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When Cancer Calls into Question Everything You Thought You Knew

By Michael Eselun, BCC, Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology

This article was written for and originally published in Coping with Cancer Magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
– Rainer Maria Rilke

Most of us walk through our lives feeling so certain of what we hold to be true; then along comes a crisis – like cancer – and sud­denly all bets are off. But I’m a good person, so God will heal me… God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle… Everything happens for a reason… A positive attitude is every­thing… Cultivating gratitude is the only way to experience peace… If you haven’t said such platitudes to yourself, you’ve undoubtedly heard them countless times from others. While these statements of faith may have seemed true at another time and place, right now, in these cir­cumstances, they just fall flat.

Our certainty might even extend to what we have always believed about the people whom we thought would be there for us no matter what. I have found that so many folks living with cancer are sur­prised by who shows up and who doesn’t.

As humans, we crave certainty. Se­curity. We want to know, Why did this happen? Will I be OK? What if there are no answers and no certainty to be found? What if we can’t know? Does that mean peace of mind and heart are no longer possible?

Not necessarily. By letting go of what we thought we knew, we just might be able to open ourselves to finding love, support, meaning – and even magic – in the least likely of places. A deeper peace may be found in living the ques­tions, rather than clinging to our old certainty. We can move forward with the curiosity of the explorer, charting new waters, making new discoveries about who we are and what we’re connected to, releasing our need for immediate answers.

We just came through the holiday season, in which there is such over­whelming cultural demand to feel a certain way – grateful, blessed, joyful. And when we can’t summon those feelings, we often intensify our suffer­ing by judging ourselves harshly for it. But our feelings can’t always be or­dered up on demand, and they don’t always coincide with the calendar. The beliefs that have seen you through life thus far, those about having a positive attitude and God not giving us more than we can handle, may not be big enough to include this new reality. You stand a better chance of accessing those feel­ings of gratitude or joy when you first acknowledge and accept how you are feeling right now. You don’t need to defend or explain your feelings to any­one, not even yourself.

Sometimes cancer can call into ques­tion how we see ourselves, who we are in the world. If I’ve always seen myself as a marathon runner, or the get-it-done mom who can handle a dozen tasks at once, and yet because of my cancer, I can’t do those things anymore … well then, who am I? This is just one more question to live.

Discovering who you are when you’re not all those things you did, or all those things you thought you were, can be a profound spiritual journey. Though, it may be scary at first. You may be afraid of discovering you are less than you thought. But what if you are more? And what if you are connected to more, with a far deeper capacity for love, kindness, and compassion – for others and for yourself? You may just discover a whole new understanding of what it means to love and be loved.

When a patient of mine, Angela, a 30-something mother of two, was diag­nosed with breast cancer, she said this to me: “Michael, I have cancer. That’s the truth. But you know what? It’s only one truth of many truths.” Can her wisdom be enough for all those who walk this journey?

Can we each keep our eyes and hearts open to recognize other truths when the old ones just aren’t enough anymore? What if there is a deeper peace to be found in living the questions – to accepting ourselves, our lives, and our response to life as it is, moment- to-moment, unfixed, ever-evolving? Can we move forward with more fascination than fear, with more curiosity than cer­tainty? Perhaps, then, we can all walk each other home “some distant day into the answer.”


Michael Eselun serves as chaplain for the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology in Los Angeles, CA. He is a highly-regarded keynote speaker who is also widely published in journals.  Michael also has presented a TEDx talk, “It’s Magic,” (available on YouTube) about finding the magic in life. Learn more at

Please join Michael  for his monthly group, the Circle of Reflection.  It is an opportunity to explore in a safe, welcoming and non-judgmental space, the spiritual journey that cancer has carved out for us.  Each month we will reflect on a different theme.  Those with cancer and loved ones are welcome

 If you are interested in attending, please call the Center at 310.794.6644.

1 Comment
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