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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
A new way to talk about, think about, and treat cancer
Tami Simon speaks with Leigh Fortson about her book Embrace, Release, Heal, an empowering guide to talking about, thinking about, and treating cancer. Leigh spent decades practicing healthy lifestyle habits, and was shocked to find out, in 2006, that she had cancer. Today she has a clean bill of health and lives in Colorado with her family. In this interview, Leigh speaks about "the morphic field" of cancer, the importance of accepting responsibility after a cancer diagnosis, and her view of "fighting cancer" in order to thrive. (56 minutes)
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You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, I speak with Leigh Fortson. Leigh has coauthored and edited numerous books about health, nutrition, and alternative medicine, and she's also the author of a new Sounds True book: Embrace, Release, Heal, an empowering guide to talking about, thinking about, and treating cancer. Leigh spent decades learning about and practicing healthy lifestyle habits, and then was shocked to find out, in 2006, that she had cancer. Today she has a clean bill of health, I'm happy to say, and lives in Colorado with her family.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Leigh and I spoke about what she calls "the morphic field" of cancer, the importance of accepting responsibility after a cancer diagnosis, and her view of "fighting cancer" in order to thrive. Is that really the right perspective, to fight? We also spoke about the central role of self-love, forgiveness, gratitude, and surrender on the cancer journey. Here's my moving conversation with Leigh Fortson:
Leigh, in thinking about speaking with you, I reflected on what it would be like if I received a diagnosis of cancer, and to be honest, that thought totally flips me out, completely. Where I wanted to begin was with hearing you speak a little bit about what the process was like for you, receiving three different cancer diagnoses, and what you learned that might be helpful to other people who perhaps are either afraid of such a possibility . . . I know, in the foreword to your new book, Embrace, Release, Heal, Mark Hyman cites the statistic that one in three people will get cancer (a startlingly scary statistic for me). What's your advice to people who either are afraid of the big C, or perhaps have received such a diagnosis, just in terms of dealing with the diagnosis, itself?
Leigh Fortson: I think the biggest thing we're up against, when you hear that you have cancer, is that you walk into what one of the authors that I interview in the book calls "the morphic field" of cancer. There's a force field that's been created around the word cancer that's so big, it's like a locomotive. You step into this world where all of the subconscious and collective unconscious definitions of cancer come hurling at you. Of course it's synonymous with death in a lot of people's minds. It's terrifying! Then, of course, there's the treatment, which tends to be brutal (the conventional treatment).
The thing that I think happens, part of what my book addresses, is that our power is immediately stripped of us-immediately! We enter an atmosphere where we are told we know nothing, and where we're told what to do. Before I got my first diagnosis, I was writing books about alternative medicine and nutrition, and I was living a good, healthy life, as far as I knew. I got the diagnosis, and it didn't even occur to me to look into alternatives. My husband had to take me aside and go, "Honey, I know they told you to do chemo and radiation, and you agree to it, but don't you think you ought to at least look into the alternatives?" It took somebody outside of my atmosphere, the one that I had entered, the morphic field of cancer, to remind me to step up into my own authority and to look into options, which I did. I talked to a doctor over in Germany, and basically, he said they have really good luck with chemo and radiation with anal cancer, which was my first diagnosis. It would have cost a lot of money and it would have meant being in Germany a lot, and he said, "Just stay home. It's good."
But to me, when you enter that morphic field, you're bombarded with feelings of powerlessness, with feelings of just terror, with a whole new identity. You lose your identity because, when you get cancer, not only do you think . . . (I'll speak for myself.) not only did I suddenly go, "Wait a second! I don't fit the profile! I exercise. I eat well. I have a spiritual life. I do not fit the profile!" so I went through a huge identity crisis! What takes over is the identity of being a person who has cancer. Then suddenly, all of these people treat you differently. Everything changes-everything!
One of the messages I really try to drive home with this book is: That's not necessary! It's not necessary, but it takes an enormous commitment not to be sucked into that morphic field-enormous!
TS: Mmm-hmm. Now you mentioned that your cancer diagnoses were related to anal cancer. Cancer, itself, let alone anal cancer, seems like it would carry with it a tremendous sense of shame!
LF: (laughs) Yeah! There are no pink ribbons for anal cancer, you know? It's not a glamorous type of cancer. I was diagnosed within about two weeks of Farrah Fawcett being diagnosed, so ironically, here was a glamour queen who got diagnosed and gave it at least a little bit of public recognition. But yeah, friends of mine tried to make jokes about it. I was "the butt of the conversation" and so on. But I was mortified! I was really, really embarrassed! At this point I have no shame, right? But at that point, it was really hard.
