Cancer Counseling, Spirituality & Psycho-Oncology: The Night Side of Life

"Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place." ~ Susan Sontag

Like the story of so many individual experiences with cancer and transformation, the myth of Inanna is a tale which begins with insidious loss. Inanna's mythology of her underworld journey, literally referred to as "Inanna's Descent into the Underworld"  is a metaphor for the walk we all must make, at some point in life, through a Dark Night of the Soul. For many women (1 in 3 in the US) the Dark night of the soul comes in the form of cancer losses, diagnosis, staging, surgeries, barbaric treatments that seem more like initiations or mutilations for right of passage, and on through treatment completion, re-integrating life, letting go to death or remission.

Innana queen or heaven and earth
Innana queen or heaven and earth

The Descent of Inanna, begins with Inanna living day to day life as the Queen of Heaven and Earth, a Sumerian goddess. Inanna soon learns that a sister goddess is suffering in the underworld, trapped and in need of help. Inanna decides she will descend into the underworld to help her friend. Her level of insight on what this acutally means- descending into the underworld- is like explaining the cancer experience to some one who has never had cancer and allopathic cancer treatments. Inanna couldn't have known, still the ignorance is notable and important.

Inanna is the goddess of love, fertility, war, wisdom and Lust, and don't forget queen or heaven. She is strong, gracious, powerful, prideful, brilliant and beautiful. However, she truly has no "heart knowledge", no lived experience with the many losses marking the walk of the underworld. She has of course "heard" that the journey to the underworld is a perilous challenge, but she imagines she's up to it- after all, she is a Goddess. She wants to keep everything basically "the same" while she traverses the underworld. She's quite competent, has handled many wars/challenges before. She plans to get done what needs to get done and be back as soon as possible.

Innana begins her descent and before long she arrives at the first gate to the underworld. The ominous gate is dark and towers seven feet above Innana's head, a harbinger of overwhelm.  At the first gate also stands a gatekeeper; he asks Inanna to remove the red, blue, green and purple jeweled headdress she proudly dons in order for her to pass beyond his gate. Inanna is slightly reluctant to let go of it. (she thinks, "Is this really necessary?", "I don't want to give this piece up")... She resolves to comply with his request, removes her headdress and continues through the gate.


She travels a bit further down the path and reaches another gate. This gatekeeper requires Inanna to remove a magnificent sparkling necklace embracing her long neck. Inanna again is shocked by the demand and saddened. Again, she complies and slowly and calmly removes her necklace for the gatekeeper. She is then allowed to pass through the gate and descend further. She continues down the darkening path and before long, she reaches a third very tall gate, this time 9 feet higher than her head. The third gatekeeper asks for her ornate breastplate for passage; this breastplate is beautifully textured in gold beaten brass.  Inanna loves it and is deeply attached to it, she feels pangs from within her body, detaches the her breastplate and acquiesces to the initiation. She relinquishes yet another piece of her "self", another power object, another piece of what she believes to be an important piece of her, of who she is, and proceeds further down the stairwell into the underworld. The path continues to get darker; it becomes more cool and damp. She arrives at a fourth gate and here she must remove her girdle.

These losses continue for a total of seven gates; at each one Inanna leaves another symbol of her "upperworld" power behind.

She finally enters the heart of the underworld stripped of most everything that defined her.

She hovers close to the ground, hunched over, seemingly broken...

Cancer is a similar passage. One is asked over and over again to leave behind large pieces of self.

This is where awakening ensues and the inner fire is stoked again for life!

Unencumbered by things and ideas once held as truths, one begins, often for the first time, to ask questions about what is truly real. THIS is where transformation begins.

Cancer cracks through the ego's defenses and coverings. It leaves us exposed, raw, vulnerable and broken open. The crack in the ego, the assault to ego identity (me, me, me, or as Carl Jung termed it, the "little s" self) is actually a functional process. Functional Meaning, there is a purpose, a design to the humbling madness, and good to be had when one's ego can be transcended. Please note, it doesn't usually feel good in the moment. Separating from and de-identifying with the little s self is often incredibly painful, destabilizing and confusing. Most people have some level of resistance to loosening ties with the one called "me".

The repair and recovery from that de-identification is where the magic comes in. What is dropped into this space is up to you; for your creation. When the ego based self moves aside, a greater to connection to Source, divine creation, the larger or higher Self, God, Goddess, Jesus, Higher Power, Wise Mind, Allah, Buddha oneness experience, creative intelligence is able to flow in.

A shift in perspective and understanding becomes possible.

Re-visioning one's life, view of the world, self and other- wearing a new pair of glasses- becomes possible.

We derive an eye for gratitude and the simple beauty of being alive. This is the phenomenon of "Awe", being awestruck by a flower, a rainbow or a snail. There is greater connectivity and engagement with NOW.

Where the losses have left holes we plant our new knowledge of truth, meaning, love and connection. (post-traumatic growth is associated with the ability to make meaning out of traumatic experiences).

Healing is a beautiful process to witness.

And it's a beautiful life to live.

Healing is a well lived life.

So if you're entering the underworld, losing hair, dignity and pride. I encourage you to meet your experience as a Loving Kind Witness. Observe with curiosity, breathe and notice; notice your "little s" self (the little s self is the one largely dominated by ego- its fear, struggles, willfulness and pain) notice your "big S" self as she emerges. You are the witness. You are the expanisve ocean, witnessing the waves; you are not the waves, you are the ocean. You're right where you need to be. The process has begun...but you must O P E N to it. Be willing to let yourself be transformed. Be willing to say "I don't know". Be willing to try new things. Be willing to learn. And, Be willing to let go.

B R E A K  O P E N

Let the transformation begin