Full Circle, Again

October 17, 2012

It’s Monday morning. I dropped Toby off at his new elementary school just in time for him to dash across the street and merge into the line of children with identical LL Bean backpacks falling off their shoulders, teary-eyed parents, and strollers with younger siblings wending their way around to the entrance closest to the kindergarten classrooms. Leo and I waved goodbye and drove the few blocks to Leo’s new family day care. All morning Leo recited his new mantra: “No Heidi’s house,” punctuated at various moments by “Mama come through the gate.” I left my crying two-and-a-half year-old in Heidi’s arms with snot running down his chin and streams of drool flowing generously from his teething mouth onto her shirt. “No Mama leave,” he sobbed while arching his back out of Heidi’s grasp toward me. I gulped back my tears and the urge to take him in my arms and never let him go. Instead, I stepped purposefully through the door without looking back, lest I turn into a pillar of salt and do nobody any good.

As I rushed from Heidi’s house to my appointment at Dana Farber, I was aware that most parents drop their children off and head to work, or the gym, or return home to their home offices or younger children. I don’t know why I continue to make these fruitless comparisons; they always make me feel shitty. It’s not the appointments at the cancer hospital that make me feel angry and exiled from the normal moms with their normal lives and normal troubles; it’s the cancer.

As I lay on the table in the chilly CT room with my arms raised above my head, receiving instructions from a digital voice to hold my breath as the narrow bed slid on its track in and out of the large donut tube, I found myself surprisingly at peace. Of course scans make me nervous, and before this scan I felt the usual flutter of nervous “scanxiety” that normally seizes me the week before my tests. But lying there with my eyes closed my anxiety miraculously and suddenly calmed. I know what I’m about to tell you will sound extremely cliché, but I felt the comfort of wings surrounding me. Honestly. I think angels are wonderful, beautiful, iconic, but they’ve never been my thing. I suppose I don’t really understand angels; in fact, I find them somewhat terrifying. But what really surprised me on the CT table, what caught me completely off guard was that the sensation originated in my own shoulder blades. They were my wings.

I know I haven’t written a post in many months, and I am sorry if this caused anyone to worry. The truth is I have just been so focused on the children and feeling somewhat private and protective of our lives together ever since my return home last February. I’ve also been a bit more tired, traversing yet more treatment decisions as the good results I achieved in China have been challenging to maintain. So to jump right in after months of silence and tell you that I feel the shadow of wings on my back may seem like a strange way to begin again.

Or maybe it’s exactly right. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about why I got cancer. When I was first diagnosed, the g.i. doctor made the easy assumption that it was genetic. But it’s not. My primary care doctor told me that it was just a game of numbers, the odds after all are that 1 in 2 women will contract the disease and fate just happened to pick me. (Yes, you did read that correctly. This stat comes from the SEER database (http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts).

The oncologists said it was probably growing for a long time but they made no attempt to cite an original cause. When the sting of the new diagnosis was still fresh and I felt entirely robbed of the joys of new motherhood being diagnosed so soon after Leo’s birth, I would cast a scornful eye at all the unhealthy people I encountered on the street or in the supermarket, filling baskets with soda and bags of processed foods. My critic was merciless. How come they didn’t have cancer and I, with my relatively healthy lifestyle and knowledge of organic foods and colon cleansing (I mean, I did coauthor a book about the subject) had to go through this?

Eventually, I came to see the opportunity for greater self-awareness and deep healing. I realized that everyone has their own version of “cancer,” their own brand of challenges and fears. I came to a certain peace. Or did I?

This summer I took up some research into cancer and its possible causes yet again. I read up on mercury, and finally had the amalgam removed from my mouth. I read again about a possible link between parasites and cancer (Hulda Clark’s perspective) and ways to cleanse parasites from the body. I wrote to my friend Steven, a five-year lymphoma survivor, to see what he knew about this. He responded to my email with links and helpful information, while managing to gently tuck in the following questions: “I am very interested to know what gift you have received from this dis-ease? Why do you think you manifested it?”

“Oh man,” I thought to myself. “I am in no mood for this.” Some days I am exactly in the type of psycho-spiritual vibe to contemplate this line of inquiry, but back in July with the skin on my eyelids and neck burning to a crisp every time I even thought about the sun and my face freshly broken out in ugly, juicy pimples like an adolescent thanks to the Erbitux biotherapy infusions (which didn’t work) and utterly exhausted by the kids and the house and cooking dinner every night and shopping and laundry and driving, well it just didn’t hit the right chord.

