Cocodemon-released from the cocoon of demons past~
As a long term metastatic cancer survivor, people are always asking me about my experiences. This story is dedicated to them. This is a story of transformation, stepping into a beautiful copious field of infinite possibilities, I AM free.
In November 1980, I was diagnosed with stage four malignant melanoma cancer and immediately had surgery to remove a tumor from my forearm, with lymph node resection and a skin graph. Everything was happening so fast. I experienced a disconnect between my mind, body and spirit. Abstract and surreal, it was if my spirit hovered as I listened to Dr. Morton inform me of Western statistics.
Consciously, I knew that this diagnosis was an opportunity for me to review my deepest desires. It offered me a chance to engage in a conversation with myself. I had to ask myself some tough questions, including-what was it that I really wanted? At age 26, cancer was not foreign to me. My mother experienced it, my grandmother died from it, and my best friends first child was born with cancer. Though I felt disfigured after surgery, my mind searched like a flashlight peering into the crevasses of my spirit, looking for reasons why this was happening to me. Where was I? Somehow I remembered the saying, “Believe the diagnosis and not the prognosis.”
Uncertainty became the fertile ground for opportunities to manifest. Surrendering helped creative choices emerge. The adventure of the unknown was grounding, challenging and empowering. I had a choice to stay stuck in fear, or learn how to prepare for the worst and expect the best. Imagine Life-Prepare for Death. These were thoughts that haunted my imagination, while bringing me into the starkness of reality.
I was recently on the phone with my sister Sandy, who was born with visual impairments, and was familiar with the medical profession and statistics. She asked me to imagine how wonderful my life would have been if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer at such a young age. Considering her own experiences she imagined that the diagnosis of cancer had prevented me from manifesting my deepest dreams. After a few moments of reflection, I told her that I was grateful for the gift of cancer. To my own surprise I heard myself say, “I might not be alive today were it not for the diagnosis.”
As our conversation continued, I reflected on my life. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago from the ages of 3-13, and was the middle of six children. My experiences growing up were dominated by fear. Poor as we were, my mother insisted that my siblings and I attend Holy Cross Catholic School. She arranged with the Principal of the school, that her children would clean and care-take the church, convent and rectory in exchange for lowered tuition.
The church was filled with archetypes; gods and goddesses of an ancient world, such as the Virgin Mary, angels, and Jesus Christ. The silenced vestibule housed holy water, and was scented by incense. Latin was the ancient language that was spoken at church. These experiences sparked my desire to better understand theology and spirit. I loved the sacred feelings I felt when surrounded by the austerity of this magnificent, double domed church in the middle of a ghetto, peppered with immigrants.
The Back of The Yards was a tough, segregated neighborhood. Guarded alleys, corners, and streets were marked as special territory based on your ethnicity. There were random killings, regular gang fights, incest, rape, and domestic violence. The smell of slaughtered animals permeated the air. The smoke from factories polluted the sky, our bodies; this was part of living in the middle of the stockyards. The outskirts of the neighborhood was surrounded by city dumps and vacant lots. I recall many sleepless, restless nights praying to God. I worried as I anticipated the safe arrival of my mother, who traveled home on the city buses after working night shift at a local factory.
My father was drunk almost every night, and was not the kind of father who provided his children with feelings of safety. He had temporary moments of kindness in between his drinking and working two jobs; we children believed he was a monster and were taught to fear him. Church was my only safe haven. It was predictable. It was unlike home, where I felt unloved, fearing the consequences of chewing with my mouth open, or making an unacceptable sound at the table.
Though my upbringing gave me strength of character, those fear-based beliefs only reinforced my understanding of the polarity of love. Without all the FEAR, I wonder if I would have been able to experience such deep feelings of love, compassion, and caring.
