Coaching cancer

June 10, 2011
Filed under: Inspiration — Tags: , , , — jonimar @ 3:53 pm

In my 11 years of Co-Active coaching, the toughest coaching client I’ve ever had has been my mom. She had never dared to believe she had any right to ask for what she wanted. Even her own life. So the concept of living a fulfilling life was not merely a “radical act,” but a foreign concept to her.

Mom’s wake-up call came in the guise of lymphoma at age 75. Even though the incurable blood cancer had first gnawed 10 pounds off her delicate 99-pound frame before she was diagnosed, she insisted she was fine: “I don’t need to go to any doctor!” she’d snap with a swat of her hand at us. Ignoring the unwanted had always worked in the past to make it go away. Why not now?

She was finally so weak that she went to the doctor. We learned it was cancer, and it was advancing relentlessly. In spite of three rounds of chemotherapy, a spleen removal (it can block blood production) and regular blood transfusions in the following 18 months, Mom struggled to control the chaos the only way she knew how – by continuing to live exactly as she always had. She kept smoking in secret, but insisted she wasn’t, and refused to exercise every day, but insisted she was.

Mom’s always been a rebel. How else do you distinguish yourself from eight siblings in a traditional Chinese family where boys are born valuable and girls are only there to serve and sacrifice? Revealing her true feelings was an indiscretion worthy of a beating. No wonder she couldn’t receive the outpouring of assistance, love and support from family and friends. Needing help would reveal a humiliating weakness of character.

We have been partners on this journey for almost three years now. Working as a professional Co-Active coach has permitted me the flexibility to be at every lab test, check-up, oncology appointment and chemotherapy treatment. The first two years, I tried to shift her perspective from ‘the cancer is omnipotent’ to ‘I am capable of beating it’ but she clung to her saboteurs for dear life. I tried future visioning to create a possible dream to reach for post-chemo. But giving selflessly was so ingrained in her that all I got back was, “What are you talking about? What on earth is fulfillment?”

Then, last August, her blood levels and immunity plummeted to an all-time dangerous low, she was stricken with a second more aggressive cancer and Dad, her life partner of 53 years, died – all in the same week. She called it a cruel slap in the face and crumbled into helpless tears. The only other time I witnessed Mom cry was when her father was killed in a traffic accident.

The crushing blow jolted her out of her denial. Mom began wondering aloud how she could transform this disease and take back her life. My powerful question that shifted her thinking was, “What would make life worth fighting for?” She whispered, so as not to jinx it: “To travel a bit of the world with my sisters and be at each of my four grandchildren’s weddings.” These dreams transformed her relationship with her disease. Instead of being a victim to it, she began visualizing her body full of goodness powerfully shooting the invading cancer cells.

Mom and I during chemo

You know how the most powerful part of coaching happens between the sessions? As coaches, we can’t underestimate our impact. During this final round of chemo she sighed, “I guess it’s time I start loving myself.” Wow! That’s HUGE! Since then, she has been paying attention to her body’s subtle cues, being compassionate with herself, even graciously receiving help. The Future Self/Captain archetype I anointed her is “Queen”. She surrenders in giggles when I ask, “Now, Mom, what would a Queen do?”

The journey has also transformed our relationship from one of a mother shielding and protecting her daughter’s innocence to two adult women relating authentically as friends, mentors and equals. It took months of redesign for Mom to recognize that maintaining a stoic facade was pointlessly taxing and lonely. All my life I’ve been craving to know my mom deeply. That was cancer’s expensive consolation gift.

During our daily phone calls, I consciously create a safe and courageous space for her to explore her darkest emotions. When I ask how she’s feeling now, “fine” has been replaced by checking in with herself and articulating anything from “I think I may be on borrowed time,” or “This has been going on so long, I’m so discouraged,” to “You know, I’m pretty lucky.” The witnessing is helping her become comfortable with this disconnected part of herself. She told me last week that talking about it is helping her to let it go.

Mom’s sixth and final chemo treatment is this week. She’s weak from the toxic cocktails, fatigued by disturbed sleep cycles, and experiencing new side effects. She knows her belief in herself has the greatest influence on her healing, but those old self-berating habits are seductive and it’s taking all of her will to hold onto her optimism. She is conscious of keeping the healing energy flowing through her by focusing on the good in situations rather than worry about the worst-case scenario.

I’m writing this in O’Hare airport waiting for the flight home after leading the Process course. Tears are streaming down my face as I reflect on the perfection of being this weekend’s practice client. Skillful coaches allowed me to voice my own fear of losing Mom. They gave me the judgment-free space to express my anger at God, frustration with her situation and guilt about not being able to make it all better. This clearing enabled me to move through my own emotions to acceptance so I can be present for hers. What is…is. It IS enough to simply love her as she is. She may well be the very reason I was called to this work.

