Rae Carter’s Personal Story of Healing and Transformation
My story is one of courage, despair, wisdom, pain, magic, trauma, grace, grit, and empowerment. It is complex and deserves its space, and so I offer it with courage, vulnerability, and love…
This is my lived experience, my truth, and my reality. I have learned through my own experience that some people’s realities are really uncomfortable for other people to accept. Someone else’s truth is often resisted because it is emotionally unavailable to be received, but that does not diminish the reality of a person’s lived experience. It only causes harm. I have lost many people in my life because of the inability within dominant culture to feel our emotions, and, because I refuse to settle for the limitations of the status quo and the expectations of the people who abide by the norms of an unjust society.
Before I got sick, I fought the system and ironically, it was that fight that contributed to dis-ease in my body. I was fighting like a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world, dominated by rules that have been structured over the ages to break the power of the feminine spirit.
The patriarchal world order is crumbling now and I stand empowered as a woman with a shared vision to co-create a new cultural paradigm centered in nurturing collaboration and compassionate inclusion.
The vision I speak of is something every single person can participate in. We can all be a part of co-creating a beautiful new reality where all of our needs are met, all of our lives are valued, and we can all live with dignity, liberation, and self determination. It begins with healing ourselves—our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits. In healing ourselves, we can then heal the world.
I offer my story here, on the platform of the EmpowR website, because that is what is accessible to me and EmpowR was birthed directly from this story. It does take about an hour to read and I labeled the sections below to bring ease to the navigation. For too long we have been forced to communicate in soundbites. My story asked to be told in the richness of its truth, and that is how the words flowed from my heart and soul.
In 2017 my body began to fall apart. I was experiencing debilitating pain in my uterus for short cycle, long period menses that I had to mask with dangerous amounts of over-the-counter pain medication to keep up with the pace of work and life. I worked at a fast-moving stressful job in a frantic work culture that never slowed down. Taking care of myself had to be planned around other people’s timelines, meetings, and deadlines rather than when my body actually needed support.
The work was important to me—both to my ego and contributing to system-level change to help more Vermonters thrive. I always wanted to get the next task done so I could retreat in my down time on the land the job had enabled me to purchase. Nurturing the Earth, growing plants for food, beauty, and health, has always been my dream and my adult life was spent tending to land “owned” by someone else. I have always embraced an intimate relationship with the Earth and believed that my dreams of working with the land could only come to fruition if I could “purchase” land, even though I felt a growing discomfort with the Earth being owned by a person.
While my partner Mitch and I’s dream to steward land and “own” a home came true in 2013, it moved us away from our community outside of Burlington, Vermont to Plainfield, Vermont because that was where we could afford to live in proximity to our work. The land called us in as soon as we set foot here, asking us to care for it and heal its wounds. We immediately fell in love with the land, which is now the home of the Forest Magic Healing Sanctuary.
As we settled into life in a more affordable part of Vermont, the overall high cost of living, low wages in exchange for “worth”, and the energetically draining nature of my job left me feeling trapped with a sorrow that grew over the years. My life centered around making an income and the demands to make that income kept me from being with the plants, trees, and land in the way my soul and heart deeply craved. I was working for something I could not attain and felt like I was in a rat race which was painfully ironic since people are “supposed” to live in Vermont to escape the rat race—except that is only a reality for people who have enough wealth to make it a reality. As a nonprofit employee married to a teacher with student loan debt, the mortgage, and a pre-existing condition of financial insecurity from a previous traumatic experience (another story for another time), we squeaked by living month to month like so many people who struggle living within the confines of an inequitable economic system.
The years of this unhealthy pace caught up with my body by 2017. Instead of tending to my body with the rhythms of nature and elements of the seasons, I was in constant go mode, often expressing out loud that I felt like I didn’t have time to breath. I’ll never forget this one Sunday night in spring, planting in the garden with a headlamp, tears streaming down my face because I had not been able to plant earlier in the weekend due to weather, and faced a week of meetings and deadlines. My period was on its way so I was bracing myself for the pain, wanting only for some spacious days to breath, plant with care, and lay my body upon the Earth and breath into my strained womb. Instead I planted frantically in the dark and trudged through the week, stuffing my face with grab-and-go food instead of gifts from the garden because there was no time to prepare healthy meals, all the while pumping my body full of pain medication.
Gardening and growing plants is one way I create and is the equivalent of having children for me. Nurturing the land and plants is how I am a mother. It was often suggested that I should not garden because it was too much to handle along with my job. This felt like a sharp stabbing pain to my heart, the same as it would for a woman who wants children to be told she can’t because a job is more important. I began thinking about how I could leave the job and transition into consulting, which was put aside as my health complications grew.
That summer, arthritis flared in my knees and feet, sometimes having trouble walking, and then my knee gave way. Unable to walk for a week, I was diagnosed several months later with degenerative arthritis (caused by inflammation). At the same time I began going in and out of doctor appointments for my uterus and the growing concern that I was causing damage to my stomach and liver because of the pain medications. I was finally diagnosed with adenomyosis, a condition in the uterus similar to endometriosis. I was prescribed birth control pills to deal with the pain which I begrudgingly agreed to due to my concern of the link between birth control pills and breast cancer. I was told “not to worry” by the gynecologist, but I had doubts given that I used birth control for many years when I was younger and always read the small print potential side effects (may cause breast cancer).
By the end of 2017 I was in bad shape. The work stress turned into full blown burnout and I was really struggling. I was angry, defensive, and volatile. I had been unable to sleep for more than a few hours a night since the summer and my digestion was functioning very poorly. I began getting terrible headaches and my mind started to twitch. Then I began having trouble with my speech. At my last gynecology appointment, I was told I needed to get my first mammogram. Several appointments and a biopsy later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 41.
It was January 2018, and the specific type of breast cancer was ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)—a hormone receptive breast cancer. I was instructed I could no longer take the birth control pills for the uterus pain since they are a hormone (validating my concerns that hormonal birth control is directly linked to breast cancer). The next option for the adenomyosis was to get a hysterectomy (surgical removal of my uterus) in addition to the surgery scheduled on my breast. I became overwhelmed with stress and anxiety and my coping mechanisms began to diminish.
Stress is a major contributing factor to inflammation, poor digestion, hormone disfunction, and androgen disruption—all of which are underlying conditions that directly influence the growth of cancer cells. I knew there was no way I could continue to work in a job that contributed to the dis-eases in my body. Yet there was no way we could afford to live without my income—especially with the looming costs of a health crisis.
Stress flipped into full blown anxiety with panic attacks whenever I would think of how to continue to work and try to heal in an environment that was clearly unhealthy for me. My deep well of intuition was telling me I needed time. Not just time to have surgery, but to unravel how I had gotten to such a place in my life where this pile-up of dis-eases was threatening to take me down. I knew I needed to change my entire life rather than just treat the symptoms. A quest was born to figure out how to heal and uncover why this was happening to me and how I could change.
I remember sobbing into Mitch’s arms one night, huddled in the safety of the healing space we created, and asked him what I needed to change. The doctors wanted to tell me that cancer “just happens.” I am a systems thinker and root cause analyst and believe there are reasons for everything—physical, emotional, spiritual, and reasons that extend beyond our conscious understanding. I am someone who asks and answers Why? and follows up with What Can Be Done?
I cried, as “Anne of Green Gables” would say, in the depths of despair, pleading for Mitch to speak truth. Mitch said something to me that served as a painful flash to begin to peel back the layers of Why? He called me out on sometimes lacking compassion towards other people’s situations and behaving in a way that centered my needs, opinions, ego, comfort, and expectations in ways that dominated over other people without much consideration to their feelings. It hurt deeply to hear that reflection from the person I most deeply love. These words were also quite possibly one of the greatest gifts I have ever received as they opened the door wide open to healing and the inspiration I needed to embark on my quest for personal transformation. I didn’t want to be that person anymore.
Another gift from Mitch was organizing a Go Fund Me to raise money so I could leave my job and focus solely on my acute health issues and the deep healing those acute symptoms were crying out for help. Mitch had health insurance, which covered the conventional medicine treatments, but true healing requires a holistic approach that uncovers underlying conditions and causes in the mind, body, soul, and spirit. I will forever be grateful to all of the people who supported the Go Fund Me and believed in my integrity to weave a personal healing journey and navigate between conventional and holistic medicine in a way that was best for my body, health circumstances, and lived experiences.
Breast Cancer Surgeries
My initial cancer treatment path was for a partial mastectomy (also called a lumpectomy), radiation, and pharmaceutical hormone therapy. Since the DCIS in my breast was non-invasive, I was not a candidate for chemotherapy.
