Earlier this week I posted an article titled “My Body is my Guru”. Since then my mind has been spinning on all the dear ones in my life – on and off-line, friends, acquaintances, and those I only know from afar – who have body stories to share. Stories of life-changing lessons their bodies have helped them learn. And thus, a series is born!
Click here to see how you (yes, YOU!) can contribute.
Up first in this series, please welcome Gail Henderson-Belsito. Gail was diagnosed last November with breast cancer (I made a sketch about this here). She has lived a year full of treatments and surgery and healing and all the physical and emotional and spiritual growth and challenge this sparked for her. She is a bright, beautiful light and this year of turbulence has only shone a spotlight on that fact.
Blessings, my friend. Thank you for the gift of your story!
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1. I was so struck this year by the combination of raw honesty and grace that you exuded through your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Can you talk about this mix for us? What enabled you to bring both to the table – to neither sugar coat what truly sucked, nor get swallowed up by the challenges you faced?
First of all, thank you, Kristin, for inviting me to participate in this conversation about our bodies. Thank you for your support and encouragement over the years, but especially during this past year as I have traversed this kanswer journey.
Well, I hate this horrible disease. And early on in this process, I made the decision to pay no respect to it, to give it no honor at all. I made the decision to misspell it intentionally because I didn’t even want to see “the c-word” in my journal or on my blog.
I also spent some time pondering the fact that this kanswer thing had happened to me for a reason. It couldn’t be in my body just for the sake of suffering. There had to be lessons for me to learn. There had to be people that I could bond with, journey with, and serve as a result of this. There had to be questions for me to answer about life, health, my body, my future, and who I am at the core.
So that dreaded c-word became kanswer. It came to bring answers. I simply had to be still enough and pay enough attention to hear the questions and find a few answers.
Now for your question on raw honesty and grace…
Quite frankly, I didn’t feel like I had a choice but to tell the truth. I was so gob-smacked by the diagnosis that all I could do was cry and reach out and plead for help and support. And if I was gonna ask people for help, support, meals, visits, and prayer, then I had to tell them what I needed all that for. I had to tell what hurt me, what scared me, what woke me up in the middle of the night.
I knew that I couldn’t handle it all by myself, so sharing the unvarnished truth of what I was going through not only drew loved ones into a great circle of compassion around me, but it also felt freeing and cathartic to share my thoughts and feelings.
I wanted to be positive. I wanted to be truthful. I wanted to be transparent and vulnerable because, as we say around our house, “everybody’s got something.” This was my HUGE something. I quickly realized that my huge something, kanswer, is something that millions of people have dealt with before me and millions more will deal with after me.
I didn’t want to talk about kanswer or write about kanswer after the fact, when the worst of it was behind me. I was afraid that I would only have platitudes and cliches later. I wanted to speak my truth from inside the painful, messy, crappy awfulness of all I was facing – and balance that with humor, grace, faith, and hope.
The surprising, the lamentable, the bizarre, the disturbing, the beautiful, the terrifying bits – it was all part of my kanswer journey.
Kanswer sucks – there is no denying that. But there are also many lessons to be learned and reminders to be gleaned in and through this dreadful disease.
I was reminded of the amazing blessing of healthcare provided by my husband’s job. I was reminded of the amazing blessing of being able to get the vitamins, supplements, and adjustments my wonder-working chiropractor could provide. I learned about the power of a healthy diet and regular exercise to combat the awful side effects of chemo.
I learned firsthand just how much I am loved and cared for by my family, friends, church mates, and neighbors. I learned just how much I must rely on faith, hope, prayer, and love to sustain me, even when I was afraid I was going to die. Perhaps especially then.
2. This series is all about viewing our bodies as teachers, or gurus. I’m wondering, if you look back before your experience with breast cancer, can you see a lesson that your body had already been teaching you through your life?
One lesson this body of mine has taught me has to do with how much what I feel in my body is related to what is happening in my mind.
Back in college (in 1984!), I began to have terrible, debilitating stomach pains. I remember being in one of the dining halls with a friend and doubling over in so much pain that I practically had to crawl out of there.