Originally posted in the Coaches Training Institute’s blog: Transforum, June, 2011


13 Responses to “Coaching cancer”

  1. Susan Valdiserri on June 10th, 2011 7:07 pm

    Joni, what a power outpouring of your heart, compassion and strength. Your mother is so lucky to have you by her side through her difficult journey and you are lucky to have your mom as your lifelong teacher. My heart goes out to both of you….My love and prayers for peace and healing are with you both….love, Susan

  2. jonimar on June 14th, 2011 11:02 am

    Dear Susan,

    Leading together in Chicago was an important catylst to connect all the random thoughts and feelings. Thanks for encouraging me get coached in front of the room. The overnight delay couldn’t have been more perfect to create the time and space to put it all on paper. I look forward to working with you again soon! With gratitude, Joni

  3. Suzanne Lightheart on June 13th, 2011 3:47 pm

    Dear Joni, your are such an inspiration of courage, strength and unconditional love. You are fortunate to have each other during this difficult time. Your mom is learning to love herself and be authentic and you are loving, supportive, and real. My heart and thoughts of healing go out to you and to her. Love Suzanne

  4. jonimar on June 15th, 2011 10:20 am


    Thank you for sending her your powerful healing and for all your naturopathic suggestions throughout the year. I really appreciate your ongoing support, Joni

  5. Nico Human on June 14th, 2011 12:37 pm

    Joni, this is precious.

    Thank you for sharing, for allowing us in into this sacred space with your mom. What a wonderful gift you are bringing to your mom, to us, to the world!

    Hearing this makes me want to be better.

    Love and best wishes,
    PS Great writing too!

  6. jonimar on June 15th, 2011 12:34 pm

    Nico, thank you for your coaching reminding me that I am the link that connects my mom to my children. She is a part of their legacy through me. How you are as a father inspires me to be my best as a mother. Love, Joni

  7. Laura Bokhof on June 14th, 2011 3:51 pm

    Joni, your dedication to your mom and to continuing to deepen your relationship with her is beautiful and moving. Thank you for sharing the photograph – there is a radiance about you both that will stay with me. My prayers go out to you in all that you do. Love, Laura

  8. Melanie Keveles, MA, CPCC, MCC on June 16th, 2011 12:42 pm

    Joni – I echo all the sentiments. And what a truly incredible mother you have who lets you in and allows you to share her inner being!

    For years I have wanted to coach people with cancer, and have held that as a possibility. I love the work of Lawrence LeShan – Cancer as a Turning Point – you may want to share that book with your mother and read it yourself!

    Much love,


  9. jonimar on June 16th, 2011 1:00 pm

    Thank you Melanie,

    Your book about your 100 year old dad inspired me to share about my mom. Wishing you and your family much health and joy. Love, Joni

  10. Tim Stringer on June 21st, 2011 6:00 pm

    Dear Joni – Thank you for sharing so eloquently and I honour you for holding such a powerful space of healing and transformation for your mom.

    Reading your words brings back memories of the profound role you played as my coach when I came face-to-face with an aggressive form of cancer in 2008. The work we did together not only contributed greatly to my own healing, it also allowed me to uncover many deep insights and powerful perspectives (that continue to serve me to this day) and deepened my relationships with family and friends.

    I will keep you and your mom in my prayers. It’s inspiring to witness the bond that you share and, although I’ve never met your mom in person, her depth, strength and sense of humour shines through in your words and in the photos you’ve shared.

  11. jonimar on June 22nd, 2011 11:36 pm

    Dear Tim,

    Thank you for your reassuring words. They are particularly meaningful today as we spent the entire day at the Cancer Agency. Mom has an infection, took 2 units of blood because her body is still not able to produce enough red blood fast enough and they cannot find the root of this disease so she has another bone marrow biopsy next week. She is incredibly strong and though Mom is physically exhausted she is fighting hard to stay positive.

    Accompanying you on your journey prepared me for my mom’s. Your courage to look deeply, tenacity to stay with yourself, belief and faith in your own recovery and transformation was awe inspiring. You remained centered, grounded and exquisitely present throughout and working with you was a gift and an honor. You called me forth to a new level of coaching. Thank you for being my teacher and reminding me anything is possible. To your long and healthy life, Joni

  12. Lora Crestan on September 7th, 2011 11:53 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are a blessing to the world and your mom has raised a wonderful woman. My prayers are with you.
    I read your blogpost while researching an article called ‘the positive spirit’ for a local magazine. Your articulation of thought, feeling and spirit has helped me find a focal point to work from – many blessings.

  13. jonimar on September 9th, 2011 1:04 am

    Dear Lora,

    I can tell you are a generous giver. You have given my mom the supreme gift. That she has succeeded in her life’s work and raised her family well. I will share this with her as she is in her final journey and it will be ‘life affirming’ to her. You don’t know how significant your impact is until someone with grace shares it. With appreciation, Joni

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