Anne, a magazine editor and filmmaker, battled recurrent ovarian cancer over the span of almost a decade. The different emotions she experienced with each new diagnosis pushed her to explore creative pathways to enhance the healing process.
I had three different trips through cancer. My first diagnosis was in 2001 at age 47. The second was in 2006, and third in 2008, with treatment ending in 2009. The emotions surrounding each experience were completely different.
It started as a funny pain; sharp and unlike anything I’ve ever felt. At first, they thought I had fibroids, but I had enormous cancer, stage 3C and my doctor gave me only a 50/50 chance of staying alive. When they told me “we think you have cancer,” my life passed before my eyes, just like people say it does. I thought, “Life is good and I’m so happy that I want to stay alive,” and that carried me through. I felt energized every day and knew somehow that the joy I felt was going to prevail.
Between friends and my work family, I never felt lonely or afraid. I was working at The Advocate, which was full of guys withstanding HIV. They showed me how to outshine cancer, sass it, find a way to laugh at it and not give in. It was the most durable kind of defiance. Those were my tools. I did the most extensive surgery possible and almost made it five years before my next diagnosis.
The second time around, I was so angry. I wondered what was all that heroism for? I really disliked the “win the battle” business. For me it was more about how to muster up the bravery to even get in the ring with cancer and engage it. I discovered that if you have engaged it, even if you die, it’s not a loss.
The third diagnosis came right on the heels of the second, and I thought I was going to die. I was terrified, but I also began to think that this journey was really part of my life; and I accepted that. It’s truly ridiculous that I lived. I think about my personal joy at being alive and my trust in my own imagination. As someone who is a storyteller, I went into this process able to imagine myself somewhere nicer, better.
After I got well, I went diving while on vacation. A little blue fish cocked his head at me like a dog; a sight that would later give me strength. It was a vivid moment that I could play back in my mind when I had another blood test or other stressful moment.
I wish I had known that most of us live through this; it isn’t a death sentence. But the hardest part was that it just felt so big; I was always so terrified of cancer that I couldn’t even say the word to myself. I do worry about it coming back, since it’s never totally gone. When I finished treatment, I knew I was supposed to be celebrating, but I still felt the presence of something over my shoulder. A person comes out of cancer treatment very beaten down and vulnerable. Then you ask yourself: what do I believe will be healthiest for me? What will I enjoy the most? How can I have an experience that fills me? It’s good to do healing things for yourself. I try to do things I enjoy on a daily basis.
Using My Gifts
Cancer changed me. I was a competitive person and it was profound to be confronted with the idea of a situation where I couldn’t exactly win. That wasn’t the right way to look at this, so I started to have a different idea of what courage is, about what represents a successful life. I heard it like a voice in my head, “you have all these gifts, you’re just not supposed to use them in an entertainment industry context.”
In facing my mortality, I got in touch with a friend who meditates. I called him often and we did a lot of reading of the Tao and meditated together. I loved the Tao—it didn’t say if I was going to win or lose, but rather that the truth was something I could only glimpse. That made me feel like whatever happens, the next part would be OK. I felt like if I don’t use whatever gifts I have to try to help someone else on this journey then I just don’t know why I am here. It has felt so overwhelming to try to make some sense of any of it.
That’s the vision I want to put forward with the little film I made, “We Are Well Again”: your individual well again is up to you, it’s not just medical, spiritual, or having a good time, but it’s opening yourself with joy to the adventure that you are on, and believing that this will deepen the effect you make in the world and vice versa. I had a wonderful therapist who told me something that was key: when people go through cancer, they tend to go in one of two directions, the western medical or the eastern spiritual way. Either is very powerful, but it’s hard to talk about medical stuff at an ashram, or spiritual stuff at a clinic. I think it’s important to look at both sides of the experience as intimately linked; once we start to function with both, that’s when we start to grow as people.
Working on “We Are Well Again” is the best way I know to stay inside the experience and not be afraid. If I have to go down that road again, I know it will be frightening, among other things, but I don’t want to be in that “I am outraged because I am done with this” mode.
I’ve had the opportunity to discover what really makes me happy, which is feeling better for even a minute; understanding how to string the moments together that are beautiful, that are happy. This is almost like an initiation into a mystery. In shamanic mythology, a shaman is someone who is wounded but uses the strength from that wound to help others heal. A lot of us have shamanic power that we can share. If it wasn’t that profound, it would be easier to get over, but it is that profound. I think we have a right to consider that we are a fellowship.
I found it difficult to get ahold of myself after being on this journey through the oncology underworld. But that’s what you have to do. You have to listen to yourself, and ask “why do I want to be here, what do I want to do,” and then go do that. Trust that this has been an initiation into a more powerful chapter of your life, and if you’re powerful enough to get through this, then you have power you didn’t know you had before.