Nancy Novack is a Radical Remission survivor of stage 4 ovarian cancer. Diagnosed at the age of 61, she combined conventional and alternative methods to overcome incredible odds. 12 years later, she currently has no evidence of disease. Here is her story in her own words:
On the evening of my first meeting with my oncologist, he said to me, “This is a challenging diagnosis. The prognosis is bleak. But I do believe I can help you. I am with you.” Those four words sustained me whenever I was in fear. They directed my understanding of the power of relationship in my healing process. I was able to open my heart and receive the love and generosity of family and friends and oftentimes strangers who were there to hold my hand and my heart.
Eleven years ago, I was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. It had metastasized into my liver. In “cancer talk”, everything is compared to a fruit. My ovary was the size of a “grapefruit.” My liver was two times its appropriate size, more like a “small watermelon.”
I had no idea what any of that meant, despite living on this planet in northern California for 60 years. I didn’t know anything about the treatment, the statistics, what was really ahead of me, and I had no one to journey with me who had survived the same diagnosis. I was too happily innocent about the cancer world and said two now-remarkable things. “Thank goodness, it is not appendicitis,” and “What is stage 5?”
Ultimately, I had to “be with” the gravity of the prognosis, develop my personal relationship to my disease and, with an extraordinary degree of consciousness, embrace the support of others and learn to dig deep and enhance my own healing forces. My attitude supported my healing … immense gratitude for the support of my loved ones and the generosity of strangers.
Few doctors have said to their patients what my oncologist said to me, but I wish they would. “This is very tough. You are going to have very aggressive treatments. Find yourself a solid psychologist, preferably one who has been through cancer.” And then, “Hang in there. I think I can help you. I am with you.” Those four words are my favorite words in the world. They sustained me, gave me hope, and transformed my understanding of the healing process.
I had 21 tough chemos (my oncologist called them “very aggressive”) … first 15 with carboplatin and taxol, then a laparoscopy to remove my ovaries and tubes (no debulking or hysterectomy for me … my doctor said “She doesn’t have the time” which translates into something terribly scary) and then 6 more chemos with doxil. I had complications of low white cell counts, infections, the blisters, the extraordinary fatigue, but it was never that impossible. Despite the “eulogies” from my friends and their very sad expressions when they pampered me, I “knew” I was going to make it … always knew that. But cancer is true trauma and I had all the symptoms of traumatic disorder as well. I questioned and worried but still, I knew, I just knew. I was blessed with a Stanford oncologist who taught me the awesome power of human connection in the healing process. I had my family and friends and a ton of people I never met but who cheered me on and prayed for my recovery. They brought meaning to my journey. They opened my heart and let the love flow in. I had my daddy, who always wanted to help, and my mom, who always wanted to deny I ever had a cancer. I had an amazing African gray parrot who walked into my room when I was so sleepy and couldn’t even raise my head, and he would say, “Do you want to sing?” And I had my glorious children and their children who made me really want to live a long long time. And I had my beloved partner, … he cared for me in countless sweet ways.
And I found that I had a purpose and a mission.
During my (chemo sessions, I invited my fellow kindred spirits to tell me their stories. They shared feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. They worried about not knowing what to say to their children, about telling their employers and likely losing their jobs, about the potential for bankruptcy and foreclosure, about the costs of cancer and their inability to pay for treatments and medications. They suffered feelings of isolation, fear, distrust, anger, and profound sadness.
I made a vow to make a difference for people living with cancer, for those who love and care for them, and, particularly, for the children who have their own cancer diagnosis or love someone who has. My simple and profound wish is that ‘No one will ever go through cancer alone’.
To bring meaning and purpose to my cancer journey, I investigated what was happening, and what was missing, in my community … how we were meeting the financial, emotional, spiritual challenges. My website initially was to be a list of “Where’s the Money???”… a list of the resources where one could find real money to help with basic needs, cancer screenings, medications, house-cleaning, air fare, lodging, health insurance, scholarships, camping and retreats, and much more. The List expanded to include information and resources delineated by diagnosis, age group, specific ethnic groups, and sexual orientations. The very BEST section of this comprehensive website is called HOPE … where cancer patients and their loved ones have the opportunity to write honest and moving stories of their experiences living with this disease. Someone cleverly said, “Politicos have Emily’s List; homeowners have Angie’s List; everyone else has Craig’s List. And now people with cancer have Nancy’s List.”
