The Journey of Breast Cancer: How Myth and Archetypes Support Healing in Contemporary Times

I was recently walking on the beach and chose a route that took me to a seemingly solid sand bar. But when I arrived, I realized that when I stood there the waves were lapping around my ankles and I was sinking! The waves were helping the sand to dissolve underneath me, leaving me suddenly gasping and darting as fast as I could for solid ground.

When a woman hangs up the receiver from a phone call, or is sitting face to face with her medical doctor who conveys her worst fear–a breast cancer diagnosis–her life is no longer on solid ground. When each woman waits for this news, she begins a journey that will take her through a descent and ascent that is deeply personal and life changing.

Our ancestors as well as our cultural icons have lessons for us. Each of us remembers a favorite fairy tale, a story that we returned to again and again. We have sometimes lived our lives in accordance with these early childhood myths. We know that Dorothy made it home from Oz, Snow White woke up, and that Cinderella went to the ball and was no longer the maid to her wicked stepsisters.

Within these fairy tales lies an archetype, the symbolic and reoccurring themes that exist in all cultures and are unaffected by time and space. Within these myths are the forces of light and dark as active ingredients in the outcomes reflected in our lives.

When you get a breast cancer diagnosis, your life is forever changed. But there is an ancient myth that can provide hope and guidance for this journey. Within this myth, there is hope that step by step you will find the path rising to meet you that will provide the support needed to not just survive, but to thrive.

Inanna, Queen of Heaven, Earth, and Beauty was a Sumerian goddess dating back 4,000 years ago. She descended to the underworld, passing through seven gates, losing parts of herself along the way that would in the end assist her in reclaiming her strength and courage to survive, ultimately ascending newly formed.

Inanna’s is the oldest tale we have of the journey of death and rebirth. Her story speaks to us of the tremendous power that can be gained from risk-taking and trusting one’s intuition. We learn of her independence, courage, resourcefulness and, ultimately triumph.

Inanna learned to sacrifice, and strip away what was no longer needed. She laid exposed, her soul undefended, for a long time. And she ascended with wisdom that comes from accepting and finding her abilities to let go and transform. This journey was an invitation to allow her true, essential nature and beauty to emerge.

As your own true nature and beauty will emerge through your treatment, these are often the gates that you will travel. With each of these gates, there are lessons to be learned and support for healing.

1. A questionable mammogram
2. A biopsy/sonogram toward diagnosis
3. Decisions for treatment
4. Surgery: sacrifice of the body
5. Treatment which may include loss of identity, hair, sexuality, energy, life style, physical limitations and onset of menopause
6. Fatigue/Exhaustion: battle or war with the cancer itself and side affects
7. Depression, fear and despair at times

When Inanna descended she faced the worst of her fears, and within your treatment to survive, you will also ascend with new gifts and wisdom. You will form a support team with friends, family, and community learning to reach out for help. You will receive care and love, let go of shame and learn to live with fears that you once thought impossible.

What was once impossible becomes a reality. Here are some some steps to find the path underneath you.

When Something Shocking Occurs:

When something shocking and life-changing occurs abruptly, it is time to sit down, have a cup of tea, and call your family or best friends to help you take it all in. Perhaps before you make any moves, this is the time to sit still, take five minutes to slow your breath down, calm your racing thoughts and feel your body begin to absorb these life changes. You are inviting this kind of practice into your life from this point on as a way to self-soothe and cope with your fears.

Spend Time in Nature:

Find a little bit of time to walk outside, sit in the sun, go to the beach, find a grove of trees, a lake or stream….Nature is one of the gifts of being alive, so when you need to feel sustained, just breathe in fresh air, or stare into the emptiness and allow nature to join you in your healing.

Finding Comfort in Music:

One of the lessons for abrupt change is to find the most comforting things on the planet, things that at the time might seem silly or even strange. At those times I listen to some of my favorite oldies, songs that got me through times that I thought I couldn’t make it through. I recently learned about both Spotify and Pandora on my iPhone or computer. I find that I return again and again to songs that helped me through those hard times. Is it Classical, New Age, Jazz or Funky Rock? Listen with deep comfort for your soul.

Write Your Heart Out:

If you have never been a journal writer, this is the time to write about everything and anything you want, just for you. Find just the right notebook, with the right feel to the pages, either blank or lined. Find the pens that feel good, colored pencils, crayons, watercolors…anything you want. Journaling can bring solace when nothing else works, whether in print or on a blog–it’s a way to write your heart out.

Who is Your Support Team:

Who is going to be on your support team? I think of this like a hula hoop, who is going to be your inner circle? Who is going to be with you every step of the way? Who is going to help with medical concerns? Who is going to answer the phone at any hour of day or night? Who will drive you if you need it? Who will go shopping with you when you can’t or don’t want to? Who is going to make you laugh? Who will sit with you through treatments?
Make a list of these people with their email addresses and phone numbers, and share it with others.

Comic Relief:

What can you do to laugh? What are your favorite funny movies, jokes, comics and friends who are guaranteed laugh buddies? Laughter establishes — or restores — a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people. In fact, some researchers believe that the major function of laughter is to bring people together. And all the health benefits of laughter may simply result from the social support that laughter stimulates.

The Journey:

Any journey is made of many small steps, you become a pilgrim on your path towards health and vitality. In Mary Oliver’s famous poem, ‘The Journey’ she ends with these lines…

determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

You too will find the ground underneath you, the steps coming from your journey through healing and becoming more truly your essential self. And upon your ascent you will find courage, friendship, strength, wisdom and the innate power to survive.

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Breast Cancer Psychotherapy – An Integrative Approach

I have been fortunate within my practice over the years to be able to provide services to woman newly diagnosed, within treatment, and in post treatment for breast cancer.  As a daughter who had a mother die young from another cancer, I was called to be of service to these women and honored by their stories, victories,  defeats, hard work, graces, grueling fears and trust that can develop through this journey. 

I have sat on advisory boards, attended medical conferences, been a key note speaker, advocate in fund raising, and therapist to women/men and their families. I have also triaged alongside medical and alternative healing community leaders.

Reflection

I first began this journey when long term patients were being diagnosed and undergoing treatment for breast cancer, including all version of intrusive biopsies and surgeries.  After a while I began to see a trend and I got in contact with the best breast cancer doctors and surgeons in Sonoma County.  It was at that point that I began to get referrals along with deeper education about the depth of treatment that was effective for my patients. 

There are a number of symptoms that seem to coincide with breast cancer and there are ways to help mitigate these symptoms through education, psychotherapy and integrative approaches.  The following article was written from a key note speech I gave (shortened and edited for this purpose) for a group of women in the business of wine, many who had been touched personally by breast cancer.

Lizbethhamlin.com