Cancer As a Rite of Passage

By Maureen Dobson

It was 7 pm and there was a knock on our door.  A colleague had stopped by our home to share his concern and support in person.  He and his wife had just been through cancer themselves.  A breast cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, radiation, time off work for treatments, and fear, fear of the unknown.  He had already walked this path I was now facing and wanted to help.

And then it began.  The phone calls, the emails, the gifts, the hugs, the tears, all expressions of empathy and compassion and unlimited offers to “help”.  “Let us know how we can help…you should talk to so-and-so…go see Dr. such-and-such…try this supplement…or that acupuncturist…explore this research…etc, etc, etc”.  Everyone felt helpless and was yearning to help.  Bringing me gifts or offering advice were the most genuine ways they knew to help.

Fast forward six years.  I was unemployed, cancer-free, and attending my first “Choosing Conscious Elderhood (CCE)” retreat.  I did not know what to expect, but I was excited to be there.  I had just come through one of the most horrendous experiences in my life.  I wanted some time in the company of fellow wisdom-seekers to reflect on and share my story.  And I wanted to uncover more of the hidden mysteries behind my life and my very close brush with death.

Beating cancer, stage 4 melanoma, was no easy feat.  Six years prior, my doctors predicted a 5-10% chance for my survival.  To increase my odds, they recommended a heavy-duty six month bio-chemo regime.  After lots of research, I did not choose their route.  Instead, I quit my high stress job, my partner and I moved back to our hometown, and together we walked a most unusual path towards healing.  This journey included a simple lung surgery to remove the tumor, a short three-month cancer vaccine trial, and a long, uncharted course of natural medicine.  Good, clean nutrition, Chinese Medicine, emotional and financial support from loved ones, and deep spiritual work, were my primary components for healing.

I had not realized it at the time, but I had come to the CCE retreat to give thanks to all who had supported me and to do some soul searching about the next few steps of my journey.  Deep reflection, journaling, story-telling, and ritual shared with a community of other wisdom-seekers created a powerful passage into the next new phase of my life.  I had spent all my financial resources and needed some clarity about what to do with my life now that I passed the five-year mark of being cancer-free.  So, I dialogued with myself, with Mother Nature and her creatures, and I uncovered my new story in solitude and in council.  I dialogued with the fox, the ants, the birds, the cow pies, and I uncovered the biggest lesson of all— in this most lonely time I experienced complete support.

My experiences during the CCE retreat deeply paralleled my experiences with cancer.  In many ways, it was my own solitary journey, but I never would have come this far without the circle of support around me.  As we moved back and forth between individual reflection and solitude, then back in to council to witness and share our stories, I relished in the balance and the health of it all.  And I reflected on the first days of my diagnosis and the many offers of “help” from my family and friends who needed to “do” something.  And I gave deep thanks for my new friends who were helping most by just simply witnessing and listening to me telling my story—letting me “be”.  That initial knock on the door, six years prior, was now a new door opening to the next adventures in my life.

Maureen Dobson teaches Sage-ing in northern Colorado and directs Boulder County’s senior services programs. She may be reached at


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