In January, 1968 we moved from the city to the suburbs. My mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer several months prior, and was healing. Part of me wondered if my mother were dying. Knowing she would need help with my younger siblings, I was frightened by uncertainty, and fearful of so much responsibility. My oldest brother David stayed behind to graduate from Tilden Tech High School while the rest of the Schultz tribe moved to Orland Park. This move made me feel out of place, lonely and sad. I relocated from Chicago to Long Beach in 1972 to attend Brooks College for Women. I was the first child in my family to leave the city of Chicago to pursue higher education. During one of my visits to Chicago, a VIP from Faberge Hair Products, whom I met on the plane, asked me if Faberge could use my hair for test shots on their new hair line. This was my first paying professional modeling job.
After college, I moved to Vista Street in West Hollywood and immediately began working at KIIS-FM as a broadcasting workshop coordinator and as a photographers model. In between modeling assignments, I landed an agent and began auditioning for television commercials while doing some movie extra work. I used my skills from Brooks College to work as a fashion stylist and assistant to commercial casting companies, and was hired by photographers who had album covers to design or magazine articles to illustrate. I found myself surrounded with fun, creative people, and timeless musicians such as The Eagles, Isaac Hayes, and Barry White, while working on sound stages, movie sets, and with radio personalities.
My social circle was mostly composed of professional artists, photographers, other models and people in the entertainment industry. It appeared to be a very glamorous life of parties, photo shoots, auditions and go-sees. Marilyn, a friend from college, became my neighbor. Our routine would more often than not be coffee and uppers on weekend mornings, and quaaludes with a joint or two throughout the evenings. We worked hard, played hard, and loved to dance.
My adventurous life on a gilded perch came to halt the moment I was diagnosed with cancer. At first, it did not occur to me that my diagnosis could have manifested from post traumatic stress. I began to suspect, however, that the repressed traumatic events that occurred in my early life triggered the onset of malignant melanoma. It never dawned on me that repression could result in disease. It was easy to blame it on the sun, or anything else. Courageously rummaging through memory lane, I noticed a pattern, a sequence of hidden events buried deep inside the storehouse of my past. Like a butterfly in a cocoon, I was in the dark, confined, and constricted by a tapestry of grey colored threads.
I remembered that in 1973, new to Los Angeles, and alone, I walked over to the corner burger shop to pick up dinner. There I befriended the patron in front of me. Cordial yet naive, I was unaware that this man was a predator. He followed me the half block home, kicked open the front door, and continued to assault, beat, and rape me. I did not call the police. Instead, I called my closest friend Philip. I asked him to move in with me. We married shortly afterwards, and the dissolution of our five-year marriage left me deeply saddened and confused.
I kept on modeling and moved to a small house on Romaine Street. Within months, I was again raped, this time at gunpoint. After this second assault, I could no longer go on with my modeling career. I felt ugly and thought that everybody could see my emotional scars, especially after reporting this case to the Beverly Hills Police Department. Luckily, I had a friend who had a temporary placement agency. Needing a job, I chose to work for her behind the scenes taking cold calls from entertainment employees looking to fill temporary positions.
Three months later, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. After physically healing from surgery, I returned to the temp agency, and wrote up a job request for ABC Entertainment. It was a job that sounded great, and Mariam, my boss, supported my interest. I landed the temp position, and Mariam kept me employed and insured through her agency until I could secure a full time position at ABC Entertainment. I felt secure and safe working in the industry that I adored. I worked there for the next 18 years with the best prime-time and daytime TV people.
By 1981, though not 100 percent clear, I had a plan, an intention and a desire. I married for the second time almost a year to the date I had been diagnosed, and had a precious baby boy about 12 months later. The marriage lasted almost two years. It dissolved like sugar in water, with the residue of sweetness on the bottom of my full glass.
I realized that, thanks to having cancer, I was able to harvest and live a fuller and richer life than if I hadn’t had a disease. According to doctors, time was against me. To beat the odds of recurring cancer, I knew that I would have to become more selective with my choices in all areas of my life. I would have to become more conscious of my relationships, of the foods that I ate, and the jobs that I accepted, and of how I spent my time. I no longer wanted to sit around and waste hours, days, weeks, months, holding on to worn-out, fearful memories, or nursing hangovers.
