How one man used authenticity to reshape his life after cancer

Adapted from “Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness” by Mark Nepo, published this month by Sounds True.

One of the great transforming passages in my life was having cancer in my mid-30s. This experience unraveled the way I see the world. It scoured my lens of perception, landing me in a deeper sense of living. Twenty-eight years ago, that struggle brought me close to death. Today, I remain committed to surfacing the lessons of transformation, as they continue to shape the lens that life has given me.

One of the mysteries of being human is that healing is a process that never ends. Transformation, even from a single event, can continue for eternity. And so, I continue to be transformed by my journey with cancer, which began with my struggle through three years of illness and alarm from 1987-1990. The transformative events may differ for each of us, but every person will face a life-changing threshold that will keep shaping who we are for the rest of our life.

I keep learning over the years is that when in pain or trouble, we often plead with some larger force to “Get me out of this,” when life is prompting us to say, “Show me the meaning in what I’ve been given, so I can find my way through it.” If blessed, we put down our stubbornness and admit that we’re on the same journey.

It’s important to admit that I’m not the same person at 64 as when first diagnosed at 36. In my 30s, I was a driven artist, obedient to a relentless muse, while addicted to working in the world for approval. I was a dedicated and loyal friend but mostly inflamed with a vision I couldn’t quite articulate. My understanding of life was way ahead of my ability to live life. So cancer stopped me, humbled me, frightened me, threw me off course, turned me upside down and inside out. I was suddenly on God’s anvil, being hammered and reshaped. And everything that had worked to that point— my dedication, my attention to detail, my perseverance, my certainty in my muse— all of that was shattered and of no use. I was terrified and lost.

We begin to make medicine of our suffering by working with what we’re given, staying in relationship, and facing what is ours to face. Working through our feelings reveals our strength. Because I honor the truth of my pain or fear or sadness doesn’t mean I’m not being resilient or strong. Being authentic and honest is more important than forcing positivity. We’re challenged to get through, not get over. Somehow, our life-giving lessons are more easily seen through the press of difficulty. So much of what we learn and pass on is the residue of more heated times. This is how we preserve what matters. This is how we create medicine out of our suffering.

Mark Nepo is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller “The Book of Awakening.” He has published 16 books and recorded 11 audio projects and his work has been translated into more than 20 languages. Nepo has appeared several times with Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday program on OWN TV. For more information visit, and