Then the second diagnosis was rectal cancer, and the third was metastasized cancer, so yeah, it was really tough. I think, if it wasn't for Farrah Fawcett to at least let people know that there is such a thing, (It's quite prevalent. It's growing.) then it would still sort of be in the closet. At least it's come out a little bit.
TS: But what I'm curious about is: You say now you have no shame. You're talking about it, you know, "Anal cancer! Rectal cancer! We can talk about it! Cancer! Cancer! Cancer!"
TS: But what I'm curious about is, in the beginning, when you did feel that sense of being mortified, what was your process, then, of working through that shame to the place where you are now? What can you say to somebody else who might be feeling shame about having cancer?
LF: Well, whether it's anal cancer or a different kind of cancer . . . I mean anal cancer, specifically, was hard to make it through because of where it was. How I got from there to where I am now took three diagnoses. It was a long process for me! But I have a friend who was diagnosed with anal cancer about a month before I was, and she had a lot of levity. She said, "It's just another body part! Don't worry about it!" For some reason, I did worry about it. I didn't have that kind of casual relationship with it, and I think, truly to answer your question, the process that I went through was long, and after that first diagnosis and going through the treatment, and being embarrassed about the fact that I couldn't sit down, and when I finally could, it hurt so much I had to take a pillow with me everywhere I went. It was embarrassing!
But I was still in that first-diagnosis stage of my journey, which was: I didn't get how it could happen! I was angry. I was so sure that God made a mistake, that I was accidentally hit, even though I wasn't the target. I was just emotionally so distraught, and the treatments were brutal! I mean they were so awful! That's part of why, overall, it was just a very difficult experience, partly because of the type of cancer, largely because of the treatment, and primarily because my emotional state of mind was wacky—normal wacky! You know, just freaked out!
TS: But you know, whether it's a type of cancer like anal cancer, or any kind of cancer, here somebody gets a diagnosis, and perhaps their response is similar in some ways to your initial response, which is one of shame and/or "How could this happen to me? I have a good diet. I meditate. I pray. Look! This happened to me!" How did you work that out? I know you said it was a long process, but how might someone else also work that out: "How could that happen to me?"
LF: Well, I talk about how I worked it out incrementally in the book. I had three diagnoses, and each one took me further along the journey of working that out. With the first diagnosis, it was the whole physical experience of having cancer, of having chemo and radiation. It was a very physical experience. I sort of abandoned my spiritual life because I thought, "I wouldn't create this!" I come from the camp that believes we create our own reality, and I just dashed it all. I wouldn't do this to myself!
After the second diagnosis, I went, "Oh. It wasn't a mistake. Here it is again. I must really be the object of this experience," so I started embracing it more. I started going, "Okay. How can I accept this? How can I learn from this? What did I do, perhaps, to create this? Did I do something? What could I have done to create this? Maybe I do need to rethink my spiritual life and go, 'Okay, if we create our reality, what part of me created this? Was it my soul that says I just need this experience? Was it my thoughts that may not have been entirely positive? Was it old grievances that I held? Was it a dietary thing? Was it too much wine?'" God knows that can happen sometimes! I started questioning. I just started examining it, and I went to a deeper level of trying to understand this.
I came to some very peaceful conclusions about it, which was that it was mine in the same way that a broken arm is mine. If I break my arm, it's my arm that's broken! It's not some evil force that comes out from the universe and breaks my arm. It's my arm that's broken. It's my cancer. It's mine! To own it, and to take responsibility for it, and to understand that it's part of my bigger story, whether I understand it or not, whether I like it or not. It's part of my story. So how did I feed into that? I did a lot of inquiry, a lot of really deep inquiry, and started to realize, you know, the emotional life probable really does does affect our bodies and our cells. I did a lot of digging and finding old resentments and doing forgiveness work and letting things go and really trying to retrain myself to live my life in a far more clean way.
Then, with the third diagnosis, which was like, "Wait a second, I thought I cleaned everything up! What happened here?" Then, not only was there a diagnosis, it was a grim prognosis. The doctors couldn't give me any more radiation because it would kill me. Surgery wouldn't work because my skin had been so compromised from the radiation that my skin didn't heal. After my second diagnosis, I had surgery, and the skin didn't heal for nine months. Chemo wasn't appropriate, and I wouldn't have done it anyway, because I don't like chemo. So then I was left with, "Okay, it's a grim prognosis, and they don't have much to do for me. I guess it's up to me!" Then the journey really went deep, because I had done a lot of the emotional work.
So the first diagnosis was physical. The second was emotional. The third was my spiritual dive into "I want meaning from this, and I also want to live! I want to live! I am not done, and I've got two kids that mean more to me than anything. I've got a creative life that's still waiting to be lived out. I'm not done, so what do I do?" It took me into the whole field of self healing, and working with my mind, and understanding food as medicine, and visualization, and still being open to whatever conventional treatment came my way, which it did.
