From Cancer to Corona: What to do when your world breaks By My SuperTalented Cousin Maya Amoils

A MUST read
Brilliant Maya Amoils proudest older cuz.

I, like I’m sure everyone reading this, have been completely overwhelmed with shock, fear, frustration and total angst in the wake of the past few weeks. I have felt like a living paradox: OK, but not OK; alone, but not alone; exhausted, but stir crazy. It’s been rainy and gloomy for countless days in LA. To say it feels like the end of the world here is not an exaggeration.

Amidst it all, I’ve had friends and family reaching out to check in on me, worried that my compromised immune system puts me into one of the “at -risk groups.” In responding to them, I’ve been struck by the many parallels between what the world is experiencing right now and what I felt learning I had stage four cancer.

The world has been given a disease that is turning our reality upside down, testing our mental toughness, and scaring the living shit out of us. This disease hasn’t discriminated between celebrities, athletes or the elderly. It has made us incredibly paranoid of germs — particularly at grocery stores. It is preventing us from celebrating a lot of life’s tentpole moments — weddings, birthdays, concerts — in the ways we hoped to. It has made us feel like 11 years happen in a single day. It has forced us to constantly live in a state of the unknown. It has forced us to face mortality.

It’s a disease that is so unthinkable and awful, you wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. But if the coronavirus is anything like cancer, it also means there is a lot here for us to learn.

Cancer has, without a doubt, been my greatest teacher. It has humbled me, made me more compassionate, more forgiving, more self-aware. Part of that is largely thanks to a perspective my other great life teacher, Oprah, ingrained into my head years ago: approach every challenge with the question, “What is this here to teach me?”

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned confronting my own diagnosis that I am re-learning again in today’s climate:

There is no rulebook on how to do this. And there is no perfect patient. I was inundated with information on my disease and I was flooded with recommendations on how to fight it — both mentally and physically. My saving grace, above and beyond everything else, has been choosing to filter and navigate the journey in a way that feels best for me. Although they have provided amazing counsel, my parents, sister, best friends, and doctors haven’t been able to tell me how I should fight this disease in the way that’s right for me. My biggest job has been to ask myself with everything I do: Is this nourishing for me? Only I can find the right balance between what to Google, what to read, and when to shut off; when to drink green juice and when to eat cookie dough; when to watch Netflix and when to journal. I’ve personally never found any fulfillment in the extremes, only the space in the middle.

There’s no “going back to normal.” I fought for so long for my life to get “back to normal.” For my hair to grow back. For my stomach to process food the way it did. For my energy to be what it was. But none of those things will ever be what they were. I will live the rest of my life with the side effects of cancer and I have to adjust to a new normal — a normal that changes gradually yet rapidly every day. I haven’t found much good in longing for the way things were. Instead, when I see a photo of myself from the past, or pine for a distant memory, I put on a good song and I let those memories play like a music video in my head. I applaud them and cheer for them and thank them for happening. Like Marie Kondo, I thank them and discard them with joy — I tell them I hope we meet in the future in an even better shape and form.

When I start to spiral, I breathe and repeat a mantra. The first week of my diagnosis, I was terrified at every little pang of pain in my body. When I felt any inclination of a headache, I thought, “Oh shit, it’s in my brain.” If my thumb throbbed, I thought, “Must be the cancer. “ I have been back there many times this week. “Was that a hot flash or a fever? Am I nauseous from chemo or because I’m getting sick?” When I’ve found myself going there, because of physical symptoms or simply because I’m just too mentally exhausted by everything, I breathe and feel my feet. I tell myself what I have been telling myself for over a year: No matter what happens, I’ll handle it — whether that is how to get food or, heaven forbid, toilet paper.

Laughter is like mental oxygen. Breathe it in, too. I do believe things can be fun, even when they are terrifying. I believe that because I have made some of my best memories in hospital rooms. But on the days it feels like there is nothing to laugh about, I like to keep a bank of stories in my head that never fail to make me laugh out loud. When I trigger those memories, I’m reminded not to take the seriousness too seriously. This week, more than ever, laughter has helped me breathe when I feel like I’m suffocating. And in this new reality, I know I need to consciously make time for that. I’ve felt, deep in my bones, that things will be OK during the ridiculous dance parties I’ve had by myself in my apartment to Justin Timberlake. In these moments, I’m reminded of the power of the age-old adage, “Laughter really is the best medicine.”

Everyday heroes are all around us. I can be one of them and I can also benefit from them. I’m endlessly inspired by the angels I’ve met in my hardest moments —– from the hospital porters who have wheeled me to scans and somehow made me feel at ease, to nurses who have found time to do crossword puzzles with me amongst busy shifts. I’m similarly inspired by my colleagues who are working tirelessly right now to create resources for people to live and make the most of their time at home. I’m inspired by my local friends who have created things like Santa Monica Community Helpers to provide groceries to the sick and elderly. I’m amazed by people I have never met but admire on social media (like @blackfairygodmother), the people who have spread real joy across Italy and the people who have worked out on their balconies in Spain. And living and working where I do, I realize how much privilege I have in this moment and I feel an immense responsibility to be like these people: to help bring the world what it needs to get better. On the other side of the coin, I know I’m sick and, as a result, there are a lot of things I need help with right now, too. I’m learning how to say yes to those things, even though it feels hard and awkward. I have immense gratitude and appreciation for everyone who has offered to help me, checked in on me, and been part of the community of everyday heroes who have carried me up to today (yourselves included). Because of them, I’m reminded of the power of what we’ve known from being on any airplane: “Put on your own oxygen mask before you put on anyone else’s.”

