Life Beyond Diagnosis: The Hero’s Journey of Choosing Your Healing Path
Aug 30, 2020 11:44PM
By Natasha Michaels
The impact of receiving a major health diagnosis is among one of the most stressful events in an individual’s life, comparable to losing a loved one or an unwanted job loss. The news is inevitably followed by a hero’s journey, for it must be undertaken alone, no matter how others might try to share the burden or provide valuable and necessary support. By its very nature, the experience affords each affected individual a huge opportunity for growth.
There are few moments in a life so lonely, overwhelming and confusing as the moments shortly after receiving an unexpected, bleak diagnosis. Maybe you were fortunate enough to have a caring and compassionate clinician who took the time to explain not just the data but the meaning behind the words. Perhaps you were unlucky and received just the facts before you left the office with only a follow-up appointment for a few months later or a referral, mind swirling with unasked questions. It almost doesn’t matter how the news is delivered... you’re left reeling, struggling to process as what-ifs run through your head.
Believe What You Tell YourSELF
Receiving a diagnosis is the start of another journey. It concludes the searching-for-answers process that came before and launches a new phase. It can take conscious and concerted effort to stop the what-if train from derailing in worst case scenarios inside your head. It requires courage and presence of mind to tell yourself, “I have more control over this situation than the doctors know. My body and I will work together; we will thrive beyond the diagnosis.”
There is tremendous power in words; extensive research in neuropsychoimmunology (PNI) has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that our bodies believe what we tell them. Say out loud, “I have at least 30 fulfilling years to live.” Now say, “My life will be shortened by my chronic disease.” Feel the difference? The first sentence is supportive of the intention to survive and participate in life. The second is putting an early end-date on life experience because of a physical condition.
“It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of worry and anxiety after a diagnosis,” says Nicole Miale of Washington Depot. “You start thinking about all the questions you wish you’d asked. As you sift through the reams of information available online, it quickly becomes overwhelming. What you tell yourself during the process and what you let in from others is so critical.”
Miale learned this lesson after returning home from a solo tropical vacation gone awry, during which she suffered a minor stroke. While being incapacitated and alone in an unfamiliar locale was an awful experience, returning home to deal with everyone else’s emotions and plans turned out to be a more difficult phase of her immediate recovery.
“When I was by myself in the ER and then the hotel room, I was terrified and lonely and wished more than anything for a hug from a family member,” she says. “Then I came home and was bombarded by everyone else’s feelings about what had happened to me, as well as their well-meaning attempts to circle the wagons in support. I felt completely overwhelmed, absolutely smothered and really disempowered by my loved ones’ attempts to help me.”
Deciding for YourSELF
Jen Dawson of Norwalk received her diagnosis of Her2+, ER/PR+, stage 2 breast cancer at age 48, just after Christmas. Since she expected a call with the test results prior to the holiday, she already expected the news must be bad before the official word was delivered. She met with the surgeon who explained her diagnosis, described the treatment process and her options. Almost every day, she went for tests and met with various doctors, but through it all she desperately sought natural, holistic treatments.
“What was most frustrating was that I couldn’t find a holistic or natural path in the same way that chemo/surgery/radiation was a standard option,” she says now. “I remember feeling numb through most of those appointments and unable to take in all the words they were saying to me. I reached out to a naturopath who advised me to follow the guidance of my oncologist while I continued to see her for acupuncture throughout treatment. But the oncologist wanted me to stop taking my supplements. I could not understand why I should stop taking things that supported my health; that felt wrong to me.”
Dawson contacted her trusted and longtime medical intuitive and nutritionist, who felt strongly that Dawson should not do chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. She also contacted a naturopathic oncologist, and discovered that doctor’s plan revolved mostly around standard treatment. There were many members on her clinical wellness team, but the conflicting advice and opinions made things worse, not better. Social media support groups offered more of the same, as she experienced a herd mentality that ganged up on anyone considering behaving in a way the majority of the group thought to be dangerous or ineffective.
Ultimately Dawson chose to do chemotherapy first, which surprised her. “I’m pretty sure prior to diagnosis I had said I would never do chemo, but I think you just don’t know until you are actually faced with the situation,” she explains.
A few months after starting chemo, she came across Chris Wark of Chris Beat Cancer. His Square One program consists of 10 modules about nutrition, exercise, detox, eliminating stress and spiritual healing. Dawson appreciated his calming voice and good information, and recommends it to anyone as a great program to start, especially before or just after receiving a cancer diagnosis.
After chemo was finished, Dawson had a lumpectomy and received the best news: the cancer was gone prior to surgery. Continuing the recommended treatment protocol after surgery then felt like overkill, but Dawson followed the advice of the experts. Then she developed a very bad rash that didn’t respond to creams or steroids. Greatly depressed, and with two more treatments left to go, she decided she’d had enough. “They wanted me to do radiation,” she says. “Everything in my body said no, but my oncologist asked me to at least meet with the radiation doctor, so I did. I remember him telling me that no one has ever declined radiation. So I guess I was his first; I never went back. I drew the line.”
Miale and Dawson agree that the implicit thread of fear winding through medical processes makes it difficult to be sure you’re making clear decisions. Very often the conventional approaches are based on fear of what might happen if you don’t take the recommended steps. But when patients can find a sense of calm and tune into the body’s deepest needs and feelings, and are able to distinguish between what Dawson describes as “what crushed my spirit vs. what lifted me up,” the answers become clearer.
Dawson is now two years post-treatment with no evidence of disease. She says, “I don’t consider myself to be particularly brave or courageous, but this was a bold choice I made. My wish would be that it inspires anyone else to trust in themselves first and foremost.”
Eight months after her stroke, with many medical appointments and testing delayed by COVID-19, Miale is still in the fact-finding process of understanding what happened to her and what needs to be done to prevent a similar event in future. The process, involving seven different physicians and many diagnostic tests to date, has been grueling and time-consuming, as well as a constant reality check in terms of staying true to herself. One recent visit with a conventional specialist left her reeling, as the physician blithely told her the next step in managing a serious chronic condition was an invasive and potentially life-altering test. When questioned, the clinician couldn’t really explain the rationale behind the test, other than to say she didn’t want Miale to be upset with the physician in ten years when her condition had advanced to a more serious state.
“I was so angry,” Miale says. “This person was predicting my future and telling me which way things would go for me. She doesn’t have that right. I want to work with physicians who support where I want to go, not with folks who assume I’ll be a worst-case scenario statistic. The experience with that specialist was the exact opposite of my PCP, chiropractor and naturopath; they offered support and concrete options to help me move the needle in a positive way. That’s what I need and want from my wellness team.”
She’s currently seeking a new specialist to consult with who will respect her treatment goals and is continuing on an intensive lifestyle modification journey that began last November immediately after the stroke. She is frustrated to still be lacking clear answers after all this time, but is trusting in the process and counseling herself to have patience with the pace of the journey.
Experts know what they have studied and learned over years of diligent bookwork and patient-care. The only thing you bring to the table is your SELF, which is the most important thing. The experts have never seen YOU before. So accept their advice and information, learn what they can teach you, but know that you—and only you—have the right and responsibility to make tough choices about your own care.
Natasha Michaels is a contributor to Natural Awakenings.