I first heard the words “travel gently” at a meditation class in New York that I attended with my daughter. I was rather impressed that she had invited me to join her, me being a 55-year-old fuddy-duddy. I’ve always prided myself on being a little bit trendy and hip (if you count wearing flax clothes and eating Pinkberry by the cupful as “hip”). We changed into our yoga pants. Or rather, she did. I had come prepared wearing my Lululemons, which I had barely taken off in the last three years since becoming a fulltime therapist. I no longer felt the need to get dressed anymore, or to act like a “real” adult.
The meditation class was held in a dark, cool dome of a room. Eight other bodies breathed beside us. A facilitator led us in counting and encouraged us to gently push away other thoughts from our minds. Since cancer, I had been making myself do this regularly, so I was actually not bad at this exercise. BC (or before cancer), I was never able to do anything like that! Before cancer, I was barely able to relax long enough to sit still – let alone (attempt to) meditate.
My daughter was smiling and happy and very relaxed after the session, but I was focused on how the beautiful, soothing sunshine felt on my skin.
Before cancer, I was barely able to relax long enough to sit still – let alone (attempt to) meditate.
I knew the problems I would soon be dealing with (the reentry issues, as I referred to them) would not be cured by a day of sunshine. Whenever a person with cancer is confronted with anything that reminds you of diagnosis or treatment, it takes your breath away and you get a little bit of that panicky, sick feeling that consumes your entire body. It’s an identical reaction to the one you experience when the doctor says, “You have cancer.”
My life changed forever in that split second. Visions of my daughters in wedding dresses and my future grand- children playing on the lawn flooded my mind. My heart started to pound, and I knew I needed support. Since my husband was working and probably unreachable, I called my youngest child, Julia, whom I knew was nearby running errands.
Before cancer, I was barely able to relax long enough to sit still –
let alone (attempt to) meditate.
While lying in bed that night, I remembered that about three years prior I was in a job I didn’t like. I was so unhappy, yet I felt too embarrassed to quit. So, I had secretly wished that I would have a cancer scare and need to quit work. Nothing too horrible, just enough of a scare to let them release me without the shame that would come from leaving my job without having a new one lined up.
Tossing in bed, I wondered if this was payback or if I had somehow wished my body into a state where I actually enticed the cancer cells to grow. Hearing over the next couple of days that this cancer had reached a very large size and had been growing for a long time made me think that my earlier wish had actually come true without me knowing it at the time. You know what they say, be careful what you wish for.
Back in the Manhattan sunshine, posttreatment, I felt elated to be alive and standing in the sunlight with my family in my favorite place in the world. That was enough! I didn’t need theater tickets, or a reservation at a fancy restaurant, or expensive jewelry to feel like the luckiest woman alive. As my husband and I drove out of the city and back to Cape Cod, leaving my daughter waving farewell in the street, I reflected on my weekend. The meditation teacher’s soft voice urging us to “travel gently” echoed in my mind.
Before cancer, I realized, my focus was on the “travel” part. I wanted to get where I was going, make progress, move on to the next big idea. Now, I amsoftening into the “gently.” I live with more intent. And while I have no less desire to make progress – in my life, in my clients’ lives, in the world – I now do so mindfully, and with a gentleness and a calmer devotion to my pursuits that I only could have learned by way of my journey through cancer.
Lisa Tager (pictured above) is a cancer survivor, wife, mother, and licensed independent clinical social worker in private practice on Cape Cod, MA.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2017.