Cancer as a Turning Point: From Surviving to Thriving by Jemille Hardy

Printed in the Conscious Creation Journal
August 1998, Issue 1

Cancer as a Turning Point: From Surviving to Thriving
by Jemille Hardy

What I wanted to learn before and after I grew the lump in my neck was spoken well by Walt Whitman:

“Re-examine all you’ve been told
Dismiss all that insults your soul”

A tumor grew in my neck and I wanted to know what for. Was it because I felt I was living in my head but longing to live in my heart, biting my tongue, feeling a lump in my throat when I didn’t speak freely?  I have given a number of talks about my “unusual” life choices following the appearance of my tumor, mostly at Cancer as a Turning Point Conferences, a series of events for women with cancer and concerned others. In that setting I have also felt somewhat restrained because the last thing a lot of the women in attendance want to hear is, well, I knew I create my own reality.  So even in my capacity as speaker, a long cherished dream, I did not speak out as much of my heart as I wanted because I did not want to upset women who were facing a life or death challenge.

Life or death.  The funny thing is…I did not fear my own death during the time I had the tumor.  Maybe that is why I was able to easily choose the route I did.  Quality of life was the issue for me…not longevity.  Quality of life was at the core of my “creation” of  my friend and messenger, the tumor. My family and the doctors thought a strong family history of cancer and childhood neck irradiation were probable causes of my malady…I knew they were looking at the chain of probable effects as I was searching for the cause.

When I found out I had a “cold” thyroid nodule,  soon after my much younger sister had had her thyroid gland removed because her cold nodule turned out to be follicular carcinoma which had spread-I felt a stillness inside.  I  even wondered, “Should I panic?” Why am I not afraid??? Aha! Was this an extreme case of denial and numbness…this detached, fearless kind of feeling?   I wondered about choices as if it were someone else who would make them.  “What if I have to go through surgery now to keep living?”  I mused.  And my heart spoke more loudly than it had in years, “Living for what?” it asked. I had to fess up. It was time for a reality check.  It was all about this head versus heart trip.  It was about value fulfillment in my life.  I did a brief life review..feeling my current life was in shambles even without a tumor… to see what I could salvage, what I wanted, and what I did not want.  It kept coming back to the idea that I was suffocating from living in my head.

With my head I looked for beauty with wary eyes and searched for love with a guarded heart.  I tried to avoid pain more than I ventured to embrace joy.  Childhood memories of meeting life with a sweet reckless abandon dimmed day by day…but  small whispers tugged at my mind…there is a thing called freedom…there is a thing called love!  For awhile,  I had devoted little time to heed the whispers.  I was busy seeking safety, running from fear failure and chasing some heartless and unreachable images of success. I would neither speak my own truth nor open to the truth of others.  My life felt  tight – hemmed in by facts, rules, techniques, and procedures – all functioning in a  fearful semblance of clockwork  under the constant threat of punishment for errors.  I couldn’t kid myself,  my truth was that trying to be responsible for the lives and well being of others felt   heavy on my weary  shoulders…and I tried to not let myself feel how much I  feared I wasn’t up to the job.  If you haven’t guessed by now…I was working as a doctor.

When I was a medical student at UCSF I felt privileged, excited to be in the ranks of future doctors, and I thought modern medicine was  powerful stuff.  I had not seen much sickness or death and I couldn’t wait for the day I would bring all this cool knowledge back into the black community.  I thought  white people mostly died of old age or accidents, whereas blacks got diseases because blacks were “underserved”.  When I found out my father had a very malignant cancer of his mouth I went into overdrive,  hounding his oncologists and radiologists and surgeons to do more, more, more to keep my Daddy alive.  Every waking moment, the horror of losing my father was on my mind.

Seeing the best that medicine had to offer..demanding the best that medicine had to offer led me to go into a shell to protect my heart from the destruction that I witnessed  in the name of love..I quickly learned  that medicine wasn’t hardly  perfect.  Sometimes people got disfigured.(he was a robust,  oh my god – gorgeous man before surgeons cut away most of his face, jawbone and tongue…. afterward I could not bear to look at him without tears running down my face…and seeing how couldn’t eat  or speak with what was called his reconstructed mouth tore my heart in two). And sometimes radiation and chemotherapy left people anorexic and weak.(he went from 215 pounds to a bedridden 88 pounds in about 2 months).  And sometimes they had pain.(he had severe radiation burns, had to have a tracheotomy, frequently choked on his secretions..and he was addicted to pain killers that made him hallucinate and try to jump out of windows)  Finally his oncologist asked me why I was so desperate to keep him alive…I felt outraged but the question shocked me into realizing I didn’t know why.  I couldn’t bear the thought of Daddy not living.  My heart yelled at me, “Living for what??!”

Like dominoes falling,  my mother, her siblings, her mother and my father’s siblings all succumbed to cancer in a faily short interval of time.  My siblings called it the family curse. About this time I lost my beloved husband to suicide, left Oakland awash in grief and guilt, and ended up at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in LA where  I found a small blue paper with the message on it that no book was needed to learn the purpose of life…but for those who insist try reading “The Nature of Personal Reality.”  At the time I had been a doctor for just a year or so and considered myself an agnostic, having  uneasily given up my childhood religion of Catholicism.  I got the book and read it, moved to San Diego, re-married and set up another  practice.  The book riveted me like nothing I had ever read.  It felt right at a very deep level.  I was glad I found it, and I slowly recovered from my grief but I did not even try to apply the wisdom I had found on those pages.  I did not try to examine the contents of my mind that were creating my reality…I was just trying to get by.

