From Cancer to Conception: The Body’s Resilience
By. Mary Beth Ballard Murray
Over the past five years, I have often asked myself these questions: how do I love a body that is diseased, failing me, causing me pain and altering the course of my life in drastic ways? How do I come back from a “broken” body and heal all parts – mind, body, and spirit? How to emerge from trauma to my body mind and become a stronger, wiser, more compassionate and whole person? Is it possible for me to rise from these ashes like that mythical Phoenix and see my experience with fresh eyes? To move beyond, transcend what previously limited me?
Five years ago, in July 2014, I was in the midst of immunotherapy cancer treatment for bladder cancer that I had discovered earlier in the year. At this point, I had just undergone my third bladder surgery to remove cancerous tumors and perform additional biopsies for recurrence. I was in the thick of it medically and wrestling with so much emotionally. At only 28-years-old my family and I were completely knocked down by a diagnosis of cancer. I was determined to regain my health with a mantra I had claimed for myself... “I will be well.” I focused my energy on understanding and expanding my capacity to heal. I deepened my yoga practice to truly take on a spiritual and therapeutic component. I changed my diet, how I spent my energy and time, examined my relationships and my work environment, which I felt to be toxic at the time. I knew it was not aiding in my healing, and in fact, it contributed so much stress to my life that I knew I had to make a dramatic change.
So I did... I quit my good, safe job in the midst of cancer because it didn’t bring me any joy. Fortunately, my body was responding to cancer treatment and surgery and I felt deep down that I had to take a leap toward truer fulfillment...”I mean if not now, then when?” I asked myself honestly since at the time I had no way of knowing how the cancer would respond long-term. Would I lose my bladder? Miss the chance to conceive and birth children with my husband? Would the cancer spread? Would my life be shortened? Would it kill me?
These were questions swirling in my head that spring and summer as I wrestled with a shift of identity of healthy, young newlywed into “cancer patient,” which made me feel weak and shameful. I felt like somehow this was my fault that my body had failed me in this serious way, creating so much turmoil, not only for me, but for my close family and friends. So I distanced myself from that label of cancer patient, practically dissociating with illness, disease and a perceived weakness. I didn’t want pity or to be seen as less than. I had always been high achieving, academically and professionally successful, motivated and determined to work my hardest and do my best to control the outcome, get the “A,” meet the deadline, and achieve results. This was so different, and I knew I needed help and permission to not push and strive. I needed time and space to heal, to slow the hell down, to make big life changes and be willing to trust the unknown. Cancer was no doubt a wake-up shout in my young life, even after I got the first all-clear biopsy in October 2014.
Two years later, after two more bladder surgeries and periodic additional rounds of immunotherapy treatment to keep the cancer at bay, in the summer of 2016, I was given my oncologist’s blessing that I could now think about getting pregnant. I was elated to get the green light on something I’d been hoping would be my reality one day – to be a mom. I hadn’t always hoped for this so strongly. In fact, as a younger, intensely-focused graduate student and career-driven person, I was perfectly fine with waiting a long time until I had first figured out my life’s work. A kid could wait.
But cancer changed all that. It showed me what I truly wanted, what I valued, and what I took for granted. I wanted a child, I wanted to experience that connection and relationship, and I wanted to deepen that love of family, which I had come to see in such different light over the years of my health challenge. I realized things about family, about my marriage, and about how I wanted to live in the world that I had been blind to before. I wanted a child and I wanted my body to be receptive, healthy and balanced for the next chapter of my journey. I started acupuncture regularly and experienced deep, abiding relaxation that I had not felt but in certain unique situations – an amazing savasana at the end of a yoga class, a perfect professional massage, or some dreamy nap. I found acupuncture allowed me to slip into such a calm and peaceful rest. My body loved it, craved it. And fortunately, I was able to conceive a child right in the window that my doctor suggested. It all felt rather serendipitous and miraculous.
Looking back, my body had caused me to question everything, but I hadn’t given upon it. I had loved it when I had been so scared for what was happening inside it. I had been kind to it, gave it time to rest and heal, and filled it with healthy food and therapeutic movement. I said “yes” to things that would serve my body in healthy ways, and I let go of so much stress, which had me feeling like perfection was necessary for worth. Five years have passed, I’m still cancer-free, and have a beautiful, healthy two-year-old son. Despite deep pain and fear about what would happen to my body for an intense period in my life, I have been granted such precious gifts. I fix my gaze there as best I can, and I give gratitude to the body for showing me a new way to be, think, live and love.