I had the partial mastectomy in February 2018, and a week after surgery I got a call from the surgical oncologist to tell me the “margins didn’t clear” so I would have to have a second surgery. I held it together fairly well. At this point we still had lots of support and people were reaching out. I felt supported at a distance even though we have no family and few friends in the area. There was lots of social media love, the Go Fund Me was doing well, and a few people even made their way up the mountain to visit and drop off food.
In March I had the second partial mastectomy which was much more intense than the first. The come down off the anesthetic was harder and I was in a lot more pain, especially around my throat and neck, because this time a throat tube was used in my neck (which I was unaware of before surgery). Then we got another call from the surgical oncologist—the margins still didn’t clear and they wanted me to have another biopsy in an MRI machine to see what else they may have missed.
This was when I had my first mental collapse—a terrifying experience for both Mitch and I where I screamed and kicked and was completely out of my body—fishtailing. My support systems started to break down at this point too. Most people had reached a point of compassion fatigue and as I had yet to unpack my own compassion fatigue, I started to feel the awful sense of unworthiness and deep isolation. Social media support began to dwindle and people deleting and unfollowing me began. Social media was the only place I could connect with people and my emotional need to share my experiences and be held by others became too uncomfortable for some people, which further contributed to my isolation.
Mitch was finding it difficult to take time off work to support me, and I remember needing someone to drive me and spend the day with me at the hospital to have a biopsy in a MRI machine. I asked over a dozen people until someone I only knew a little from my old job offered to take me. While painful to experience the realization of the kinds of relationships missing from my life and why, this one beautiful angel of a soul who extended such kindness and compassion towards me was life-changing. What happened that day was deeply transformative as well.
While in the MRI machine, as they were drilling holes into a new area of my battered right breast, my frayed nerve endings could still feel the drill even though the nurses said they used the maximum amount of local anesthesia. I whimpered and cried and one of the nurses said, “If it’s too much, we’ll stop. You’re the boss.”
Something snapped inside of me. At no time during any of what I had experienced thus far had I felt like the boss. On the contrary, I felt like a sorrowful, helpless, broken woman with no sense of agency. I told them to shut it down. We. Are. Done.
I marched out of the hospital with my hopefully new friend and held my head high for the first time since the previous summer, when my body started to fall apart. Someone supporting me who was filled with empathy, instead of the judgement I felt from so many others, had a huge impact in helping me feel empowered.
Then the results came back. They got enough sample to learn that I had DCIS in this new area of my breast and now I would have to get a mastectomy—the removal of my right breast. As the doctors began to prepare an entirely new treatment plan, I had to turn my attention back to my uterus.
Now that I had weened myself off the prescription painkillers from the surgeries, which had kept my terrible cramps in the background during February and March, they were in full force and the searing pain was even more intolerable than before given the incredible amount of tension in my body. After two unsuccessful “simple” surgeries on my breast, I was completely ill-equipped to handle the more complicated mastectomy (breast removal) and the very complicated hysterectomy (uterus/reproductive system removal) and was struggling with how to process all of this constantly changing information.
It just so happens that an appointment I had scheduled with a Mayan abdominal massage therapist was just around the corner, and I made my first decision not influenced by the doctors—I was going to give my uterus some love before anyone cut anything else out of my body.
The abdominal massage experience was profound. In one two-hour nurturing session with one of the most energetically generous and compassionate women I have ever met, I sobbed my story and for the first time I felt truly seen and heard by another human being. I then received an anatomy lesson so I could understand how my feminine organs worked together, the beautiful power they represent in my body, and how the body truly wants to heal itself. Then I received the massage and learned my uterus was sad, crumpled up like a ball sitting on top of my bladder (no wonder I had to pee all the time). The massage therapist then MOVED MY UTERUS! It was uncomfortable and welcoming at the same time and I could feel the difference within my body immediately. I learned how this positioning aggravates the growth of adenomyosis and some self-massage techniques I can do on myself to support my uterus and keep her aligned in the center of my seat of creativity.
I left that appointment completely bewildered that what one person did in two hours, three years of gynecological appointments couldn’t address. I really began to question the integrity of conventional medicine when it comes to female bodies. I began to question the surgery first approach to non life-threatening issues like mine. I recalled research I first conducted when diagnosed about the controversial elements of a DCIS diagnosis by treating non-invasive cancers the same as life-threatening ones, and how the emotional effects can be more damaging than the cancer itself.
I decided to wait a little longer on a decision about a mastectomy and hysterectomy until I conducted more research. I learned more about adenomyosis and its direct link to hormone disruption, specifically the underlying cause of estrogen dominance for both adenomyosis and hormone receptive breast cancer.
Masculine/Feminine Energetic Imbalance
I also began to think about the imbalance of masculine and feminine energy in my body and how my career had stamped out so much of my feminine light so I could be a viable presence in the patriarchal dominated workforce. I spent the past 20 years telling everyone else’s story and never my own. My nurturing gifts to tend the Earth were diminished and my creative talent with words has been to build other people’s success, instead of conjuring magic from my heart. A heart that broke in the process, leaving me as a fragment of the girl I used to be, a person who burned out, whose light was snuffed out, and who acted out of defensiveness from my own inability to process emotional triggers.
I lost so many people in the first few months of cancer when the novelty of the diagnosis wore off. I realized how many people were only in my life for the favors I could deliver, and that even I didn’t like the person I had become, so why would anyone else? I lost my compassion to a transactional career trajectory where my worth felt diminished by the downward economic mobility of income and cost of living injustice. Publicly asking for money was difficult, especially when I began to lose respect and friends because of the discomfort, opinions, and expectations my situation raised for people. People have certain assumptions about cancer, and contradicting assumptions make people uncomfortable.
While I experienced harm from the impacts of people’s behaviors and lack thereof, the strong masculine energy driving my ego began to humble, making space for my femininity to rise in surprising ways. Sometimes I would see people out in the world and they would turn their backs on me, pretending not to see me. Or worse, a few times I ran into people who made disparaging comments about how I should be acting or feeling or what I should be doing. The absolute worst though was seeing the look that says “You’re batshit crazy” in people’s eyes. This absolutely broke my heart. Yet, it also gave me permission to be and do whatever I wanted. I began to embrace my inner goddess, letting the feminine energy flow. I died my hair as a rainbow and wore all of my favorite clothes, creating the most brightly colored combinations and wearing as many crystals and talismans as possible, adorning myself in protective herbs and feeling a strange, sad, and also liberating freedom.
It was both a pitiful and empowering place to be as I began to learn that multiple realities exist at one time. I began to unpack the binary, the either/or thinking that is so toxic in dominant culture. The gratitude I felt for one person bringing me to the hospital did not negate the hurt I felt from not having a circle of friends and family to hold me. The freedom I felt in one moment did not negate the sorrow I felt in another. They all existed in comfort and discomfort together.
I was slowly implementing food and diet changes, stopped drinking alcohol, and went through a multiple month detox, ultimately losing 25 pounds which have yet to return with so many permanent lifestyle changes. I began to focus on learning to understand the difference between thoughts and feelings. I started to understand the behaviors and decisions that both contribute to and develop from emotions and how we cognitively process them. I developed an intuitive self discovery journaling process and pondered over so many poor decisions I made in my life, while trying to discover what lessons there may be to guide me. As I dug deep into my shadow, I also fell into my darkest hours.
As I paused to sit with myself and create more space for healing, before making further decisions about surgery, I solidified my holistic health team. Working with food, supplements, and herbs, I began to feel some small improvements in my menstrual cycle pain following the Mayan abdominal massage experience which gave me hope that maybe I could wait a bit longer to decide about a hysterectomy.
I was being supported by astrology, meditation, Reiki, yin yoga, and working with physical, emotional, and spiritual expressions of the Chakra energy centers in the body, based in Hindu spirituality. I felt like I was starting to settle my body some, but then I began to feel a tingling sensation in my left hand. The sensation grew into pain up my left arm over several weeks. By May it had reached my neck and became rather unbearable. A few days later I woke up and couldn’t move my neck.
Hysterical over a new condition, I went to an orthopedic doctor who misdiagnosed what was ultimately a pinched nerve in my neck as cubital tunnel syndrome, and recommended surgery. He wouldn’t fill a prescription because he obviously felt I was unstable (which I was). I could feel the judgement from him clear as day with my wild rainbow hair and disheveled clothes. He took me for someone with struggling with addiction, creating a story for a prescription, and sent me away in severe pain. I screamed through the night as Mitch began his own process of unraveling from not being able to handle the caregiver role to support the roller coaster of my situation any longer.
The next morning Mitch went to work and I became truly dissociative and experienced my first ever suicidal episode—planning for a suicide. I was literally out of my mind. It is important to note when I speak of a suicidal episode, this was idealization, not an attempt. Nonetheless, it was the scariest thing I have ever experienced to date.
