April 07, 2010

Epiphany Moments During Illness?

When I was in isolation for radio-active iodine treatment, I was in so much pain from being off my thyroid meds for weeks that I actually wanted to die. This state of accepting and even wanting death was incredibly peaceful and blew the lid off of every idea I had ever had of death prior to that moment.

I’ve spoken with many other patients who have had deeply pivital moments during cancer care, some relating to death and some relating to other facets of life.  Here’s one such moment from Seth, a 30-something lymphoma patient in Everything Changes, who recalled being deathly ill in the hospital and how it changed his understanding of what compassion means:

“I had a constant flow of tears. That is where I connected into what God and spirituality are. It is the brokenheartedness of feeling complete desperation. My heart was cracked open, and there was this incredible tenderness inside. Everybody has this tenderness, we just don’t know how to get there. This fragile state is the closest to being at one with God or the universe. That vulnerable and raw reference point is the greatest teacher. That is where the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and the really compassionate people of the world are coming from. They have a constant access to this deep understanding of what it is to be human and what it is to experience pain.

“To me, this is the most real place, but it’s raw and uncomfortable, so why would you want to go there? We do everything we can in our power to run from that painful, ugly place. It is not necessarily what we would think of as positive. But it is real. We rush around our lives wanting happiness, but it evades us because we are not willing to touch what is real. We think, Oh, it is money or success or things being a certain way that will bring us happiness or satisfaction. But I think it actually comes from that brokenheartedness, which is our true humanity. It is the place where we are our weakest and our strongest. From that place, you can relate to anyone. If you find the ability to hold these paradoxes, you actually have more of a capacity to live fully and to cope with the fact that life is full of paradoxes like this.”

Have you had moments as a result of illness that you describe as epiphanies or profound realizations that you have carried out into your life beyond illness? Do you share this experience with other people or keep it private?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s for more of these big moments of private, profound thinking.

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Comment(s)

  1. brigita Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 8:33 AM

    I’ve definitely had one or two life-changing epiphanies, but they’re not what a person would usually expect from someone that’s been through the cancer wringer. I am acutely aware of the time that we all have on this earth is finite–not just time, but GOOD time–and I am much, much less willing to waste it on meaningless relationships or stupid arguments over nothing.

    Trimming the fat and literally walking away from conversations that are spiraling out of control have been an important part of my implementation of the Drama Reduction Program: if I am miserable, I identify possible causes and shut them down.

    Some people have gotten freaked out at how casual or calculated I am about relationships (either dialing people back or not really engaging them at all), but I have enough friends–wonderful, loving people I trust implicitly–both in real life and on Facebook.

    Then there’s the whole Losing My Religion thing, but I’ve already touched on that before. ;)

    I’m still grappling with some significant anxiety, anger, loss, and possibly depression in the wake of my diagnosis (just passed the 2 year mark from my big surgery–HOORAY!!), so if anyone has any tips about that, I am all ears. ;)


  2. Lori Hope Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    I’ve had several epiphanies in my life as a result of significant traumas, including my lung cancer diagnosis eight years ago, but they are so difficult to describe, even as a writer, because these epiphanies are so visceral and lay deep beneath language. When I was a philosophy major in college, we called it “the aesthetic experience” – what happens when you become one with the world and experience a sense of order and peace, even as your heart cracks open, as Seth says.

    Epiphanies can involve humor, as well. I can’t help but mention one of my favorite books, a “graphic novel” kind of memoir by Miriam Engelberg, “Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person.” It’s very funny, in a bittersweet way, and the last sequence of drawings address the meaning of life in a most touching way.

    Brigita, Kairol just offered me a most powerful tip about dealing with scanxiety on my blog – see http://www.carepages.com/blogs/helpshurtsheals/posts/need-advice-how-do-you-cope – her tip is toward the bottom, and may speak to you, as well. I experienced post-cancer depression, and a live support group and antidepressants helped tremendously.

    Thanks for this post, Kairol.


  3. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    April 8th, 2010 at 1:22 PM

    The two most important things I can say about experiencing anxiety and depression in relationship to cancer are 1.) It is very normal and extremely understandable, and 2.) It is important to deal with it so its impact on your life is minimized – we have suffered enough already!

    Axiety, loss, anger, and depression are such real parts of dealing with cancer. I have found that they can hit hardest once someone is “out of the woods” or farther away from diagnosis and treatments. Think of diagnosis, treatment, and even its aftermath as a very tightly pulled sling shot. It is only after the tension is released that the rock goes sailing through the air and pummels you in the butt, in the back, wherever!

