Petra Lentz-Snow is a Breast Cancer Survivor and wilderness guide with the School of Lost Borders located in Big Pine, CA
To visit her blog on Cancer as a Rite of Passage, go to www.journeysintohealing.org
Personally, I have no idea how I would have made it through cancer treatment if it wasn’t for my relationship with the vision fast 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 what I call ‘medicine walks’ whenever I was able. Basically, these walks are like ‘mini walk-abouts’, time out on the land, to look into the mirror of nature, reflecting back one’s inner truth, finding oneself, one’s voice and unique way. I used them to explore some difficult questions about treatment decisions, to let go and ‘bury’ old patterns that stood in the way of my healing or simply to listen to the fast flowing river of what was moving inside me at any given time. 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 of this kind on my cancer journey 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, deeply ingrained in my psyche from some scary almost encounters with them, I had a deeply rooted fear of mountain lions. 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.
It seemed admittedly 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!
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.At the top of the park, crossing a patch of dark forest, I came to realize 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.
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.