The universe intervened and my phone rang. It was my naturopath oncologist who was calling to check in if I had made a decision about the mastectomy. She said she was thinking of me that morning and could tell at once I was not okay as I garbled a rush of words, enough for her to know I was talking about not wanting to live any longer. She asked me if I was alone, which I was, and if anyone could come be with me. The sad truth was no, there was no one who could come be with me. It’s also important to note that two days earlier, one of my closest and dearest friends told me she was done with our friendship, which further triggered the very painful reminder that I had no one to come be with me when I needed it most. I threw the phone and continued the episode of spiraling into an unknown state of existence.
The phone began to ring and thankfully I picked it up. My naturopath oncologist talked with me for an hour. In retrospect, I’m guessing she cancelled her appointments. She told me to go outside and take my shoes off and put my bare feet on the Earth. She talked me through grounding and earthing, and helped me come back to my body. I will never forget the spot I stood on, under the grandmother cherry tree in the backyard. To this day, on spring mornings, I return to the exact spot, take off my shoes and ground into the sacred support of the Earth and offer gratitude for my life. My naturopath oncologist coordinated with my primary care doctor and they took turns checking in on me all day until Mitch came home. We spent the afternoon and evening in tears of emotional and physical pain.
It took a week for the doctors to figure out a prescription that would be safe for my emotional state. In the meantime, I turned to the extra oxycontins from surgery, desperate to end the pain. They ended up not helping other than disassociating me enough to make it through the week, but I experienced firsthand what it is like to want to do anything to stop the pain. My heart exploded in compassion for people who suffer from chronic pain and addiction, the deadly interplay between the two, and the stigma of judgement in dominant society.
I ended up being prescribed gabapentin, a strong pharmaceutical with a string of side effects, for the unbearable nerve pain throughout my neck, upper back, and left arm. I also filed a full complaint on the orthopedic doctor, who apparently had a list of grievances against him and mine was just what was needed for disciplinary action to be taken. I was done dealing with doctors.
Making My Own Decisions
This traumatic situation helped me make my decision with ease to delay any surgeries until I felt I was physically and emotionally equipped to handle them. It was very clear to me I needed to embrace a full healing journey of mind, body, and spirit. I felt pressure that I needed to heal on a timeline because of income. I was so far removed from being able to “work,” I couldn’t even type on a computer, never mind everything else. I made a final desperate attempt to reach the Go Fund Me goal, which we had increased after the second surgery, by pleading to people in the Vermont business community and on social media. I felt I completely lost my dignity as I lost another round of people.
Ultimately, we reached the fundraising goal and I was able to stop stressing about money enough to give myself the summer to weave together a healing path without the fear of having to sell our house and find an apartment. The financial anxiety was so intense throughout everything so far, that in some ways it was more terrifying than the actual cancer. The constant fear of losing our home and how I would find work after such a fall from grace in a small state resulted in a constant stream of tension in my body from the moment I was diagnosed. Some of that tension was finally able to start to release.
I began working with a physical therapist, and while they cannot legally diagnose, they were confident the source of the pinched nerve stemmed from the neck. They also agreed with me that the throat tube in my neck during the second surgery combined with the constant pressure and tension of my experience and inflammation, caused such an acute pinched nerve situation.
There was something more as well. The neck is the source of the voice, and my voice, my truth, and my story has been stifled my entire life. Feeling misunderstood, unwanted, disregarded, and not belonging have been reoccurring themes in my life. Yet, my voice has made a difference in a lot of people’s lives and communication was how I had made my living. There was so much for me to uncover and learn about the energetic imprints wrapped up within me from lifetimes of my soul’s journey.
There was nothing I could do now except sit, lie down, and walk. I could not turn my neck back and forth or up and done. I could not write, cook, or read. I was forced to stop everything, which in retrospect, was exactly what I needed. Spring was unfurling with beautiful magnificence and I spent many days sitting on the deck, watching the subtle change of colors in the trees. As I sat, I was filled with wonder at the beauty and brilliance all around me. I realized for so long all I had wanted was to simply be in the spring and watch the magic bloom. Here I was at the most horrific moment in my life, doing just that. The juxtaposition was not left unnoticed and I began to awaken to the realization that multiple realities and truths are always existing at the same time. It is yet again the norms of dominant culture that imply something can only be one thing or another, that good cancels bad. My perspectives began to change…there was so much to unlearn and relearn.
Belonging to the Earth
Sitting on the deck was often followed by a walk in the woods where I would focus on balancing the left and right side of my body, walking with all four corners of my feet barefoot on the Earth. There was really only one place I felt I belonged, and that was to the land. Mitch and I’s hard work over the years was bursting into so many gifts I had never noticed before. The ancestors of the land began to whisper—from the rocks and trees, from the water and the moss. And for the first time in my life, I began to learn how to truly listen.
I fell into the true embodiment of a depression. It was dark, sad, and painful. It was also beautiful and deeply nourishing. I spent days on end in the forest, listening, healing, questioning, settling, and learning to sit with the discomfort, the unknowing, and the extreme sadness. I was both silent, and also began to re-awaken my singing voice. I created somatic processes of moving energy through my body with my voice, releasing as sounds, chants, and songs. I was remembering the medicine womxn from long ago. I was learning how to wield my power, how to awaken my intuition so it can be a source of magic. I faced my shadows and was held in safety by the shadows of the trees, in the dark spaces of the woods.
As spring turned to summer, I found ways to modify my movements so I could function with my limited mobility and developed a deep sense of gratitude for the time and space to slow down. I balanced my days between sitting on the deck, laying on the grass, and walking in the woods with seeing my physical therapist, Reiki practitioner, and starting to work with an acupuncturist.
I ate a simple diet of fresh foods with lots of plants. Mitch took over the vegetable garden so we could grow some of our own food—not the scale we did in the past—but it was exactly what we needed in the moment. We planted green manure to help nurture the soil and increase the nutrients, just as I was replenishing the nutrients in my body. I spent time learning about the medicinal plants growing on the land and we planted native species to introduce back into the ecosystem. I sang to the trees and strengthened my relationship with our animals, who were also traumatized from the emotional reactivity of the winter and spring.
I experienced a Shamanic healing session, resulting in a profound shift in my emotional healing. I was able to peel back the soggy layer of sadness to reveal a deep hurt that was buried in a very broken heart from years of repeating patterns of rejection, loss, and grief. These patterns of unworthiness, beginning in childhood, combined with a previous health crisis and economic instability, had been bottled up in my body for so long that my current diagnosis was the catalyst for a complete transformation. The Shamanic experience helped me begin to draw the spiritual connection between my broken heart and dis-ease in my breast. My depression deepened with the uncovering of so much trauma, but I knew I had to face my shadows—what was inflicted on me, what I then inflicted onto others, and how the trauma manifested into self sabotaging behaviors.
Remembering My Inner Child
I developed a strong urge to go home—to my childhood homes and friends of my youth. I wanted to remember who I was, when my primal magic was strong, before I began to give my power away. I packed up all my food, supplements, and body props, and went on a road trip. I still had difficulty moving my neck, and centered myself in acceptance of my physical limitations, moving at the pace of a person twice my age. My movements and speech were less than half of what they were before I got sick. My brain function and capacity slowed as well. I realized how much my body and mind needed to operate at less than half capacity, and gratitude grew for the gifts that began to present out of the suffering.
As “Anne of Green Gables” would say, I explored my old haunts and visited with friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in over 30 years—when we were just little girls! I asked everyone I reconnected with one question—what was my best quality that wasn’t a skill? Since so much of my worth in my career was centered on a skill, and clearly people moved on when that skill was no longer available to them, I needed to know what else was worthy of love. The words and characteristics were so beautiful. I was filled heartfelt stories of ways I impacted people’s lives as someone who sparkled with light, kindness, compassion, and a voice for justice.
I developed a deep sense of longing for this girl and the parts that were lost. Much of how my old friends described me was a very far cry from the way colleagues in my career would have described me. I began to lean into parts of the old narratives I could reclaim, honoring that young, brave, beautiful girl with a free spirit and depth of understanding for the plights of humanity. I spent time with that girl and welcomed her into the authenticity of who I was starting to become. I felt a new kind of energy and light rekindling from somewhere deep in my heart.
I visited both of my old homes, knocking on the doors asking if I could walk around the properties. I was granted permission at both homes, and I wandered the lands that held me when I was young. As a child and teenager, I spent so much time in the woods, connecting with spirits and playing with my imagination. As an adult, I often journey back to these woods as my safe places in the dreamtime. I walked the brooks, remembered the trees, and they remembered me. I was filled with the magic that was alive in my youth, when we can easily connect with past lifetimes. The inner wisdom that lives in us as children is etched out as we are bred to be workers in the economy, rather than belonging to and caring for the land that provides us with the air, water, food, and shelter that give us life.
