Cancer as a Rite of Passage: Petra Lentz Snow

I believe that the essence of our ceremony has something extraordinary to offer people struck by cancer that can partner the excruciating and intensely demanding experience of cancer, from diagnosis through treatment, and into recovery; witnessing and calling out the transformative gift that we as guides know any underworld journey holds.  

Alongside the typical initial shock, disbelief and grief that hit me when I first heard the famous, terrifying 3 words ‘you have cancer’, the guide inside me was drawn out by what she immediately recognized as a sudden and irrevocable severance with the life I’d known up to that point.  Like a detective who can’t help looking for fingerprints and clues when a theft occurs in her own house, my guide psyche knew immediately that the medical journey ahead would be a Rite of Passage in and off itself, a journey that would take me down, deep into the unmarked territory of the underworld.  And while unmarked and terrifying as the underworld is by definition, the ceremony was my stronghold throughout my journey, the north star by which I would navigate every time that I was able to come up for a moment of air.


In this article, I will try to speak to the 3 phases of any Rite of Passage (severance, threshold and incorporation) as they apply to cancer and also explore how the bare bones of ceremony may be applied in ways that can serve people in various stages of cancer, who often are lacking the strength and general health to go out on a regular vision fast program.  


On the cancer journey the equivalent to severance is diagnosis.  It is the first threshold we cross, ready or not, willing or not.  Once diagnosed, we find ourselves suspended between a past that, try as we may, we are not able to return to, and a future that we no longer can count on having.  In this cracked open place, the practical and petty concerns of life just vanish - poof - and what we look at are the bare bones of our existence.  Instead of asking questions like:  what am I going to wear to the PTA event?  we ask questions like:  Have I lived my life as well as I could have?  Have I loved?  Have I been loved?  A cancer diagnosis radically strips one’s superficial mind clean and relentlessly exposes the absolute, and the core questions of our living.  Have I really applied myself?  What am I here for?  What is the legacy I will leave behind?   


And while there are many advances in cancer treatment today, with more early detection and a hope for cure in an increasing number of cases, our psyches are still marked with a kind of cancer-own ‘death-star’, taking away any illusion we many have had about being in control of our life.  There are no guarantees, not with cancer, not even with the best prognosis.  


Of course there never really are ANY guarantees with life; in truth, death is sitting on all of our shoulders from the moment we are born, and we’ve always known it, but when we are diagnosed with cancer we really GET it.  We are truly initiated into the mortal wound of our humanness.  We lose a kind of innocence about our lives that we are never able to return to.  


It is during the heart-wrenching roller-coaster ride of severance, that we choose from the vast array of conventional and unconventional cancer therapies, expert opinions, and conflicting statistical data to find our own, unique way toward healing.   Once we know our course of action, we prepare ourselves as best we can until we arrive at the ordeal of threshold itself, the time of treatment.


I have always loved the word threshold, powerfully evoking the image of the age-old harvesting practice of literally threshing the hulls or husks of grains against the hard doorsill, over and over again, until the seeds are flung out of their shells and the chaff falls away.  In many ways, the threshold of treatment is just this: a hard circumstance against which our being is cracked open.  And yet, it is also here where heroes and heroines are born, where the last of human freedoms is found, a freedom "to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way,” (as Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl said).  Deep in our ancestral memory, we carry the knowing of this dark place as the place of true transformation, the place where the alchemy of change awaits us.  As guides, we know the story is always the same, told in a thousand different ways for thousands of years:  Change is precipitated through an ordeal, which has the potential to be an initiation into a new life.  And what a first class ordeal cancer is:  our bodies cut (surgery), poisoned (chemo) and burned (radiation), it is easy to see that our life during treatment really is a quest.


