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How falling ill can cure your life

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Author Sophie Sabbage about how to transform the process of being diagnosed with cancer, undergoing treatment, feeling ill and being ill, from a crisis to a journey.

 

‘I’m sorry, I have to reschedule our Skype interview. I’m going to hospital for a scan,’ Sophie Sabbage writes. ‘Of course, your body is priority number one’, I respond. For a moment, I forgot that Sabbage doesn’t just write about being ill, she ís ill. Her best selling ‘The Cancer Whisperer’ shows so much insight and strength, it seems as if it’s all behind her now. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Her book isn’t about curing cancer, she stresses, it’s about how cancer –or any disease- can cure your life. She shows it’s possible to be at peace with your illness, define a purpose for the rest of your life and dance with grief. Because we should welcome grief, according to Sophie. It’s the most appropriate answer to regret, loss and pain. It shows you love, have loved.  

After you fell ill, you decided you wanted to spend as much time with your loved ones as possible. Then you wrote this book. Why?

‘When I was diagnosed, people gave me all kinds of brochures. But nobody tells you how to handle the feelings of despair, the tendency to bury your head in the sand, the fear. As a coach, I had some experience with that, I’ve guided hundreds of people who were confronted with seemingly insurmountable setbacks. I’ve seen them transform, find their strength. So I knew I had to grab hold of my fear, before it would get a hold of me.’

‘Besides, I think it’s hard to believe how little attention and room there is for grief in the medical world. I remember sitting in the waiting room at the radiotherapy department, about six weeks after my doctor had told me I was ‘incurably’ ill. I was undergoing radiation treatment because a big tumor was pressing one of my nerves. My husband John was with me, and while I was waiting, I got a kind tekst from a friend. I cried. The nurse rushed towards me and asked me if I was OK. She wanted to make me stop crying, as if my tears were bad for me, as if they were contagious to other patients. Her worriedness upset me, it didn’t comfort me. Wasn’t this the ultimate time to cry? What would be a better time to grieve over a future that was being taken from me? I realised the time had come to stop restraining myself and start feeling everything. To stop denying, stop numbing myself, but to be awake, alert and attentive. I wish someone had given me a book about that.’

It must be incredibly heavy to hear you may only have a few years left to live. Isn’t it understandable to want to deny that, to avoid it?

‘Of course. It is definitely understandable. But it weakens you. Knowledge is power, especially if you are ill. If you don’t want to face the truth, you become a victim of the situation. The more you know about your disease, the easier it is to know what you need and how to react. By facing all of it, I was able to discuss my disease clearly with my doctors, as a partner. I have always been in charge. It gave me confidence and freedom.’

Don’t be a patient, is your advice: be a person.

‘I think it’s incredibly important to have a life that goes beyond illness. Having your own life, a goal in life, is of vital importance. What will I do with the scarce time I still have in front of me? My goal was, and it still is, not to live as long as possible, but to live long enough to have a transforming experience. I have, now.’

‘It may sound funny, but my life has improved so much since I fell ill. I have finally started writing, which I wanted to do since I was a little girl. I have healed old wounds, taken charge of my health, I’ve reassessed my relationships – which ones were still good for me, which weren’t? – and freed myself from insecurities. I’m living here and now, enjoying all that’s beautiful in life. Nothing is self-evident anymore, everything is a blessing.’

At the end of the book, you write a letter to ‘dear cancer’. Would you say you wouldn’t want to have missed this disease?

‘Cancer has changed my life for the better. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the last two years. It was the most creative, useful, loving period of my life. I’ve become the person I always wanted to be. There’s one but: I am a mother. My daughter Gabriella is seven years old. I would give everything to see her grow up. There are many things I have sorted out, but not the fact that I might die before she has reached adulthood. I haven’t even tried to. It’s the only thing I don’t want to reconcile with: I want to be there for her.’

Text: Cathelijne Elzes - Photo: Noah Silliman