One thing I've learned is that if there's no path through the forest, you have to bushwhack. You have to forge along, carefully treading a new way, trusting that your sense of direction has you going toward the right destination.
This became clear to me when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 18 and I wanted to cure myself "naturally." I was a busy college student, out protesting against nuclear power plants and their potential to cause untold suffering and illness from radiation leaks, and suddenly I was supposed to accept that nuclear medicine was safe and beneficial. I should expose my body to radiation treatment in order to be cured of cancer!
Something didn't make sense to me, and I was whirled into a canyon of confusion and conflict. Chemotherapy sounded even worse, especially since I'd been trying to avoid all known carcinogens for over two years before my diagnosis.
I was protesting against nuclear power plants, and suddenly I was expected to expose my body to radiation treatment!
Strangely enough, I'd been obsessed with the fear of getting cancer since the age of 16, when I first realized how heavily contaminated our environment was, and how many people were dying of cancer every year. Stranger still was the relief I felt on being told what the lump in my neck was, because now the dreaded enemy had been uncovered. Destroying my body's good, healthy cells with conventional medicine, sacrificing them along with the cancerous ones, seemed a despicable plot against good health which rendered me more terrified of treatment than the illness itself.
The oncologist outlined a plan of action to me and my anxious parents, but I could barely listen. No! I didn't want to do this. It was a cold, dismal, overcast November day in New York City, which perfectly reflected my mood at that moment. I resented the doctor and everything he represented.
I wanted to go the alternative route. The unexplored, under-researched, never-funded way that seemed promising and life-promoting: cleansing diets, fasts, vitamin therapy, organic juices, visualization and guided imagery, maybe even macrobiotics. I was reading everything and anything that offered hope for a saner approach to cancer treatment. My parents, however, weren't reading these “alternative” books and articles and they were horribly worried that I was in denial of the fact that cancer was a life-threatening disease. They were sure (and the oncologist confirmed) that without treatment, I would die. They were at a loss of how to convince me of the necessity to undergo procedures that frightened me.
My parents were worried that I was in denial of the fact that cancer was a life-threatening disease.
I wasn't in denial. Successfully curing myself “naturally” would mean keeping my body intact, with all its organs, without debilitating, damaging side effects. This was my own body I wanted to protect and live in for a long, long time.
In the medical library in Manhattan where I went with a friend to research my illness, I read that radiation treatment could cause leukemia 20 years down the road. When I shared this information with my mother, she responded, "Yes, maybe, but you'll have 20 more years of life!" To her this was wonderful. But to me? What is 20 more years to an 18-year-old? I wanted to be around in 90 years!
My mother’s answer to chemotherapy possibly causing long-term damage? It was a chance I had to take. My hair falling out? Wear a wig.
But I wanted all of life. I wanted to live, to celebrate, to rejoice for many years to come. I felt such a strong inner certainty that I could and would recover by allowing my own body's defenses to work, why did I need to risk suffering all those side effects? On the other hand, in my particular case, surgery and radiation alone offered a very high cure rate, almost 90 percent. With chemotherapy, the odds upped to 95 percent.
The oncologist encouraged me. "Look, if you had a different kind of cancer and you wanted to do something experimental, I'd say ‘go ahead.’ But we have a handle on this, you have a good prognosis. Why take a chance? The holistic things you want to do are not supported by any statistical evidence, just individual, unexplained miracle stories, what we call ‘spontaneous remissions’ that don't medically prove anything."
He said it nicely enough, but it didn't change the fact that I was in a hard place to be at 18. I wanted to be one of those "miracle stories," but what did I know about anything?
My parents were mortified. What would be with their daughter? The oncologist encouraged them to send me to the holistic center in Boston -- "to humor her," he said. "Afterwards, she might be more open to listening," he told them privately. I was relieved that they finally agreed to let me go, allowing me to learn and explore the less traveled road.
Bridging both worlds of the conventional versus alternative approaches, I made my way, putting together my own program. I read through all the literature I could find, both the medical books and journals not written for laymen, and a plethora of alternative health publications. I balanced between the logical facts and the spacey, groovy stuff to find what would work for me, to search for my own medical Truth.
