A Challenging Shift from Surviving to Living
On October 15, 2014, just 6 months after breaking my hip in a remote village in Ethiopia and receiving unprecedented love and care from my community, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. No problem, I thought in my state of shock; it’s the “good” cancer, with nearly a 100% survival rate. My plan was to find a great surgeon and get it squared away. I was embarrassed about so much upheaval in a short period of time and didn’t want to burden my friends and family with more caregiving.
UCSF, the hospital I chose to help me with this inconvenience, repeated the biopsy and found the cancer had spread to a node in my neck. Yikes. I would be scheduled for not only a thyroidectomy but a full left neck dissection. At this point I fell down the rabbit hole and realized not only is Cancer scary under any circumstance, but this could be serious. I took a leave from work, reached out to friends on Facebook, cleaned up my diet, joined a list-serve community, and researched everything I could get my hands on. In short, I went into highly focused survival mode.
What causes survival mode? On a neurological level, cancer, or any life-threatening situation, is a trauma. We go into our reptilian brains, to our fight/flight/freeze mode. We get concrete. Narrow. Focused. Tense. Charged. It’s very unpleasant, and people can live in this state for months to years as their life or the life of a loved one hangs in the balance.
There’s another important reason for survival mode: We get terrified when we think we could die because we actually love life. Gregg Levoy, author of Callings and Vital Signs, told me that one way we know how much we love life is upon waking from a terrifying nightmare, when we’re about to die, we immediately feel a tremendous relief: Thank God that was just a dream (because I love being alive). We want desperately to survive from life threatening events because of the meaning life holds for us—the people we love, the work we value, the experiences that nourish us, our dreams.
Two months after my diagnosis, full of anxiety and dread, I had my thyroidectomy. While I was under anesthesia, the surgeon decided to leave my lymph node alone because it seemed contained. No neck dissection. Discharged 15 hours later, the plan was to take thyroid replacement meds and check the node every 3 months. Congratulations, “for now” you can get back to your normal life.
I remember the drive home through sunny San Francisco. In a word, I was disoriented. Still in that narrow, focused mode of survival, going back to my normal life was a concept incomprehensible to my system. I felt blank, like I couldn’t see it, couldn’t conjure up the energy for it, didn’t get it.
I’ve never seen a cat on a ceiling, but somehow that analogy resonates; I’d have to let life itself help me come down off the ceiling, get back into my scared body, open my perceptions and start feeling a wider range of emotions. Grief, anxiety, gratitude, terror, sadness, anger, relief were all mixed up in me. And how would I let my frozen cat-body connect with others, who would be filled with joy and relief that this ordeal was over (for now)?
This shift in perception, from narrow to expanded, takes time and support. It’s a healthy shift, a necessary one for comfortable living, but we are not wired for it to happen quickly or easily. Intense threat trumps beautiful sunsets and good movies and words of comfort. Time, effort, patience, persistence are required for the shift. My favorite way to help this shift is through meaning. Meaning is so compelling that it stands a chance to compete with the remnants of threat. People we love, activities we enjoy, causes we believe in, and experiences like music, tastes and scents are compelling. With time they help.
But here’s the key: More compelling than knowing what’s meaningful to us is experiencing what’s meaningful. Experiencing happens in our bodies. Try it: look into a loved one’s face and feel what happens in your body. Contemplate a cause you support and feel the sensations in your body. Bring to mind the memory of a deeply important story and notice what happens in your body. Meaning experienced is expansive and connecting, opposite the constriction of survival mode.
Two months after my surgery I returned to that village in Ethiopia because it was so meaningful to me. I experienced with presence and gratitude the people, the landscapes, the smells, the food and the coffee. Being there, in a place so special to me was an important first step in getting my paws back on the ground and shifting into living.