Gratitude can get me through this. When I started gratitude journaling years ago, I just wrote down three things I was grateful for each night. Now, I usually can’t stop without filling up a whole page. The beauty of this practice has been that, over time, it has revealed what I so easily take for granted. Developing a strong gratitude practice has shown me that cultivating appreciation for the little things, not the big shiny ones, make up the very fabric of happiness and inner-peace. When I was first going through chemo and had to use cold caps to prevent hair loss, I was not allowed to touch my hair for nine months. The first time I could take a shower and wrap my hair in a towel felt like pure glee. So I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when I can touch my face again without complete terror.

Evolution does not come from comfort zones. Eckhart Tolle said that and I’ve known it to be true. I never thought this would be the case, but most days, I can comfortably say that I have more gratitude for what cancer has given than anger for what it’s taken away. But that is a battle I have to fight every single day. And its victory doesn’t come easy. At times this disease has, quite literally, brought me to my knees in pain. It has made me nostalgic and bitter and resentful. It has tested every ounce of my physical and mental resilience. But I also believe that it has broken me in all the ways I’ve needed to heal. I like to believe I will help make the world a better place because of what it has taught me.

The universe speaks to us in whispers and then in shouts. Oprah said that and I’ve also known it to be true. I really do believe life keeps handing you the same lessons in grander and more complex ways until you learn them. I am finding that living in isolation only intensifies that. Every relationship is strained and every task feels hard to complete. But what cancer, and now COVID-19, has whispered to me over and over is: What matters most is love. Be love. Radiate love. That’s the most important thing.

When everything shouts too loudly: Relax. Trust. Go downstream. When I initially got my diagnosis, I thought I would work through it. So much of my life had always been defined by my career, I was overwhelmed imagining who I would be without it. But once I relaxed, I saw that having time off was important medicine for me. For once, I explored things driven by pure curiosity, not because I was trying to accomplish a certain goal. I’m forever grateful for the way those experiences expanded my worldview. Today, I’m back at Google/YouTube, and working alongside heroic colleagues to navigate how we can help respond in this crisis. Now, I find it almost impossible to turn off at any moment of the day. I find myself thinking with every email or virtual meeting: Making this happen could literally change the trajectory of the world…there’s no time to brush my teeth. There is so much heightened urgency around everything, it feels like there is no time to just be. But then I remember that this is the mindset that put my body into a constant state of stress and likely contributed to me getting sick in the first place. And here that lesson is again. This is so much bigger than me —– than any one person. All I can do is influence what is in my control. So now I imagine I’m floating down a river, and I surrender. I remind myself that my real job is not to grasp for anything upstream — it’s to have faith and to have fun on the ride.

Non-negotiable routines and commitments to myself will keep me sane. It hasn’t been easy to do all the things I’ve needed to do to stay healthy: to fast when I’d much rather be eating pizza, to find the energy to work out on days after chemo, to choose to meditate rather than power through my to-do list. But I know those are the things that have laid the foundation for my wellness. Today, I am re-committing to not missing out on the basics that I know keep me calm in the storm: sleeping, eating well, working out, and meditating. I’m also committing to a few things I’ve found establish a sense of calm and normalcy amongst the chaos:

Making my bed every morning and cleaning my kitchen/living room every night.

Maintaining a physical appearance in the same way I would if I were leaving the house —– which, sadly, means getting out of sweatpants sometimes.

Limiting multi-tasking as much as possible — which means keeping one browser tab open at a time.

Responding to text messages and e-mails in batches, so I don’t feel drowned by the need to always respond to everything immediately (so apologies if I’m slow!)

Most importantly, I’m committing to praying for the world to be healed every day.

I pray that this moment awakens us to the importance of living lives of compassion, for ourselves and everyone we meet. That we pay every person who delivers us a package or bags our groceries with appreciation and kindness.

I pray that this compassion brings us to a moment of unprecedented global unity. That it becomes the backbone of how we rebuild our businesses and communities.

I pray that our time in isolation brings us closer to deeply knowing and loving ourselves, and deeply knowing/loving each other. That it brings about new forms of innovation, creativity, and art.

I pray that huge unexpected good comes from the difficulty of this moment. That fewer flights will help the environment heal. That using social media to connect with and uplift each other helps us to recognize its real value.

I pray that every grueling day reminds us to be grounded and present in each moment. I pray that every time we wash our hands, we wash away all that we need to let go of.

I pray that the world will break in all the ways it has needed to heal. And that we send it the love and light it needs to fill the cracks. Gearing up for my 16th chemo cycle tomorrow, I’m filled with endless gratitude for how this community has helped to fill my own.

With love,

Maya

2 thoughts on “From Cancer to Corona: What to do when your world breaks By My SuperTalented Cousin Maya Amoils

  1. Beautiful introspection. I love the heartfelt prayers …. and join my prayers for your (Maya’s) healing and healing of all Corona patients and indeed the world.

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