by: Natalie Pascale Boisseau
The question is similar for everyone, no matter which cancer one is diagnosed with, no matter the stage of the cancer, no matter the treatments or the side effects afterwards. The question is the same, how do I live my life after a cancer diagnosis, after a deep brush with a life threatening disease?
Ten years ago, I experienced this first hand when I was given the shocking news that a large tumor, a rare cancer, was growing, invading my belly. The next Friday that week, my primary care doctor called me after hours. She told me, “Natalie, no matter what will happen to you in the next weeks and months, no matter what challenging treatments you will go through, please know that you are not to identify yourself with the illness. You are not the disease.”
In the middle of it, though, or even after a series of treatments and surgeries, cancer is the center of your life. So the question arises: who are you? Where are you at? What is next? How do you live your life?
When I first attended a Courageous Women, Fearless Living (CWFL) retreat, I was facing a void; I had no idea what was next in my life and I was disjointed from my past. Disconnected. I saw the same thing with many of my companions, all women touched by cancer. We had to learn how to move forward from the shock and the trauma of being diagnosed with cancer, of losing body parts, of learning to move with our new scars and being affected by post-cancer medications. Somehow, there is more to life than having cancer in the middle of it, there is more to life than living with cancer chronically, there is more to life than always being in remission of cancer, and there is more to life than when the cancer returns.
The five-day, in-person retreat offered an arc to reconnect with myself and other women going through similar experiences. There is the gift of learning to resurface in the present moment, and taking a breath with meditation. There is the gift of movement, through yoga, again bringing my body and my mind together in the present moment. There is learning: new tips and resources in how to care for my well being, no matter the stage of illnesses or recovery. There is the goofy “no talent” show, sending us rolling with laughter and tears. There are the intimate conversations after lunch, opening our hearts and creating lasting connections. There are the walks in the Colorado mountains, waking up our senses over and over again. The two-day zoom retreat offered during this pandemic cannot compare with a five day in person, and yet, it is offered as a way to spark the aliveness of our lives, a way to exchange with each other and bridge this year until we can meet again.
As I attend the CWFL retreat year after year, the same question arises. Every year, I return to renew the pact with myself, even as I struggle sometimes, because I am always too young to die. I return to experience this pact with myself. The first side of the pact is that there is no normalcy; that my life is constantly changing, that I come to accept that I am aging, that illness is a possibility, a certainty even. The other side of the pact with myself is that my life is precious, there is no time to waste. I commit each moment to be fully alive with my senses, with my heart, to feel the tenderness of the people I love. The other side of the pact is also to give myself the same tenderness and love. I am often surprised also by other aspects of me that ask for attention, for deeper healing. Funny thing, each time I step into the vibrant moments during the retreat and in my daily life, each time I step into the unknown of the present, time becomes timeless and meaningful. The invitation is infinite, it is there, open.
About the Author
Natalie Pascale Boisseau is a writer, meditation teacher, and healer practicing acupuncture in the north of Seattle. She is currently writing a memoir on the suicide of her mother and the strangeness of healing. In addition to being an accomplished and published writer, Natalie is passionate about helping others heal and learn how to work with the challenges they encounter on their path. Natalie has spent time volunteering as an acupuncturist with Seattle Acupuncture for Veterans and various community events. She is a meditation instructor affiliated with the Shambhala Center and offers breathing and relaxing techniques to support the natural healing process. She is native of Montreal, Canada and writes both in French and English.
Natalie, What a heartfelt tribute to the Courageous Women, Fearless Living Retreat—and even more, what wise and helpful advice to share with other women on how to face their vulnerability and find strength, joy, and humor. Good advice for all of us!
So beautifully written Natalie. Many memories of my cancer story. Way back in 1969. I had melanoma, Had a large growth dug out of my leg and had to fight with an incompetent doctor who thought the best teatment was to amputate my leg.
But what your doctor said is what I adopted and so true. You are not the disease. It is part of what you have to deal with, but it is not who you are.
Also was gifted to enjoy the beauty of SMC, living there for 2 years. Did you ever cross paths with Adana Barbieri?
Hello Sala, thank you very much for your heart felt comment. Sorry about the threat to your leg back then; I am glad you fought to keep it. Yes, Adana Barbieri is one of the founder of the retreat Courageous Women Fearless Living; when I started she what the coordinator as well.