I'm not sure if that answers your question, but it was a long journey.
TS: I'm curious: You mentioned in this third part that you tapped into a very strong will to live. How big a factor do you think that is in people's remission and cure rates?
LF: It's funny, because I find it hard to call it a "will to live," because I think will is different from what I tapped into and what I think people tap into when they heal themselves. Will is the energy that you use to carry out what you learn to do, but the initial thrust was a combination of surrender to something that you don't understand, that you can't control, that you can't comprehend-which goes outside of the arena of will. It's like "Okay, there's a power in me (in all of us). There's something in me that I am asking to tap into, that I will surrender to, that I will give myself to in every way I can do that." It's a combination of the will and also this acceptance that it may or may not work. It's not like you can just say, "I will do it, and I'm going to give myself to this journey," and it will absolutely work. I mean it's important to believe in it 100 percent, but along the way, you realize that may not be part of that bigger story that's being written in a way that is beyond your intellectual understanding.
It's a combination of will and surrender and dedication and self love. That may be as much a part of this business of will as anything else. Going to that part of yourself that says "I am going to love myself so deeply and so entirely and in such a healing way that, even if this doesn't work, I will be at peace with where I am. I will accept that this is my journey, but the love that I have for myself is going to open up universes for me." That choice of doing it not out of determination, but out of openness, surrender, love, doing what you can to just allow—Allowing! Allowing!—that energy to come forward and carry you. It's hard to explain, but it's bigger than will.
TS: Now you mentioned, in this post-third diagnosis, that you were looking for meaning. "I'm going to find meaning in this." What was the meaning that you found, or have found?
LF: I think there's all kinds of meaning. I think that cancer (especially cancer, but other diseases, as well) is a call from our soul to realign. The meaning that I've found is also very hard to describe, and it almost sounds clich, but the meaning was discovering that I am love, and you are love, and we are all the same energetic fabric. The meaning was that I was off course. Somehow I got off course, and my body and my soul, (Whatever mix there is. God only knows!) the manifestation of this disease enabled me to look at how I was eating away at myself. What was eating at me? What wasn't I at peace with? What wasn't I aligned with?
Part of the meaning is re-establishing what is meaningful in your life. Instead of giving your energy and your thought processes to what you're against and what you're upset about and what you resent and what you're angry about, it's re-aligning and finding the meaning that is proactive and generative, and supports love. It sounds, in a way, so simple, and it is, but it isn't necessarily easy to do.
TS: Could you describe for us who you were, like the main personality traits pre-cancer, and now, post-the healing of your cancer? What are some of the main differences?
LF: You know, they're subtle, but I know them big time. One of the best ways I like to describe this is: Before cancer, before the whole cancer journey, as upbeat of a person as I've always been, as positive as I've always been, as playful as I've always been, as much as I love people, as I always have, I would walk into, like, my kitchen, and the first thing I would notice was those ugly tiles and how "Someday, damn it, I've gotta change those tiles out! I don't like the countertops, either." I'd see the mess or I'd see what was wrong or I'd see what was lacking. I basically didn't even know it, but I did see the world with the glass half empty, and I didn't even know it, because you know, I was pretty happy.
Then, when my world got turned upside-down, I saw the glass as half full. It's very subtle. I still have those same ugly tiles in my kitchen. I use that example very deliberately, because almost every time I used to walk in my kitchen, I felt this pang of, "Oh, I hate those tiles! They're just so ugly!" I mean it's simple, but it works as an example. Now, I walk in, and I'm so grateful for my kitchen. I'm so grateful for the running water. I'm so grateful for my beautiful gas stove. I'm so grateful for the counter space that gives me a place to cook really good food.
It really is the difference between . . . one of many things, but one of the biggest differences between then and now is that now I really and truly live from such a place of gratitude, such place of gratitude! The littlest things are so incredible to me! It's much more of a habit now to walk into any situation and to just home in on what it is that's beautiful, and go, "Ah! Look at that!"
TS: I love hearing that! You know, you're a beautiful writer, and I believe that part of what comes with that, part of what comes with the strength of that kind of writing, is that you're a strong critical thinker. In general, strong critical thinkers have lots of critical thoughts!
LF: Absolutely, yeah! Yeah, and you know, whether it was with relationship, like with my husband, with myself, with my work, whatever, I always was able to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with that thing, damn it, that needed to be fixed! I could fix it and I could make it better, and this caused a lot of problems in my marriage.
TS: Oh yeah!
