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Cancer haunted my family for generations, until I found a way to leave my fear behind

The author and her parents at her college graduation. (Courtesy Kathy Gunst)
The author and her parents at her college graduation. (Courtesy Kathy Gunst)

In the spring of 2012, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage III/IV.  The five-year survival rate is somewhere between 64% and 71%, and so, it was a terrifying time, made even rougher by my family’s terrible history with cancer. My mother died of breast cancer in her late 50s; and we lost my dad to lung cancer in his early 70s. Both of my maternal grandparents also had cancer. And all of this means I grew up in a house full of fear.

The author's parents on their wedding day in 1955. (Courtesy Kathy Gunst)
The author's parents on their wedding day in 1955. (Courtesy Kathy Gunst)

After my treatment, I just wanted to move on, past it all — live my life to the fullest and make cancer something of the past. I worked hard to disassociate myself from the title “cancer survivor,” a nomenclature I was never comfortable with.

Then, in the winter of 2019, seven years after I finished treatment, and in part to celebrate the milestone, my husband and I went on a winter vacation to Hawaii. Several people on the island mentioned Celeste, a “healer” and body worker. I really just wanted a massage, but I was intrigued with this idea of “healing.”

Celeste appeared to be in her late 40s, with long wavy brown hair and oversized harem-style pants, a tight spaghetti strap tank top. She had wrinkles, like many folks on the island from too much sun; I thought she had an overly sincere smile and eye contact that was maybe a little too deep. She greeted me with a squeeze on the shoulder and lead me to her “office,” an outdoor lean-to type structure in her backyard, with a massage table in the center of the “room,” and billowing sheets nailed to the roof to create the illusion of being just below the clouds.

She asked my age, birthday and time of my birth. I gave her a few health-related background tidbits. I decided not to mention the cancer at that point, still unsure if that’s why I was there; I didn’t want to give the disease too much power. She told me the reason I have asthma is because I couldn't breathe coming out of the birth canal.

Did Celeste actually attend my birth? My mother never mentioned her. 

I situated myself on her table, a bit suspiciously. But because I’d already been in Hawaii for six days, I was so relaxed — so swept away by the natural beauty of the place, by the way the waves curve me upside down and inside out, by the way time shifts — I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I listened to the songs of birds I couldn’t identify, intoxicated by the sweetness of tropical flowers I couldn’t name.

Celeste began to touch me, subtly pressing on my body. It felt different from a normal massage, lighter, the movements more random. My lower back — always tight and wound—resisted her touch. It seemed to say, leave me alone. Then I was aware of her heavy breathing. Audibly exaggerated breath in, then released slowly, like a puff of air blowing out a flickering candle. Her hands moved to the base of my spine, applying light pressure and then, something shifted. As I lay there questioning why I came, I felt something let go. It was like when you’re struggling to open a pickle jar lid and suddenly, after fruitless attempts, it gives.

At once, I became aware of my own breathing, the ease of it: long, deep inhales followed by slow, steady exhales. I started to drift, not sleep — it was something deeper.

The author in Hawaii in 2019, the same trip when she met Celeste, the healer. (Courtesy Kathy Gunst)
The author in Hawaii in 2019, the same trip when she met Celeste, the healer. (Courtesy Kathy Gunst)

Then Celeste began pressing on my belly — the least favorite part of my body and one I don’t like anyone to touch — I was about to tell her to stop, but it’s as if my back and my belly had a chat, and my back told my belly give it a chance.

Lying there, an image formed in my mind. I saw a massive humpback whale gliding in and out of the ocean. My breathing felt as natural and effortless as a whale moving through water. And as much as I still felt wary of the experience, I decided to tell Celeste about a dream I’d had the night before.

In my dream, I see myself standing by the side of an inlet with my daughters, who point to the water and yell “Mom! Look, a whale!,” and there it is. I walk closer to the water to take a look, but end up walking on the water instead, all the way to the whale, who lifts me up and swims me round and round in circles. It shoots water from its blowhole and I ride the rush of upstream water as if I'm a cartoon character. Then I sit on its spine, all the way back to shore, where I swim off his slick black back.

What did you feel in the dream, Celeste asks? I was about to be dismissive, tell her it was “cool.”

“It was magical, riding on a whale’s spine through the ocean,” I told her.

And then, I was quiet and realized what it really was: I had no fear.

“I felt safe,” I said as much to myself as to Celeste.

Safe. The word made hot tears form in the corner of my eyes; I didn’t even bother to wipe them away as they fell onto the clean white sheet that covered me.

I thought about the visualizations I used throughout my chemotherapy. How I was able to transport myself out of the sterile hospital room to the top of a beach path, to look out over water and smell salt air. I thought about the way those images took me far from cancer and drip lines.

Celeste put her hands on either side of my temples. I could smell her patchouli-like scent and hear myself breathing this new, quiet breath.

“I don’t think that was a dream,” she said. “I think that really happened.”

I wasn’t sure what to say or what to think. But I realized it didn’t matter if Celeste was a New Age mumbo-jumbo or the wisest, most intuitive person in the Aloha state. What mattered is that I wasn’t scared. Riding on a whale’s spine through open water made me feel calm.

Volcanic rock formation with vegetation on Wailea beach in Hawaii in 2016. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
Volcanic rock formation with vegetation on Wailea beach in Hawaii in 2016. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

“What did it feel like not to be scared?” Celeste asked, apparently reading my mind. My eyes were closed. I couldn’t find the words to explain the rush of emotion that filled me. It was like watching an old-fashioned movie reel, a montage of black and white footage going backwards through time — my family, my ancestors, all the fear, the neurosis, the absolute knowing that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

There is my mother learning that her mother has breast cancer. There is my mother knowing that she is next; that there is no way to avoid the inevitability of the disease coming her way.  

There is my father knowing that the spot on his lung is more than a spot on his lung. Even as he tells us it's nothing, he knows he will die. The worst will come. 

I see images of my mother’s mother, my father’s mother, my great grandmother, my great great grandfather. People I never knew who carried this gene of anxiety, this DNA of belief in the inevitability of disaster, from generation to generation.

I was weeping on Celeste’s table by then, but still breathing calmly. I saw a vision of my two daughters, now in their early 30s — I knew I didn’t want to carry the fear for another day. A dream about swimming on top of a whale was telling me to stop.

But because it all felt too complicated and confusing, I  didn’t answer. I just lay there, breathing, staying silent. Even so, Celeste said: “Yes, Kathy. That’s it. That’s exactly right.”

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Related:

Kathy Gunst Twitter Resident Chef, Here & Now
Kathy Gunst is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of 15 cookbooks.

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