Life Begins With Cancer by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Howard-JohnsonThe day after my biopsy, my husband and I drove to Las Vegas on a business trip, never thinking about possibilities. We stopped at the state line for a ride on the giant Ferris wheel. We shelled giant prawns for lunch at the Stardust buffet. We slid quarters into a slot machine–the old fashioned kind I like with spinning cherries that will surely triple my money and spill the winnings into a silver trough. That was not a bad approach at the time. There is no reason to assume the worst, to project abject possibilities that may never come to pass onto the present.

Denial is sometimes very useful. On the other hand, it often keeps one from examining one’s own behavior, one’s own motivations. I share this anecdote because it illustrates how thoroughly denial had become entrenched in my life. I was raised in times that were not easy for women. Most of the barriers I faced were ones that couldn’t be seen nor acknowledged because I didn’t know they were there. They crept up silently on padded feet and, if I sensed them at all, I choose not to turn and face them. This faculty for denial was intact and very healthy when I was diagnosed with cancer.

By 3 p.m. that day, the picture was not so jolly. We had to return home so I could begin autogenous blood donations. The risk of AIDS in the blood supply was still high; my doctor believed that we should have my own blood on hand in case it was needed. My first reaction was true to pattern. I reassured myself that everything was going to be just fine, that I wasn’t nervous, that cancer was not a terrifying word.

Unfortunately, my doctor had not sounded especially positive when he demanded that we set a surgery date in that moment, over the phone. My husband was also up to the task. “We won’t work today. We’ll just take off, have some fun and drive back tonight.” We were two peas in a pod. We’d both try anything other than just saying, “Gee, I’m scared.” I almost went along with that plan.

Instead, I used the time on the open road to meditate. In that time, I realized—sort of knew at a cellular level–that I had to do more than donate blood to myself and that cancer doesn’t just happen. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe those of us who have it are being punished but I do believe that it follows those of us who haven’t taken care of our own needs.

The way we relate to ourselves, more than the way we relate to the world, is a factor in our illness, or for that matter in our health. When I tried to excuse myself out of those thoughts, that was only another indication that I needed to look through the glass in my kaleidoscope one more time—at its fragmentation as well as its beauty—and to make sense of the patterns I saw there.

I began to read. At first I chose books that helped me deal with my fears. My favorite is Love, Medicine and Miracles, by Bernie Siegel, M.D. I also liked some of the practical skills offered by Louise Hayes in her books. I read books on how to deal with grief. Even though most of them explored grief that follows death, the understanding of it and the coming to terms with it are the same whether we are grieving for a lost parent or pet or career or health. As I began my recovery, I utilized some hatha yoga I had done in my youth and continued with a vitamin regimen (with the permission of my doctor) that I started when I first found little chicken scratches in the skin around my eyes.

I used vitamin E oil on my incisions. “You’re healing so quickly,” my doctor said. “What are you doing?” “Yoga and snake oil.” He just shook his head. I began to read more not only on how to heal but also on how to remain healthy (or more negatively, how to prevent cancer’s reoccurrence!). I liked William L. Fischer’s How to Fight Cancer and Win and The Cancer Solution by Robert E. Willner, M.D., Ph.D.

The next step was healing my life. At first my family wasn’t crazy about the changes in me. Families are a bit like mobiles—little works or art that are delicately balanced. When I started to change, they had to do some adjusting, too. Mostly they weren’t happy about it. I read When I Say No I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith, Ph.D., Mother Daughter Revolution by Elizabeth DeBold, Marie Wilson and Idelisse Malavé, and The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, M.D.

The latter book gave me the courage to get some therapy and the determination to “afford” this process for our insurance didn’t cover it. I had been raised with the idea that we are all completely in control of our own destiny. It felt awful about the loss of that concept when cancer made it a personal mission to disprove my theory. The upside was it did exactly that. That allowed my attitudes to unfold like a blossom, letting in all kinds of possibilities for my life that hadn’t been there before. Therapy was also a good support system for me during the changes I was making in my life.

With another book, Deepak Chopra’s Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, I was ready for my epiphany. Actually I wasn’t all that taken with the entire book for it seemed he wasn’t saying much I hadn’t already learned, but I did keep reading to the part where he said that those who live until they are fifty in these times may very likely see their hundredth year.

Honestly, it was like a sunrise, all pink and aqua, in my brain. To think that I might have another entire lifetime before me–plenty of time to do whatever I wanted, in spite of the fact that I had thrown a very important part of that away (more about that in a minute), in spite of the fact that I had experienced cancer. I suddenly knew right down to my toes that women in their 50s—and that was me– might have even more time for their second life because they won’t have to spend the first twenty years preparing for adulthood.

That is where the real story of my recovery begins. I was suddenly aware of the biggest denial factor in my life—the one that I think “caused” my cancer. Many young girls in the 40s and 50s were literally taught to deny their own calling. If their parents and family didn’t do that, then likely the society they viewed did it. In the place (Utah) and time (1950s) when I was growing up, women had a notion of who they should be, could be and, mostly, they got it from those around them. Many of them couldn’t see the difference between society’s expectations and their own.