LF: Absolutely! And I firmly believe that one of the things that contributed to the cancer was many years of intense difficulty between my husband and myself. That was part of it. It wasn't all of it, but that was definitely part of it. One of the beautiful veils that dropped during the cancer journey, for him and me, for both of us, was that we suddenly didn't see those parts in each other any more. They were just gone! That which we didn't like was no longer there, because when you think you might be on the verge of losing things, all of a sudden, you understand the value. We continue now . . . I mean our marriage is incredible, in large part because of this journey of going from "What I don't like about you . . ." to "Oh my God! What I love about you so much . . ." And yeah, there's still that little stuff.
TS: Now you mentioned that, upon reflection, perhaps some of the conflict between you and your husband "contributed to your cancer," and you talked previously about this idea of creating our own reality, and even potentially creating our cancer. I'm sure you know where I'm going with this, because it's such a controversial topic, and something that I think we really need to address, just directly, clearly, and head on, which is blaming ourselves when we are ill, versus the idea of being responsible for, as you said, "It's mine. It's here. It's part of what I need to attend to." How have you sorted this out?
LF: Well, I think you said it perfectly. There's a huge difference between blaming yourself and taking responsibility. Inherent to blame is you somehow did something wrong.
TS: Well, wasn't the fact that you and your husband weren't getting along wrong? That's what contributed to your cancer.
LF: No! What I look at in that dynamic is the fact that I was harboring resentment, I was harboring blame, I was so convinced I was right. There's nothing wrong with that! It's just where I was! There was nothing wrong with having those thoughts. It just wasn't a very proactive, generative energetic. I don't blame myself for that, because at the time, I didn't see it. How can we blame ourselves for something that we're not aware of? That's key to this whole thing. I think blame is a product of knowing better than, and doing it anyway, or finding fault with something because you could have known better, and you did it poorly, or whatever.
Taking responsibility: I think intrinsic in that is that we didn't know! I didn't know! I didn't know how unfair I was being or how much I was harboring. All I knew was what I saw him doing, which was plenty, but my attention was outward instead of inward, and when I started finally realizing that it's the inward experience that will determine the overall outward experience. When I started taking responsibility for that dynamic, for that chemistry of going inward, taking more responsibility, let me just say that, when you take responsibility, you know (again, I'll speak for myself) I know that I don't know the whole story, but I want to find out as much as I can. I want to know where my power is in any dynamic. I want to take responsibility for my role, and if those negative thoughts that I harbored contributed to the deterioration of my cells—which I believe that it did—then I get to go, "Now I know!" Now I know! I didn't know then! Now I know! We're not trained, in this culture, especially when you step into the morphic field of cancer, that you have that kind of power. We're not trained to take responsibility in that way, but once you get a glimmer of it and a taste of it and you go for more and more, and you realize that taking full responsibility for your inner atmosphere, for your inner landscape, for your inner life, you don't have to ask anything of anyone else. It just changes. Things just change! That's huge! That's an amazing revelation to have!
TS: But you know, here, I think, is maybe the most challenging question I want to ask you.
TS: Hang in here with me, Leigh. I had a friend, someone who was a spiritual teacher, who was diagnosed with a type of cancer, and he did everything. I'm talking absolutely everything! And he believed he was going to live. I saw him two days before he died, and he told me that he was going to live, that he was going to, even though I could see that he wasn't going to be with us very long. He believed it. He thought it. He ate all the right foods, he did everything you could imagine, and he died. What do you make of that?
LF: That's the hardest part of all, because you can think you're doing it all, and that can happen. That's where I think we have to, once again, surrender to a bigger story. That story is not what you expect it to be, it's not what you want it to be, and I do think that there is a bigger story, whether you want to call it our soul or our karma or who knows? That's part of the ongoing, never-ending mystery.
What do I think of it? I think it's sad. My response is: That's sad, because you know he gave himself to it so fully, but is it really sad, or is it exactly the way that was written, that was for his highest good? We don't know! We don't have a clue. That's why I say my journey and what I'm promoting, if you will, in this book, it's not a guarantee. It's not a guarantee of anything, except this: Your life will be more peaceful, I think. Your life can be more peaceful. Your life can be more loving. It can be richer. It can be transcendent in so many ways, even if you die. Who can argue with that? It's kind of like, whether you live or die, if you open the windows and get fresh air in there, it's going to feel good. It's going to make your quality of life so much better.
TS: Mm-hmm. Now I think it's pretty well known that environmental toxins can contribute to the creation of cancer in the body. Do you think it's possible that someone could be living with a fabulous diet, exercising, basically being a loving person, but still, of course, come down with a cancer diagnosis simply because they're exposed to something toxic in the environment? So when they say, "I take responsibility for this," it's like, excuse me?
