From Despair to the Divine
How an Ethereal Vision Helped Me Find Healing After Cancer
by Susan Keller
In 2005, I went to my doctor for what I thought was a minor kidney infection. A bottle of antibiotics, and I’d be fine. By the time I left, she diagnosed me with stage IV lymphoma.
Immediately hospitalized, I underwent a biopsy which revealed that 90 percent of my bone marrow was a cancerous mush. I had mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of the disease. Survival was unlikely. After days as an inpatient, receiving continual emergency blood transfusions, I was discharged – to a reality of denial and terror.
But when I arrived back home, I was transported out of my nightmare to a place of wonder. Standing in my living room, I basked in the sunlight that flooded in through four French doors facing the Northern California hills covered in oaks, madrones, and bay laurels. My bare feet soaked up the warmth from the wooden floor. The swaying treetops were jade green, the trunks emerald. Above the ridgeline, a marine blue sky was streaked with clouds the color of pewter. Swallows lifted on the thermals.
Opening the doors, I smelled foliage, dirt, and the salty ocean just a block away – the scent of living things. Everything was alive, but alive in the way that I was in that moment. Madly conscious. Blood buzzed in my veins. I was not sick but ruthlessly OK. Another deep breath. I smiled. What had changed? Did grace, biology, or an alignment of the planets produce this momentary perfection, loss of ego, merging of the self with all that lives outside the body? Was this vision a suit of armor against the terror of cancer, or a glimpse into a magnificent afterlife? It didn’t matter. I was OK. Safe. I closed my eyes, and life pulsed through my body.
A week later, I described my visions to my daughter. “I haven’t told this to anyone, but sometimes things look different,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Colors. Green is so green. The sky quivers. Everything is intense and alive.”
“Sounds cool. A little hallucinogenic,” she said.
“I don’t see it all the time.”
“Is it good, or not?”
“Very good. It makes me feel connected. Like I’m in the sky, the trees, the hills. There’s no separation between me and the whole world. It’s blissful. I don’t know. It feels like I’m everything. I sound so dumb.”
“You don’t sound dumb. I think it’s your vision. For healing. Hold onto it.”
I’ve read passages by writers who were clinically dead for some minutes – or had a near-death experience – and the similarities of their experiences to my vision astounded me: loss of ego, merging of the self with that outside the body, grace, and overwhelming peace.
Does everyone who faces a potential death sentence have the visions I did? What did they mean? Did they help me survive?
After sixteen years as a survivor, I can still recall the serenity and awe, sights, and sounds of those visions. They remain with me as an enduring gift. If my cancer comes back, I will be less afraid, more accepting. Because I understand: Wonder can replace fear. Tranquility can ease pain. Death might be an experience of glory. There is comfort in the possibility that what we will all face someday may be beautiful.
Susan Keller enjoyed a 30-year career as an award-winning medical writer. Her poetry won prizes in regional and national contests. A lymphoma diagnosis inspired Susan to write her first book, Blood Brother: A Memoir. She is currently a monthly blog contributor to Psychology Today, as well as a presenter at Dominican University in San Rafael, CA, and at Stanford Cancer Center in Stanford, CA. She has also been featured on a number of podcasts exploring survivorship, the lessons of cancer, and the gifts of forgiveness. You can learn more about Susan at SusanKeller.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2022.
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