“You can’t be a nurse,” my mother said. “Your ankles aren’t sturdy enough.” I also was told I couldn’t be a doctor because that wasn’t a woman’s vocation. “Be a teacher because you can be home the same hours as your children, but learn to type because every woman should be able to make a living somehow if their husband dies.”

I had always wanted to sit in a forest or an office or a newsroom with a pencil in my hand. I dreamed writing, lived writing and loved writing. I wanted to write the next Gone With The Wind only about Utah instead of about the South. I had a plan that was, itself, gone with the wind. Writing was not a consideration. It didn’t fit any of the requirements. So, when I gave it up, it didn’t feel like I was giving up much.

When I began to put myself through college, I took the sound advice and studied education so I’d have a profession. I made 75 cents an hour (this was, after all, the 50s!) working as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune. That I was making a living writing didn’t occur to me. I met a handsome young man and we were married. His career took precedence; that was simply how it was done. Then there were two children, carefully planned, also because that was how it should be done.

By the 70s, we both yearned for a career with autonomy, one where we could spend time with our children and be in command of our own lives. My dream was a victim of the status quo. It never occurred to me to just strike out in my own direction when my husband and children needed me. The pain was there. I just didn’t recognize it so I could hardly address it and fix it. My husband and I built a business. We raised a lawyer and a mathematician, grew in joy with a grandson, lived through floods and moves, and enjoyed travel.

For forty years, I didn’t write and, during that time, there were changes. Women had more choices but more than that, they had become more aware. The equipment, gears and pulleys were in place for a different view on life, I was just so practiced in all my old ways of doing things, I couldn’t see it.

In midlife, I became aware that there was an empty hole where my children had been but also that the hole was more vast than the space vacated by them. Cancer filled it. Until Mr. Chopra’s philosophy appeared on a page in black and white before my eyes, I could not see it. Once it did, I knew I not only would be able to write, I would need to write. One day I sat down and began to write the “Great Utah Novel.” I thought it would be a lot easier than it was.

I had majored in English Lit. Writing a novel should be pretty much second nature. It wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t as easy as writing the news stories I had written as a young woman. There were certain skills I didn’t have. It was a discouraging time. I might not have to learn speech and motor skills and the ABCs but there sure was a lot I didn’t know about writing. Somewhere after writing about 400 pages (easily a year’s work), I knew something major was wrong.

I took classes at UCLA in writing. I attended writers’ conferences. I read up on marketing. I updated computer skills that had been honed in the days of the Apple II. And all the while, I wrote and revised and listened and revised again. This Is The Place finally emerged. It is about a young woman, Skylar Eccles, who is a half-breed. In Utah where she was born and raised, that meant that she was one-half Mormon and one-half any other religion. Skylar considers marrying a Mormon man in spite of her own internal longing for a career. By confronting her own history–several generations of women who entered into mixed marriages–and by experiencing a series of devastating events, she comes to see she must make her own way in the world, follow her own true north.

Much of what I wrote about is my own story. If my novel were a tapestry, the warp would be real but the woof would be the stuff of imagination—real fiction. For me it was more therapy, but this time in my own ink, not someone else’s. I think I bring a unique vision to my work. Utah has a beauty and wonder of its own. The Mormons are a mystery to many. I think I tell a story about Utah in the 50s that could only be told by someone who lived in that time and place and who was a part of the two cultures—the Mormon and the non-Mormon—that make it a whole. In making it whole, I made myself whole.

It was my major process of therapy, but not my last. I am proud that I did it. I’m glad that I waited until I was sixty. I believe that forty years brought insight to the story in terms of the obstacles that women faced in those days. I also really like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream nor to conquer adversity. But I also know that it is just the beginning.

I know that. In my heart, in my head, in my bones. I believe that cancer was a lesson. It taught me to live in the moment. It also taught me to be aware of those moments, not to resist them but to nurture what was in each one so I could learn from them, to do that without participating in the patterns of denial I had learned as a child. This process allows me to ignore what I choose to ignore and embrace what I choose to have in my life.

Cancer was the first step of a staircase. It led me to new levels of understanding about nutrition, career, spirituality. I have even written a poem about a beautiful black crow—the image of death—who sits on my shoulder and reminds me that each day is beautiful, each day is to be lived.

For me, cancer was a gift. I intend to keep learning from its presence. Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s novel, This Is The Place, was published by AmErica House exactly ten years after she was diagnosed with cancer. The book explores intolerance. Tha,t along with a renewed interest in genealogy and Carolyn’s unique insight into the place she was raised, makes this novel not only timely but essential. It is now only available used on Amazon! That presents a new healing process to the author! Next up, an e-book! You can read the first chapter FREE by emailing:

  Carolyn Howard-Johnson  

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