LF: Yeah, I think everybody's journey is unique. That's where it's so important just to go, "Look, if it doesn't fit for you, you know . . ." Like for me, I can say I don't think I was exposed to anything environmental. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't. To me, it makes more sense that it was this emotional discord and certain judgments I held against myself that contributed to the demise. With other people who were smokers, or people who were exposed to the myriad of chemicals that are in our environment, all you can do is take responsibility for doing everything you can to get better. There's no reason to lay something on yourself about your emotional life if your emotional life is pretty clean. Again, everybody has to be their own authority. This is the big deal here, folks:: We need to go back to trusting ourselves!
I'm reading Norman Cousins' book right now, Anatomy of an Illness. It was written in the 70s, and this guy was so right on. I mean he's like, our bodies have this ability, this self-healing ability, they want to be healthy! They want homeostasis! So whether you're exposed to an environmental toxin or whether it's genetic-which is arguable, whether genetics has anything to to with it, according to some doctors I interviewed-or whether it's an inner, emotional thing. You need to assess your own situation individually and align with whatever you believe is going to be the best course for you. For some people, like one of my dearest friends got breast cancer, and we don't talk about the emotional end with her. We did the chemo and had the mastectomy, and she's very happy, thank you very much. I don't think that was part of her deal at all, and who am I to say she should? In my journey, it was appropriate, but one of the biggest things that I think is happening (This is my theory.) is that there have forever been internal, emotional toxins within human beings, because that's just part of the mix of who we are, and I think it's part of what we're here to do, is see how we can transcend those inner emotional toxins. But the combination between the inner, emotional toxins and the environmental toxins, the combination of those two things, to me, points to this one-in-three statistic, you know, the statistic that one in three people will get it. How can our poor bodies absorb the blow, both internally and externally? I think that's the question of the year.
TS: Well, I want to hear more about your own clearing out of the emotional difficulties that you feel contributed to your cancer. You mentioned that, after your second diagnosis, you did a lot of emotional work, and you thought you were complete, but yet it took the third diagnosis to really get to the root of certain challenges that you had. I'm curious about that. What happened in the third phase? What were the roots that you got to?
LF: The third phase brought me into the fact that, once I was told that I had metastatic cancer, and he said the prognosis was grim-I was never told that I was going to die, but it was pretty clear that that was kind of where we were headed-the third diagnosis took me to working with my belief system. The second diagnosis did that emotional work, and that was all really, really, really good, and I did a lot of stuff then, but the next time, the next go round, was: If I'm going to heal, I have to believe it, and I don't believe it right now. Everything I'm being told is telling me I'm not going to heal. So that was a journey of brainwashing, literally cleansing my brain of doubting that I could heal. And when I say "heal," I mean that I believe cancer is a multi-level condition, and to cure it is simply addressing the biology. I think healing is the whole picture of what we're talking about.
So, after the third diagnosis, it was like, okay, I've got to work with my thoughts here. I've got to find a way to believe that I can heal, because I've come to understand, after reading Bruce Lipton's book, The Biology of Belief, and Candace Pert's Molecules of Emotion, and some of this other quantum physics stuff, it's really clear that what you believe, what you think, is going to pave the way for where you go. If I am told I'm going to die, there's something called "the nocebo effect." It's the opposite of the placebo effect. Everyone knows what the placebo effect is. You take a pill that's sugar, and you think it's a miracle cure, and you get cured of whatever ills you're dealing with. The nocebo is the opposite. If somebody says, "You're going to die in six months," that same mechanism in our brain goes, "Okay!" Our brains are just little servants trying to do whatever they're told, and our body is the servant to the brain, so it goes, "Okay! We're going to die in six months! Let's gear up! Get ready! Okay, break down all of these cells! Find the casket!" I mean it's powerful, this business of our mind, and how much power it has in our body, and how it determines so much of what can happen!
So I was dealing a little bit with the nocebo effect, and I needed to turn that around and really work with my mindset, so I started reading everything I could on self-healing, everything I could on how we can heal ourselves, who's healed themselves, what they did. It's a long process, and it's different for everybody, I'm sure, but for me, it was just listening to CDs, and reading books, and affirmations, and going to the people who've done it. I decided to write a book, in large part, to help me believe that I could heal. I needed to hear the stories of people who had healed so I could start believing my own story that I was going to heal. That, probably more than anything . . .
. . . because everyone that I interviewed in the book who was a person with cancer, was told that they were going to die or . . . yeah, was basically told they were going to die. Not everyone, but nine out of ten, something like that. Conventional treatments had failed them, and therefore they had to find their way through, and they were in far worse shape than I was. I mean one guy had cancer all up and down his spine, in his pelvis. He couldn't walk, he was in a wheelchair, and they gave him a couple months to live. He didn't have a spiritual life. He didn't believe in God. He went to get a haircut (because he wanted to look good in the coffin!) and his hairdresser said, "Have you ever worked with a spiritualist?"
