Bouncing Forward from Cancer

When the doctor said “You have cancer,” Phyllis Coletta’s defenses of anger, fear, and self-reliance fell apart. All she had left was gratitude.

Phyllis Coletta
20 December 2016
Doctor holding stethoscope.
Photo by Alex Proimos.

I remember walking around in a fog on the day of my breast cancer diagnosis in 2014. I called my sons, who sobbed with me, and went to work at the hospital, where my friends and I just stared at each other, unbelieving. That night, I went to bed alone and bereft. My husband had just filed for divorce, and now this. I’m sick, I thought. I have cancer.

I always trusted my body, and cancer felt like a betrayal. I didn’t smoke, scarcely drank, ate greens, ran, hiked, biked, and skied. I’d had no risk factors — except stress. I had that aplenty.

Born into a first-generation Italian family in Philadelphia, I grew up ready to take care of myself, never trust anyone, and duke it out when I needed to. Then I went to law school. So there you go, the trifecta of aggression: an Italian attorney from Philadelphia. I was not to be messed with. But the gods had other ideas: So you’re afraid to be helpless and dependent? How about a round of cancer, girlfriend?

I’d always had a difficult time with helplessness and dependency. Secretly, I hated those women who found mates that took care of them, because I wanted that so much. By the time I was in my forties, slugging it out in court and raising three boys as a single mom, it was coming down to either booze or Buddhism. But by my 50s I was attracted to the quiet of Zen and the way it billed itself, like Seinfeld, as being about nothing. I dragged my weary, angry soul to the zendo and started the scary process of sitting still. Truthfully, I thought the path would protect me from illness and harm. Ha.

We can meditate on the transient nature of existence till the cows come home. But when your doctor says, “I’m sorry, you have cancer,” it’s not just practice anymore. Of course, I meditate on impermanence, but a cancer diagnosis — the realization that I could lose my breath, my joy, my sons, my grandchildren — turns mere theory into terrifying reality.

I was reckoning with the divorce, and at the same time, found myself losing my notions and illusions. After my diagnosis, everything was stripped away: my vision of myself as a healthy person, my illusions about safety, all my fancy life plans. I was out of family leave with my employer, too. I would lose my job, my husband, my home, my income, my sense of self, and — ultimately — my breasts.

Through these torrents of loss, I knew — I knew — that I was held in the cradle of loving-kindness. Grounded in my training, I held fast to this knowledge. I was in the fire, and I watched, almost amused, as my identity imploded. Everything paled in comparison to terminal illness, and one huge truth became clear in a flash: I want to live. I love it here on Earth. I love my family and my friends. I don’t want to die.

While we cherish clarity in our Buddhist practice, I’d never expected that cancer would give me a glimpse into the true heart of love. Through biopsies and blood tests, I saw with wonder what is beneath everything: the human heart is made of pure love. Learning that was worth the loss of everything else.

When I told people, “I have cancer,” their hearts opened up in front of me like flowers. I saw love in their eyes and felt it when they held me close. There was a softening so sweet that it made me cry.

When I got on the plane in Denver to go home for my treatment I sat next to two Philly guys in t-shirts and tattoos. In typical fashion, they got personal right away.

“So yo, why you going home?” one asked.

“I just got diagnosed with breast cancer,” I said, eyes widening with tears, “I’m going home for surgery.”

I could see love and hurt in these two perfect stranger’s eyes. The guy next to me put his hand on mine and his friend barked at the flight attendant, “Hey! She needs food!” (The Philly answer to everything that ails you.) “You got some peanuts or something?”

Everyone gave me something. It was give, give, give, and I was so broken open all I could do was receive, receive, receive. There were no big bossy girl defenses. I needed help and I needed love and I got both by the boatload. My brothers — my childhood heroes — held me up through the medical process. All three were there when I woke up from my bilateral mastectomy, milling around, making jokes, making me cry. Doctors and nurses put their hands on me gently. The world cracked with a newness so poignant it expanded my heart with pure joy. After that winter’s melt, I’d walk outside barefoot to get the morning paper. Amazed, I thought I worship the ground I walk on. The earth had been holding me up and loving me all this time and I had almost missed it!

The value of community was the most crucial realization of my journey through cancer. We never heal alone. Internally, I struggled with the loss of body parts; but I healed in community: My cousin showed up to check my stitches after I left the hospital. A kind woman at the rec center saw my flat chest and surgical drains and said, “Everyone here is healing from something.” My fiercely smart oncologist touched me without gloves and with genuine care. There’s no such thing as “self-help.” It’s “us-help” all the way. I was so grateful for every gift of kindness I received. It’s that compassion that makes the unbearable bearable.

I also realized how much of my “doing good” in the world was actually a diversion from my deep sadness and pain. I had previously employed the grade-school understanding of karma: if I did good things for others, bad things wouldn’t happen to me. But cancer made me realize that wasn’t true. Instead, I needed to draw boundaries to stay healthy.

Medically and socially, my recovery was relatively easy. The cancer didn’t metastasize, so I didn’t need chemo, and there was no genetic marker, so I politely declined prophylactic drugs. It was the best of a lousy situation. All along, I recognized that my racial, social, physiological, and economic privileges exponentially increased my odds for a good outcome. I pray every day for those who endure cancer without quality medical care, social supports, financial security, or insurance.

Many people who endure cancer, chemo, or any kind of traumatic event experience their lives changing in substantial and positive ways. It’s called “post-traumatic growth,” the little-known cousin of post-traumatic stress. I became perplexed by how blissful and happy I was while healing from cancer, so I started to read more about the phenomenon. Doctors Calhoun and Tedeschi at the University of NC Charlotte have done years of research and found that more than half of people who endure trauma report positive life changes as a result. They identified four major areas of change:

  1. A sense of new opportunities and possibilities emerging from the struggle;
  2. Changes in relationships — with important ones becoming better and closer — and a general increase in empathy and compassion;
  3. A new sense of personal strength (If I lived through that, I can do anything);
  4. And a greater appreciation of life, with a deepening of spiritual connections and a change in belief systems.

Who knew? We don’t just bounce back from suffering — we can bounce forward. We endure a sudden blow — the death of a loved one, a bad diagnosis, a debilitating accident — and with the right ingredients we can become (as my middle son said when he was four years old) more better. Ironically, in order for true growth to happen, the trauma must effectively shatter deeply held beliefs and assumptions. It’s the emotional equivalent of a seismic shift in internal tectonic plates. Everything has to crack open for post-traumatic growth to drop in. Tedeschi and Calhoun have identified several other factors that support personal growth after trauma, including a grounding in spiritual practice, a strong social network, and a sense of meaning, openness, and gratitude.

Psychologists at the Posttraumatic Growth Research Group note that the concept of growth after suffering is not new. As Buddhists, we can corroborate this based on our experience. Encouraged to sit with our pain, we learn that it passes. This learning transforms our suffering. As Sant Keshavadas said,

Go ahead, light your candles and burn your incense and ring your bells and call out to God, but watch out because God will come, and He will put you on His anvil and fire up His forge and beat you and beat you and beat you until He turns brass into pure gold.

The C-word had shattered everything in a moment, gob-smacking me into reality. There are still days when I am so overwhelmed by gratitude that it takes my breath away. Fundamentally, I’m even grateful for my experience of cancer.

Phyllis Coletta

Phyllis Coletta

Phyllis Coletta is a a freelance writer, healthcare administrator, and Zen Buddhist chaplain. Her latest book is Radical Joy: How to Live Like There’s No Tomorrow. Her website is