walks of life, who had come to be with her and I thought to myself, “she must be a very special person and I want to know more about what she has to say about God and me.”
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. This was an amazing concept for me, as I never knew my heart had any purpose other than the obvious one-- to keep my physical body alive. 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 linear and logical mind, where things made sense and had scientific studies to back their theories. I was now being invited to let go of limited beliefs and perspectives which I had unknowingly been clinging 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.
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 perceive things to be. If my perspectives were limited or contracted, my experiences would be less than ideal. Was cancer something to run from? Was it an automatic death sentence? I began to realize that I had the power to choose between feeling like a victim or rise above, and become transformed along the way as I searched for the gifts. I chose the latter as I truly felt that breast cancer had come into my life to teach me about learning to trust in the process of life, exactly as it unfolds in each and every moment, from breath to breath. I thought to myself, “what’s the point in being on a spiritual path and having a meditation master in my life if I’m not able to trust that each and every twist and turn on this path brings a gift from God. I had spent my life creating structure, hiding behind well planned beginnings, middles and ends because that’s where I felt safe, for I didn’t know where God lived. If I had a sense of knowing the outcome ahead of time, then I would feel more apt to venture into “the middle.” Breast cancer doesn’t leave you with a feeling of security in knowing exactly how things 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-- feeling alone in the middle. Yet, by immersing myself in that space, my spirit began to soar, trusting in the knowledge that that’s where God resides.
But I still wondered if I was truly becoming transformed by this experience, or if I was somehow still clinging to the fear of those “what if’” scenario’s, like “what if I die? What if something goes wrong?” I was determined not to let fear dictate how I was going to walk through this time. 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 for a doctor’s appointment, wondering if a medical report would be positive or negative, 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! I began to take this book with me wherever I went, especially to the hospital. I would show up early every day for my radiation treatments just so I could have extra time to create. 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.
Then, at some point, I decided to give myself a creative 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 whatyou create- it’s all about learning to enjoy the processand 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 Pointsand Create While You Wait…a Doodle Book for All Agesand have developed an innovative 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.
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 with a greater sense of trust and faith as I become the captain of my own ship, discovering my own inner treasures as I journey through life. Remember, we may not always have a choice as to what comes into our lives- only in how we choose to respond.