by Netter Hansen
"I don't have good news," the oncologist said. "You've got leukemia." He explained that I had acute myeloid leukemia, which is cancer of the blood and bone marrow. My prognosis was good in the short-term, with a seventy percent chance of remission after chemotherapy. However, it wasn't so good in the long-term, with a thirty percent chance of being alive in two years.
During the year before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had fallen into a dark hole. My doctor had prescribed a series of antidepressants. Nothing helped. Now I worried that the leukemia would make the depression worse.
Over the next eight months, I had four rounds of chemotherapy. A surgeon implanted a catheter in my chest to receive chemo, blood, and other drugs. I learned how to flush it with saline and heparin to keep it from clogging. I gave myself hormone shots in my gut to stimulate blood production. When I developed blot clots throughout my neck and chest, a radiologist inserted half a dozen little catheters into my arms and neck and dripped clot-busting drugs into me. Then he performed an angioplasty. Altogether, I spent ten weeks in the hospital.
It was a time of great uncertainty and fear. I wasn't sure if I would make it through alive. One of the hospital chaplains tried to prepare me for death. "What will your legacy be?" she asked me. I didn't like that question. I wasn't ready to think about what I would leave behind. We talked about my on-again, off-again relationship with God. I was afraid of dying, afraid of leaving things undone, afraid of being in pain. So I fell back on old habits and prayed, asking for help to get through each day and each new side effect.
The drugs did work—they killed the leukemia and eight months later, the cancer was in remission and I could go back to life as normal. However, my life was no longer normal. I had gone through an ordeal and it had changed me. I didn't know how to sort through and deal with everything I had experienced—the fear, the pain, the sickness, the emotional ups and downs, the overwhelming gratefulness I felt. I didn't know how to articulate and express it all. I could see that I had changed, but wasn't sure who I had become.
And then the brochure for the Progoff Intensive Journal™ program came in the mail: "Gain insights about many different areas, including personal relationships, career and special interests, body and health, dreams and imagery, and meaning in life." It sounded like this was just what I needed. The next month I joined twenty other people in an Intensive Journal workshop at a local college. The leader said that the purpose of the Intensive Journal method was to see what was present in our lives. She explained the process, saying that through it, we would gain a perspective on the context of our lives, that we needed the whole of our lives to speak to us. She said our unique piece of art was ourselves. And although we would be writing about our lives, we wouldn't be judging or censuring anything; rather, we would simply describe whatever came to us when she posed a series of questions for each exercise. This was a totally different way of looking at life for me. We then bent over our notebooks and poured our lives onto the pages before us.
We began simply with the question: "Where am I now in my life?" In less than half an hour, I recounted the months of cancer treatment, and where it had brought me, to this place of questioning, of examining my life and wondering what was next. Over the next several days we wrote about many different areas of our lives: our relationships, our work, our bodies, and our spirits, always gently questioning, always probing, always being curious but not judgmental.
Cancer had given me a lot to deal with: a sick and frail body, the possibility of death, the ever-present fear of recurrence, the loss of my job, financial insecurity. Being told I had cancer, and that it was uncertain how long I would live, made me ask myself some basic questions: Was I satisfied with the way I'd been living my life? With my relationships? If I only had two or three years left, instead of twenty or thirty, how did I want to spend my time?
I learned how to "dialogue" in my workbook with different aspects of my life: with the people who were important to me (my husband, family, and friends), with the major events of my life, with myhobbies and interests and even with my body, writing both questions and responses. As I dialogued with the people in my life, I saw which relationships were important to me and which relationships I could let go. I had had a habit of not saying what I wanted and needed from people and instead telling them what they wanted to hear, and now I wanted to be more direct and honest. Whether I wouldn't live beyond this year or would live many more years, I wanted the people I loved to know that I loved them, and that I valued and appreciated them.
In a dialogue with my body, it told me, "I want you to pay attention to me. I have been through a rough year and need you to take care of me. Be grateful, be thankful, for all the places I have carried you, for getting you through cancer when I could have given up. I need just as much attention as your mind." After writing this dialogue I realized that I had blamed my body for the cancer and felt it had betrayed me in some way. In reality, my body had borne the brunt of the disease and the toxic treatment, and it had called upon an inner strength to get through the ordeal.
I dialogued with the cancer, examining not only the difficult parts of it, the pain and the fear, but also what I had learned from it. I saw that it had been an opening in some way, that it had actually woken me up from my depression and made me feel more myself than I had in a long time. I had faced the possibility of my own death, and I had written a will and planned out who would get what, including my cat. When I looked at everything I had gone through, I realized that I could handle anything that came my way.
For me, the most profound dialogue I did was with a person we considered a wisdom figure. The person could be living or dead, and I chose the mythologist Joseph Campbell. I asked him, "How do I live my life differently now?" And he responded: "You are awake now, aren't you? Don't go back to sleep. You have been given a great gift. Some people never wake up." I had watched journalist Bill Moyers interview Campbell on the PBS series The Power of Myth, and as I dialogued with Campbell, I could hear his voice in my head, urging me to stay awake and follow my bliss.
A dialogue with my work showed me that the jobs I'd had over the last few years had not been fulfilling or nourishing in any way. I had been doing editorial work for Internet and high-tech companies, writing and editing marketing copy to sell products I saw as worthless. The work had so drained me that I had little energy after hours to pursue the creative writing I enjoyed. I resolved to find work that did not use me up, that left some creative energy for my personal writing.
By writing about the history of my spiritual life, I also saw that it needed attention. I had been part of the Lutheran church for many years, but for some time hadn't felt like it fed me spiritually. At church, I was just going through the motions. During treatment, I started reading books about philosophy and religion and psychology and spirituality, books on meditation, on Buddhism and on mythology. I wasn't sure where my search would lead me, but I knew that this area of my life was calling out to me and it felt good to acknowledge that and to be open to new possibilities.
The Progoff Intensive Journal method gave me a new way to look within myself, to dig around in the dark and see who I am, what I can do, what's important to me. It helped me prepare for the worst-case scenario—recurrence and death—but it also helped me to see how I wanted to live my life whether I lived for another day or many more decades.
"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.