Steven has the luxury to think about these things because he doesn’t have children and does yoga and meditation and takes month-long permaculture courses and fasts on juice for weeks at a time. I mean, the man lives in the mountains of Thailand for God’s sake! I rolled my eyes at his questions and dismissed them as “Steven being Steven.” And Shira being Shira continued fiercely with the daily business of life and doing.

But the thing about Steven is that he has this way of asking you how you are and sincerely meaning it. He puts his arm around your shoulder, peers into your eyes, bends close and waits for an answer with every breath as though you were the only two people on the planet. From halfway across the world, I could feel that searing yet loving presence, the nudge to go deeper, to face myself stripped down and in the barest of honesty. I guess Steven did hit a chord after all, and when I listened I could hear the note reverberate within.

In the comfort of the brown leather chair on the third floor attic room of my therapist’s Victorian house, I closed my eyes and let the tears fall. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the lungs are identified as the seat of sadness and grief. Both of my lungs are sprinkled throughout with small tumors that glow bright white against the gray background of Cat scans. They frighten and fascinate, these little, deadly illuminations. I tell my therapist that I think the tumors in my lungs are calcified tears, the hardened skeletal remains of all the sadness and grief I held onto in my life.

Just as the lungs hold grief, the liver is the supreme keeper of anger, resentment, frustration, irritability. If the tumors in my lungs are hardened tears, then the plump toad of a lesion sitting in my liver is hot, hot, hot, red hot, no, white hot shrieking irrational rage. From all outward appearances I seem to have so much together, but my liver tells another story, and it is old and in a language I don’t always understand.

I ask my therapist: “Why did I get cancer?”

She asks: “Why did you get cancer?”

Then she asks: “Are you ready to let it go?”

She sits across from me in an identical brown chair. She too went through chemo, hair loss, the intrusion of constant monitoring. She sips from her large mug of tea and waits for my answer. Her loving presence reaches across the space between us, like an arm extending out to wrap around my shoulders. She waits.

“Close your eyes,” she says. “Go within. Ask yourself.”

I close my eyes. I go within. Down, down, down, I continue down the corkscrew spirals of a dark interior that feels fecund and earthy and moist. I realize that I am in the underworld. Of course. My recurring obsession. Gilgamesh. Persephone. Innana. Orpheus. Dante.

At the bottom of the world, I sit in darkness. I don’t have to wait long until a figure appears there with me. “Grandmother?” I wondered to myself, hoping that I would see the friendly wise face of the guide who has often come to me in my meditations this year. As the image becomes clearer, I realize it is not grandmother. It is, in fact, my own reflection.

Face to face. Myself. In the circle of the lowest depth. I ask: “Am I ready to leave cancer?”

“Not yet.” The answer unsettles. But I recognize its truth: I know there’s more to learn. More to release. More to come to terms with. Why is there always more?

“How will I find my way out?” I whisper.

The panic rises as I realize how deep I am below, and how far daylight is above.

And then the way shows itself. Easily, as though it had always been there, a spiral staircase appears, reaching up and up and up with every twist higher toward what I can only imagine is sky, air, light, hope, healing, future. It is not mine to climb just yet, but as I investigate closer I see that the staircase is not made of wood or steal but words, a double helix spiral of words. They are these words that I write now, the ones that float in and out of my consciousness all day, rewriting my story from powerless victim to open, attuned conduit of life force and love. Such immense joy I feel to see my life’s path! I will write my way out of the underworld one word at a time. I will rewrite my DNA.

I notice the dark air around me is full of sound, and it’s coming from the staircase of words. Oh what music. I wish you could put the spiral of your ear to the ground and hear this angelic choir emerging from the deepest center of the earth, where I sit and wait, gazing up in awe and rapture at the possibility before me.

The last time I saw my oncologist, we reviewed the results of the Cat scan, which he later dictated in his office note as “promising.” We agreed on our plan of action – basically, to stay the current course of treatment with my little oral cocktail of pills – and then I asked him about other procedures and options. I think he’s gotten used to my hunger for research, and my perpetual requests to customize the menu so to speak. While I know I sometimes frustrate him with my inquiries and outside consultations with other oncologists and practitioners, I get his goodness and that he really does want to help. As we said goodbye, I blurted out, “Next time we meet I will tell you how this is really the underworld,” I said gesturing to the generically handsome hallway of Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Okay,” he said  with a furrow in his brow.