    Brigita, I don’t know if you have investigate therapy or medication. They are not right for everyone, but I think both can offer a lot of relief for some people. Here’s a fantastic resource – you can give them a call, explain your situation and they refer you to therapists and or psychiatrists in your area who deal specifically with psycho-oncology:

    American Psycho-oncology Society
    Toll Free 1-866-276-7443 (1-866-APOS-4-HELP)
    http://www.apos-society.org/survivors/helpline/helpline.aspx

    Lots a love,
    Kairol


  4. alk Says:
    April 14th, 2010 at 8:59 PM

    I am with Brigitta about not having time for people who drag me down, complain too much, or are just a pain in the tush. I am looking for peace, as much as I can find it, which can be quite a chanllenge given my work. I run a business and work in the high-end service profession, so it can be stressful to please people in work, and then deal with difficult people outside of work. A super outgoing person by nature, I find I’d just rather be by myself. And no, this is not a sign of depression…just self preservation.

    This intense feeling of loss of time and not wanting to waste any more time is a result of losing so much time over the last 10 years to illness, from epilepsy and from the treatments for thyroid cancer. The Thyca has left me with a second chronic illness– we simply cannot get the thyroid levels to a comfortable level for any extended amount of time so I have been on an almost 3 year roller coaster of hormones. Yah, that’s a picnic.

    So maybe I am less tolerant b/c I feel like crap so much, or because I am now 44, or because I am just tired.

    The other thing illness has taught me, especially the epilespy about letting go of control. We don’t know why I have epilepsy, whether I will have another seizure, if so when, if so what I will be doing, will I get injured. Will something bad happen? Likelyhood is that I will have one at some point, but you cannot live like that, so instead of living in (constant) fear, I just let go of that. After being in fear for quite some time, I had sort of a zen moment. The *truth* is we are not in control, and we don’t know what the future holds. So that realization set me free.

    Since I am not a monastic zen master, this is not a constant state. The anxiety goes into remission, then I am all zen about it angain, then something happens and I can kind of freak for a bit, only to go back into anxiety remission again.

    I just had my 6 month check ups and was surprised what a wreck I was. Oh well. (good news though)


  5. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    April 14th, 2010 at 9:15 PM

    Thrilled to hear about your good news Alk. You summed up the fear-anxiety-truth cycle so well. You might not be monastic, but you certainly have a great view of the big picture – that which is easy, hard, and beyond our control. (Hummm… that sounds a bit life the serenity prayer – help!)


  6. alk Says:
    April 14th, 2010 at 10:07 PM

    Thanks K! Took a while to come down from the panick of the 6 month appointment, but I am doing Ok again..

    On a good day I have a good view of it. On a bad day I hate it. And when I am super agitated from being hyper thyroid I hate everyone, ha ha!! (I have a feeling you understand)


  7. Michelle Says:
    April 19th, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    I am with Brigitta about not having time for people who drag me down, complain too much, or are just a pain in the tush. I am looking for peace, as much as I can find it, which can be quite a chanllenge given my work. I run a business and work in the high-end service profession, so it can be stressful to please people in work, and then deal with difficult people outside of work. A super outgoing person by nature, I find I’d just rather be by myself. And no, this is not a sign of depression…just self preservation.

    This intense feeling of loss of time and not wanting to waste any more time is a result of losing so much time over the last 10 years to illness, from epilepsy and from the treatments for thyroid cancer. The Thyca has left me with a second chronic illness– we simply cannot get the thyroid levels to a comfortable level for any extended amount of time so I have been on an almost 3 year roller coaster of hormones. Yah, that’s a picnic.

    So maybe I am less tolerant b/c I feel like crap so much, or because I am now 44, or because I am just tired.

    The other thing illness has taught me, especially the epilespy about letting go of control. We don’t know why I have epilepsy, whether I will have another seizure, if so when, if so what I will be doing, will I get injured. Will something bad happen? Likelyhood is that I will have one at some point, but you cannot live like that, so instead of living in (constant) fear, I just let go of that. After being in fear for quite some time, I had sort of a zen moment. The *truth* is we are not in control, and we don’t know what the future holds. So that realization set me free.

    Since I am not a monastic zen master, this is not a constant state. The anxiety goes into remission, then I am all zen about it angain, then something happens and I can kind of freak for a bit, only to go back into anxiety remission again.

    I just had my 6 month check ups and was surprised what a wreck I was. Oh well. (good news though)


  8. Alexis Says:
    April 22nd, 2010 at 11:12 PM

    Before I got saved, I used to hate getting sick because the fear of the worst case scenario overwhelmed me. Then after I got saved, I got very sick with pneumonia for 3 months & I found great peace in knowing that if it was my time to go from the sickness, what joy it would be to be with my Lord and Savior. That’s what I call peace in a time of sickness.


  9. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    April 22nd, 2010 at 11:45 PM

    In my book Everything Changes, it was important to me to provide an interview with Richard Acker, an Evangelical Christian. He too espoused similar sentiments to yours Alexis. He has since passed away leaving behind a great wife and four year old daughter. Though he was at peace with his own death, it brought him a lot of heartache to think about his gals continuing on as a widow, single mom, and daughter who would likely not remember her father. Your and Richard’s perspectives open my eyes a lot to experiences that are so different from mine. Thanks for sharing.

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