Coaching cancer

June 10, 2011

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

Happy 100th Birthday Granny!

July 4, 2010

We just celebrated Canada Day on July 1st.  But July 4th is cause for an even greater celebration for our family.  I’m so excited that my incredible grandmother will be 100 years old.  Did you know that the US has the greatest number of Centenarians in the world- 1 per 3300 persons?  So how fitting that Granny will become one of these rare and special citizens on American Independence Day.

My cousin Todd who tracks our family’s history, shared her remarkable journey in a recent blog:

“My grandmother was born July 4, 1910, in Victoria BC.  She has lived through two world wars, and seen China change from an imperial dynasty, to a republic, to a communist state.

 She witnessed the Chinese Head Tax era, and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. She welcomed 3 brothers home who served in WW2, after they were first denied the chance to fight for the country they were born in because they were Chinese.

She was granted the right to vote when she was 37 years old, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally appealed in 1947 and franchise was granted to Canadians of Chinese ancestry – because up until then, she was considered a resident alien. 

She has watched her grand-children become a Miss Canada 2nd runner-up, a TV news reporter, a Calgary city councilor, and a recipient of the BC Community Achievement Award.

She has appeared in an National Film Board documentary, a CBC television performance special, and CBC TV documentary about her grandfather and family descendant history.

In 2007, she received an ex-gratia payment for Chinese Head Tax settlement, because her deceased husband had paid the head tax, prior to 1923.”

What an amazing century to have experienced first hand.  Her great grandfather came to Canada in 1896 as a Minister for the men building the railway.  He was responsible for her absolute love of a good strong cup of English breakfast tea.  At 10 years old she was charged with looking after many of her 13 brothers and sisters.  She raised 6 children of her own, then 2 of her 17 grand children.  She has 22 great grand children and 4 great-great grand children.

As a young girl she was always invited to play baseball with the boys because she was the best batter and could knock 3 people off the bases with one smack.  She was also an amazing sprinter.  Granny can still remember 1924 when a quart of jersey milk was 17 cents, bread 7 cents and butter 40 cents.

Remarkably well preserved for her age, she is also as a sharp as a tack and doesn’t miss a thing.  She has an uncanny 6th sense – knows when she needs to call me or protect me with white light.  She recently reminded me to always trust and rely on my intuition which she says I inherited from her.  Granny was widowed at 42, put down her glasses at 60 and hasn’t needed them since.  She still lives in the same downtown apartment on her own as she has for over 30 years.  She walks elegantly upright and unaided, cooks, shops, and socializes each day with by passers in the neighbourhood.

She’s vibrant, independent, spirited, and forthright. A charming matriarch with sparkling eyes, she makes fast friends and a lasting impression where ever she goes.  Certainly it’s because she is naturally co-active.  Though she has the wisdom of age and experience she much more coach-like than a sage.  She is far more interested in hearing what you think than telling you what she thinks.  However, she will be sure to let you know if you step out of line.  No matter who you are.

Granny enjoying High Tea

Granny enjoying High Tea

As a youngster when I stayed at Granny’s downtown apartment I felt so independent and grown up taking the city bus everywhere with her.  I couldn’t sit still as a kid and we were two very headstrong women on a mission.  We’d go for tea, shopping at the big downtown department stores (where I apparently danced to the elevator music like a prima ballerina.  I drew quite a crowd and she taught me how to politely curtsy afterwards).  My grandmother said it was like watching herself as a young girl.   She was a strong resourceful woman who was also maternal and truly a lady.  I learned how to state my mind by how she courageously stood her ground for what she believed in.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Granny be afraid of anything.

Today Granny is still quite a character.  A few years ago she won a provincial award for a remarkable large complex Chinese knotting project she made.  Two weeks ago she returned from a trip to Toronto for an early birthday celebration with her younger siblings who are too delicate to come out for the party.  Now she has her sights on going to London England.

She received a special birthday card from the Queen of England as well as a letter from her representative in Canada- the Governor General.  Granny was non plussed and said, “So what?   They don’t even know me!”   She’s more keen on receiving a greeting from Toronto Maple Leafs National Hockey League legend Senator Frank Mahovlich because he personally invited her to a game decades ago.  She doesn’t want any fuss for her birthday just a small dinner at her favorite restaurant with her family and closest friends.  Paring down the guest list to 100 was agonizing for her.  She has selected her long time doctor as her guest of honor.