I returned to Mitch with a little piece of my heart restored and the request for him to call me by a new name. I no longer wanted to be called Rachel. I wanted the harsh “ch” sound to be removed from my name. I asked to be called Rae—a name I gave myself when I was shifting from girlhood into adolescence that became an endearing nickname some of my friends called me in high school. I want to shine with my inner “Rae of Light”, while also being reminded that the journey to find her could only come from embracing the creative powers of the darkness.
Light Only Exists with Darkness
The hard truths of transformation are found when we can hold and accept the shadow self. Darkness is in the waters, deep in the soil. Life comes from darkness, deep in the womb of a woman’s body and from within the womb of the Earth. Darkness holds the night and the creative powers of femininity, power that has been stamped out in a patriarchal world order of constant growth, brightness, and “being on”; being perfect and striving for beauty and acceptance in the eyes of the white, masculine gaze. However light can only shine if there is darkness to shine out of.
I began to more spiritually understand the imbalance between masculine and feminine not only in my body, but in the world. Harmony with light and dark is a flow between, and the masculine has been in the lead for far too much and for far too long. The time for the feminine is rising—in my body, in the energies around us all, in astrology, in prophecy…and never before has there been a greater need for the feminine energies…in politics, leadership, education, healthcare, climate action, and caring for the Earth with reciprocity. The imbalance resides in all of our bodies, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, because of the patriarchy’s dismissal of both energies existing within us at the same time. We each have masculine and feminine energies within us, and finding our feminine while toning down the masculine is integral to our collective healing.
Mitch and I began discussing these themes and working together to find masculine and feminine energetic harmony within ourselves and our relationship. We spent more time feeling the feminine energies of our emotions and releasing pain and sorrow into the woods, in rivers, and lakes, physically feeling and letting go of the past.
I sometimes imagined releasing cancer to the moss to be composted into a gift for the Earth. I began to recognize that cancer is more than just a physical invasion in the cells, but toxic thoughts and energies that are stuck in the body. As we made commitments and created practices to let go, we also agreed to remove the phrase “should” from our vocabularies. This enabled us to begin to let go of expectations from people, society, and each other; as well as our own expectations of others. Together we embraced healing. A tender and sweet new love for each other in a magical summer where we hid, protected from the world, as we deepened our gratitude, and learned to just be present in the moment with our breath.
By the end of the summer, I felt small improvements in my neck and began to lower the dose of gabapentin. I felt larger improvements in my uterus, including much less painful periods, and longer length between menses. I was healing and realized I may be able to pass on the hysterectomy. I began to really understand the connection between emotions, energy, and our bodies and trust in the message that our bodies truly want to heal. Unresolved trauma sits as blocked energy in the body. Emotional pain clogs the energy centers that govern different bodily functions—from organs to nerve endings—which are set off by different triggers, creating dis-ease in the body when unable to be effectively released.
Joining the “Cancer Club” at age 41 was an isolating experience. Support groups are filled with retired-age women, many of whom are survivors or in remission, who were very different from me and I didn’t feel I could relate. The few younger women I connected with had aggressive stages of cancer and were tragically making plans for their end of life. The breast cancer I had was non life-threatening and because I wasn’t going through radiation or chemotherapy, I was not in proximity to other people with active cancer.
I also began to notice the “Cancer Club” had elements of elitism and seemed very supportive for a certain type of middle or upper class heterosexual white women. I’ll never forget how horrified I was reading a pamphlet in a waiting room that gave advice for how to manage the holidays when you had cancer if you were struggling about how to be with family. The pamphlet’s advice said to tell family you weren’t up for family time and to go pamper yourself at a spa instead. Messages like this, painting a Hallmark movie representation of cancer, are everywhere in the cancer space, and promote a false narrative about what it like to have cancer.
I felt really uncomfortable with how breast cancer patients are portrayed in cancer campaigns and in the media in general. I felt expectations and opinions from people in my life informed by marketing messages like “You’ve got this” and “Kick cancer’s ass” rather than listening to and accepting my experience and needs. I struggled with the fighting, aggressive, patriarchal language used to speak about cancer. This all seemed counter-productive to healing and once again found myself in a place of challenging the status quo.
Injustice in Health Care
Multiple health conditions, including cancer, means life becomes centered around going to appointments, waiting for information, and then scheduling more appointments. There is a lot of time spent in the hospital and in doctor offices. Over the course of my diagnosis, I experienced multiple inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and poor communication that plague the healthcare system. I finally filed a complaint after being scheduled for a treatment for a cancer I didn’t even have. I recall stating in my complaint that patients would be better served if some of the robust dollars spent on marketing were instead allocated to internal communication systems.
Many of the medical professionals I encountered were also suffering from their own burnout, which contributes to approaching patient’s differently, depending on circumstances, backgrounds, questions raised, willingness to be complacent, and mental capabilities. The entire insurance system is also a nightmare in and of itself, being cause for mental health challenges simply by how it is structured and dictates the type of care some people can receive. Not to forget about those people who are denied health care because of the inequitable system to begin with.
As I navigated the healthcare system, I transitioned from an active participant in life to a witness of my own life and those around me. While this was a painful realization, it was also a very educational one. I was no longer a healthy vibrant woman just out of her 30s, but instead a sick person and I felt much more comfortable being around other sick people. I changed from the person who got paid to communicate to a person who was paying to listen. The horror stories I would hear from other people navigating the healthcare system, many who had far more complications than I did, were just awful. The strength and resilience people showed was inspirational and my heart opened to the realities of suffering I lacked awareness of as a striving business woman.
I began to feel compassion from a place in my heart I was never able to tap into before I got sick. I was also able to see much more clearly the broad spectrum of injustice between the people whose lives the system values more than others; those with healthcare and those without; those with wealth for holistic options and those who are tangled up in the control cycles of insurance companies. I used to think that people with complicated health issues who often wanted to speak about the broken system were exaggerating or a little crazy. I didn’t want to believe it was that bad, and instead discredited someone else’s lived experience. Then I began to experience my own judgements in reverse. The health care system IS that bad (and worse). When I spoke about it, I noticed people judging me just like I had judged those before me.
As I dug into the root causes of breast cancer, I also began to wake up to the racial injustice from social and environmental causes, contributing to overwhelming rates of breast cancer in Black women. Cancer just happens the doctors say? Bullshit. Toxins in the air, soil, and water cause mitochondrial DNA mutations in the body that create cancer cells. Chemicals in food, products, and homes cause mitochondrial DNA mutations in the body that create cancer cells. Many Black women are employed in the beauty industry and use beauty products that have known cancer-causing chemicals in them—because the FDA refuses to ban known carcinogens from products, further perpetuating the economic injustice of capitalism and ultimately racism. Black women, Black people, and other People of Color and marginalized populations who live and work in environmentally unsafe locations, because of systemic racism and economic injustice, have much higher risks for cancer. The inequity in our food system which forces people with lower incomes to eat chemical-additive, processed, poor nutritional foods, not only increases risk of cancer, but sugar and anything processed as sugar in the body actually contributes to cancer cell growth. For data, resources, and action please see Breast Cancer Action and Women’s Voices for the Earth.
The Genetics of Cancer and Mitochondrial DNA
I am interested in efforts that identify, address, and work to heal the root causes of social and health issues. My approach to life has always focused on depth and taking the long view—finding answers to the question I always ask…Why? I studied scientific papers about the root causes of breast cancer, and, in doing so began to understand why the quest for cures remains so elusive—because there is no profit in cancer prevention—its a lucrative, capitalistic mega-industry backed by pharmaceutical mega-corporations aimed at treating symptoms instead of causes.
My dive into understanding mitochondrial DNA mutations that cause cancer cell germination took my research exploration deep into my own body. The Go Fund Me afforded me the opportunity to work with a breast cancer specialist, who was also a geneticist, to analyze the toxins in my body against my genetic data from 23 and Me genetic testing. From this analysis, the doctor helped me understand the mitochondrial DNA mutations which led to the causes of cancer in my body. I underwent a series of toxicology tests to inform what genes had mutated due to how environmental and stress influencers interacted with my own specific genes to produce mutations that cause cancer cells.
In my case, hormones in foods and birth control, pesticides and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in foods, xenoestrogens in beauty products (carcinogenic chemicals made from plastic), acrylamide from high heat cooking, alcohol consumption, stress, and emotional trauma—when combined with my own genetic challenges in estrogen reception and digestion—were the leading contributors to mitochondrial DNA mutations in my body. So, from a physical body perspective, cancer prevention can be supported by eliminating and healing from the effects of these cancer causing factors, which is MUCH easier said than done.