And then I envisioned my “love letter” to the universe, an expression of my profound gratitude for my miraculous recovery and my life. Nancy’s List was really launched. I created a “call-to-action” to my San Francisco Bay Area community. Nancy’s List is a community partnership to meet the epidemic of cancer. At our first large gathering of neighbors, I said “It takes a village” and placed clipboards around the room for signups … to drive patients to treatments, to babysit their children, walk their dogs, prune their roses, deliver healthy meals … EVERYONE GOT IT!! Teens adopted families and prepared dinners for them on Friday nights. They stayed for the evening, played games or tutored the children, made music, laughed. Nursery schools teamed up their little ones with senior centers and they made get well cards for all the patients in the local hospitals. Many had peace signs (northern California) and they were signed “Made by Johnny, aged 3, and Henrietta, aged 92”. Famous rock stars and teen musicians gave concerts to raise money. Spas offered pampering. Fitness programs developed. Nutritionists consulted with patients. We started a group for kids called Nancy’s Club for the children and teens whose lives were impacted by cancer … be it their own diagnoses or that of someone they loved … and we had an adventure every weekend … sailing, museums, sporting events, nature hikes, live performances, and more. We played … and the kids loved it.
When I felt able, I continued my work as a psychologist, but my practice had changed. I have had the honor to meet and consult with many cancer patients and their loved ones. Because of my diagnosis and amazing recovery, I have worked with many women around the world with difficult gynecological cancers. I have been privileged to witness the nobility and transformation of human beings who are living with cancer. I have “sat still and listened generously” to men and women as they deal with the inevitability of death, yet hold hope and will and passion to continue the life journey despite its present trauma and angst. They reassess their priorities, make their choices, count their blessings in sickness and in health, search for hope, and find their gratitude. I suppose my practice follows my own journey in two significant ways … the first, the cancer patient’s psychological reactions at all stages of its course; the second is attention to the emotional, spiritual, social, and behavioral factors that influence long-term survival following treatment.
I am trained as a clinical psychologist but I have learned more “walking the cancer walk” than I ever learned in graduate school. For me, it is a spiritual journey filled with intimate connections as I meet kindred spirits on the path. It brought me to my core, made me open my heart and listen to my body and take care of myself. Cancer demanded that I seriously monitor my negative thinking, my fears, and my lack of control. I learned to “be here now” as my all-time favorite guru, Ram Dass, so eloquently advised us to do. I want every man, woman, teenager, and child who has to walk the walk to hold the hand of someone who has been there, someone who understands the cancer challenges and its mysteries and who will hang in there tight when times are tough.
Cancer changed everything for me. It taught me the essence of gratitude, especially for the generosity of strangers. It refined my calling and made me a better psychologist. I found courage and resilience. It gave me the opportunity to offer hope to those who have lost theirs. I am the luckiest lady in the world. And cancer opened my heart…to love again, to trust again, and to let myself be loved. It gave me permission to live and love with wild abandon.
When I reached the 10th anniversary of my diagnosis, I shouted out loud, “Follow your bliss. Follow your heart.” I learned a whole lot during my cancer journey. To live and love as fully as I can. To say YES. And definitely, to go for pleasure. So I did it. I put on my fabulous cowgirl hat, my black patent-leather cowgirl boots, and moved to Austin to live with my love, my Cowboy.
I created an anthology, I Am with You: Love Letters to Cancer Patients. This collection of 46 essays is written by survivors and their loved ones who are on the cancer journey. They have volunteered to write about their experiences to support courage and hope and to provide truth, wisdom, wit, understanding, and compassion to new and old patients. My decision to create this anthology came from my extraordinary curiosity about healing. I wondered how one’s intimate relationship with the disease affected the struggle … how one defined the “fight” or, rather, how one integrated cancer into one’s life; who and what the patient found to nourish the spirit and expand the reach of the heart. I concluded that if I could offer community, hope, truth about the cancer treatment ahead, coping strategies … early on, early after the initial trauma of a diagnosis … healing would take a more positive outcome. I Am with You is truly a love letter. Our wish is that this offering of friendship will sustain cancer patients through those first frightening nights after you hear their diagnosis, and every night thereafter. That is the spirit in which this anthology was conceived. Every story you read speaks to the power of those simple, exquisite words spoken to me by my dear oncologist, “I am with you.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: YOU CAN FIND NANCY’S ANTHOLOGY BOOK ON AMAZON HERE: http://amzn.to/1ID4sOm
[Regarding what may cause cancer], I have always wondered if my “experimentation” with hormone replacement therapy was a cause for my cancer. I tried various drugs and intuitively felt this was not appropriate for me. I did not have the gene mutation. There may be no single cause of cancer … perhaps there is no “cause” of cancer. It seems so random. Many of the clients I have counseled had cancer, although they were strict yoginis, vegans, and more. From my perspective, our research should be guided by finding effective treatments, particularly for such chemo-resistant cancers like ovarian, rather than causation.
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