“We Found Cancer”
A Personal Reflection
(and Announcing a Group for People with Cancer, Cancer Survivors and Chronic Illness)
Gary McMichael, LCSW, M.Div.
Less than two years ago after what I thought was a routine medical procedure that I had been having for years, my doctor told me with a deep sadness in his voice, “I am sorry to tell you, we found cancer.” The cancer was in my stomach, a very invasive form of cancer. Listening to my doctor, I immediately began feeling a pulsating intense energy trembling through my body. I shook with fear, terror really. The only similar experience I can compare the sensation with is when my brother told me my father had died suddenly when I was twenty-six years old. Immediately I began experiencing all the messy emotions of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, with brief moments of acceptance in no particular order and not once but over and over and over.
Together with my wife and medical team, I decided the best course of treatment was to completely remove my stomach. The lengthy surgery reconfigured my digestive system. In the months following the surgery as I regained strength, I experienced many struggles that you would expect around what to eat, how much to eat, and particularly not wanting to eat. Habits that we take for granted in daily life. To date I have made an excellent recovery and my surgeon believes I am free of cancer. I continue to live with a genetic condition in which I am a high risk of developing cancer in my digestive system. I must maintain close medical care and I work hard to take excellent care of myself. Each day I am thinking about good foods, proper self-care and learning to work with my body’s natural functioning. Almost two years from my surgery I continue to experience significant changes in my body as I move through the healing and recovery. From this experience, which is an ongoing process, here are several of the many important learnings I have gained.
I have been amazed with how our bodies and human systems are oriented toward healing. Yes, we experience diseases, many of which are life threatening, major losses, and our journey in life moves toward dying. Still our bodies function with amazing healing capacity. On the day following my major surgery I noticed my body starting to return to it’s normal functioning. After what can only be described as a major trauma, a “known” repetitive pattern restarted in my system moving me toward healing and health. Internal organs that experienced great trauma remained on this natural path toward healing. Whenever I face setbacks or fears and doubts creep in, I ground myself in this deep movement toward healing. This healing energy within is a key source that I am learning to connect with on a daily basis.
When I was told I had cancer, the horizon of life immediately felt shorter. Suddenly I felt different, alone, scared, deeply vulnerable, fearful, angry at God and needing God, feeling cheated. I knew I couldn’t be alone. A vital part of what helped me through the initial period, — just days before Christmas — was to say those scary words to others. “I have cancer.” “I have cancer. I am scared and I need you now.” Not just to my wife, but with friends who I trusted to hang in there with me. Reaching out from the darkness and fear and letting others walk with me or express their love was one of the most powerful experiences in my life. When I felt I was falling apart others were able to hold me up. Such a profound gift and learning. To say what is scary. To acknowledge the weakness and fear and to receive the gift of how others would be present and caring. No one could make it better, but I didn’t walk so alone. Letting other people in and reaching out to say those words, “I have cancer” brought connection and caring. When I was filled with uncertainty and fear, others held me up.
I discovered that recovering from major illness involved many dimensions of grieving. After almost a year of physical recovery I began to realize I needed to grieve both the actual changes in my body, the loss of my stomach, and what I thought life would be like. Grieving involved facing my fears and releasing to God on a daily basis, my concerns and hopes about living and dying that I had never controlled but mistakenly thought I did. If I was to fully recover and take hold of my new life as a cancer survivor with all the energy and hope that I wanted, I needed to accept life as it is with all its uncertainty. UntiI I grieved and kept letting go I wasn’t able to embrace my new life and all that was in front of me.
I will be starting a group for people who have cancer, are cancer survivors, or live with a chronic illness. The group will begin in March 2017 and meet on Tuesday mornings twice a month in McLean. The schedule will depend on the preference of the people who are interested in participating. More details will be coming after the holidays. If you are interested in this type of group or know of someone who may be interested, please share this opportunity with others. If you are interested or want more information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-903-9696 x270.
Gary McMichael, LCSW, M.Div.
Gary works in the McLean and Sterling Centers of the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia
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