Working with a team of naturopath doctors, we were able to drill down to how these gene mutations presented in my body to generate the conditions for cancer cell growth. The combination of intake factors named above and the actual physical ailments taking place in my body, identified inflammation, insufficient digestion, estrogen dominance, androgen disruption, and poor liver function as the direct causes of dis-ease in my body. This knowledge allowed me to unpack a path for physical transformation…treating these root cause conditions in my body and working to eliminate the contributing factors.
As I dug into the depths of science and medical knowledge, my medicine womxn ancestry, feminine intuition, and Earth wisdom was simultaneously awakening from deep within me, spiraling together with my strategic planning and communications background to strengthen my quest to identify and heal root causes of dis-ease in my body. My approach to holistic healing was birthing into a full embodied understanding and practice.
Healing root causes is not a part of conventional medicine. The type of genetic work I did is a part of holistic health care and is not integrated with conventional health care nor is it accessible to most people. It is only because of my privilege of having a network to support me with the Go Fund Me and the educational and career opportunities I have experienced—all of which are benefits of my being white skinned—that I have been afforded the opportunity to learn this level of knowledge.
It is my responsibility to share my story, so that this knowledge can be used to help foster change for equity and justice in health care and to inform and support people navigating their own personal situations. It is also important to note, the reason why this kind of information is not more readily available is because every single person’s genetics are different. Mitochondrial mutations are going to differ for every single person, making it challenging to conduct research and provide any concrete “evidence,” which the conventional medicine world clings to as the only proof of existence. Regardless of the conventional medicine insistence for research and measurable data, people are not statistics. We have individual bodies and situations that must be addressed when addressing health care practices and the intersectionality with broader health equity conversations.
Let me be clear, I am not anti-conventional health care. Also referred to as allopathic medicine, conventional medicine treats acute issues with precision and is a necessary part of the health care mix. However, it fails at addressing the onslaught of long-term illness. Long-term illness is “long term” not only because it lasts a long time, but because it takes a long time to develop. Individual bodies MUST be considered alongside numbers by healthcare insurance and allopathic doctors for there to be improvements in our health and dis-eases such as cancer. Furthermore, a vast majority of causes lie within the social and environmental inequities of a fast-paced, capitalistic, patriarchal, and racist society. The pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness for ALL can only exist if ALL people are able to equitably access health care and address their health needs in a system where some lives are NOT valued more than others.
As a part of reclaiming my relationship to the Earth and working with plant medicine—both foods and herbs—I made a commitment to attend the New England Women’s Herbal Conference. This gathering of medicine women was always an event I wanted to attend, but never had the time. Early on in my cancer diagnosis process, I remember stomping my feet on the floor and proclaiming that I would attend the Women’s Herbal Conference at the end of the summer no matter what. When I made the decision to pause from conventional medicine, the conference was always in the back of my mind as something I needed to attend before returning to conventional medicine to address the mastectomy.
Let there be no illusion here, while the summer of 2018 was very healing and I made tremendous progress, I was still a very sick woman. I was undergoing deep transformation and was wide open and unraveled. My energy was both dark and light, my boundaries unrealized, my heart both leaking and hungry, my soul like a sponge to receive guidance for my soul journey.
As I prepared for the conference, I was already bursting at the seems with information about plant medicine properties and uses, still trying to create the space to transfer that knowledge into application. I knew I would trigger old wounds if I learned more about what I could do on the land and in my kitchen with plants. I decided to attend the conference with the intention to experience the spiritual aspects of plant medicine and engage in embodiment and somatic practices to help me get out of my head and into my body; focusing my energy on connection with the universe.
I was physically challenged upon arrival given my mobility issues and was reminded instantaneously of my loneliness. While I felt an intuitive sense of belonging as I was surrounded by medicine and magical women of all kinds, I was very alone, knowing only a couple women from who I had received healing gifts. I fell into the energy of a shadow, barely interacting with anyone and fearful of taking up too much space with the brevity of my health situation. While this was very sad and I found myself in tears many times, it also positioned me to be deep in the space of being a witness and my receptivity for perspective change was ripe with all of the preceding work I had been doing to heal and transform.
Listening to the Truth of Black and Brown-skinned Women
The racial diversity of the keynote speakers and workshop teachers—in skin color, gender identity, cultural background, and spiritual practices—was incredible. The words, stories, and guidance that was shared danced in my mind as visions of clarity started to drop into me from the moment I heard the first collective circle address. Clearly I was meant to be in that exact moment of time with exactly all of the experiences, lessons, and knowledge I had to date. I grounded myself and began downloading information and drawing connections at lightening speed.
Throughout the weekend I unlearned what had already been unraveling for me, and began to lay the foundation for relearning. The suffering and trauma of Black and Brown skinned people from the herbal medicine and spiritual healing spaces was gut wrenching as the direct root cause analysis was made very clear between the horrors of genocide, colonization, slavery, and capitalism. The cultural appropriation of indigenous plant medicines and spiritual practices by white people who have altered and commodified these practices and medicines for their financial benefit was made crystal clear. Indigenous people were prohibited by white people to practice their own medicines as white people killed and removed indigenous people from their homeland, forcing them to assimilate into white culture. And then, years later, white culture takes, markets, and packages these indigenous practices and medicines into something palpable for white audiences, dishonoring the origins, ignoring the magnitude of harm that has prevailed over hundreds of years, while also harming the Earth to keep up with the white demand of capitalistic marketing.
Listening to indigenous women tell their stories and speak of this pain snapped me into a truth I had never been able to understand before as a white women. Then the Black women of African decent spoke with an anger that cut deep into the depths of racialized trauma. They spoke of the experiences of their ancestors, who lived as slaves, their medicines and spiritual practices whipped out of them and much, much worse. They spoke of micro-aggressions white women enact every day, including at the conference. They demanded that we—white women—do better and that we hold much power and privilege to shape and demand change.
Like all dynamics in diverse communities, the herbalism world is a microcosm of the broader world, and that repair, reparations, and reconciliation cannot come together as a collective rise of feminine power until we heal our own ancestral and cultural traumas. I listened intently as Brown and Black skinned women made the case with very distinct clarity for the healing within cultural groups and the call for white women to use our power and privilege to figure out how to repair so much harm without relying on emotional labor from people of color.
My ears and eyes were wide open. My intention to receive from the universe was received with a greater clarity I have never known. I clearly understood the gift of my illness allowed me to bear witness to such raw emotion and pure, honest truth. The truth that lies behind the assumptions of dominant society. While I challenged components of the status quo most of my life, I did so within the silo of my own energetic blockages. I now saw there were people and practices to guide me in this work. I received marching orders that weekend and the seeds were planted for uncovering my purpose in cultural transformation through healing and social justice. The self pity I felt when I arrived at the conference transformed into an energized perspective flip. I understood my health crisis had a purpose and I got cancer for a reason. My quest for learning the answers to Why? began to fall into place.
Charged with a clarified sense of direction for my path to personal change and how that transformation would inform work that was to come in racial justice, I needed to better understand my ancestry and begin my journey to become anti-racist.
The Trauma Passed Down Through Generations
When I was researching cancer causes and learning about my DNA analysis, I began looking into my paternal ancestry in Vermont and traced the path backwards to their arrival in Massachusetts as early colonizers from England of the religious persuasion. I have been aware of my English heritage for most of my adult life, always having felt drawn to the forests, weather, and “kitchen witch” practices of England. Now I looked at it through the lens of the harm these ancestors caused in their positions as religious leaders, colonizers, with one even being a lawmaker in Vermont around the time of the eugenics project—sterilization of the Abenaki First Nations people and other dark-skinned, and some disabled people on the stolen lands where I live now.
My maternal ancestry is French via Quebec and some Irish. I learned I am a descendant of the The Filles du roi, or Daughters of the King, women sent over to populate Quebec per order of King Louis XIV. Women directed by the patriarchy to leave their homeland, to serve the patriarchy and colonize Abenaki land. This family lineage grew along with many others, over-populating Quebec, forcing migration south when farming could no longer sustain livelihood. These families came through Vermont and landed in industrialized areas of Massachusetts, working the hardened life of factory workers and experiencing the economic disparity of classism.
Throughout the past couple of years, since attending the New England Women’s Herbal Conference in 2018, I spent time researching and reading as well as meditating and journeying in the dreamtime to find ways to connect with these ancestors to feel into what their experiences may have been like. On one side of my ancestry, there is a very privileged, intellectual elite who benefitted from and informed the dominating patriarchal world order. I felt the oppression and emotional harm this lineage passes down, being raised in a strict father model upbringing with all of the implications of paternalism. On the other side, women were controlled by the patriarchy, in a similar manner from which they arrived on this continent. Working class pain further toughened the women over the generations as they closeted emotions to drive progress with the force expected of a workhorse constitution. I felt the implications of this lineage through my drive for perfectionism and the lack of compassion Mitch called me out on which I spoke to in the Empowerment with Compassion section. On both sides there is oppressor and oppressed trauma, which continues to get passed down to this day.