As with all underworld journeys, on the other side of the threshold lies the promise of our initiated self.  In the cancer world, incorporation means recovery, or as some call it ’survivorship’.   Interestingly enough, recently there has been a lot of discussion in the cancer community about the challenges of surviving and thriving after cancer, not unlike our own guide conversation on the challenge of re-incorporation.  The conversation around bringing more attention to this longest phase of the entire journey is indeed very similar to the exploration of this territory that we currently see in the Rite of Passage field.


Personally, I have no idea how I would have made it through cancer treatment if it wasn’t for the ceremony.  Throughout 9 months of various cancer therapies, I went for walks in an open space preserve just 15 minutes from my home.  Here, under old growth oak trees, I would go for medicine walks whenever I was able.  It struck me how readily available the spirit world was to me during that time, as if my body and mind were just ripe to take the depth and the grief onto the land, knowing that it would hold whatever I could not.  


My first walk was on the day before my surgery.  Just after marking my threshold, I came upon a woman runner, waving her hands up high in the air, gesturing ‘no, no’, telling me to turn back.  It turns out she had seen a big mountain lion right on the trail.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, mountain lion is one of my frightened mind’s favorite animals.  There I was, at the crossroads, do I give into the fear and abolish my walk?  Not an option!  As the other park visitors, who were alerted by the same woman, all headed back down toward the safety of their cars, I headed up the trail, now armed with a stick in each of my hands.  


I thought it ironic that just a few minutes before I was worried to die an untimely death because of breast cancer.  And here I was now, my knees shaking, my pounding heart intently listening for every leaf rustle, clutching fiercely to what felt like terribly insufficient defense weapons while inching up the trail,  afraid I wouldn’t survive this very day, this very walk - what a change in perspective!  At the top of the park, crossing a patch of dark forest, I understood that there was truly no way for me to get off the trail.  Death was on my path.  One day, near or far, it would find me.  Masked as a predator, a disease, or an accident it would claim me.  Right then, when I allowed the unthinkable, instead of trying to protect myself from it, or find a way out of it, warm relief washed over my body.  I didn’t have to do anything or become anyone else.  “All” I had to do was surrender, surrender my fear and giving up any illusion of control that I thought I may have had over my life.  It was as simple as it was profound.  If I could die to my fear, I didn’t have to die from it.  I was ready.  Tossing away my sticks I came back down the mountain singing - and ready for the surgery that was awaiting me the very next day.


I did many day walks all throughout treatment and many of them had this puzzling depth to them.  My own experience founded a theory that people in cancer treatment, thrown abruptly and without so much as their consent into liminal time,  ‘get’ the essence of the ceremony so easily because of where they are in their own raw dialogue with life.  If so, I wondered, could shorter, more ‘compressed’ type programs, with ‘mini-me’ walk-abouts, serve people still in treatment, that are lacking the overall robustness and health necessary for a regular 3-4 day Wilderness Rite of Passage?  


Just recently I got a chance to sit in on the 6-hour pre-conference workshop that John Davis and Ruth Wharton offered for Lost Borders at the Wilderness Symposium in Boulder, CO.  Here I met a husband of a woman with breast cancer currently undergoing chemo.  He was at the workshop in his professional capacity as a counselor but the story he came back with, from the 1 hour solo time on the land that we had assigned the participants, was up close and personal and intensely informed by the depth of his journey alongside his wife.  Not surprisingly, he was the first one to share his story in the larger group touching everyone with his presence and depth.


I also assisted Scott Eberle and Meredith Little in one of their Practice of Living and Dying programs, where participants go out on various nature assignments every day, culminating with the option of one 24-hour solo.  One of the participants was a woman with advanced colon cancer, sharing a story from her time on the land, which contained a clear and powerful image.  She had seen a horse in a pasture, all by itself.  It had once been a beautiful horse but being malnourished and neglected by the people that owned it, it was now frail, confused and dejected.  T recognized herself in this horse; there were parts of herself that hadn’t been nourished, loved and properly cared for in a long time.  During the 24-hour solo, which she decided to spend in the confinement of her tent, her heart went out to the parts of herself that she had forgotten or neglected, remembering, loving and healing herself as she went.  When T emerged from her tent the next morning, and stepped across the threshold, beaming, she radiated pure beauty and a wholeness that was without the shadow of a doubt birthed from a well deep within her renewed soul.