There were moments when I had to shut out the world, keep the drapes drawn, when I had to be sedated so that I wouldn’t feel so much physical or emotional pain. My illness forced me to honor the needs of my body, mind, and heart. I had to give my physical and spiritual self the time it required to reset itself.
Granted, the vision and expectations I had wanted to manifest in my pre-cancer life were completely different from the cancer road. I had wanted to be rich in material abundance, free of most responsibility and liberated from boundaries. Suddenly, my life was riddled with medical appointments, surgeries, and negotiations. I was also the single parent of a small child. Hearing hysterical and fearful family members saddened me, leaving me frustrated, helpless, and feeling alone.
I had to prepare for my death. Preparing for death meant that I had to find a support group with other cancer patients. Just as I was learning how to live, I had to learn how to prepare to die responsibly, especially being the mother of a toddler.
In 1988, after recurrence of melanoma cancer to my stomach, I first became a participant and then a TV Spokesperson for a nonprofit organization called The Wellness Community. They provided me with an arsenal of tools, empowering my life as a cancer patient. I found everything at the Center very liberating, and learned about new treatments for my type of cancer. My heart opened as I became more empathetic to others who were also suffering. We learned to let go of the prison of our secrets. Professionals in alternative medicine guided us through visualization, meditation, laughter and sharing. I was becoming an integral part of a community.
I learned that when I began to embrace the possibility of my death, the quality of my life improved. Life had a new meaning. Things like credit card debt or worrying about what other people thought were no longer areas where I wished to focus my attention. By accepting disease, death became a friend, possibly another gift, not an enemy.
Having cancer has helped me learn how to live fully in the present moment. The difficult road was mapped out, yet it was also colored with compassion, appreciation, and a quiet stillness. Some of the lessons I learned along the way were remembering all the things that bring me joy; being a parent, a yoga teacher, a fashionista. I love expressing myself through art. Had I continued on the same path after my cancer diagnosis, I believe I wouldn’t be here today. My life-in-the-fast-lane would have surely destroyed me. When you begin to accept, embrace, and envision death, you can experience a renewed sense of life. Healing is easy when you sit back, witness, and observe your experiences from a removed state of expectations.
The book that I’ve been working on, is a book of transformation. It is my way of celebrating the thirtieth anniversary since being diagnosed with malignant melanoma. My life, my body, my breath, this incarnation, the inspiration-everything was given to me as a result of the diagnosis. I feel grateful to still have a beautiful body, even though it is scarred by more than 15 major surgeries, radiation treatments and experimental medical protocols. I feel honored to be teaching, to be living testimony, and an example to my students, mirroring the message of hope and love.
I continue to share the wisdom I’ve gained by facing my challenges with an open mind and open heart. Change has not been easy, yet my choices became non negotiable. I chose life, and have learned to become responsible for my actions and their consequences. I AM the miracle that I seeded in my mind 30 years ago. I am humbled and in awe of the power of the human mind.
In 2008, I crossed through the towering irons gates of La Costa into the Chopra Center for Well Being. It was there I followed the familiar scent of incense and remembered the sacredness of silence. Infatuated, I wandered through the womb of the Chopra Center with holy eyes, feeling nourished and comforted by a familiar state of reverence and honor. Though I’m not a practicing Catholic, this familiarity ignited my spirit, awakening feelings of wholeness that I experienced at Holy Cross Church. I felt as if I were “home” again.
I have learned that more than 90 percent of obstacles are imagined. Healing can happen when the remaining 10 percent is woven with acceptance, responsibility and defenselessness. I’m not talking about just physical healing, but emotional, creative and spiritual healing. It’s no mystery. There is no magic. All that is needed is a willingness to try new ways of living, being and acting. There is no suffering. I AM joy, I AM peace, I AM….
Peace be with you,
(All right reserved by author Deborah Shemesh-Ziploid-Riche Production)