Today, I welcome Susan Wener, the author of Resilience: A Story of Courage and Triumph in the Face of Recurrent Cancer. I was deeply moved by Susan’s story and the manner in which she tackled each obstacle that was placed in her path. Susan’s thirst for knowledge, open-minded and positive attitude, love for her family, and faith in God enabled her to overcome the adversities that she faced.
I am honored that Susan sent me a complimentary copy of her book to review and that she will be participating in a book giveaway. See below for details.
When I was considering writing my memoir, I was conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted to share my story with others. On the other hand, I was reluctant to bring my private life into the public sector.
Did you have any similar concerns about having the spotlight shine on you and your family?
I am by nature a private person, so bringing so much attention to me was a challenge. If one person is empowered through my experiences then it was worth reliving and writing about it. Cancer is a strange illness. No matter how prepared we think we may be in life, this knocks us off our feet. I opened myself up to let people know that they are not alone. Resilience is not pretty at times, but it is definitely honest. It was my middle daughter Kassy who really pushed me to get this story out. She felt that it needed to reach a larger audience with its messages. I had the complete support of my family but was careful with what I chose to share.
On the first page of your prologue you state, “… the heart of the story lies in the choices we make as a result of what happens to us, rather than in the details of what happens to us.”
Can you share 2-3 important choices that define your life?
When I was a young woman I was so afraid of disappointing anyone (I was the good girl and loved my role as pleaser) that I suffered internally rather than addressing issues that came my way. It took getting sick to wake me up and realize that this pattern of behavior was not working for me. Initially it was very difficult for me to find my voice. I was great at fighting for my family but fighting for me was a totally different ball game. Today I stand firm on what I know will serve me well, keep my boundaries clear and find that being true to my self is no longer difficult.
Another example is the fact that I chose to use allopathic medicine to remove a lung when it was found to be cancerous but all other treatments were done in the alternative medical world. I am not sure where the courage came from but the faith I had in my choices led me to where I am today. It was a very isolating and lonely journey but something inside of me knew that I needed an integrative approach to health and well-being. I could not simply address the physical. I needed my body, spirit and soul to be in alignment if I was going to be healthy.
This decision is still an integral component of my life, even 25 years following the first cancer.
Prior to being diagnosed with cancer, you experienced numerous painful medical conditions and procedures. You attributed these maladies to bad luck and felt that all were fixable.
What advice can you share with others who are struggling with chronic pain or unresolvable medical issues?
I would say never believe that there is nothing you can do to help yourself. You have much more capacity than you know. You may not always be able to fix a medical problem but you can always change the way you choose to think about it. In so doing the hold the problem has on you seems to change all on its own. Our minds have an incredible ability to allow us to disappear and that potential offers relief! Visualization and imagery training help.
In your twenties, you were trained to be part of a palliative care team that cared for patients who were dying. How did this training affect your viewpoint on life?
My perspective changed when I had a near death experience at age 18. I realized that there is so much out there that we don’t know and may never understand. It made me feel that life may end as we know it today but never really ceases. To me that knowledge makes living easier. I have found that the people who seem to suffer the most towards the end of their lives are those who believe that there is nothing afterwards. What we choose to believe definitely impacts this journey as well. Death is simply part of life. We need to take it out of the closet and embrace it when it is near. People need to feel that their lives have had value irrespective of whether they believe in life after death or not!
I cannot say that the training affected my viewpoint on life. It gave me the gift of seeing the humanness and sacredness in each and every one of us.
After being diagnosed with colon cancer, you turned to your Judaism as a source of comfort and support. You provide a poignant image of your faith when you stated, “I wanted to imagine my heart and soul held and rocked tenderly in the arms of God.”
How did this unconditional embrace help you cope with the pain and suffering that you experienced in the following decades?
I happened to be born of the Jewish faith but my Dad was atheistic. I had absolutely no concept of God other than that which I got on my own. When I became sick I desperately needed something to believe in. I chose to personify God because I loved the idea of being rocked in his arms the way I rocked my children and the way my Dad rocked me. The comfort I felt in having those safe arms around me sustained me in the darkest of times. I may have created my belief, but I can tell you that to me it is as real as the sun which will rise in the morning. God wasn’t there to make things better. He was there to simply walk along side me, ensuring that I never had to be alone!
You candidly talk about the times that you struggled emotionally with the magnitude of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Can you provide a couple of strategies that you used to pull yourself back together and become empowered?