When we are touched by cancer, the areas of our lives that are most in need of healing, (like primary relationships, or our work or purpose in the world, a life long dream not yet realized or a major regret we may have), are flushed to the surface, one by one, sometimes painfully nudging us into a greater version of ourselves but also thereby granting us an unparalleled opportunity to align our lives with our true purpose.  I know now, that the urgency of this call from deep within our psyche will take up ANY space that it is offered, to use the ceremony in whatever way it is made available to us, even in smaller walk-about’s, even in semi-wild park settings, maybe even at someone’s bedside.  On the journey with cancer our unique need to heal meets the unique opportunity to heal.


While there are many different treatment approaches in today’s world of cancer therapy everyone agrees that we don't always know why someone recovers from metastatic cancer while someone else with a much better prognosis ends up having a cancer recurrence. And precisely because we don't know, because cancer presents such a wild card, we try to strengthen and heal every aspect of our lives, meeting our wholeness in every way we can. Alongside conventional therapies we diet, we exercise, we meditate and we confront anything that is in the way of our emotional healing such as old self-incriminating or limiting patterns that no longer serve. We leave no stone unturned. While we may never know the exact sum of all the parts that contribute to our healing we use our cracked openness as an opportunity to truly heal forward - in any way we can. Part of this is letting go of old stories that stand in the way of our wholeness.


At the bottom of my own cauldron, after weeks of surgery, and more surgery, and debilitating chemo treatment, at the very bottom of my pit, I felt something shifting deep inside me. There was little of “me” left at that point, no more place to hide, too weak to even stand up for any length of time.  And yet, at the very bottom of it all, sitting on the charred ground of my “self”, I found the unexpected gift of looking at the foundations of my life, those big fundamental building blocks of self. And precisely because the forest of my life had been burned down to nothing, I had this incredible gift of being able to see the bare bones of my self. It was here that I understood that apart from my true and strong (and natural) love as a mother, sacrifice had also been a way to equalize my festering and almost genetic feeling wound of unworthiness.  Sometime during that long, dark night I gave it away and touched an innate goodness inside me that has become the base of my new life, a gift greater than all that was taken from me to get there.


Don’t get me wrong.  Cancer is a hard disease and given the choice I’d never sign up for it.  And yet it gave me the gift of transforming the parts of my life that had been out of alignment for a long, long time.  Sometimes, I jokingly say:  ‘cancer has saved my life’ and there is truth to that.  What I have lost is the illusion of control over my life, of taking my body or my mind or any other part of my being for granted.  What I have lost is the illusion of impermanence.  What I was given instead is the understanding that the only thing that will remain long after I’m gone is the healing that I have brought home during my life.  Grounded in the practice of my living and my dying, I am now blessed to live this precious life forward with no guarantees, and on the edge of my seat.   I still walk up and down the park trails and I have yet to see the lion.  Nonetheless, I know it’s there, maybe minding his or her own business, maybe staring at me from the dark thicket along the winding path.   Most days I’m glad that he or she is here, helping me remember, and helping me continue to surrender.


I firmly believe that if we can do the work of our healing now, letting go of what hurts us deep inside, and allow the one true life that we know is rightfully ours to emerge, we have truly arrived in the gift of our living.  Maybe then it doesn’t matter so much anymore how long we are here for but that we truly have been here at all, “even if just this once”, as Rilke says, “this is beyond undoing”.  And having truly lived, something tells me that one fine day my dying may become my greatest healing yet. 


Until then, I will continue to live and love and share the ceremony with all that come my way.

No yearning for an afterlife,
no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.

Ranier Maria Rilke