Later, at home, the kids hit the witching hour of 5 pm and started to nag, push, and fight with each other for space on the easy chair while I lay on the couch with the unspeakable exhaustion that sometimes overtakes me late afternoon, and especially on days I have to go to the hospital. “Okay,” I said popping up suddenly, “let’s take this to the ground. Come on little puppies, time to roll around.” I moved the table out of the way. The simplest change in physical environment immediately shifted their energy. I lay a blanket on the rug. “Who wants to roll up first?” Toby pushed his little brother out of the way and plopped down on the soft wool blanket. I rolled him up and suddenly he became a pupa, wriggling around in his chrysalis. “Is the butterfly ready to come out?” I asked. Toby giggled and wriggled more, and then with great force he broke free of the dark blanket and began to move his arms slowly as though he had just sprouted wings and was uncertain how to use them. “Leo’s turn! Leo’s turn!” Leo squealed, eager for his chance to become a butterfly.

We played until David came home an hour later, and then nearly every day for the next week the children pushed the coffee table to the side and said “let’s play metamorphosis.” I watched those boys who came from my womb reenact that most primal transformation, from darkness to light, formlessness to form, again and again, never tiring of the game. Every muscle and thought in their compact little bodies focused on the moment, which buzzed with their raw vitality. I’ve traveled the world and have tried dozens of healing modalities. And what I know with absolute certainty, what my five- and two-year-olds have always known, is that the impulse of life is toward life. And it really is that simple.

As for Steven’s question, I think that I’ve always known the answer. It’s a feeling I can remember having my whole life–and maybe even longer than that–and it has to do with suffering and God and our connection to life. I’m still living inside the question, feeling along its edges and interiors. And as I continue to experience the kindness and caring of so many people along this journey, the helping hands that always appear exactly at the right time, and feel myself soften more into love and light and joy, I think I am beginning to get a glimmer of how healing might work. It’s in the gardens we plant and the photosynthesis of the leaves. It’s our hearts, and eyes, and ears opening to each other fully in the present moment without distraction. It’s forgiveness and compassion, and letting go. Healing is in the rivers and the constant flow and change of life, which does include death, but death is just another type of change.

In moments like these when my mind reaches from rapture to connection, to insight, and grasps to find just the right words, it comes in the form of images, the language of poetry. This time, it is the last lines of Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers” that play in my mind. In an interview about this poem, he said: “In the middle of the night, I’d had this dream of a voice out of a cloud, and this is what the voice spoke to me.”

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered and I roamed through the wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:
“Live in the layers, not on the litter”
Though I lack the art to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.
I am not done with my changes.


  1. Hi Shira,

    So nice to hear from you again! Have you looked into Anita Moorjani’s story? She published a book last March, Dying to be Me. I learned about her story, fighting Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, through Wayne Dyer. Here is the link to her website and story. Very profound, if you choose to read it. As a cancer survivor myself I couldn’t put it down and have a whole different perspective on life and disease.
    Donna Markussen

    • Yes, Donna, I know her book and was deeply moved by it too. I wish I had known about her while I was still in China and HK, where she lives. I’m glad that her story is traveling around the world and inspiring people. Big love, Shira

  2. Thank you for your seering honesty, with yourself and with us. Blessed be the changes. Blessed be you. I love you, Shira!

  3. Shira, I am covered in goosebumps and tears reading this. I was just wondering today about you and how you are doing. Thank you from the very deepest part of my heart for sharing this exquisite reflection with us. And, “The Layers” is my favorite poem. I draw upon its wisdom constantly. Thank you, and may your healing continue in all its many forms.

  4. Dear Shira,
    I think of you often and you are always in my prayers. Thank you for this beautiful post! You will rewrite your DNA! much much love.
    Liz (solar)

  5. Words. I am hanging on your every word. I am here to listen to them with my full heart.
    What a beautiful, beautiful post. Keep writing.