Lying beneath the linear accelerator at Sloan Kettering, I visualized samurai warriors slaying the cancer cells.
When I did, at last, to the relief of my family and friends, choose to have surgery and radiation, I was surrounded by daily doses of sprouts and carrot juice, whole grains and tofu, raw fruits and vegetables, enzymes and vitamins. When I was lying beneath the linear accelerator at Sloan Kettering Medical Center, I was visualizing samurai warriors slaying the cancer cells with their sharp swords, imagining my healthy cells as vibrant heroes, finally working with the radiation treatment I had so dreaded.
Side effects? Yes, my hair fell out, forming the latest interesting youth hairstyle that I hid with a bandanna. Vomiting? Only on the “bad days” that I was feeling low. When my spirits were high, my mood elevated, I felt like I could conquer anything. And everything I observed and felt was scribbled furiously into one notebook after another, keeping me company along the way.
I HAD ARRIVED!
The most important, crucial discovery I made during that tumultuous time, was the power of prayer, of connection to the Creator, someone bigger than me. I'm not sure how that happened. The need to pray, to connect, was an urge that seemed to well up naturally within me, my soul crying for attention. I felt that God was there for me, always available and listening to every silent plea and cry. I wanted desperately to live, to stay alive and unravel all the mysteries of life that were compelling me to begin a spiritual journey.
There was also an element of humility, of giving up my “martyr syndrome” to become just a regular, vulnerable, mortal human being, one of hundreds of patients in an enormous waiting room, praying for life to be granted in abundance, praying for a future bright with promise of love, family, children. I didn't want to die. The world was full of goodness, wonder and beauty and I had so much more to see and do.
One month after I finished treatment, I returned to Manhattan for the first follow-up appointment. My oncologist pronounced me healthy and, as far as he was concerned, in complete remission. I floated out of the hospital in a state of exultation. My feelings of gratitude to God for reaching that day were more overwhelming, I am sure, than the mountain climber who has finally reached the high peak that seemed insurmountable.
I had arrived!
With no longer the need to pray for recovery, I wondered how to maintain a relationship with God.
Now that I was at this new plateau, how would I retain this intense God-consciousness that had accompanied me thus far? As the months went by and there was no longer my driving need to pray for recovery, I wondered how to maintain a relationship with God that would allow me to feel and express gratitude every waking moment. In what form could I meaningfully manifest that God was Real, an approachable Entity that freely gave me every breath?
Where was the clearing where I could stop, rest and begin to build a foundation for a purposeful life?
There weren't too many people I could ask for directions and trust their answers, so I made a lot of wrong turns along the way. There were plenty of "Truths" that had emotional attraction, but proved in the end to lack any sustainable substance. I grew weary from the search, wishing almost to give it up entirely and just be a "normal" American who made the best of life without delving too deeply into "the meaning of it all."
I plodded on, weary of wandering through the maze, but fortified with the hope that clarity would come. I knew that the deep, driven human need to know Truth must mean that one could rely on intellectual faculties to recognize Ultimate Reality from falsity.
Eventually, lumbering along, I arrived at places that I would never have previously considered or contemplated. The clearing, almost five years from the day of my diagnosis, much to my surprise, was in Jerusalem, the spiritual center of the world. It was here that I could ask without end, and get satisfying, substantial answers. No more comments about "Everything is relative," and "why do you need to know that anyway?" Here, questioning was encouraged. Thinking was applauded. Learning, growth, and striving for closeness to God was the norm.
Never would I have dreamed, before I was sick, that someday I would be living the life of an observant Jew, observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, dressing modestly, and teaching eternal values to the children I had once longed for as a hope in the distant future.
It wasn't easy, all this bushwhacking through unfamiliar territory. My spiritual muscles first started exercising when I was struggling with the choices that revolved around my illness. It was, I see clearly in retrospect, excellent preparation for the choices I would need to make when encountering the knowledge that Torah is the instruction manual for life.
The cancer is cured, thank God, and I have been in complete remission for over 20 years.
And best of all, God is close by, as strong a Presence as He was when we were first introduced. Yes, He had called me Home, not yet to the Next World, but to a spiritually rich life in this World, where our thoughts and deeds, our mitzvot, forge an eternal bridge between both worlds.