My Cancer Diagnosis: Learning to Walk in the Dark

On the morning of October 27th 2023, seven days after my hysterectomy, I awoke in tears. However, my tears were not tears of pain. Remarkably, while convalescing, I only had to take one painkiller in the period after surgery. This could be, I hope, a testament to the healing power of love, an abundance of which I felt from colleagues, friends, and family, both before and after surgery.

No, the tears were from what I believe to have been a type of PTSD—a delayed shock. The reality of the roller-coaster journey I had been on since the end of August hit me like a tidal wave.

Having received my diagnosis via email (a direct consequence of last summer’s Doctor’s strike), I had not been afforded the proper emotional and psychological space to digest the news. As a result, with all subsequent medical appointments, I felt as though I was playing a kind of existential catch-up and constantly feeling as though I was falling further and further behind. I never entirely caught up with the prognosis, never fully understood the new medical terms that now came flying my way, and never quite fully comprehended how much my life, my world, was about to change.

So, that cold autumn morning, sitting in bed, my fingers traversing the edges of the medical swabs that covered the seven insertion sites across my abdomen, it was as though a dam had burst and wave upon wave of emotion crashed down upon me.

My soul, my spirit, my very core were in turmoil. I had been thrown into a world that was completely strange and foreign to me and, at the time, a world in which I believed I did not have the tools to navigate.

Finding a new way forward

I don’t recall much more of that day. I probably slept a lot and allowed myself to be cocooned in the loving, warm embrace of my family.

But… I do recall what happened the following day. The day I discovered that many of the tools I needed to navigate this new territory were not hidden and, once revealed, were to become some of the most precious gifts of this time.

I had hoped to engage in art therapy while undergoing my cancer treatment, but upon inquiry at the Royal Marsden, where I was being treated, I was told that they had been without an Art Therapist for eighteen months.

I mentioned this to my daughter Lauren and her best friend, Eisha (an art student), and they both offered to facilitate painting sessions with me in the days after my surgery.

On October 28th, Eisha duly came to our house, equipped with paintbrushes, acrylic paints, and various-sized canvases for my first ‘art therapy’ session. “I don’t know what to paint,” I said, paintbrush in hand and looking blankly at the small A5 canvas I had selected. “I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since Secondary School!” “Just paint what you feel,” replied Eisha. “Don’t overthink it. Just trust yourself.”

And so, tentatively, I started to apply brushstrokes to the canvas. A pale blue winter’s sky emerged. Then, a tree standing tall, silent, still. Snow falling to the ground, roots extended deep into the earth. My soul had spoken. The tree was me. To navigate this season in my life, I would have to endure the winter. I would need to turn inward, weather the cold, and somehow find meaning and solace in my own ‘dark night of the soul.’

An Inner Turning

And so, following my soul’s intuition, I turned my gaze away from the world and turned it steadfastly inwards. My work emails were already on ‘out of office,’ but in addition, I now switched off all social media alerts on my phone and any engagement with the outside world. I deleted my Guardian News App, which prior to surgery, I viewed at least three to five times a day. I retreated to the smallest room in our house, gathered art materials around me—paints, canvases, etc., and painted almost every day for around six consecutive weeks.

As I painted, my fears subsided. My ego, that part of us that longs to be in control, surrendered to the fact that in this new landscape, it would need to step aside.  My paintings appeared to depict my inner world, what was occurring deep within me as my rational mind stepped down from its usual position of dominance and allowed my soul, my deep inner intuition, to take centre stage.

Most of my paintings were of trees, roots buried deep within the earth. I felt that they were symbolic of the deep alchemical work that happens hidden out of sight in winter. A time when the cold and often bleak and barren landscape can lead us to believe that everything has died. The trees look forlorn, no longer resplendent in the colours of the preceding seasons. But if you look closely, as I learned during this time, the trees are, in fact, alive with the promise of spring. Even in the midst of winter, buds are already beginning to appear!

Finding Light in the Dark

And so, my paintings became expressions of hope, reminders to trust in the wisdom of my soul and the perennial lessons that nature’s rhythms and cycles provide for us. It was clear. I was not to be afraid of the dark. The dark is where growth happens, where new perspectives can be found. The dark is where nature nurtures the tentative beginnings of new life. Nature knows best, and my soul did too.

Katherine May, the author of the Sunday Times Bestseller “Wintering,” says of this alchemical season, “Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience.” With each passing day (even when I might find my feet slipping on the occasional piece of ice), I am increasingly beginning to understand exactly what she means.

“Gifted New Eyes to See”

With every brushstroke, I felt I had been ‘gifted new eyes to see,’ and with these new eyes, I saw myself and the world differently.

I saw, quite painfully at first, how attached we can become to our own egos and the way it can diminish our sense of self and our own well-being when life’s challenges come hurtling towards us. It holds onto fear. Not just our own, but also those of others and if that isn’t bad enough, it proceeds to engage in a constant dialogue with these fears! Until we find ourselves drowning in a whirlpool of anxiety, unable to call for help because we no longer know what our own voice and deep intuition sound like.

I honestly think my paintings saved me from that trajectory. With my ego’s relegation to the recesses of my being, I experienced a type of inner expansion and a profound sense of peace and well-being. It was a sense of peace that wasn’t felt by me alone. My husband and our children felt it, too. It was beyond our wildest imaginings that in the midst of all that we were facing as a family, such a deep sense of serenity could be found.

This experience has led me to think further about the world we now occupy as educators and the degree to which fear and its hold upon egoic structures of control continue to damage and cause deep distress and suffering to those called into school leadership.

Wellbeing in Education: A fundamental shift is needed

Well-being in education remains a high priority, and quite rightly so. However, it is my belief that a fundamental shift is needed. We need a new, broader paradigm, one that is large enough to embrace the vulnerability that we, as human beings, share. To acknowledge that it can never be right for educators to be expected to bend to fear and as a consequence, accept inner compromise as the price to be paid for outer compliance. This is currently how our education system operates. It is inhumane and damaging to both the soul of the profession and to individuals.

I have always known this, but my cancer diagnosis and the way in which my deep, inner self responded helped me to see and understand this with greater levels of clarity.

And so… where does this lead?

The inquiry into Ruth Perry’s death happened while I was recovering. Switched off from my emails and social media, I caught occasional updates from the few times I tuned into the early evening news. Had I not been on medical leave, I may well have joined the chorus of voices advocating for the reform of OFSTED. Indeed, I’d like to think that Integrity has been at the forefront of such calls for change for the past decade or more.

And now, as I sit here reflecting, one thing I know for sure is that if OFSTED is serious about changing, then it must accept and understand that when individuals choose to take on school leadership, they are instigating another stage of a deep inner journey. A journey that has the potential to be wonderfully transformative for themselves and the communities they lead. But… and it’s a big but, OFSTED must also understand that transformation is rarely swift, and for individuals at the helm, it can very often be accompanied by ‘dark nights of the soul.’

During such times, the last thing school leaders need are ego-driven systems of accountability and control. Instead, what they need are light bearers. Individuals who can help them see in the dark and hold onto hope. As they navigate their way towards the cresting of a new dawn and the realisation of their vision for their schools and the communities they serve.

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