Cancer is one of the most common diseases of our age, and yet those who face it rarely know what’s about to happen to them beyond the broadest terms. “Cancer up Close” is an open recount of Michele Goncalves’s cancer journey from pre-diagnosis to life after treatment.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had already been working with a therapist for more than a year.
I have been through more than one traumatic event in my life, and I recognized they were affecting me. I wanted to do something about it.
For example, I lived through an unforgettable 8.0 earthquake in Mexico back in the 1990s when the ground shook so violently it knocked me over and the earth literally roared so loudly it sounded like a freight train. In Paris during a study-abroad semester my junior year in college, I woke up and there was someone inside my hotel room stealing from my friend’s purse.
These experiences and others left me with an underlying fear of being unsafe, wondering when the next life-threatening event would happen. This fear followed me throughout the years.
Through working with my therapist, I was able to “reprocess” these two events again in my brain over several eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy sessions and I feel like I have made progress in feeling less stressed about them.
Seeing this therapist has helped me become more aware of how the thoughts and stresses in my mind are connected to physical responses in my body. It has also helped me to realize that our bodies are alive and can communicate with us if we are “awake” enough to ask them questions.
You see, during a therapy session, I may mention something that is troubling or upsetting me, and my therapist will then proceed to ask me, “What do you notice in your body?” After I finish sharing the situation, I may notice that my lower belly is hurting, or my jaw is clenched, or my chest feels like it is being squeezed.
Actually, any part of the body may manifest a response. She then guides me to question that physical response, to ask it something like, “What do you want me to know?” I often get quite a remarkable amount of information that helps me understand what is going on deep inside myself, and I’m able to tell these subconscious physical responses that come forward how I (my main conscious self) am going to address the issue, which can help settle them down and inform the part that is anxious or scared.
I know what some of you may be thinking. This is getting too woo woo, new agey, and “out there.” I can understand why you would think that. But before you stop reading, consider the following idea.
There is a hypothesis in science called “body memory” that states that the body itself is capable of storing memories, as opposed to only the brain. It might sound odd, but given that some of our bodies’ most important neurotransmitters are produced in the stomach, it’s not out of the question. I am no scientist but I do truly believe the body remembers.
When we go through traumatic events, our conscious mind, our organs, and even our cells experience it. How could they not? The human body is completely connected, so how could something scary affect your brain in isolation? During the hotel room burglary in Paris, it wasn’t just my eyes that saw something terrifying, my mind that knew I was in danger, my entire being went through the experience together. I was in bed and felt extremely vulnerable.
My entire body shook for several days afterward, and I remember feeling waves of panic wash over me (adrenaline perhaps) when I would re-live the experience in my mind. Couldn’t this have been my organs and cells communicating with me? Maybe they were screaming for help and crying out that they were terrified over what had just happened, but at that time I didn’t realize I could tune into what they were communicating and talk to them.
Since I had already had many conversations with different parts of my body in previous therapy sessions, when I became aware that I had a huge malignant tumor growing inside of me, almost fully blocking my colon, I decided to have a short conversation with it a few days after my diagnosis. It went something like this:
Me: “Are you going to kill me?”
Me: “So why are you growing inside of my body?”
Tumor: “I am here to make you fearless.”
I was floored with the response that I got. Fear is one of the biggest obstacles holding me back in life. I was too busy protecting myself from harm to live life to the fullest. It is the main reason I decided to go to therapy. So, I was really amazed that the tumor said it was there to help me release some of that fear and not there to kill me.
I thanked it for sharing this information with me, and I kept this understanding in my back pocket throughout my treatment. That conversation didn’t convince me I was not going to die, but it did give me some relief at the time.
As I look back on this now, I believe it was God, or the Creator, or the Universe giving me encouragement. I had to go through this experience to grow and see that I have enough strength inside to face anything, even potentially life-threatening illness.
Has this cancer experience made me a fearless person? No. But I absolutely do feel more confident that I have the courage and ability to get through scary experiences.
So, the next time you have a headache, or your hip starts hurting, I invite you to find a quiet spot to sit and ask that part, “What do you want me to know?” You may be surprised at what you find out.
Join me next week when I begin my mind, body, and spirit trilogy. This mini-series will explore how getting a cancer diagnosis is just as much a psychological and spiritual battle, as it is a physical one, and how I tried to keep all three in check.
Until then, breathe deep, be kind, and take it one day at a time.
Michele Goncalves is a financial compliance and fraud auditor for a Fortune 500 company by day and a passionate pursuer of holistic and functional medicine knowledge by night. She is also the author of the column The Consummate Traveler.