I decided that there were no such things as good or bad thoughts. There were only thoughts that made me feel good or those that made me feel bad. The choice of which ones I wanted to attach to were up to me. When I had a thought that didn’t serve me well, I imagined myself like Swiss cheese, full of holes. The thought would come in one side, I would feel it throughout my body and them I would watch it simply go out the other side. I would usually then repeat a mantra over and over again like “I can, I shall, I will, I am able”, changing my state until I felt better.
I also loved imagining little worker angels coming down from the heavens with needles and thread, scissors and tape, cutting, fixing, and mending all that needed to be repaired within, taking the sickness with them to the sun and allowing it to be transformed into healing energy.
These things may sound crazy but hey, whatever gets you through the day works.
Several times during the book you reference a palm reading that you had in your late 20s. The palm reader surprisingly was able to predict your future when she said, “You will have a life filled with pain, suffering and illness.” However, the reader’s prediction fell short when she added, “You will probably die young.”
How did your choices offset this traumatic prophecy?
I can’t tell you for sure if anything I did created health and well-being. Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones who simply had a spontaneous remission. We read about cases like that all the time. What I can tell you is that I was not waiting around seeing if cancer would come back a third time. In order for me to feel that I had some semblance of control over my life, doing everything I could to help myself in itself was empowering. I never liked the wait and see game. There is a great expression which goes something like this. Trust in God but tie your camel to the post. That means do the work!!!
After you were diagnosed with cancer for the second time, you refused to accept blame for the reoccurrence. Instead you questioned, “What you need to ask was what did you do right to keep it at bay for so long, and what more do you need to do to let it go once and for all?”
What steps are you currently taking to avoid another reoccurrence?
I am simply living consciously. I am doing my best to eat well, exercise regularly, and take time for myself. My work keeps reminding me to walk my talk. Having fun and spending time with friends and family is food for my soul. On those days I don’t feel well; I simply decide that my body is tired. I don’t need an excuse to take care of me and I certainly don’t need to get sick to get permission to be good to myself.
Self-absorption is a common response to coping with chronic medical conditions. Sufficient time needs to be spent caring for oneself. In light of this situation, how were you able to maintain a positive relationship with your husband and daughters?
I think that they were so scared of losing me that they simply gave me the space I needed to be totally self-indulgent. It was weird with three girls that there was no fighting in my house for a whole year. In terms of my husband, I think that illness strongly tests a mediocre marriage but has the capacity to make a great marriage even stronger. I am grateful that we were the latter.
During your journey to find the best treatments possible, you explored multiple forms of alternative medicine and unconventional practices. Some ended up being dead-ends while others appeared to be useful and at times magical.
What advice can you give people who are searching for answers to their unresolved medical issues?
Research whatever you are thinking about long before you try it. Let your doctors know what you are doing even if they don’t agree with you. Insist that you be monitored as is your right even if you chose to follow an alternative path. Doctors need to understand what motivates our choices. Although it is difficult to actualize what they do not believe to be possible, even they admit they do not have all the answers. Be careful out there as a charismatic therapist can make a vulnerable patient accept almost anything!!!!
Too often people are made to feel that they caused their medical issues. You candidly state, “Illness is tough to deal with on its own, but the guilt created by the feeling that somehow you are not doing your best can truly be damaging to your spirit.”
What steps did you take to push away guilty feelings?
I think it is really quite simple. No matter what we do or try we can never change the past. The past simply offers us lessons for our present and for the future. Our job is to focus on what we can do now. What are we doing that doesn’t feel good to us? What are we thinking that doesn’t sit right with us? What are we eating that may not be the best for us? Who is in our life draining us?? All of these things we can change. We may not be able to remove some people from our lives (ie. family members) but we can change our approach to them!
People reading your memoir will be impressed with your ability to persevere and be resilient. Time after time, you were “finding moments of peace, even among all of the mess.”
Thank you Susan for sharing your responses with my audience.
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, May 18, 2014 will be eligible for a book giveaway. The randomly selected winner will be sent an autographed copy of Resilience from the author.
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Stunned by India’s Poverty (Includes review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo)
Great interview questions Sandy! Susan is certainly an inspiring woman, not only for anyone facing cancer, but anyone who needs to put their own life into perspective.
Sandra Bornstein says
Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are now eligible for the book giveaway. I will be posting the review of Resilience later in the week.
I attended a forum at the Rosalind & Morris Goodman Cancer Center where one of the speakers was Susan Wener. She spoke to the audience about her 2 time cancer experience and how she coped with it. She also had us experience some visualization. She was awesome. After that evening, I researched her on the web & came across this Q & A site.
Sandra Bornstein says
Thanks for finding your way to my site. What did you think about your visualization experience? Is there anything that you would like to share with my audience?