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

It’s Good For Your Health: Forgiveness

Heart Stone by Paula Sager

IT’S GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH: FORGIVENESS

Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds. It is rediscovering the strengths we always had and relocating our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves.

Sidney And Suzanne Simon

Now that the holidays have passed and we’ve made it through the beginning of the year, I’d like to focus on letting go of grievances.  Let’s start out the year with how we can resolve those obstacles that hold us back from truly giving and receiving love, what I see as the last frontier in the healing process: forgiveness. In my work with individuals who have experienced trauma, abuse and challenging life events, I find that forgiveness is vital to the process of moving on, to releasing ourselves from the restraints of regret, past hurts and perceived injustices. It represents a commitment to an ongoing healing process.

It is impossible to live a life that does not offer us lessons in adversity. Bad things happen, both to us and because of us; this is part of the human condition. Good and bad, right and wrong, love and hate are a small list of conflicting ethical and emotional issues with which we struggle every day. Stresses arise in multiple aspects of our lives: at home and at work, within extended family or blended-family situations, in problems relating to our health and that of others, and from worry arising from economic strains.

Maybe you know someone who challenges your sense of well being. Holding feelings of resentment and refusing to forgive can actually create a physical stress response that can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular problems. If you focus on this person who arouses conflict and anger in you, your heart rate increases and blood pressure rises.

A simple yet profound way to begin lessening this tension is to imagine you and this individual as worthy of happiness, love and freedom from the restraints of conflict. Try switching your focus to feelings of forgiveness, both for that person and yourself. This may be a stretch in some instances, but when this can occur even in the smallest measure, these tiny steps can start you toward relief and healing and shift your neurotransmitters to a more healthful state. Light, spaciousness, acceptance and tolerance begin to flood your body and soul. You are on your way to becoming a forgiving person.

We must recognize that forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation; it does not wipe out memory or turn a wrong into a right. We may have to find a way to forgive others, if not their actions. We may need to forgive ourselves for our own wrong actions, let go of regrets and loosen the grip of guilt and shame that can keep us trapped in negative states of mind. You can’t expect relief to be achieved all at once, but a gradual shifting of awareness can begin to release you and even the others around you from this inner tightness.

As we move through regrets and hurts and take concrete steps toward changing our emotional relation to past events, we must acknowledge the critical role forgiveness plays in creating connection, community, and life-sustaining choices. We are meant to love and be loved. I urge you to chance removing that barrier from around your heart, and begin again—through forgiveness.

Words of Wisdom

I began to ask the question with others about ‘What Matters Most?’ and one of these people that I inquired is my 22 year old son.  He of course is an extraordinary young man living in San Francisco becoming a graphic designer at California College of the Arts.  Without going on and on about what it is to be a mother of a talented, creative and driven young man, I will quote what he spoke.  We were sitting at his favorite taco bistro in Potrero Hill District  having this rather deep conversation over fish taco’s and burrito’s!

‘When you are satisfied and truly fulfilled in your life you loose the desire to seek gratification through other people’s pain and turmoil.  There comes a point in your life when you want others to succeed as much as you do.  It is our true humanly instinct to be on top socially, especially with people we are close with—-When you hurt another, your are hurting yourself, as we are all ONE and connected to ensure our passion and evolution.’

So I ask you, What Matters Most to you today?

 

Dear Humans

One of my east coast friends sent this the other day I just had to post it here.  I thought it said more then enough to continue to take the necessary steps to becoming fully human.
‘Dear Humans,
You’ve got it all wrong.  You didn’t come here to master unconditional Love.  That is where you came from and that is where you will return.   You came here to learn personal Love.  Universal Love, messy Love, sweaty Love, crazy Love, broken Love, whole Love.  Infused with Divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling.  Demonstrated through the beauty of….  messing up often.  You didn’t come here to be perfect.  You already are. You came here to be gorgeously human.  Flawed and Fabulous.  And then to rise again into remembering.  But unconditional Love?  Stop telling that story.  Love in truth doesn’t need any adjectives.  It needs no modifiers.  It doesn’t require the condition of perfection.  It only asks that you show up.  And do your best.  That you stay present and feel fully.   That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU.  It is enough.  It is plenty.’  Courtney Walsh
Photo by Wendy Sanchez

Acceptance, Just As It Is!

“Inside yourself or outside, you never have to change what you see, only the way you see it…”

Thaddeus Golas

We live in a world of opposites: good/bad, happy/sad, day/night, up/down, left/right. Carl G. Jung speaks about maturity being born out of the ability to endure the tension of these opposites. As I have aged, I have settled into an acceptance of this truth. Our ability to shift between extremes must be developed to manage skillfully this terrain of the truth. In the face of bad luck or adversity I strive to see any hidden potential for good that may lie within.

Have you ever felt trapped by events allowing you no way out? We may feel this when we are on the cusp of something new or are moving from one stage in life to another. I have often found that even when good things happen to someone, their next thought may be one of doubt or uncertainty, as if matters should not be as they are. I notice in both others and myself this human tendency to resist change, whether it is bad or good.

 It is our attitude toward these episodes that makes all the difference. I use the image of two wings to work with this: one wing holds what is true, just as it is; the other wing, compassion and acceptance for this truth, regardless of what it may be. Working with this image allows me to grapple with my feelings so as to move towards understanding. Can a bird fly with only one wing? No. Both wings, interconnected, allow space for this tension of opposites to be held, endured and brought to resolution.  

Can you sit for a moment and just be? Can you focus on what is without wanting to change it? Can you say yes to what is here right now, regardless of your desires? This practice of accepting truth, regardless of the situation, holds the potential for freedom and liberation. 

Take a moment to sit with something with which you may be struggling. Breathe in, still your mind the best you can, focus on your chest rising and falling. Accept the present just how it is, nothing more, nothing less. Visualize these two interconnected wings. What is the truth of the situation right now? Name it, say it to yourself. Then feel the other wing, the one of compassion and humility. See if you can feel acceptance for just what is without judgment, blame for your perceived shortcomings or engagement of the inner critic. 

I have found that with a little practice, acceptance may be found when slowing down long enough to reconnect with ourselves. Fly with the wings of truth and compassion to discover the gratitude and grace born from this acceptance of the moment. As a Spanish proverb so wisely puts it, “Dance to the tune that is played.”

 

 

A time of transitions

The morning of the day he died of a heart attack in 1993, William Stafford wrote a poem containing the lines:
“You don’t have to prove anything,”
my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.”
I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
These words came today and I needed to post them.  I have experienced the passing of two great men this last week and these words of William Stafford seem to be
the right ones to post.  We are always in transition, our life is ever changing, turning this way and that.  What has touched me and is etched in my heart is
the greatness and goodness of people and the natural offering of the human soul.  What has mattered is being among friends, community, being in the presence of
others, even with grief and pain.  There has been a kind of raw awe and beauty sandwiched between what has been unbearable and mysterious.
Death is a gift when I surrender to the teaching it offers and out of it comes an entrance into life and embracing ‘what is’.