Calgary·First Person

When I learned to see cancer as my friend and teacher, I started to really live again

More Canadians are living longer with cancer, and Maria Carmona is one of them. She found a way to embrace life again when she let go of the battle metaphor and refocused.

The breakthrough came one morning as I was sitting in the kitchen, looking for a new mantra

A woman holds a dog and sits on the grass surrounded by golden autumn leaves.
Maria Carmona is living with cancer. She found a way to embrace life again when she accepted her diagnosis rather than fighting it. (Miguel Salinas)

This First Person column is the experience of Maria Carmona, who lives with her husband, Miguel Salinas, in Calgary. They each wrote their story of Maria's cancer journey. Read Miguel's piece here.

For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Maria's story is the latest in CBC Calgary's first person writing series. She also read it for us. Take a listen.

In the dark, dark days following the news my ovarian cancer had come back, people told me I must be a warrior. Instead, I just cried out to God. 

And perhaps he did send an answer. Because a few days after my prayer, I was scrolling through Facebook and found an advertisement for a program to help cancer patients find holistic healing. I scrolled past, then went back, then thought: "Why not?"

Cancer is a solo journey. Everyone does it differently. But this is my story of how I learned not to fight it but to see cancer as a friend. Yes, a friend — something to teach me a valuable lesson about how to really live.

I will take you back to the beginning. It was a warm day in September 2017 when my family doctor said the words: "You have cancer."

He sat me down in his office, and even today as I think back, my heart beats fast, my hands shake and my eyes water. I heard the news and started to cry, "my sons, my sons." 

My youngest was 11 then. I wept so hard, I couldn't pay attention.

A family of four, including two boys, smile for the camera.
A family photo from the year before the cancer diagnosis when the family took a trip to Disneyland. (Submitted by Miguel Salinas)

The first round of treatment was 18 cycles of chemotherapy. But it worked, my body was clean. I thought I won.

Then after 10 months, my cancer came back, and the second experience with chemotherapy was worse than ever. I was in disbelief, angry and very disappointed — I thought I must be doing something wrong.

But that's when I bought that program on the internet and slowly, slowly my anger turned to hope.

This program had a holistic approach — it didn't just focus on diet and exercises, it challenged me to heal my soul, my heart and my mind. 

Meditation and reiki helped me calm my anxiety, hear my heart and stay in the present. Yoga helped me to feel normal again after chemo left my body numb. But the most difficult and ultimately important part was emotional. I had to accept the diagnosis rather than constantly fight it. For that, I used mantras.

A woman with a head covering smiles for the camera but has an IV needle in her arm.
Maria Carmona's second experience with chemotherapy was worse than the first. (Miguel Salinas)

The mantras came from my therapist. She suggested I write these in a special notebook and gave me the first one: "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can and wisdom to know the difference."

I found more mantras and inspiration in the writings of Louise Hay, herself a cancer patient and author on positive thinking. After a year, I had filled four notebooks and started to pick my own mantras, one each day.    

But the real breakthrough came one morning as I was sitting in the kitchen, looking for a new mantra. In the back of my mind, I heard "Dear cancer."

It was a shock. How could I even think "Dear cancer?" Why was I saying that? I began to cry.

Without even noticing, I started to write: "Dear cancer, I bless you with love and I release you and let you go out of my life. Thank you for what you have taught me." 

A book is filled with handwritten notes.
Maria Carmona filled four notebooks with mantras in one year. This brought a sense of calm and helped her focus on something other than cancer. (Maria Carmona)

When I filled a whole page, I felt relieved. The heavy weight in my shoulders lifted. Then I started to laugh. I was crying and laughing at the same time.

After that morning, I started to see cancer as my friend — not something to fight but something with a purpose, something that came to teach me again what life is about. It reminds me that I'm stronger than I thought, brave and I have beautiful reasons to wake up every day.

I say all this, but I want to be clear that I also value western medicine. In my family in Mexico there are seven doctors between my brother, cousins and uncles, and my parents ran a pharmacy for more than 25 years. I believe in western medicine; I believe in research.

During the whole time I was searching for holistic healing, I also followed my doctors' recommendations for new medical therapies and continued with chemotherapy.

I'm taking the best of two worlds and am grateful for both.

I still have dark days and side-effects from the drugs and, five years after my diagnosis, I'm still in treatment. But I like to think that I'm a cancer survivor because I'm back to feeling like myself again. 

I'm back at work. I enjoy being outside, I'm eating healthy (but not too healthy) and most days I have a big smile just because I'm here.

A woman with a huge grin stands on a rock in the mountains with a rainbow behind her.
Five years after her diagnosis, Maria Carmona feels like a cancer survivor. She is still in treatment and still has bad days, but she's embracing life again. (Submitted by Maria Carmona)

Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. Read more from this workshop, run out of the Central Library in partnership with the Women's Centre of Calgary.

To find out more, suggest a topic or volunteer a community organization to help host, email CBC producer Elise Stolte or visit cbc.ca/tellingyourstory.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maria Carmona

Freelance Contributor

Maria Carmona works as an education assistant with the Calgary Catholic School District. She loves how the kids make her laugh every day, loves the colours of fall and walking through the crunching leaves.

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