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Spirituality & Survivorship

Finding Your Way after a Diagnosis of Cancer

by Rev. Jill Bowden, BCC, and Melissa Stewart, LCSW-R

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Surviving cancer – what does that mean?

From a physical and medi­cal perspective, it means to continue to exist without signs or symptoms of the illness that threatened one’s life. Perhaps it means being “in remission,” or “cancer-free.” But once cancer has invaded body, mind, and spirit, the impact lingers in the emotional and spiritual parts of a person well beyond the conclusion of treatment. For many, the experience leaves them forever changed.

We, as human beings, continually review and re-assess our values, beliefs, and priorities over the course of our lifetimes. It’s part of the personal evolution and growth that happens as we age, or as our life circum­stances change. Unfortunately, many of us tend to only re­evaluate our lives when we’re confronted with unpleasant or unwelcome challenges, like cancer.

A cancer diagnosis almost certainly intensifies this life review and reassessment pro­cess. A new sense of urgency may accelerate the decision to set in motion concrete plans for what were once far-off dreams – moving to be closer to family, taking a long-anticipated vacation, or finally starting a personally meaningful project, such as writing a memoir. It may lead to a reordering of pri­orities, to retiring from a career, or to pursuing new avenues of knowledge. It may serve as a stimulus for participating in enriching activities like mindfulness meditation, yoga, or spending more time with the people we love.

Welcome or not, a cancer diagnosis presents an opportunity to construct a totally new system of thought, a new framework on which to build our lives.

Author of Article photo

Rev. Jill Bowden

Welcome or not, a cancer diagnosis presents an opportunity to construct a totally new system of thought, a new framework on which to build our lives. Many people who have lived through cancer find that, even after treatment ends, they are troubled by the same seemingly simple two-word question: “Now what?”

For Debra Jarvis, a cancer survivor and oncology chap­lain at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, that question is a big one. In her book It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life & Cancer, she writes, “This is not just a question of activity, but of becoming. You have gotten a reprieve, another chance to look at life with different eyes. Maybe you have awakened to something. The challenge is to stay awake. You can’t go back to your old way of being.”

Author of Article photo

Melissa Stewart

Cancer is often described as a wake-up call. Interest­ingly, people tend to describe spiritual experiences as being wide awake – to life, nature, the universe, the great beyond, or simply our own being. Call it spiritual awakening, if you will.

What is it that inspires in each unique being a feeling of interconnectedness, of belonging to both the macrocosmic universe and the microcosm of human emotion, of com- passion for the suffering of others? Where does one find “at-one-ment,” or the presence of the sacred?

A unique experience of illness, of the potential for a shortened lifespan, of the fear of losing the uniquely essen­tial “self” to the ravages of disease can inspire a sense of purpose or calling that sticks with us for the rest of our lives. It can be a gateway to helping others, to building deeper and more meaningful relationships, and to having a life that is inspiring to others.

Ultimately, and even if it is found nowhere else (whether in congregation with others or in communion with a divine being), a sense of authentic connection with one’s self usually brings about inner harmony and peace of mind. The awareness that comes with truly understanding one­self leads to experiencing ever-deepening significance in life. Spending time with friends and loved ones, being surrounded by nature, observing the world with compassion and wonder, experiencing the transcendent (or that which is beyond one’s own understanding) may put life in balanced perspective.

The soul-deep connection to all that is life can be experi­enced through an appreciation for art, the beauty of music, a deep admiration for the natural world, or an experience that inspires awe, reverence, or pro­found gratitude. Many spiritual practices could be used to achieve a state of peace or spiritual con­nection: prayer, meditation, mindfulness, movement, worship, or simply being of service to others. Whatever the method you choose, spiritual awakening is obtained by being fully aware, in the present moment, and doing that which is unique and joyful in your own mind and heart, to your own spirit.

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The Reverend Jill Bowden is director of Chaplaincy Services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. A board-certified chaplain, she came to ministry with 40 years healthcare experience as a respiratory therapist and a healthcare administrator. Melissa Stewart is an ordained interfaith minister and a senior clinical social worker, providing psychoeducation, practical guidance, counseling, and emotional support to people with cancer and their families, at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2016.