You never expected to struggle with healing trauma, did you? One minute, you’re fine. The next minute, boom. It hits you.
Your world shatters.
A medical emergency threatens to rob you of stability, strength, and life itself. Because you never thought cancer could happen to you.
As you’re rushed through medical protocols and daily chemo cocktails, you deny your current reality and hope to wake from a nightmare.
Instead, each morning, you find yourself in a hospital bed, an island of truth where you’re stranded, vulnerable, alone.
But you’re not entirely alone.
Loved ones surround you, supporting your fight, which makes you feel better. And guilty — others are suffering because of you, yet you have no way to stop it.
In fact, you have no control anymore. You handed away your power the day you entered the hospital.
One thing, however, continues to burn inside you.
Your will to survive.
But when odds fight against you and uncertainty reigns, it’s easy to despair.
So, how do you find the strength to persevere?
I agree with Suleika Jaouad: you’re not a hero when you have cancer, because a hero has a choice.
Cancer had made its own decision, one where I had no say in the matter.
I had gone to the hospital for a specialist’s appointment. Later that day, the doctors admitted me as an emergency case for a ‘blood anomaly.’
After a few days, the diagnosis arrived. Stage III acute myeloid leukemia.
I rifled the doctor with questions, then stopped as reality caught up with me. I wasn’t dealing with a problem-solving routine at work. This was a life disruptor.
Physically, I could no longer take care of myself. As my parents prepared to fly thousands of miles to help me, I started chemotherapy.
My days consisted of eating, sleeping, and resting as the chemo treatments for leukemia compromised my immune system leaving me weak and vulnerable. Therefore, visitors were scarce with only one person admitted twice a day for one hour.
I drifted through time and space like a balloon, my usual routine beyond reach. But two things burst that bubble, forcing me to see a different reality.
The tidal waves that hit me
When diagnosed, I never felt like a victim, nor was I angry.
But I was terrified.
I felt death stalking me, blocking my future. And as I looked to the past I discovered two important aspects that intensified my emotional trauma.
The regret of not having lived my life to the fullest swallowed me whole. First, remorse over never raising a family hit me. Then, a greater loss consumed me.
I never became a writer.
Even though I enjoyed writing, I had zero belief in my talent.
As I huddled in that hospital bed, this self-defeating thought suddenly caved in on itself. Had I truly believed in myself, I would not have let doubt or fear hold me back.
When I dismantled the illusion, I finally saw the power that thoughts and beliefs wield over our lives. Self-belief could have generated the determination and courage needed to follow my dreams.
But now that I was dying, regret invaded me. It was more tangible than the leukemia cells consuming my blood. And it was one more trauma to heal.
At that moment, I made myself a promise. If I survived, I would write.
At that moment, I had a glimpse of a future that didn’t entail my funeral—I had a withering passion to nurture back to life.
Yet, I received another jolt….
An avalanche of people who toppled me over with love, affection, support.
A constant source of energy and comfort, my closest friends formed a task force around me, taking over my physical life outside the hospital walls.
They spoke with my doctors constantly.
They prepared for my family’s arrival. One of them even accompanied my parents to London for a visa to stay in Europe for the next fourteen months.
They handled frustrating days of never-ending, Italian bureaucratic red tape that I needed for my invalid-health status and supplemental pension plan. They shouldered an infinite number of tasks and urgent issues.
These personal warriors had reduced my worries and stress to a minimum so I could concentrate on fighting for my life.
But the love didn’t stop there. Enter my coworkers.
They created videos of the entire workforce dancing and singing for me, cheering me on.
But the best part?
My friends and coworkers banded together when I needed blood transfusions throughout my therapy. They weaved together an entire web of people who donated blood for me.
Did I know most of these people? No. Most had never even met me.
And now you’re probably asking, “So, what’s the big deal?”
The big deal was this—that kind of support, unexpected and massive in action, physically and emotionally overwhelmed me. Receiving love shouldn’t be paralyzing, should it?
I tried to rationalize it. I always gave freely, expecting nothing in return. But now that I was on the receiving end, I struggled to accept it. And I discovered yet another emotional trauma to heal.
The second tidal wave: The relapse
My initial medical protocol required two rounds of chemotherapy, then an autologous bone-marrow transplant, meaning that the procedure required my own healthy stem cells.
Instead, my leukemia was more aggressive than the doctors’ original diagnosis.
My world crashed again with a relapse.