This country was founded on genocide, colonization, and colonialism. Capitalism only thrives because of racism. These are painful truths that have caused so much harm to a nation founded on violence. So many white people refuse to accept this truth, yet this acceptance and feeling through the emotions the truth reveals is the path to our collective healing. To do ancestral healing work, I had to go through some really horrific feelings about this history—the horror of it all and that I exist because of the suffering inflicted onto others. It brings up so many emotions and, because I was already in a state of emotional depth, I was able to readily drop into the complexity of white Western European ancestral truth.
Cultural Context of Behavior
Because I am white, of European descent, and was born and grew up in this country, racism lives in my DNA. This country was founded on so much horror because white Europeans were fleeing from horror in Europe. We brought with us all of that trauma we were fleeing from over thousands of years of patriarchal violence in Europe and repackaged it on this land, creating racism as a way to eliminate some of the pressure in our white bodies, and transmute it into Brown and Black bodies.
Racism and violence is at the foundation of who we are as a country and it manifests as oppressor trauma in white bodies. For many of us with white skin, the oppressed trauma of patriarchy also lives in our bodies. A perfect storm of a deep-rooted inability to process our emotions lives in the bodies of ALL Americans. A myriad of behaviors arise out of this shared cultural trauma—such as abuse, violence, not speaking up when you see something unjust happen to another human being, apathy, and compassion fatigue. I finally understood how compassion fatigue got passed down through the generations and into my body. I also understood where the drive to speak up for justice came from—because resilience is also passed down and that strength lives within me too.
Feeling the emotions and moving them through the body is imperative to beginning to address racialized trauma as a responsibility of white people committed to healing and unity. This is a process I began to fold into the healing modalities I work with in the relationship between my body and the land—-land that was stolen by the arch of my ancestors so I can live here.
It’s a big hot mess, but one that must be addressed to bring healing to our bodies, the land, and our collective humanity. Racism, patriarchy, colonization, and genocide ARE the root cause of the majority of suffering in this country—of people of ALL skin colors. Yet, for many white people, it’s too big to start there. We need to begin with our emotions and learn how to feel…to feel pain and joy and the full spectrum of emotions and accept that all of them are okay to feel. It’s what we do with those emotions once we can recognize them that can either cause harm to ourselves and others or begin the path of personal healing which leads to cultural transformation.
I needed to learn to feel the guilt, anger, and hurt and make decisions about how to repair that harm in the ways I can, which is so much of what EmpowR is all about. I also needed to find ways to embrace my ancestry and learn about customs and lineage that I want to honor in my spiritual practice and in the ways I live my life. I am also here because of love and I needed to work through the pain of ancestral healing to create the space for where love existed in my ancestors. To this day, I continue finding ways to connect with my ancestors for guidance and to heal the harms they inflicted on others through my commitment to culture change work.
I learned so much going through cancer about cultural behaviors that caused me harm. By engaging in ancestral healing and being committed to anti-racism work, I am able to understand why those toxic norms and assumptions exist. People telling each other how to feel that pushes for toxic positivity is an obsession we have as a white culture to “stay positive” and discredit the depth of our emotions out of fear of feeling “bad”. We have this binary way of thinking that something is either good or bad, happy or sad, light or dark; when instead it’s all happening at the same time and multiple realities exist simultaneously. Feeling despair and hope can be felt at the same time, instead of denying one and only focusing on the other.
We have this urgent desire in white, dominant culture to be perfect and deal with everything all at once. I found myself getting sick directly by trying to upend those behaviors. Conventional doctors do the same with non-invasive cancer—we have to cut it out right away no matter what other damage it does to your body—instead of looking at the whole person and their challenges, support systems, limitations, other complications. People were so judgmental about my situation and how I asked for support. I found people wanted to offer the kind of support that made them feel good and were uncomfortable when what I was asking wasn’t comfortable for them. They made my cancer about them and their needs, their stories, instead of just having compassion for my truth.
Clearly, this was only some people, as others were incredibly supportive. However, it caused enough harm for me to want to understand Why? As I did more work to unpack racism, I learned these behaviors are key traits of the dominant, status quo culture that defines American culture and are also known as traits of white supremacy culture, another word that brings up a knee-jerk emotional response in people because it is uncomfortable. The avoidance of that discomfort is in fact a key detriment to our ability to feel the feelings behind the discomfort so we can begin to heal.
The behaviors that come from the shared white European lineages of oppressor and oppressed ancestral trauma got passed down and became character traits and family values. These then became norms and got passed down among more generations and more widely accepted so that they became culture. In the case of America, this toxic culture harms us all. I saw and experienced small doses of this through my cancer experience, and it helped me to be able to understand my life purpose is to work towards changing culture, away from the harmful cultural norms of white supremacy, beginning with individual healing.
I am committed to the lifelong journey of becoming an anti-racist, decolonizing my white-centric worldview, and working to upend systemic racism and it’s intersectionality with all forms of oppression and injustice. I owe so much gratitude to the women of color who spoke at the 2018 New England Women’s Herbal Conference for helping me to see the connections and receive the spiritual teachings I called into being in the form of cancer in my body.
By the time September 2018 rolled around, I knew it was time to return to conventional medicine. I had uncovered so much and was actively healing my body, mind, and spirit. I thought I was healthy enough to face a mastectomy and was also secretly hopeful that all of the magic I uncovered had cured the cancer in my breast.
I was wrong.
The day came to head back into the cancer center at the hospital for imaging. I was armed with protection spells and dressed in my best goddess attire, adorned with charms calm in my body and mind, or so I thought. Mitch and his mom, Mellonee, were with me and I felt safe and supported. I grounded on the Earth under the cherry tree before we left and meditated the entire way to the hospital.
Upon entering the waiting room, the chaos begin. They had my appointment time wrong and were immediately annoyed at me as if I got it wrong (which I hadn’t, this appointment was scheduled months ago and I had received several reminders as well as submitted pre-paperwork). I was triggered even further when handed a packet of paperwork they insisted I fill out because of my “leave of absence” even though I had already submitted paperwork. I sat down immediately feeling anxious and deflated as tears began to swell in my eyes and frustration grew instantaneously in my body. I could barely hold the pen never mind comprehend how to write on repeat the same information I had been supplying at every single appointment since being diagnosed with cancer.
Then my phone rang and a hospital social worker began asking a flurry of questions that I would not have answers to until after my imaging, when the call was scheduled to take place. As I was trying to explain my situation on the phone, holding the barely started paperwork, the nurse came to ask me if I was done with my paperwork and that it was time for imaging.
I exploded. I threw the paperwork, stood up, kicked over my chair and fled from the waiting room. I ran through the hospital, completely out of my body, fleeing like a weeping rainbow; a caged bird flapping for escape. People just stared as I cried out asking for the exit. I ran outside and into the bushes, crawling onto the Earth where I huddled myself in a ball, rocking back and forth sobbing uncontrollably.
As I cried, I slowly came back to my body with the support of the Earth and began to notice all of the people walking by, pretending not to notice. Finally a parking attendant came over and tried to coax me inside. I refused and asked he find Mitch and Mellonee in the breast cancer center and bring them out to me.
Mitch and Mellonee arrived and held me, agreeing that the sequence of events was too much for me to handle. Part of my challenging experience in the spring, going through the first two surgeries, was the inconsistency and onslaught of paperwork, consistent scheduling mistakes, and, not to mention two surgeries that were unsuccessful at removing all the cancer in my breast.
To many people, this overreaction seems ridiculous. This is how insidious trauma works. The build up of anxiety and tension in the body gets triggered in certain situations, causing a trauma response, as was what happened to me that day. Clearly I had a lot more healing to do, but in this moment, the only thing I could do was try to settle my body and hope to be treated with empathy.
Quite the opposite followed. After I was settled, we returned to the breast care center and Mitch took charge. The nurses told him we missed my appointment with “all of the nonsense” and we would have to reschedule. Mitch asserted in a way I hadn’t ever seen before that warmed my heart through all the pain. He laid into them, explaining this was partially their fault and used the appropriate language from his behavior specialist background to clearly communicate I was experiencing a trauma response.
I was able to get the imaging and then we were ushered into a private room to wait for the oncologist. She came in, armed with two nurses for protection, and laid into me with outrage. “Before we talk about your imaging, we need to discuss what just happened. You scared my patients, you scared my staff, and you must have been scared yourself. Your cancer has spread and you need a mastectomy immediately. However you are unstable and mentally unfit for surgery and I don’t think it’s safe for you to continue with this hospital.”
