How a Cancer Diagnosis Can Cure You

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Doctor Neha:  Welcome to Talk Rx with Doctor Neha. Today I have a special friend and guest, Holly. Thanks, Holly.

Holly:  You’re welcome. Thanks, Neha.

Doctor Neha:  Today’s a special day for you too.

Holly:  It’s a special day. It is my 60th birthday today.

Doctor Neha:  Happy birthday.

Holly:  Thank you very much. I used to be birthday-phobic, and I would never tell anybody when my birthday was. I was passive-aggressive about birthday celebrations, I would dare people to know and if they didn’t make fuss I’d get upset.

Also, four years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so therefore my whole attitude about birthdays has completely changed. Now I embrace them and I am thrilled to be having a milestone birthday today. Sixty years is a long time, and I definitely want to see 70 and 80 years. That’s my plan. Aging bring it on, I’m ready for it.

Doctor Neha:  Oh, how beautiful. When you said I have cancer, I think what surprised me was that you said it’s been four years.

Holly:  Yes. I was diagnosed the week of my birthday 4 years ago. It’s been a tremendous journey for me. First of all, there was the whole resetting of my priorities, what I thought was important wasn’t important. Things that have never been important became very important. That was a real eye opener for me.

Doctor Neha:  Name a few things that became really important.

Holly:  Family.

Doctor Neha:  I call a diagnosis of any kind like a heart attack, a stroke, pneumonia, cancer, those are the moment that your life comes into clear focus.

Holly:  Yes. It’s like all of a sudden you see the mortality and you’re going, “Wait. I don’t want time to run out before I do this that the other, that I always wanted to do.” Before I tell so and so that I love them, and before I forgive my parents, and all those things that you kind of like brushed towards the side. If you have a terminal illness, it suddenly becomes like an alarm clock, and you’re going, “Well, wait a minute. I might not have the time I thought I had, so I better start working on this now.”

Doctor Neha:  What is it that you’re wondering about?

Holly:  Well, one of the main concerns I had was that I didn’t want to be the girl with cancer. I did not tell a lot of people until just about six months ago. I only told close friends and family. I kept it a secret because I didn’t want to be the person whom people are whispering about—or maybe not hiring. Maybe they think, “Why would we hire her, she’s going to die?”

All those kinds of paranoia feelings came into play. Then back in December, I wrote an article for The Huffington Post, called The Big See, and it was really about how cancer had changed my life, changed my priorities, changed what I thought was important, and became a gigantic wake up call.

It was like standing on the mountain and just shouting it out to the world, because obviously once it was up there everyone knew. Everyone at my office knew, hundreds of thousands of people, people I knew for years all of a sudden knew, and it was a real eye opener.

A dear friend of min who has ALs said to me, “I urge you to do this, and I’ll tell you why, you will not believe how it will change your life when everyone knows and the support that will just flood to you.” That’s exactly what happened.

Doctor Neha:  It’s actually nothing that you thought was going to happen.

Holly:  It was the best thing I could’ve done.

Doctor Neha:  There’s a huge weight to physically and biochemically in your body the holding secrets.

Secrets are a big deal. They’re a big deal because they’re so close to your vest, so close to your heart, and you’re sure if people know they’ll treat you differently, you won’t be accepted—whatever it is—when in fact it’s like that counter intuitive experience of a flood of love, connection, support, everything you wanted came through that avenue.

Holly:  Speaking my truth turned out to be the best thing for my physical, and mental, and emotional health.

Doctor Neha:  I have this awareness prescription, and it’s 5 questions that I ask at the bedside with a patient. I usually write it on my prescription pad. Would you be willing to go through those five questions?

Holly:  Sure.

Doctor Neha:  The first question is, “Why cancer?” Why not your left arm being broken? Why not something else? Why not a heart attack? Why, in your best understanding, from your intuition, was cancer your wake up call?

Holly:  I think stress has a lot to do with it. I’ve lived most of my life in a very stressful state, especially since growing up and working, there have been jobs I’ve had where I was in a fight-or-flight mode for months at a time. I think that that had a lot to do with “why cancer?”

Doctor Neha:  Like your body was so stressed for so long that it was completely disintegrating.

Holly:  Depleted. I do think so. Yeah.

Doctor Neha:  The second question is, “Why now?” At that point in your life, you were 56 years old, why then? Why at that moment, not 10 years earlier, not a few years later, why at that moment did it happen?

Holly:  At that moment in my life, I was in a stressful job, as usual, and it was a job that I didn’t really like. I didn’t feel like it was a fit for me … like a square peg in a round hole kind of feeling. That may have had a lot to do with “Why now?”

Doctor Neha:  Did it give you a reason to kind of get up and out of that?

Holly:  Yes.

Doctor Neha:  You made major changes. It was like your wake up call that got you out of that.