And the protocol changed. I needed an allogeneic transplant, but my brother wasn’t compatible. So we needed to find a donor fast.
I isolated myself, trying to assimilate the new upheaval.
This time, however, I wasn’t making any progress in accepting or healing this new trauma. No longer a stalker, death attached itself to me, waiting.
Then, I had a realization.
“Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us more effectively. Look for the learning.”
Louisa May Alcott
I recognized that my difficulty in accepting the relapse paralleled my struggle with love. The descent into healing trauma was deeper than I ever imagined.
I felt guilty about having the disease, about it weighing on those around me. Unconsciously, I thought myself unworthy of my friends’ and family’s love. Suddenly, I saw these thoughts as merely emotional reactions to limiting beliefs.
And why was I dwelling on my visions of death when I was still alive? Just as my self-sabotaging beliefs about writing were absurd, the anxieties lurking in my head had no basis in reality.
So I latched on to the reality of my relapse and of love.
My loved ones’ actions and support were real. The leukemia cells were real, as was my love for life. And I wanted to live.
Once you accept it, love is your superpower.
My relapse forced me to stay in the present moment and offered me a clear vision of what self-love means: an unwavering faith in life itself.
Learning to love myself
I had no more regrets, and resolved to heal my trauma.
Now that I was calling the shots on my mental and emotional strength, I wanted to embrace the part of me I had always denied.
I began writing before the bone marrow transplant.
I adopted a writing technique from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Called morning pages, the practice required a short stream of consciousness in longhand writing daily. Best done as soon as you wake up.
I wrote for as many minutes as possible, without thinking about the content.
But, as I let the words trickle onto the page, I perceived that something or someone else was sending these messages to me.
Call it what you will: my muse, my spirit, my soul, my unconscious, the universe, whatever. I received missives, even a few parables, that infused me with a profound sense of peace.
But, more importantly, as time passed, I noticed that the messages served as a catalyst to healing my emotional trauma.
Through these writings, I caught a variety of negative thoughts, weeding out the more dangerous ones. Some negative thoughts kept me grounded. Because let’s face it, I might not have survived.
But the pages were an act of love. Whether they sprang from me or from another source didn’t matter.
What mattered was this:
The interconnectivity of life mattered. And I realized we are all one, all connected, and all worthy of love. That’s when my healing trauma journey began.
A month after the relapse, the bone marrow registry found and contacted my donor. And my donor accepted the request.
That was the most important connection of all. And the greatest act of love I received.
Again, I’m no hero. But I really did have a choice. While I couldn’t influence my physical trauma, I could only heal my emotional one.
I chose to move forward even when the odds fought against me. I chose to open my world to whatever came my way. I chose to welcome that tsunami of love, its force cracking me open, nourishing me.
I chose to heal my traumatized life.
My relationships with friends and family deepened. The way I viewed myself radically changed as did my priorities.
That outpouring of love enabled me to understand that true, inner healing is loving your life completely and unconditionally.
How to develop the art of healing trauma
Nowadays, four years post-transplant, I make time for myself.
I no longer want the same things. Superficial desires have waned and my appreciation of life has grown. I finally see where I’m going.
I am becoming a writer.
Sometimes I fall into the same traps. After years of denying my calling, it’s difficult to whip out a best seller or an award-winning screenplay. But I step back and deal with the challenges.
I remember how to let love in. It’s an art that reminds me of how life graciously returned to me through the love of many, including myself.
Here’s how you, too, can develop the art of healing inner trauma:
Each day as I wake I savor that first conscious breath, the beating of my heart, the movement of my limbs.
Then, before I do anything else, I do a short, daily meditation that allows me to appreciate my life. It reminds me I’m still here.
Meditating regularly fosters serenity, clarity, and self-awareness. Even subtle barriers that creep up such as anxiety, fear, and anger are proven to decrease when meditating progressively.
When you’re more mindful, you’re more present. And when you’re more present, you find that dwelling on the past or future no longer serves you.
This daily centering also leads to the next phase.
After meditating, gratitude arrives naturally.
Why is this important?
So you can remember to cherish your life and be thankful for all you have received.
I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the support of family, friends, and coworkers; the company I work for; the doctors who saved me; the nurses who cared for me; the unknown German guy who donated his stem cells and whose immune system keeps me alive today.
I wouldn’t be here without my grit.
Create your personal gratitude habit as you see fit. But know that mindfulness will create the space for gratitude to take root and grow.
