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Posted: July 21, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

Alive with Passion -- The Final Chapter

(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final installment of a 4-part feature -- one amazing woman’s triumph over our cultural habit of fear of illness and fear of death through her personal encounter with breast cancer. This article received more mail than any other feature published by Spirituality & Health magazine. It appears, with illustrations, in the February 2006 issue, which is available by special order via email. Contact

Another Kind of Affirmation
The second day after surgery, although I was forbidden to enter the water because of the draining incisions and I couldn't even lift my hands to my face, I went down to my home surf break. I knelt and faced the sunlit waves, inching my fingers forward on the worn slabs of rock. Tears streaming, I visualized myself stroking for the wave. Inch by finger-crawling inch, I fought for passion, for joy.
The worst moment did not involve physical pain. It came after the incisions had healed enough for me to go back into the water. I could only manage a pathetic dog-paddle and a weak breaststroke. How could I surf?
All who love the ocean know never to fight the water. When swimmers and surfers are in the grip of currents that could sweep them seaward to their deaths, they use the current to work their way to safe harbor. I was determined not to fight or resent my limitations, but to flow with them. My weakness would teach me how to let the ocean do more for me.
Using the ironically named breaststroke and the currents, I taught myself to tow my littlest surfboard into position. Then, as the wave peaked, I could jump onto it and dance into the light wherein "I" ceased to be.
This is the great teaching that cancer carved into my body, mind, and soul: the realization that strength and life are all around me, passionately embracing me, holding me, and loving me all the time. To tap into that joyful energy and flow with it, all I have to do is to let go of "me" -- my fears, my expectations. Just let go and float on the ocean of Now. Ocean/God will hold me up. The love of the sensual universe -- the ground I walk on, the air I breathe, the sea I play in -- has all been freely given. And it is all Love.
This is how I, a former "white coat" medical person, define healing: to be at one with life and death, to be whole no matter what is happening to my body.
Joseph Campbell said, "Are you the light, or the lightbulb?"
Sometimes, it is hard to remember how to be the light. There were moments when I held my daughter in my arms and knew that one day I would not be able to smell the fragrance of her hair and comfort her. Then tears of grief fell like rain. After the storm, we would go together to the sea. In the ever-shifting patterns of waves, I saw that I could either grieve for an imagined tomorrow or rejoice with my daughter NOW.
From mindset to molecule, the body locked in fear is far different from the body living in joy. Passion, laughter, and tears liberate the body; fear and dread imprison and destroy it. However, medical science still relegates the self-healing of passionate engagement with life -- which includes death -- to the realm of anecdote because science can't devise the definitive, replicable experiment.
No such experiment can be devised, because people are so wildly individual, so diverse in their passions and their means to self-healing. For me, surfing unlocked the door to healing. For Norman Cousins, laughter and funny movies healed his heart.
I didn't set out to be a statistical anecdote. But I enjoy it. I enjoy reading a book such as Remarkable Recovery, by Hirshberg and Barasch, and learning that there are thousands like me. Across the religious spectrum, including atheists and agnostics, across the intellectual spectrum of I.Q.s of 60 to 160, people who didn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of surviving live, with passion and joy. They accepted that they were slated to die, but were too busy living to accept someone else's decree of when.
Imagine you have two years left. What do you do? Two months? Two weeks? Two days? Two hours? If you honestly write down what you would do, you will discover your true passions, discover what you are, and change your life. Which will you choose: passion or fear?
I am grateful that medical statistics took away my future. I tend to live only in the last two hours, as if each breath, each wave, each kiss, each opportunity to say, "I love you," were my last.
(The first three installments of Alive with Passion are available to you in the Spiritual Caregiving column archive. You can read the first installment by clicking here, the second installment by clicking here, and the third installment by clicking here.)
Mandi Caruso is a passionate hospice volunteer, surfer, and author. This article is excerpted from her unpublished book Doors to Heaven. In addition to teaching her mammogram tech how to surf three months after her own surgery, she has taught other cancer patients how to surf. See for more.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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