And he said, "What's that?"
She said, "Well, there's this guy, you know, and he might be able to help you out."
The fellow is a pragmatist, and he decided, "Well, if there's something I can do to help myself, I will." He wasn't afraid of dying. He'd had a near-death experience as a child, and he wasn't afraid of dying at all, but he thought, "Well, if I can save myself, I probably should." So he started working with this guy who taught him visualization. That's all. This guy did hours of visualization every day. He had these little worker bees in his spine with mops, just mopping out what he said looked like dead fish, just all of these dead fish in this swampy area. He just mopped and mopped and mopped. Six weeks later, he was cancer free! Six weeks! To me, this stuff is so exciting! It's so exciting! If it can happen to one person, it can happen to many, but he believed it was possible, and that is probably the biggest block that we have. How many people are going to read this book or hear stories like this and believe it?
I was at a party recently with a bunch of really smart women, a bunch of attorneys and judges, very bright women. A couple of them heard some of the stories and just said, "I don't believe it. I don't believe it." And a lot of doctors don't believe it! When you enter this realm, you're in a real minority of thought form. Most people don't believe it, and it's part of that whole morphic field. They only believe that chemo and radiation and surgery can work. Well, they can work, but they don't always work, and they very often don't work.
That's why I think it's time for us to really consider that there is power within us that we can employ, and there's also alternative treatments out there that are very viable (that, of course, the FDA doesn't approve of and doctors don't even know about). There's a whole lot more we can do, starting with ourselves, and primarily finding a way to believe that we have the power to work with ourselves. Whether we get to the destination that we want or not, we do have the power to work with ourselves, to be well emotionally-hopefully physically, but certainly emotionally. That's worth the effort right there.
TS: So it sounds like a big part of your journey was meeting people who had cancer, and who, ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years later, were living well and healthy, and had beat the diagnosis. That was a big part of your journey. What I'm curious about is, in doing these interviews, meeting these people, did you discover that there were certain common qualities, like, "Cancer survivors: This is what they have in common. These qualities"?
LF: Well, first, I haven't met any of them except for one. All of the interviews were over the phone, but I feel like I know all of them. But to answer your question, the one thing they all took responsibility for was themselves and their journey to get better. That's all. It's not like they all did the same diet. They didn't all do visualization. They all had a different path of getting to be cancer free, but the one persistent quality was they took responsibility for their health. They decided it was up to them, and they found a way: qigong, some diet . . . One woman decided, she just decided she wasn't going to have cancer! So there's all kinds of packages, but as I say, the one common thread was that they took responsibility to get better.
TS: One of the interesting things you write in Embrace, Release, Heal (at least it was very interesting to me) is that you say that, when it comes to cancer, our cells are acting independently, that the cells are actually rebelling, and that, when you discovered this, you started to look inside and ask yourself, "Well, what part of myself have I left behind so that there has to be a rebellion?" I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, what you found, and just that whole idea that part of us is rebelling against the whole of us.
LF: Yeah, it's an interesting concept, and that actually comes from Laura Alden Kamm's book, Intuitive Wellness. She's interviewed in the book, and she talks about how, through her intuitive vision, she sees the cancer cells as rebellious. So after the third diagnosis, as I was going deeper with trying to find my way through, I asked myself what part of myself could be rebelling, and I had a very profound answer, very clear! The image of a teenaged girl just kind of appeared in front of me. I was driving at the time, so it was kind of odd, but it was almost like she was human. (I had a couple of these sort of really interesting visions during this journey.) She just was in my face, and she said, "You abandoned me!"
I was startled, and I was like, "Oh!" and I immediately knew. She didn't really look like me, but she was me, and she was my creative self. She was my creative self, and I said, "Well, no I didn't! What do you mean?"
Basically the message that she gave me was, "You've known since you were a little kid that you were here to be creative. You were put on this earth to be creative, and instead, you got married and had kids, and you have a job, and all of this other stuff is happening, and you've left me behind."
Which isn't true. I even pointed out to her that I engaged in several creative projects, and I was writing plays at the time, and I'd had productions done around the country, but she was persistent! I couldn't believe the gall of this little creature, to come into my head so clearly and so vociferously, and I said, "Well, what is your name?"
She said, "Raven."
I said, "Raven? Your hair isn't even black! How can your name be Raven?"
