After Cancer for the Caregiver and the Patient

Nancy (my primary caregiver during my cancer) and I went to University of Colorado’s Cancer Day program recently. It was an extensive program with breakout sessions for specific cancers like breast cancer (my diagnosis is metastatic breast cancer), colon cancer and lung cancer. Then they had general sessions with topics that included nutrition, fertility and survivorship. The handouts for the general sessions are available at this link

The presentation Coping as a Cancer Survivor was given by Marianne Pearson an oncological social worker in Fort Collins. She offered that “An individual is considered a cancer survivor from the time of diagnosis, through the balance of his or her life. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also impacted.” As she talked about the emotional issues one faces including: worry, feeling stress, depression, anxiety, anger, grief, sadness and being alone, I realized that now that I am in recovery so to speak, I have experienced them all at times. Less than nine months ago, I had a 3-6 month terminal prognosis, and now I am back among the living. Instead of planning my funeral I am trying to figure out how to plan my life.

When Nancy and I talked about the program afterwards, she felt they left out a big piece when they didn’t address from her standpoint as a caregiver, going from being totally depended upon to having nothing to do for the person with cancer. Her life had been completely turned upside down by devoting her full time to caring for me and now suddenly, I don’t need her any more. She said it was very disorienting. A friend I talked with this morning said some caregivers would find it relieving, but obviously there is a continuum between the two poles. It is clear that both of us have to figure out where we go from here? Am I actually well enough to do any meaningful work? How long, how much? Who will want to risk hiring me if they know I still have what is considered a non-curable and terminal illness? How much am I still worrying about when it will come back or in what form? Does that worry ever go away no matter how long we are “survivors?” For Nancy, how does she move on? Will she find some kind of volunteer work to fill her time, make new friends, or find new outlets for her creativity like she has in her art classes?

In some sense for us both, it is a brave new world with completely different parameters than we faced before. It will be interesting to see where we go from here.

Fay Octavia Elliott is a three time cancer thriver.


judy lief interview just posted an interview with me about the Courageous Women, Fearless Living Retreat. Please let your friends know there are still openings for this year’s retreat, as well as scholarship support for anyone who needs it.


Courageous Women, Fearless Living

Grounding, Empowering, and Nourishing Women With Cancer

Last updated: June 24, 2013

Open, Empty, and…bare?

When people new to yoga ask me how they should approach their first class, I often say, “Come open, empty, and bare.” I didn’t make that phrase up, by the way. I don’t even know where I first heard it, but I love it. So, what exactly does it mean?

1. Come to class open to what is truly happening in the moment. Not last week, not what might be in store for you next month. In the moment, noticing whatever arises—any physical aches and pains (or even places that are more flexible or stronger than you thought possible) and any emotional ups and downs—without judgment and with a kind and light heart.

2.  Come to class empty of any preconceived notions—about what you can and can’t do, about what yoga is or isn’t, and even about who you are in the company of other practitioners. Simply be ready to embody your experience and explore what you’re feeling at any given moment. In a more practical way, coming to class empty means don’t eat for at least 90 minutes before you get on your mat.

3.  And come to class bare. Bare footed, that is. Unless you have peripheral neuropathy (in that case, leave your socks on!), doing your practice with bare feet helps you feel steadier and more confident. Naturally we hope you’ll feel safe and nurtured enough at the Courageous Women’s yoga classes to stand naked in the unknowing. Not literally, of course. What that yoga-speak really means is that when you come to the mat with an open mind—stripped of any should’s and shouldn’ts that clutter it—and stay in the present moment, it’s easier to be ok with not knowing what’s next.

When you come to the mat open, empty, and bare and practice in the company of other amazing women just like yourself, magic happens!

Can’t wait for all of us to come to the mat!

One Step at a Time

I opened my Facebook page recently and found this profound teaching by Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama, author, and (lucky us) a presenter at our first two Courageous Women, Fearless Living retreats.

On a long journey, we may want to keep the ultimate destination in mind, but it is good to take one day at a time and rest along the way. If we want to relax our grip on self, we shouldn’t try too hard. It is better to take a gentle approach. Whatever steps we take, even if they are small, the most important thing is to rejoice in those small steps; then they become powerful. Always we should appreciate what we are able to do, and not feel bad about what we haven’t done.

Living with cancer can indeed be a long journey, sometimes confusing, often frightening, and hardly ever predictable. People often say, take one day  at a time, but I love that Tulku says sometimes even that’s too much. Do what you can, but don’t forget to “rest along the way.” Cultivating a yoga and meditation practice can help you stay in the present moment, be gentle with yourself, and give you a respite from the emotional chaos and physical challenges you may be facing. —Linda Sparrowe


When things go really bad, and whatever is happening seems completely solid and hopeless, the only ally I have found is a sense of humor.  By humor I don’t mean ha-ha trivialization, but a sense of lightness that punctures the heavy-handedness of my own dramas. What a relief to know that S.O.H. is always lurking around, ready to pop up just when I need it most. —Judy Liefblog-laughing

Sense perceptions

When you are dealing with the medical system, you are caught in the hassle of finding doctors, going to appointments, enduring procedures, and basically running from one medical consultation to another, not to mention dealing with insurance companies, worrying about finances, and all the “collateral damage” that comes with a cancer diagnosis. In the midst of this claustrophobia and fixation on disease, simple sense perceptions can collapse all this pain for an instant and give you a fresh perspective A glimpse of the new moon, a spring flower in the meadow, a hawk perched high and proud in a pine tree. The evening star. A child’s laughter.  How precious! —Judy Liefblog-columbine

When to fight when to let go

One of the hardest issues for anyone dealing with a serious disease is to decide when it makes sense to continue fighting and when it is time to let go.   There is a fine line between letting go and giving up, and there is also a fine line between fighting your disease and having a stubborn resistance to reality. Emotions run high, and the cycle of hope and fear spins around and around. Faced with this challenge, in order to make wise decisions, self-reflection is essential. If you explore gently and with kindness, you can contact an intimate and profound inner knowing, something that is genuine and true. You can ride this razor’s edge with clarity and courage. — Judy Lief



April Snow Showers

blog-april-snowThis April Boulder was covered by a foot of snow, which made me feel like singing that old Al Jolson tune:

“. . . Though April showers (snowstorms) may come your way,
They bring the flowers that bloom in May.
So if it’s raining (snowing), have no regrets . . .”

Whether it rains or snows, it is not the end of the story, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that. Even within the journey through cancer, there are occasional violets.

— Judith Lief

Mindfulness and Healing

blog-healing-mindfulnessMindfulness practice is not new, but it seems to have been newly discovered. The mind is more powerful than we think, and our mental attitude affects everything we do for better or for worse. But we are not just stuck with our state of mind, we can work with our mind through meditation practice, or mindfulness.  Did you know that mindfulness practice has been linked to not only stress reduction, but to improvements in blood pressure, immune response and many other physical benefits? But, best of all, mindfulness practice helps us to develop the strength of mind to face our inner and outer obstacles with greater humor, insight, kindness, and perspective.

— Judith Lief


blog-healingIn the same way that it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a village to heal from a serious illness like cancer. Confronting illness can be such an alien and lonely journey. At the Courageous Women retreat, I have been inspired over and over again by the village we form, if only for a few days. Within this village friendships are made, stories are shared, and deep healing occurs – for staff as well as participants.  This kind of healing continues without regard to the ups and downs of life, the remission or progression of cancer.

— Judith Lief