3. Personal mission
I’ve struggled in the past with planning, goal-setting, vision boards, etc. You name it, I’ve done it. Nothing worked.
Now, I have a vision.
Once you know your direction, the steps you take may vary, but they will never stray.
For example, my small, steady steps to becoming a writer include:
- Taking online writing courses
- Participating in writing seminars
- Entering writing competitions with feedback for faster growth
- Getting professional analysis on my scripts
- Starting a blogging course (and this blog)
In the last two years, these steps have allowed me to write a TV pilot, nine short screenplays, four short stories, and eight blog posts.
Once your personal mission is clear, life acquires greater meaning. It also forces you to focus on the process instead of the product.
Keep your long-term vision in sight, but concentrate on taking little steps and creating new paths. When you do this, distractions and bad choices will dissipate and drift away.
4. Listen to your body
Some days are good. Others bad.
I no longer have the same energy after the transplant, I frequently fall ill, and I suffer chronic Graft-versus-Host-Disease (GvHD).
Sometimes I need to take naps or just lie down. Sometimes concentrating is difficult, exercising the same.
But I don’t think less of myself on the difficult days — I just do what’s possible.
Remember to do what’s possible.
Healing from trauma also means showing compassion and kindness to yourself as you listen to your body.
5. Finding balance
This is big.
And it’s a continuous process that I’m only coming to grips with now.
Understanding this new version of myself requires a new acceptance, both from me and those close to me.
I may never again have the energy I had pre-leukemia. The GvHD may be chronic forever. The future is unknown.
When physical ups and downs take your emotions along for the ride, be gentle with yourself. Find a balance that’s right for you.
For example, during my illness, I dreamed of going running again.
Currently, I can’t. Immediately after the transplant, I suffered joint stiffness in my lower body that continues to this day.
Recently, a well-being coach helped me realize that, while my running goal was wonderful because it motivated me, I also have to face reality. Pushing my body where it can’t go will only cause further damage.
To compensate, I crafted a walking plan.
Create your new normalcy. And forgive your body for its limits.
Also, realize when you can’t go it alone. Asking for or accepting help when offered will pave an easier way forward to healing trauma, whether it’s physical, emotional or both.
As you welcome the new you, remember to aspire for greatness and move forward with grace, creativity, and flexibility.
It was difficult for me to write this piece.
I’m still working on how my experience with healing cancer trauma can serve others. It’s a maze I’m not sure how to get through, but I’m trying.
One thing, however, is certain.
Keeping your experience to yourself will not benefit you or anyone else. Find your learning and share it with others.
The greatest gift you can give to anyone is you.
7. Keep going
You’ve changed. Therefore, relationships will also change, some positively, others negatively. Accept it.
Obstacles will still present themselves. After a traumatic illness, it’s inevitable. Life gets in the way, whatever your situation.
Every time you get sidetracked, distracted, or dismayed, I want you to do one thing.
Go back to your purpose.
Your purpose will generate momentum. You will take small steps forward and one backward. You’re not on the same path as before and the terrain will look unfamiliar.
But that purpose, if you concentrate on it and adhere to its calling, will lead you in the right direction. Always.
If you’re hesitant in making choices, ask yourself if it aligns with your vision. And each time you stumble, know that it’s easier to get back up again when you tend to yourself with compassion and forgiveness.
Place your health and your mission first. And be open to healing your trauma and receive life’s rewards.
Ride your wheel of life
Whatever your situation, know that you possess the strength to make every moment unique. Focus on your willpower, which is one of the few certainties right now.
Plan for the future, even when there might not be one. Hope will generate far more energy and strength than you currently know. Design a tomorrow that holds meaning for you, your loved ones, even posterity.
You also remember to focus on the present moment, appreciating every nuance. It doesn’t matter if you can’t leave your hospital bed or your room: laugh and rejoice with loved ones that you’re still here — this is the glory of life. Experience it now in the little things and feel grateful for each day.
As you live each instant with joy, self-love courses through your veins. You notice your force spreading, marveling, inspiring everyone around you.
When you look in the mirror and see beyond the suffering, the disbelief, the pain, to what a wondrous miracle of life you are, that, my friend, is bliss.
You are an essential part of something far greater than all of us put together, like a cog in a wheel that continues to rotate, regardless of your circumstances. Feel happy as you spin and grateful as you gyrate, determined to continue forward on life’s journey as long as you are here.