Holly:  I kind of had to. I actually wrote a recent article about my four-year anniversary with cancer, and I told the entire story, which I had never told before about my diagnosis and how my job reacted which was the opposite of supportive. It was a small company, and they just cut my pay. It was like I was thrown out of the nest, and I had to get used to the fact of having cancer and the changes in my life that were coming with that diagnosis, how to live with that everyday; instead, I was frantically looking for a job with healthcare. When I found a job, I was very lucky I found one pretty quickly, a job that I love, when I found that job the first thing that I did was check that their healthcare would cover my treatments and it did.

Doctor Neha:  Now [question 3] what signals had you missed along the way?

Holly:  The signals that I missed were knowing how to relax. I knew how to relax; I just never made it a priority.

Doctor Neha:  You were busy making everybody else a priority.

Holly:  Right.

Doctor Neha:  Giving and giving to all these other people, feeling depleted and not doing anything for yourself.

Holly:  Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Doctor Neha:  What has cancer done?

Holly:  Cancer made me realize that I’m the most important person in my life, which was always true. I never lived that truth.

Doctor Neha:  Right. Now there are days you have to go get treatment, there are days you have to take off. Is everything going well?

Holly:  Everything is going very well, and I have a great team at Sloan Kettering, and I’m very, very happy with my doctor. They’ve just been so supportive and so wonderful.

Doctor Neha:  There’s another level of support and connection?

Holly:  That’s right.

Doctor Neha:  Question number 4, what else in your life needed to be healed?

Holly:  A lot of things. One of the major things was my relationship with my mother. It was never an easy relationship, and I had to tell her I have cancer, that was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had to do in my life.

She doesn’t live anywhere near me. I didn’t want to tell her on the phone, so I flew to where she lives to discuss it and to tell her in person.

Doctor Neha:  That’s a tough one.

Holly:  It was a tough conversation because she’s also a breast cancer survivor and it was hard. By that time I could have the conversation without crying, and I had written all these phrases like, “It’s a chronic condition. It’s just like diabetes.” That’s how I consider it, how I’m looking at it.

Doctor Neha:  You took the emotion out of it.

Holly:  Exactly. I said, “It’s stage 4, it’s metastatic, but mom I’ll always have it, I’ll always have to be treated, but I don’t consider this a death sentence at all. That is not the way I look at it.”

Doctor Neha:  Holly that is one of the things I love about you, just eternal optimism. You see the glass half full, and I think that’s what carries you. I couldn’t believe that you were turning 60. To me, you are not 60. You are this spirit who loves social media, and loves connecting, and you’re current, and you love pop culture.

Doctor Neha:  Okay. You needed to really heal your relationship with your mother?

Holly:  Yes, and a lot of other relationships I had. There were relationships that weren’t serving me. That’s the other thing; it just levels the playing field. When you have cancer, you know who your friends are.

Doctor Neha:  How is that?

Holly:  There are people that I’d tell and I immediately know it’s the wrong thing to do because those people dropped out of my life all of a sudden.

Doctor Neha:  That’s too much.

Holly:  Not a lot of people, but they can’t really handle it. It’s like you’re holding a mirror up to their mortality.

Maybe they’re afraid; they don’t want to be around when you die or something. I’m just kind of projecting here.

Doctor Neha:  Like it triggers something in them?

Holly: It triggers something. Yes.

Doctor Neha:  When you get triggered, it requires a lot of emotion and it takes up your energy, for sure. The final question is “If you spoke from the heart, what would you say?”

Holly:  I would never be as presumptuous or silly to say I’m glad I got cancer, but I’m glad that something as monumental as that diagnosis came to my life to wake me up, because I needed to be woken up.

Doctor Neha:  So beautiful. I want to take a moment to just say thank you for being so honest and open. Happy birthday.

Holly:  Thank you.

Doctor Neha:  What I really hear you say today is that before this you weren’t actually living.

Holly:  That’s true.

Doctor Neha:  Cancer came into your life and you’re grateful because for whatever time you have, which you are pretty sure is going to be a long time, you’re going to be alive.

Holly:  That’s right.

Doctor Neha:  It’s not even you’re just alive, you’re going to be living your life fully. Right?

Holly:  That’s exactly right.

Doctor Neha:  For all of you out there, what will it take in your life for you to show up and really live your life fully? That’s the question I’d like to leave you with.

Your Awareness Prescription

  1. Why this?
  2. Why now?
  3. What signals did you miss?
  4. What else needs to be healed?
  5. If you could speak from the heart, what would you say?

To unexpected gifts,

Doctor Neha logo

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  • AnaMaria Wright

    This was very emotional. I wish I was brave to speak from my heart. Working on it.

    • drnehasangwan

      AnaMaria ~ The fact that you take the time to watch these videos, comment and engage tells me you’re ready!! You’re just learning how to do it. Keep going in the direction of your heart!! It always knows.

  • stanley isenberg

    Holly is my cousin and probably the most courageous person I have ever met….besides being bright, creative
    and inspiring. You’ll never hear a “why me?”. I am not sure she even feels that way. and it’s all topped off by her ability to laugh. wow!

    • drnehasangwan

      So wonderful to hear your perspective Stanley. Thanks for sharing!