Mitch, Mellonee and I received this information with shock. The hospital staff’s inability to handle a mental health crisis was appalling. I agreed I needed to get away from the hospital and made the decision right there to switch to Central Vermont Medical Center and get the mastectomy with a general surgeon I had never met. We left and I felt nothing but guilt and shame, and continued to be in shock.
When Trauma Becomes Suicidal
The next morning I woke up and was strangely calm. I tried to get onto the yoga mat and move, but found myself thrown into a fit of rage. Apparently all of my work to release the pain, hurt, rejection, loss, sadness, and everything from the build up of trauma over the past ten years, and much of my life, was not even close to enough. I began fishtailing as I had once before after I found out the second surgery didn’t get all of the cancer. Only this time the physical fit was matched with the suicidal ideation and I found myself banging my body against the wall.
Mitch came in and restrained me, which took a good amount of effort. I screamed it all out, mostly saying, “They don’t support me. I need this to be real for people. No one cares about me.” Who was they? Everyone. Family, friends, colleagues, hospital staff. Everyone I had lost. Everyone who had judged. Everyone who turned their backs, unfriended me, not returned an email, or just stopped talking to me.
My suicidal ideation was to drive off the high bridge overpass on I-89, which is part of why I needed people to drive me to the hospital. The image on the 89 bridge was repeating over and over in my head as I screamed.
Then something incredible happened. My higher self literally took over my body. I told Mitch to call the suicide hotline and that I needed to go somewhere safe. Mitch asked me if I knew what that meant. I said yes. I worked in residential treatment with many adolescents with suicidal tendencies when I was younger and knew the kind of environment I would be entering into.
I stood up and packed a bag for one week, making sure there were no sharp objects. I needed to be in a safe place where I could be supported by professionals and get myself together so I could have this surgery. I also needed to take the burden off Mitch. His mom was with us so finally there was someone to take care of him. My health crisis became a health crisis for him too as a caregiver, especially given our sparse support system. I took a shower and we drove to Central Vermont Medical Center.
In the emergency room I was treated with so much empathy and compassion and immediately felt safe. Seven hours later I was admitted into a Washington Mental Health home facility where I stayed for a week. It was a similar type of place to the one I had worked at years ago and I felt strangely at home. I was quite an anomaly to the staff and not at all the typical patient. We learned a lot from each other and again I found myself in a place of witness to the deeper issues of health equity as I listened, observed, and experienced all that was taking place around me.
The most incredulous part of the experience was the other women who was a patient. From the moment I arrived in a most petrified state, she showed me such kindness and humanity. Over the week we spent much time together, coloring and grounding outside on the grass, and talking about generational poverty, income injustice, and the mental health system. As people, we learn the most from our most challenging experiences and that week ended up being a blessing to me in so many ways.
I was also mentally evaluated by a clinical psychologist and my diagnosis was exactly as I had thought. Anxiety, depression, and repetitive situational trauma which diminished my ability to cope with stress. To think how many people suffer from these types of mental health challenges, yet cannot talk about them because of the stigma attached to mental health is another example of the harmful norms of dominant culture. So many people suffer with much more severe conditions and are treated without dignity or respect in the healthcare system and in society. I think about this level of suffering and the inequity in mental health treatment as a source of so much violence in this country.
Removing a Breast and Moving Forward
At the end of September 2018, I had the mastectomy surgery which included the removal of four lymph nodes. It was awful and seeing myself the first few times in the shower with my breast cut off incited more trauma responses. But by this point, I had support, thanks to the Central Vermont Cancer Center. A patient navigator was helping me with appointments and working with the hospital. A social worker was helping me apply for cancer grants as I knew it was going to take longer to return to the workforce given all that had happened and how much more healing I needed. I was assigned a support person at the insurance company to help me navigate insurance challenges with post-mastectomy care. I had a home health nurse coming to help me with the surgical site healing and to help me with the fluid drain that was attached to me for a few weeks. A grant was able to pay for a friend to stay with us for a few weeks to help Mitch with tasks and to drive me to appointments. And a few of my holistic health practitioners came to the house to spend time with me.
I accepted with much gratitude the friends that remained in my life and re-focused my energy on trying to strengthen those relationships and find ways to be there for their needs. I started seeing a trauma therapist and working with an occupational therapist to try to avoid the physical complications that come with a mastectomy. I ended up having some tendon challenges which limited my mobility in both of my arms, especially my ability to lift anything more than a coffee mug.
My neck was also healing and I was able to ease myself off gabapentin, although I now had to deal with the tinnitus side effect of ringing in my ears, which took another six months to heal from with some very specific efforts. A follow up MRI on my neck showed what was officially diagnosed as retrolistesis and anterolisthesis, had cleared up in what the doctor said was a timeline he had never seen before. A follow up with a new gynecologist retracted the recommendation for a hysterectomy and who was surprised at my improvements of the adenomyosis symptoms with holistic treatment. I was encouraged to keep doing what I was doing and I received an “off the record” confirmation that birth control pills are directly linked to breast cancer.
The mastectomy surgery results came back and this time the margins cleared and my lymph nodes were clear. The cancer hadn’t spread or become invasive and because I lost the breast, the new doctors felt radiation wasn’t necessary. I was prescribed the pharmaceutical hormone therapy, tamoxifen, to which I respectfully declined.
Cancer prevention and treatment of the very inter-connected dis-eases in my body was going to be with a holistic treatment plan moving forward.
Building upon information I shared in the Waking Up section of my story, I returned to working with my three different naturopath doctors (primary care, oncologist, breast cancer specialist/geneticist) as well as a clinical herbalist and acupuncturist. Now that I was healing from the mastectomy and my mental health crisis, I was able to turn my attention back to the root causes of the culmination of all dis-ease in my body.
Heading into 2019, I learned I had candida overgrowth in my intestines, which also contributes to hormone disfunction. All of the anxiety, trauma, and stress combined with intensive detoxing for eliminating toxins wrecked havoc on my digestion. Ultimately a majority of dis-ease stems from imbalance in the gut and emotional pain sits in this general areas as well, especially in the often imbalanced hips. Food, supplements, herbs, yoga, embodiment practices, and continuing to work through processing my emotional trauma, building upon where I left off from the summer, are all an ongoing part of treating insufficient digestion.
Then there was my poor liver. I definitely drank too much in the years leading up to cancer and cut alcohol out of my life early in the diagnosis. Every couple of months I may have a glass or two of organic red wine but other than that I don’t drink. Alcohol is one of the biggest contributing factors to cancer—especially breast cancer that does not get enough attention due to the popularity of the alcoholic beverage industry. Alcohol processes as sugar though the liver and basically destroys the liver over time depending on how much alcohol and sugar is in someone’s diet—noting that sugar also includes anything ground into a flour—so most processed foods. Pain medications also process through the liver, a confirmation that my intuition was spot on—the excess pain medication for my menstrual cramps contributed to cancer by weakening my liver. Conventional doctors say the liver can’t heal, holistic doctors say it can. My commitment to treating my liver by keeping certain foods out and adding in herbal support and liver supporting foods, is improving my liver function which can be measured by blood tests. I do struggle in this area with sugary foods and have to constantly be mindful. I do a candida cleanse every year to clear out the sugar, which also supports my digestion.
Inflammation was a universal issue in my body, contributing to all of the dis-ease, and also directly linked to sugary and processed foods. I eat an entirely different diet than I did before cancer. I need to be mindful not just about what I keep out of my body, but be really intentional about putting specific foods in that reduce inflammation. I also need to attend to emotional inflammation and work with an Earth-centered spiritual practice daily to care for myself, releasing energies that don’t belong to me and centering my energy to serve my highest purpose.
Treating and managing estrogen dominance is complex. There are so many contributing factors and I must take great care in this area because I declined the pharmaceutical approach for hormone receptive breast cancer treatment. I declined tamoxifen because I believe plant medicine in the forms of food, herbs, and supplements is how we need to treat many medical conditions rather than promoting a corrupt pharmaceutical industry that has a prescription for everything which often just masks symptoms and creates more health challenges. Tamoxifen specifically also increases the risk for adenomyosis, which I have been managing holistically with success. I don’t want to bring it back because of a drug and it seems most intuitive to treat estrogen dominance with the combination of herbs, foods, and supplements I use. Also key in holistic medicine is intuition—listening to the body and holding space for my own inner guidance to be a voice in choosing how I manage my own body. This is part of why I offer healing navigation to people—so more people can connect with their intuition and bring their own voice into the decision-making process of how to treat their own body.
Androgen disruption is hormonal and connected to stress responses. Over time I have developed and honed many practices to serve my ability to manage stress centered around my entire lifestyle change. Of equal importance has been a complete transformation of my perspectives. So much of what I believed in or valued before cancer has shifted. It’s part of why I love being called Rae, because while I reclaimed many lost parts of myself, I also changed so much of how I think, act, speak, move and in doing so, awakened new parts of myself. Or maybe they were there all along, they just never had the opportunity to shine.