And at that moment, I swear to you, two black birds (probably crows) flew in front of my windshield, and I have never come so close to hitting birds with my windshield, ever. The second that happened, I took it seriously, and I said, "Okay. Your name's Raven, and you are here to talk to me about this feeling that you've been abandoned."
I think, for me, it can be reduced to something a little bit more universal, which is, if you have a dream in your life, and it's strong, and you don't carry it out, it can eat at you, and some part of you that believes that you came to this planet to carry out this dream or this purpose or this mission or whatever, if you don't carry it out and you're not at peace with it, it can eat at you. Raven was part of the puzzle that I put together that I believe created the cancer. Some part of me was so angry at myself for not being more fully engaged in my creative life that it fed into this demise of my cells. I honestly believe that with all of my heart, and I think that a lot of people let things go, because we all get caught up in having to have a job, and getting married and having kids, or just getting swept up in a different direction, and you know, what happens to that part of us that thought that's what our purpose was? How many of us are really at peace with not fulfilling what we thought was our life's purpose? I wasn't, and I kind of knew it, because I'd kind of get into moments of being a little sad about it, but I didn't realize that there was this part of me that was so upset.
So it was really great! It was a wonderful message. It was a wonderful vision to have, and I talked to her. Whenever I would meditate, I'd bring her in, and we would dialogue. It sounds a little schizy, but I think we all have a bunch of people living in us. Finally, a couple of months after I really listened to her and talked to her and reassured her that I was going to write a book about all of this, and that was a real good, creative thing to do, and we dialogued about whether that was going to do the trick, and yadda, yadda, yadda, one night, I was meditating and she looked real calm. I just invited her over to me, and she was sitting in a chair (all in my mind's eye, of course, but she was sitting in a chair across the room), and I just reached out and I said, "Do you want to meditate with me?"
She was at peace, and she said, "Yeah." She came over, and I took her hand, and just like in those old 60s movies, we just sort of blended and became one. You know, it's integrated now, and every time I see a black bird—and I bought a beautiful painting that has this black bird sitting on a chair, which is like my writing chair, and it's singing now. It's singing. The bird is singing.
You know, I think there's so much that we have in us that we leave behind if we're not careful. Sometimes we have to leave it behind, but I just believe that all of this stuff can go into the mix of disease.
TS: One thing I'm curious about is this idea of mobilizing for our health, in terms of fighting against cancer, versus "I'm going to get healthy, but I'm not going to fight. I'm going to . . ." What do you think about "I'm going to fight the cancer"?
LF: Well, one of my beliefs is that, if we're all energy, and if we live internally, if our internal landscape is made up of stuff that creates wars, or stuff that starts fights-which is usually anger, resentment, fear, jealousy, avarice, just the whole list of what I call "the attributes of fear"-if we are fighting something, and that could actually be what causes the demise of our cells, why would we want to use fighting as a way of healing? To me, we have so many fights going on inside of ourselves, and the war on cancer, and the war on teenage pregnancy, and the war on terrorism, and all of that! Are they working? It's a whole modality that kind of defeats the purpose! It's like, if the end result is a product of that which creates fights, why would we use a fight to try and heal it? To me, I really object to the whole "battle with cancer," "fighting it." If it's part of who we are, then I believe that loving, and finding peace, and finding the homeostasis, physically and emotionally, to work together is going to have a far less destructive impact, because that other stuff is so destructive. The side effects of all of that can go on the rest of your life—the fighting it, the radiation and the chemo. It can also work, but there are side effects, whereas if you use the very stuff that builds up and encourages and nurtures, both physically and emotionally, your physical and emotional body, if you use the stuff that shores up what needs to heal, then it's such a different experience!
I went to a guy, after the third diagnosis, who was this brilliant doctor in California, and I called him on the phone. I didn't know what to do. I was still just totally freaked out. He said, "Well, listen, you can go back and use the chemo and radiation if they find some way for you to do that. You can create another war, a third war on your body, or you can try my approach, which is peace. I use herbs and I use herbs and I use homeopathics, and I look at the terrain of your body and I see where it's imbalanced, and I build it up." He was totally cool. He said, "You need to find out what's motivating you to choose whatever treatment you decide upon, because that's going to tell a lot. What's motivating you to choose this versus that?" When I thought about that, I realized that fear was motivating me to go back to the old ways that hadn't worked for me, to do more of the radiation and chemo and all that jazz. He said, "My way is the peaceful way."
I thought, "Am I going to trust peace? Am I going to trust that maybe something else could work?" Again, when you think your life might be at stake, that's a lot of trust to have to muster, but it was a good insight, to look into what was motivating me to choose. Now, with that, I do want to say that I did end up doing a new kind of radiation. My insurance company didn't want to cover it, because it's so innovative, but it's far less damaging, and that was part of my protocol after the third diagnosis, and I need to make that clear. I chose things from across the spectrum.