I went to the college infirmary, saw a doctor, took antacids, and found no relief whatsoever. That lasted for weeks. Finally one of the doctors said, “This isn’t a physical issue. This has to do with your mind, your mental state.”
I went back to my dorm room and thought a lot about what he’d said. After much pondering, I realized that whenever I thought about the guy who had recently broken up with me, my stomach began to hurt. And whenever I figured out that I had been thinking about him and began to think about someone or something else, the pain went away. Instantly.
Over the next 20 years, TWENTY YEARS, every time I felt that pain, I took some time to rewind my thoughts to when the pain started and I figured out exactly what thought, what fear, what person started the pain cycle. And as soon as I figured it out, the pain went away.
I am happy to report that in the past five years or so, I have felt that pain only two or three times.
3. What has been the single biggest lesson your body brought you this year?
The single biggest lesson that my body has brought me this year is that it is strong, resilient, and will never abandon me.
Don’t get me wrong; when I was diagnosed back in November, I had a few moments when I felt like my body had betrayed me by allowing kanswer to develop. But that didn’t last long; I realized that kanswer happens. There isn’t always a clear explanation, but here it was.
I made the decision to pamper this body of mine: to eat well, take vitamins and supplements, sleep as well as I could, exercise as often as I could, and be gentle with my body. In return, it has recovered well after chemotherapy and healed well after the surgery.
4. What has been the body lesson you’ve struggled most with this year, and what has been the body lesson that has most surprised and delighted you?
The body lesson I have struggled with most is that kanswer cells formed and multiplied in my body – and they could come back in the future.
I ate a healthy diet before kanswer. I drank fresh juices. I didn’t eat fast food. I ate organic fruit and vegetables every day. I slept seven or eight hours every night. I didn’t drink coffee or black tea every day. I exercised at least five days per week. I did all of that – and still got kanswer. That blew my mind. As I said earlier, that made me mad at my body for a while.
And after all my treatments, I can follow all the instructions of my doctors and my chiropractor, I can eat well and do all “the right things,” and kanswer could still return. That’s a tough truth to handle, a tough lesson to learn.
That thought has served to bring me both fear and courage. When I spend too much time thinking about the possibility of kanswer returning, I slip into panic mode and cry. When I am feeling courageous despite that possibility, I am better able to stay in this moment, right here, right now. Because right here, right now, I am well. I am thriving. I am stronger and fitter and happier than ever. I appreciate my life today more than I ever have before. And if kanswer is going to make a comeback someday, which I obviously hope and pray it won’t, I need to live this moment, this hour, this day to the best of my ability, with gratitude and joy.
The body lesson that has most surprised and delighted me most is closely related to what I just explained. After the chemo and surgery, after the loss of my hair, some fingernails, both breasts, my uterus, ovaries, and cervix, my body has rebounded. My strength is back. I can walk, exercise, cook and clean (ugh!), hang out with friends, travel, and do everything else I want and need to do. I am profoundly grateful for where I am today, for the strength and health I feel a scant five and half months since surgery.
Beneath the scars, the flat chest (I chose not to undergo breast reconstruction), the mostly empty pelvis, beneath it all, around it all, above it all, and through it all, I love this body of mine. This body is a gift and a blessing, and the vehicle in which my soul will dwell for what I hope are many years yet to come.
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Gail Henderson-Belsito is a wanderer and a wonder-er, full of questions, hoping to live one day into a few answers. She is also a wife of 22 years, mother of two children (17 and 19 years of age), and breast kanswer survivor who loves to spend time in Spain, in church, and in the company of good friends. She is happiest when she can be in church in Spain with a dear friend and/or loved ones at the same time – and that has indeed happened more than once in her lifetime. She grew up in New York City, went to college in Massachusetts, got her Master’s Degree in Connecticut, and now lives in North Carolina where she homeschools her son (who is currently in 11th grade), spends oodles of time with her daughter (who is in her final semester of community college), and considers walking through Target with her husband one of the best date night activities. She blogs regularly at http://silvermine.blogspot.com.
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Have YOU faced cancer of some kind? What lessons have you learned from the experience? How has your body been your teacher? Share in comments, or learn how to contribute your story to this series here.