  6. Such beautiful writing Shira. Big gratitude for sharing your journey with us. Sending you and your family much love.
    ❤ Penny

  7. Dear Shira,
    I am a friend of Liz Solar, and started following your blog over a year ago. My husband was diagnosed with rectal cancer about 2 and a half years ago. I’m so glad to read your blog again. Your words and thoughts and images always fill my heart, and I hope for the very best for you and yours.
    Susanna Sharpe (Austin, TX)

  8. Yes, one word at a time, follow write.
    X 6 = 18
    Always, my friend.

  9. Sending lots of love your way. I know we spend a lot of time together and you rarely talk about your challenges, I usually see: smiling, kind, earthy, funny Shira. I know that it’s harder than you ever let on but you really know how to live life to the fullest and you are not only an inspiration, but my hero. Here’s to continued triumphs, large and small.

  10. thank you, shira. you have been on my mind and so much in my prayers… remembering this time last year when you went away.
    your writings touch me so deeply.
    blessings and courage to you as you continue to reach in and ask.


  11. We’re sending you and your family our love, and learning from your journey.
    Jay, Susan, Mojo

  12. From one Brave Warrior Woman to another, I feel our connection in China will live for a very long time as we both journey inwards to seek the lessons along this path of ups and downs. I always love hearing your reflections on life and I miss being in your presence and sharing deeply with one another. You are always in my heart. Your soul sister for life, Love Trish

  13. Dearest Shira,
    I’ve been thinking of and praying for you every day, wondering how you were doing and missing your voice. I’m deeply grateful to hear it again, to know you are still so vibrantly present and willing to share your wisdom and grace. It never ceases to amaze me how full of light and love you always are.
    Big hug, and bundles of love winging their way to you,

  14. Shira–Your words are beautiful and poetic, and no doubt, we are all the better for looking inward and considering how best to navigate and live among the layers. I just found out that we are going to be hosting a tremendous motivational speaker at MCC’s Lowell campus in November. He is a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed at the age of 19. I’m not sure if Lowell is too far away for you to come, but I’m going to post the information here, regardless:

    Motivational Speaker Jothy Rosenberg is Coming to MCC!
    News Detail: Tuesday, November 20th from 9-10 am in the
    Lowell Assembly Room

    Jothy Rosenberg IS Entrepreneur ● Athlete ● Author ● Speaker

    “You have zero chance of survival.” That is what my nineteen-year-old brain heard as my doctor told me that the cancer that took my right leg three years previously had now spread to my lung, two-fifths of which had also just been removed. What he probably said was, “No one has ever survived once this type of cancer spreads through the bloodstream.” That was over thirty-eight years ago. I survived. And then some. Cancer survivor, accomplished author, successful businessman and extreme athlete. These attributes, in and of themselves, are incredibly impressive. When combined, and considering they are describing the same human being, make it absolutely amazing. His presentation has the exact amount of humor, sensitivity and motivational content to make it entertaining and truly memorable.


    • Shira—Here’s his Jothy’s website: http://www.whosaysicant.org/
      He has a youtube channel for his own show now.

    • Michelle, Thank you for introducing me to Jothy Rosenberg. His story is deeply inspiring, as is his big living attitude! I’ll definitely check out his site and show.

  15. “Let’s play metamorphosis”. Thank you for writing. Thank you so so much. The utmost way to deal with the ‘cancer tension’ in such a playful way.

    (Found you via Google, as a mom of 2 boys (3 and 4) living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. My husband was diagnosed with acute leukemia in 2011 and has undergone a stem cell transplantation of which he’s recovering. We’re dealing with uncertainty 24/7 but try to focus on life and the living!)

  16. Shira, this is Audrey and Calvin’s mom from AHNS. I just came back to reread much of your blog as I begin helping my mother through her own journey with cancer, and am appreciating your words anew as well as the time you’ve taken to write them, now that this disease has taken a large step into the center of my life. Just last night I came across a card from your family, which is in front of me now– your beautiful boys and you and David on the beach together, joy and love on all of your faces. Wishing all of you well in these first days of the new year. Thank you again for the blog.

  17. My own words fail me, nor will they adequately do justice to the holiness of your written voice which is a clear window to your soul. You are a guru. Your insight, observations, and revelations should be heard far and wide. You would light up the world if your words were permenantly written down on paper. Publish. Publish. Publish. Not for yourself, but for all of humaninty.

  18. […] just came upon this amazing woman Shira’s blog about the four year journey she’s been on since discovering that she had rectal cancer […]

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