Then my beautiful young sister called to tell me  she had thyroid cancer and asked my medical opinion regarding her treatment.  I wanted to say, “Hey there is this book called “The Nature of Personal Reality”  Read it and decide.”  But who was I to recommend a primeron creating one’s own reality…when I was not using it myself??  What I did say was “Just do what your doctors say. They know your case better than I do.” feeling that old difficulty swallowing my impulses. Old black ladies came to mind.  The obese ones who wouldn’t give up soulfood no matter how long I lectured them  The ones who went through terrible grief and illness and somehow got better despite their refusal to follow my medical prescriptions.  The ones who managed to create their own lives with a deep wisdom and grace and soul that did not come from any book.

I felt like I didn’t know what to do with the Seth stuff I read  but I felt it was very important.  I was a busy doctor married to a kind of rocket scientist type.  We were trying hard to be a  “buppie” couple (black upwardly mobile and all that)…the house, cars, money and careers were all in place.  We argued behind closed doors, we were growing further apart and I blamed him a hundred times a day for screwing up my reality.  I decided what we needed was a glue baby to hold our marriage together.  More than that I wanted to have a baby…somebody to love!!  I saw the doctors and  was told I was infertile but eventually decided that had to be wrong and…bingo…I was finally going to have a baby!  I discovered something else was growing in my body besides my little “bun in the oven”…you guessed it…my neck had company.

I went to the doctors about my thyroid mass for a little while,  but sitting in a waiting room one morning I felt the mother of all lumps in my throat from not speaking up for myself and I had a kind of reverse panic attack.  Maybe for me it was a heart attack of a very gentle kind.  I felt (rather than thought) that surgery was not right for me…that I was sitting with the only person I could heal, and the person only I could heal…myself!    I just knew that whatever adventure I was about to embark upon, it did not involve getting cut, nuked or poisoned.  Been there, seen that…no way…I am not the one!   I was out of there and never looked back

I had my baby but the marriage glue wasn’t holding very well.  I went back to work but I kept wanting to say inappropriate, unhelpful things to some patients.  Things like, “You tell me what’s wrong with you…better yet…tell me what is right with you.”  Things that could easily be mistaken by the casual observer as grounds for a malpractice suit.  I realized that I was a partially crazy black woman with a gorgeous baby  girl, a “great catch” man I could not open to, doing “status” work that felt so not-me I couldn’t stand it… and to top it off I had this thing growing in my neck.   Something had to give.

One day I packed some stuff and took off for San Francisco.  I had closed my practice and tried to “make it work” with my spouse for a little while, but I still felt like a  wounded caged animal…so I took off hoping to see – by the process of elimination? – what it was that was forming the bars of my cell.  I felt a deep pain welling up inside me and I grieved not for the career and the man I left but for the ideals of work and love that I had not let myself experience in my life.

A friend from my med school days put me and my daughter up while I tried to sort out my feelings and decide what to do next.  I wanted to be free…I did not remember how to be free   Then it hit me that I was creating my prisoner status with my beliefs…not just with my choice of work or mate….those circumstances were the way they seemed because of my beliefs.  I felt utterly devastated.

I couldn’t deal with facing how I was hurting myself so much so I decided to do something loving for me…to see if I could…to see if there was love for me in my heart.  I had read and heard that the way to remove an aspect of one’s reality is to stop giving it attention…to pull the plug…starve it.  Sounded too simple…but what did I have to lose?  I felt totally shipwrecked in a strange land.  I began by just driving all around good old glorious San Francisco with my toddler in her beloved car seat.  It was our little adventure and we were totally free to see  amazing vistas and pig out on Chinese food and play follow the leader all day if we wanted to.  We went to Muir Woods.  Ah!! My child was the world’s best leader at the age of 22 months…She was a never ending source of different dance steps as we boogied down the trails beneath towering talking trees.  We felt very very young!! After about six weeks of following my little leader, cleaning up her little puddles and getting my hill climbing legs back,  I remembered my forgotten tumor. It felt kind of like remembering a dream.

It came as no surprise…and  really no big deal…when I found out the tumor had vanished. I had far more important things on my mind. Like starting to believe that love is not the prize in a beauty contest or the currency for good works done and dutifully measured. Like knowing love is a powerful force available to everyone, all the time, no questions asked.  Like beginning to know that I could learn as much of whatever I wanted through the sensuous joy of living as through the contraction I called suffering. Like starting to trust that my unplanned days and unmapped course would somehow be filled with moments of magic,  days of  ldelight.  Like starting to feel the wonder of who I am inside..the heart of me.  Like rekindling the will to be open to life…to feel the answer to the question…”Live for what?”

©1998, Jemille Hardy. Printed in the August 1998 Issue of the Conscious Creation Journal. (Feel free to duplicate this article for personal use – please include this copyright notice.)
About Jemille… Having done the academic thing for a long time, Jemille says she has reached a certain stage of enlightenment and wants to mainly be unreasonably, illogically and gloriously outlandish.