TS: An integrative approach?
LF: Yeah. It was primarily not integrative. It was primarily alternative. I became a raw foodist, I started working with this mind—body stuff, and I worked with this doctor—and I continue to work with him—with herbs and different things to make sure that the terrain of my body is healthy.
TS: I think the part of your story that's most remarkable to me is the birth of the strong self-love in you. What I'd love to know is how you think that happened. I'm curious, because, if someone's listening, and let's say they don't feel that, what could help them?
LF: Mmmm. God, it's such a huge component, and I've talked to so many people who have said, "I don't know how to love myself! Where do I even start?" Some people think that's synonymous with narcissism. All I can say is I think it's vitally important, and there's a ton of books out there. We are so blessed, in this day and age, to have publishers like Sounds True, who is putting stuff out there that can help us grow to learn to love ourselves, just to get to some understanding that self-love is important, and it's healing, and it's generative. I think you have to start with self-forgiveness! I mean the root of all problems, in my mind, is judgment-if we're judging ourselves or we're judging someone else, or whatever, wherever our judgments lay. We always have them, and we always will (but it's what we do with them), but if we hold onto judgments of ourselves, that, in and of itself, is like declaring war on ourselves. It's so unkind! I think tenderness, being tender with ourselves . . .
I had worked a lot on self-love long before my cancer stuff happened, but it was after my second diagnosis, when I had to deal with the very unglamorous task of cleaning out my wound site . . . They did very major surgery, took out the anus, took out the rectum and part of my sigmoid colon, and for nine months, I had a wound site that wouldn't heal, and it was messy, and it was gross! It was horribly embarrassing! It needed a lot of attendance. Blah, blah, blah. But one day, I was attending to myself, and I suddenly realized how tenderly I was attending to myself, and how committed I was to myself to get well, and how nice I was being to myself for not judging myself for having this open wound in my ass! It was a real moment where I suddenly looked at myself in the mirror, and I thought, "Wow! I am so lucky to have you in my life to take care of me!" I just said, "I love you!" and I knew at that moment. I mean I had said I loved myself before, but there was some deepening, some quickening, something that just was big in that moment, where I thought, "I'm okay! I'm okay! I'm going to make it through this, whatever happens. I am going to love myself no matter what happens, no matter how painful, no matter how embarrassing . . ." And it isn't even embarrassing when you love yourself. Suddenly, it's just like, "Well, yeah! It's what I'm about!" I just think tenderness and forgiveness and how would you treat your very, very, very best friend, your favorite dog, your child? Give that to yourself! Give it to yourself in huge bundles, every day, and be grateful.
I think gratitude is one of the greatest, greatest medicines in the world, panaceas. If you can be grateful for those gifts that you have (and everyone has them!), focusing on your gifts and how you give, and giving them to yourself, there is so much stuff out there! We are so blessed to have so many spiritual teachers! A lot of the bestselling authors are talking about self-love. It's nothing to take lightly. I think it is at the core of healing.
TS: Mm-hmm. And then just one final question for you, Leigh. I know that you have put your heart and soul into the writing of Embrace, Release, Heal, and I'd love to know what your hopes are for the book, the impact you're hoping it will have.
LF: When people get a cancer diagnosis, they suffer—emotionally (not everybody, but a lot of people) and physically. There's so much suffering going on in the world of cancer, and it's just not necessary. I think that there are so many alternatives: treatments, ways of thinking about it, ways of talking about it, ways of finding strength through it and finding meaning through it, that if we start to just look at things with a slightly different angle, going in, we can have a much, much better experience. Beyond better, we can have a life-changing experience! My intention with this book is to share it, to have it available to anyone out there who is looking for a way to empower themselves through the cancer journey. It can be so good, it can be such an awakening, and so my hope is that that's what it will do for people-plus it also tells you where you can get some really good alternative treatments. I've got more books at the end, in the appendix, about how to work your mind. There's so much out there! There's so much out there, and it happens all over the place! There are so many people who heal themselves from cancer! There are so many! It's not a miracle. It happens all the time. This will hopefully just make people realize that it can happen.
TS: Leigh Fortson has written a beautiful book, beautifully written, tons of interviews with doctors, alternative healers, experts in the mind-body field, as well as people who have survived cancer using alternative treatments. It's called Embrace, Release, Heal: An Empowering Guide to Talking About, Thinking About, and Treating Cancer. Thank you so much, Leigh, for your courage to reclaim your own creative gifts and take your own cancer journey into an arena where it becomes meaningful for so many other people.
LF: It is my honor to be here. Thank you so much.
TS: Soundstrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.