Navigating a Unique Journey
It is abundantly clear to me that for anyone who has ever journeyed with cancer, each cancer journey is as unique as the individual it touches. No two paths are identical and no two responses will be the same. I am also acutely aware that as I write about what has been an intense and deeply personal journey for me, others who have travelled with cancer might think, “Well, that wasn’t the journey for me, and that wasn’t the decision I made.” And, of course, that’s fine. I am not sharing my reflections to prescribe or compare.
My intention in sharing my reflections is simply to give an insight into my inner journey, the questions and challenges I have had to face to become more of the woman I know myself to be. I am a Black woman (and this fact is important for this particular blog) who in the past, occasionally found herself bent out of shape by society’s norms and expectations. In my younger days, this was as a consequence of the racism embedded in the UK’s education system and more recently, with my cancer diagnosis, through Western medicines’ negation of how the trauma and legacy of racism manifests in the bodies of Black women.
Journeying through Unchartered Waters
In the weeks following my diagnosis, I reached out to various specialist health practitioners and organisations. As I was without an anchor and for reasons I have already explained in previous blog posts, I felt very much lost at sea, with little sense of the direction of travel. The waves were rising and if I wasn’t careful, I would be swept under.
In the week before my surgery, I attended a conference on integrated approaches to cancer treatment. The conference was organised by an amazing cancer charity called “Yes to Life” and featured a wealth of medical professionals and health care practitioners. The purpose of the day was to inform those living with cancer about advances in medical research and complementary cancer treatments to help inform more holistic approaches to the treatment of cancer.
Through attending workshops and listening to the various speakers, it was evident (perhaps unsurprisingly so) that a strong immune system, one that is healthy and alert, is the body’s best defence against cancer. Chemo does the reverse. It compromises the immune system and can possibly precipitate the arrival of other health issues.
As the day progressed and I absorbed all this new information, it became clear to me that if I was going to include complimentary measures in my treatment plan and take a stand for what I believed was right for me and my body, I’d have to find a strong inner-centre point to claim my own agency in whatever my eventual treatment plan might look like.
I had been warned by one nutritionist that I spoke to of the levels of debilitating fear that accompany most visits to an oncologist. She had survived stage 4 brain cancer. She warned me that in the face of any counter-cultural decision that I might want to make for myself, I might be overcome by ‘white coat’ syndrome; be swamped by a sense of helplessness, become passive in the face of the ‘facts’ and the fear that sits behind them and acquiesce, give away any sense of personal agency and accept that ‘Doctor always knows best’.
But like many things in life, it’s only once you experience something yourself that you fully understand the full depth of what others have shared with you.
But I thought I did.
No Stranger to Going Against the Grain
Ever since setting up Integrity Coaching some fifteen-odd years ago, I have got used to being counterculture and going against the grain. As a company, we appreciate that when talking about well-being, terms such as ‘soul’, ‘inner work’ and ‘wholeness’ go against rudimentary understandings of well-being.
Furthermore, in response to the death of George Floyd in May 2020, we deliberately wrote a programme that was counter countercultural. We said “No” to anything that could be deemed as a tick box exercise. Instead, we said “Yes” to deeply personal work and enquiry as a new way for establishing transformative approaches to anti-racist work in schools. As a result of our countercultural stance, I felt I knew and understood the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of pushback and resistance to such ways of being in the world.
But as I have already said, I was not prepared for what this might look like in terms of advocating for my own health as a Black woman and taking a stance against perceived Western medical wisdom.
A New Challenge: Advocating for my Health as a Black Woman
The cancer I had was not linked to hormones, lifestyle, or genes and is more prevalent among women of colour. Yet, this fact was pushed to one side, an irrelevance with regard to any post-op treatment plan my medical team had in mind for me.
About a month after my surgery, I had my first appointment with the oncologist. For what I thought was going to be a discussion about my post-surgery options and an update on my recovery. I already knew from my post-op meeting with the surgeon that the cancer had not spread. All tests had come back negative, and there were no signs that it was in my lymph nodes or surrounding fluids. Good news, I thought.
But not for Western medicine. In the minds of Western medics, we are waging a war against cancer. It’s a war that needs to be won at all costs. Its vast medical military arsenal will be deployed until the cancer is defeated and Western medicine is declared the victor. It’s an age-old war that has been going on for centuries.
From my perspective and experience, it is a war fueled by fear and a limited paradigm on what it truly means to be well and, in my case, what it means to be well for Black women.
In my mind, I was quite sure I did not want to go into battle with my cancer. Surgery had removed it physically. Radiotherapy had treated the area at the site of the surgery. That was as far as I was prepared to go. Chemotherapy was offered, but I declined.
For far too long, black bodies have broken under the weight of systemic aggression and depersonalised approaches to our mental health and well-being. The offer of chemo, to me, felt like another form of depersonalisation, another type of aggression. I did not want to become another statistic in this war. I did not want to be bent out of shape by a system that could not take a holistic view of my health and history as a Black woman. I did not want to be bent out of shape again by a system that did not recognise racial trauma and its physical manifestation.
As I have processed this (an inner work that remains ongoing), I have wept for the complete disregard the medical profession appeared to have towards racial trauma and how it can manifest through the generations. I have also wept for my ancestors. Incredible Black women who have gone before me, whose stories of struggle I, Viv Grant, carry within me.
There have been times when the full weight of this realisation has been almost too much for me to bear. But I am committed to my own inner journey and my own healing. I hope to accept whatever awaits me as I travel down this particular road with grace and compassion.
Choosing My Own Path
I knew my decision not to give in, not to succumb to the fear that enveloped the consultation room, was the right one, but all the same, it felt like a desperately difficult decision to make. Even though I had read the books, listened to the podcasts on how chemo compromises the immune system, followed much of the advice, and worked out the action I would take to strengthen my body’s immune response, it was braveness and vulnerability that stood hand in hand on that day. Together, they helped me to stand firm and listen to the voice of my soul.
Beneath the Waves: Discovering Buried Treasure
On returning home from that particular consultation, I once again retreated to the safety of my small painting studio, seeking solace and guidance from my soul.
A series of paintings emerged. Some with the hope of spring on the horizon. But there was one that spoke deeply to the present moment and the decision I had just made. This painting depicted the roots of a tree growing downwards into the depths of the sea until they reached the seabed. The seabed itself shimmered with golden grains of sand. I called this painting “Buried Treasure.” It spoke to me of one of the key truths of the inner journey.
It reminded me that when we confront fear, we delve into the depths of our being. It’s a dark and solitary place, but we have a choice. We can stay on the surface, going with the flow, or we can dive deep, resist the pull to return and in so doing, unearth the treasures hidden beneath. These treasures are meant to be shared. To encourage others to find the gold hidden in the depths of their own inner experience.
And this is the path I’ve chosen to take. Because I want to fully know what it means to live my life well. This one, short, precious life is a gift, and however strangely it might be wrapped, it is a gift that I know is not for me alone. Indeed, it is a gift that we are all called to share.