People always curious about the secret to her longevity.  Here’s what she says:

  • Stay up late, take power naps as needed and sleep in as late as you darn well feel like.  You’ve earned it. Don’t call granny before 11 am!
  • All you need is Ponds cold cream every day and night. Been using that for over 80 years. Without a lie her skin still as soft as a baby’s bottom.  She looks more alive than all of her younger siblings.
  • Never skip breakfast.  Eat 3 high quality chocolates a day.  And none of that healthy dark stuff.
  • Help anyone in need as much and often as you are able.
  • Be kind and friendly to everyone.
  • Speak your mind, stand your ground – which she still does even if it’s not popular.
  • Drink boiled water and up to 5 cups of English breakfast tea with whole milk each day.
  • Do daily calisthenics (such an old word I can’t even spell check it) when I asked her what exercises she did she showed me jumping jacks, bicycling on her back, bending to touch her toes and asked in a surprised voice, “doesn’t everyone do this?”  Can’t you just picture it?
  • Ask for what you want, believe you deserve it, then accept and receive it graciously.
  • Dress for success.  Carry yourself with respect and dignity. Don’t leave the house without matching jewelry, hose, hat and gloves.
  • Dress younger than your age and flaunt it if you’ve got it.  Granny is famous for smoothing her dress at her knees to show off her great legs.
  • Get hooked on the Young and the Restless so you can’t wait to see tomorrow’s episode.
  • Be grateful for whatever each day brings, have a chiropractic adjustment every month, and follows Louise Hay’s wisdom.
  • Keep your memory alive by reminiscing often.
  • Go with the flow- her greatest mantra.  She is a model of letting go and being unattached.

She lives by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer

God, Grant me the Serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

and Wisdom to know the difference.

This is truly an Independence Day.   Here’s to health, happiness and longevity.

Happy Birthday Granny!

Desiderata- a tribute to my dad

May 24, 2010

Desiderata is a prose poem written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) a poet and lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana.  It has been reported that Desiderata was inspired by an urge that Ehrmann wrote about in his diary:

“I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift — a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods.”

Around 1959, the Rev. Frederick Kates, the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland, used the poem in a collection of devotional materials he compiled for his congregation. (Some years earlier he had come across a copy of Desiderata.)

Desiderata is Latin for “Things to be Desired”

This poem is meaningful to me because when I was about 11 years old my dad gave me a copy of it written in beautiful scrolled old style calligraphy on parchment paper.  He told me of its power and importance for my life. It hung in my room throughout my turbulent teen years.

Dad always impressed upon me that it doesn’t matter what happens to you in life, it’s what you do with it.  This poem speaks to me about his values and desires for his children.  What he taught me is to honor the truth of who I am, to access my resilience, to give my personal best while stretching towards my potential, to acknowledge and value my gifts.  Always reminding me that I am a child of the universe.  He meant I have the right and responsibility here on earth.

Whenever I wrestled with issues, or forgot who I was or what I was up to in life, reading this would  inspire me return to what I knew was true about myself.  To remember my purpose is to strive towards what I am called to do in my lifetime and who I was created to be in the world.

I hadn’t thought about this poem much recently until last week when my dad reminded me of it.   It brought back a flood of memories about how it kept me grounded in myself especially when things swirled around me.

We were sitting side by side on his hospital bed when he said in a very low tone his treatment wasn’t working. I heard resignation in his voice.  It was my turn to remind him of who he is and his responsibility to make conscious choices in the face of circumstances rather than let his long illness determine his fate.

Today is Victoria Day in Canada and his birthday.  In honor of him on his special day I am reprinting Desiderata here for him and for you. Dad sought to inspire, support and encourage others to improve their lot in life by shifting their mindset.  It would thrill him to know that he is still able to made a positive difference by sharing this poem.  So do let me know what you think of this posting so I can share with dad his impact.

I pray that this meaningful prose has the power again to connect him to his deep strength and courage as he seeks renewed meaning, purpose and peace in his own life for the will to recover from a second challenging relapse in a month.

Dad, you have been the philosopher, the rebel trail blazer and thought leader that shaped our family’s outlook and how we serve in the world.  You took a stand that anything is possible for us.  And that the most important determinant for achieving the impossible is to simply believe in its possibility.  Since we didn’t know any different we believed you.  As a result, each of us in the family has manifested what others told us couldn’t be done.  This is your legacy.  Your work is not done.  It’s your turn to model this to us once again. Happy Birthday, we want many more with you.  I love you.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Copyright 1952

BC Business: 10 power moves

May 1, 2008

How many times have you inwardly seethed while a colleague glibly speaks up at a meeting, passing off your brilliant idea as her own? Or felt that inner alarm bell jangle when your boss spells out a plan that you know is doomed to failure?

They don’t teach you how to handle these everyday dilemmas in business school, but knowing how to field them smoothly might just save your bacon if the going gets rough. With the help of some advice from the experts, here are 10 tips that will help you finesse the challenges that might otherwise derail your progress from the bullpen to the corner office.

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Feature Article: How do you find your purpose?

October 25, 2007

Joni Mar was featured on on October 25, 2007.

A life coach can help you ask the hard questions.

When many people hear the word coach, their first thought is of someone who advises an amateur or professional athlete. They’re unlikely to think of having their own coach, who can encourage them to achieve their goals in life.

But that is starting to change, now that Vancouver has become a hub in the burgeoning field of life and business coaching. There are approximately 200 members of the Vancouver chapter of the U.S.–based International Coach Federation, according to the local president, Ray Williams, with about half of them ICF–certified.

[read full article]