By Betsy Horn
When I started studying acting with Robert Lewis, co-founder of Actor’s Studio, one of the first things he said was that in rehearsing a play, you have to figure out what is your intention. The same thing, I learned, is important in life. What are we doing, what do we want, and why?
We’re told by our parents, mother usually, that our health is our greatest gift, that without that, you won’t be able to have the life you want. It almost goes without saying that for much of our lives, we take our health for granted; it’s something we don’t think about when we are young. We are invulnerable, untouchable. Yet we are not, especially in today’s world.
Until I was 60, I had taken my health for granted. First, my mother’s great mantra was that her greatest gift to her children was perfect health, “wonderful genes.” How she knew that in the 50s remains a mystery to me. But I went along with it, until one day in May, over a decade ago, I went for an annual ultrasound to monitor a pesky ovarian cyst which hadn’t bothered me too much for over seven years, but having been told to check it annually, I did so – and got the shock of my life! Suspected ovarian cancer, and not only that, “aggressive ovarian cancer.” I knew little about ovarian cancer but soon found out it was one of the most lethal and difficult to diagnose of all the female cancers, known as “the whispering disease” because the symptoms are so subtle, a paradox, as the disease is so very dangerous.
As my doctor told me this, although he was gentle, he was also straightforward, I collapsed inside. I remember saying to myself, (the mind can have so many messages almost simultaneously), “Now, stand up straight and show you are OK.” I remember pulling back my head and lifting it and looking at the doctor as if bewildered. Tears were forming as I thought, “It’s a beautiful day outside and I have come in touch with my mortality. How is this possible?”
Back in my car, in a cavernous garage, dark and empty, I railed, first at my mother, for the perfect genes which turned out not to be and then just at my frustration. I had done so much work on myself and now this. But I am fairly pragmatic and while driving back to New York City from New Haven, I regulated myself fairly quickly and started making mental lists. In times of dire circumstances, a good list can come in handy. From then on, I did everything to stay healthy and prepare for surgery. I bought a wonderful book by Bernie Siegal, Love, Medicine and Miracles which I highly recommend.
It turns out that my intention was strong and already forming as a plan for my survival. I would find out everything I could from reliable sources, go to the therapists I already knew, including my GP and do everything anyone smart told me to do as preparation. My intention was to survive and beat it but then to get as healthy as I possibly and follow whatever regime, diet, exercise, meditation and all of those to stay grounded, calm and alive. So far, it’s worked.