Removing carcinogens from my life was also a priority. Because of the knowledge I gained from the toxicology testing and DNA analysis, I was able to target the specific areas I was taking in cancer causing chemicals and focus on minimizing or eliminating exposure. I made major adjustments in the cleaning and personal care products I was using, making much more of my own. Parabens and phthalates—artificial estrogen receptors made from plastic that mimic estrogen—are in so many products, even ones marketed as natural or eco-friendly. Reading the fine print is a commonplace practice now, also helping me realize I needed reading glasses in order to do so. From the fire retardant sprays used on furniture to glossy grocery receipts, from moisturizer to the kinds of oils we cook with on high heat, from metal in the water to pesticides in the soil, cancer-causing chemicals are found everywhere because corporations lack social responsibility and so much of the government is controlled by corporate special interests, keeping cancer causing chemicals part of the American economy. Cancer can be prevented, but there is no profit in cancer prevention, and once again people suffer at the hands of capitalism.
Recognizing My Privilege
I am fully aware that my ability to navigate a holistic treatment path is very much because of the privilege I was afforded by having a network of people support me financially, a network that very much existed because of my position as a white women. I also recognize the support I received following my full mental collapse was very much due to how I was able to advocate for my needs as a white woman who presents in a certain class status, regardless of my actual financial instability. The cost to make the kinds of changes I was able to make is steep and I had to make small changes over large increments time which is yet another reason why healing cannot justly be tied to a timeline. However, lifestyle changes also cost money, which is why food insecurity, economic injustice, and institutional racism must be addressed in direct relationship to conversations about health equity and dis-ease prevention.
Advocating for health equity is directly connected to the work I do now to co-create culture change away from white supremacy norms, serve in volunteer leadership roles, and help empower people from within themselves to advocate for their needs and find the support to navigate paths of healing, including offering these services in ways that are financially accessible.
It’s interesting, to say the least, to go from working in economic development to awakening to the truth that capitalism is the foundation for the economic injustice that is at the base of the root causes of dis-ease in my body, and likewise at the base of so much suffering and violence that is inflicted upon and by the establishment of the United States.
How does one work to dismantle a system yet still have to abide by the economic constriction of that very system? How does one earn an income while working towards breaking the very system that is paying for the work? I’m trying to approach these parallel realities through fostering a community based support system.
As 2019 progressed, I struggled to find work that would not put me back into the immediate grind of burnout. I scraped together some consulting work and learned I could not work in marketing and maintain any sense of integrity or my health.
I tried to weave my way back into my network to try to find a role or position and soon learned that I had been partially cancelled from the Vermont workforce. My public speaking out about burnout and mental health challenges led to even more rejection, turned backs, unfriends, and non-responsive emails. The harder I tried to find work, the more dead ends and closed doors I came up against.
This in turn had a detrimental effect on my health and trauma responses began to resurface, and trying to secure networking opportunities became unsafe activities. Much of my outreach efforts landed in non-response or vague avoidance, each time triggering a cycle of anxiety into depression. There were a handful of very kind people who listened and offered support, although the work prospects were almost non-existent.
The urgency and exceptionalism of dominant culture wore me down yet again. I was exhausted at the overwhelming sense of self-importance I was met with by people who were just “too busy” to offer a response. Perhaps that contributed to my burnout, because over my 20-year career, I was committed to always offering a response and a suggestion if I could’t help when I was approached with an ask.
I felt I was slipping back into the same trap, where the need to earn an income was the driving force behind my existence. I was again feeling the pressure of a timeline that was contributing to further health challenges, as my sense of unworthiness was returning with my inability to earn an income. I was yet again giving away my power, trying to play by someone else’s rules, consumed by the judgements of others. This had to stop.
Gratitude in Isolation
Then COVID arrived and I immediately recognized the gift of already having spent two full years in isolation. I was able to draw on all of the lessons, healing modalities, navigation processes, and gifts from the Earth the past two years had offered and revisit ALL of it. I re-created my healing journey all over again without the crisis of cancer and guided myself through my healing path as both a participant and a witness. I realized my entire experience is what I have to offer—the navigation of holistic healing and how it weaves together with social justice, the bridge building between personal transformation and culture change, the empowerment to rise in feminine energy and reclaim what was stolen by the patriarchy. I understood my power lies in having nothing left to lose, in my voice, in my courage, and in my truth.
I do want to take a moment and extend deep gratitude to the board and staff of Vermont Business for Social Responsibility. I was elected to a volunteer position on the Board of Directors in 2017 and it was one of my biggest career accomplishments at the time. I was offered a hiatus when I got sick and was invited back in 2019 even though I was no longer connected to my career and was still really sick. They could have asked me to leave and there were many ways they could have done so, but they didn’t. They held space for me even though it was uncomfortable, triggering repetitive trauma connected to my former career and burnout. They were able to begin to see my gifts as a perspective to help guide change in these unraveling times, and recently asked me to join the executive committee to expand my volunteer leadership with the organization. VBSR treated me with integrity to their mission and I am so grateful to be able to serve and belong to an organization where I can show up as my whole self.
It is with every single word I wrote in this story arc that sparked the conjuring of EmpowR. The trees and energy of the universe guided just as much of EmpowR’s creation as my professional background in business. The vision is one shared with many who believe in the possibility of healing ourselves to transform our culture to one of love, hope, dignity, and respect for us all, with integrity and reciprocity to the soil, water, and air that give us life—healing ourselves to heal the world. Not only do I believe this is possible, I know. I have the gift of sight and have lived the experience myself. Now it is time to share my gifts without fear and to do so with renewed love in my heart. I also call on my gifts to be received with reciprocity.
It is my intention to speak my truth, share my lived experiences, and be authentic with my vulnerability. My healing process and story is a part of many other people’s healing…because we are all interconnected. The ripples between us are at an energetic frequency that can now almost be seen. By speaking up about non-dominant perspectives and calling out the harmful behaviors I personally experienced within patriarchal society, I give more people permission to speak their truths, tell their stories, advocate for their needs, and speak up for injustice. By sharing my story, I raise questions and dialogues that are integral parts of the work we must do to address harm in order to heal as a nation.
It is not my intention to hurt anyone in telling my story, but as I’ve learned, my intentions don’t really matter if the impact of my words and actions cause harm. This is also my lived experience from which I experienced a great deal of harm. If you are reading these words and there is hurt between us and you feel like you want to engage in reciprocal healing, I would like to call you in for a conversation and invite you to reach out. It is an act of courage—to make a commitment to healing—that we can share in acts that spread healing into the world. The ripples of our individual healing are the kinds of growth and expansion that will have the greatest impact on transforming our culture to one of healing, justice, and liberation.
As I have learned from my personal experience healing from illness and trauma, it is the inability to be seen and heard, the lack of opportunity to offer gifts and have them be received, the expectations to follow the patriarchal norms of dominant society, and the expectations to be compliant within the harmful culture of accelerated perfectionism that cause dis-ease in the body.
EmpowR—a culmination of the wisdom earned from my lived experiences, the gifts bestowed upon me for this lifetime, and the energetic healing of past lifetimes—is my courageous attempt to prevent cancer and maintain physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness by fulfilling my life purpose to serve people and the planet for the time I am blessed to experience here on Earth.
I chose the platform of the EmpowR website to share my story in this way because it is what is accessible to me and it is so deeply interwoven with EmpowR, that it felt very alive for me to share here, with the complexity of my whole self. When I tried to sit down and write a shorter story more aligned with a website, this is what came out. Instead of trying to fit my story into a box to be palpable to the old norms of fragmented soundbites that leave room for harmful assumptions, I embraced my own guidance to start to create new paradigms around a story being told how it wants to be told.
I would love to expand this into a book and welcome any connections that can be made to an agent or publisher, this is something I am actively calling in.
I offer this story with my heart and in the spirit of reciprocity, if this story touched you in anyway, please consider sharing the EmpowR website with people you know and please consider engaging with me on social media and help EmpowR reach more audiences. If you are financially able to support my uncompensated change making work, please consider becoming an EmpowR Patreon.
Blessings, Gratitude and Love from My Heart to Yours…
“Rae’s ability to reach deep inside and turn tragedy into a way to help others has been truly inspiring. Her vulnerability is both refreshing and inviting and makes her approachable with your own questions and challenges. I think one of Rae’s greatest gifts is an ability to listen deeply. She feels real empathy and asks questions that make you think without any judgement. Rae’s ability to focus on helping others, a gift she has been given through her experience with cancer, is one she has decided to share with us all.”
~ Mark Johnson, Journalist