By all accounts, 2018 has been a horrible year. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and too many people I know are struggling with cancer or other illnesses. Several have died.

And yet I can honestly say that, as it did the first time 19 years ago, cancer has offered me precious and deeply meaningful gifts: recommitment to healthy lifestyle changes in diet, exercise and sleep patterns; mental and emotional openings that allow for stress reduction and an almost visceral sense of well-being, particularly when I’m in nature; and experiencing the immediacy of love and support from friends, family and neighbors has immeasurably buoyed me up through this tough year. These are all elements of CancerChoices’ 7 Healing Practices, which I described in my last post.

I left one Healing Practice—Exploring What Matters Now—as my final post to close out the year probably because it’s the most challenging of the 7 practices and the hardest to write about. As BCCTBeyond Conventional Cancer Therapies (predecessor website to CancerChoices)/CancerChoices describes, Exploring What Matters Now is deeply personal so the journey and the destination are different but equally valid for everyone. For me, the exploration revolves around finding peace and purpose in a life that has been touched but not defined or limited (yet) by cancer.

Most people come to understand sooner or later what will end their life. If you’ve had cancer, you might have a somewhat greater degree of predictability than the average person in knowing how you’ll die. Will I die of cancer? Will you? Or will integrativein cancer care, a patient-centered approach combining the best of conventional care, self care and evidence-informed complementary care in an integrated plan approaches succeed in extending our lives until we die of something else?

Absorbing the uncertainty embedded in those questions without being paralyzed by it is the beginning of finding peace. Anyone with a life-threatening illness, whether from cancer or another disease, begins at a place of fear and hope. From fear and hope comes courage. Courage opens the door to grace. And grace can transform into peace.

Here’s an exercise I’ve been practicing that you may want to try in your own quest for deep peace. Find one moment in each day when you’re conscious of being at peace or are fully relaxed or just grateful to be alive. Hold onto that feeling for as long as it lasts. Now can you build on that moment? Practice extending the time you’re experiencing real peace or add a second moment of peace at another time during the day. Can your life slowly become more and more filled with peace? Think about how wonderful that will feel!

A strong feeling of peace comes from being fully in the moment while at the same time being very aware of a sense of purpose or meaning for your life beyond that single moment. Because existing simultaneously with a sense of well-being is the awareness that time is limited.

It was easy for me to define a clear purpose during my first cancer in 1999. I was passionate about and deeply committed to my work in environmental philanthropy. I was in a solid marriage. So my sense of meaning came from an easy reaffirmation of the contours of my life as I was already living it.

This time is different. Only months before my cancer diagnosis, I had left my job of almost 30 years, less as a retirement than because of a desire to embark on a “new chapter.” With cancer so preoccupying over the last eight months, it’s been difficult to define much less pursue a new purpose. So my sense of meaning—what am I meant to accomplish now?—is unclear as the year comes to a close.

Yet I am at peace with the mist and fog. My desire to be of service, to make discernible if small differences in the world is as strong and clear as ever. Cancer has put me on a searching journey with the final destination as yet unknown. If service is my pole star then cancer can be my compass. I am embracing the voyage. I hope you are embracing yours.

My first post in the new year will be about how I am using medical cannabis as part of cancer care. Hope you’ll tune in.

Here’s to more healing and health in 2019!

This post is the fourth in a series.

Banner photo from Ruth Hennig

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About the Author

Ruth Hennig

Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.

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Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.  Since stepping down from the foundation’s staff, Ruth has joined its board. Ruth has a track record of involvement in creating organizations that bring new capacity to the public interest sector, especially in health and the environment. In addition to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, she has helped establish or has been a founding board member of SmartPower, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Baraka Community Wellness and IssueOne. She also serves on the board of League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Photography, politics, gardening and yoga are her special interests.

Ruth Hennig Advisor