A Year With Cancer: Ringing Bells & Light Through The Cracks

It was December last year when I got news about my cancer. I sat in the glow of twinkling lights, my heart doing its best to stretch into this new reality. Leonard Cohen’s lyrics on repeat in my mind…

Ring the bells that still can ring,

forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything,

that’s how the light gets in.

Just over 365 days later, I’m here again in the welcoming glow of holiday lights. A full year has passed—4 surgeries, new medicines, cards, calls, and visits from family and friends—connections that kept our little family afloat, a career shift, a 3-year-old turned 4 and a 6-year-old, 7.

My body feels different. A double mastectomy, reconstruction, and hysterectomy certainly contribute to that… but so does a year of learning to accept help—to say “yes, thank you” rather than “no worries, I’ve got it;” a slower pace, discovering the ins and outs of how to eat vegan, tilling, watching, and eating from the garden that my Love planted in the midst of all of it. I feel closer to the ground, like my center of gravity has shifted… it was higher before, often neck-up.

Cohen’s sweet words still in the forefront of my mind…

Ring the bells that still can ring,

forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything,

that’s how the light gets in.

We learn, albeit slowly in our culture, to live both, to honor both—the bells that are ringing and those that are silent, the cracks and the light. When we refuse to numb either—the grief or the rejoicing, we begin to discover greater depths of both.

Some bells won’t ring this year. This is always true for all of us—everyone—every year. But after particularly trying years, when things have been flipped upside down, we sometimes wonder, “With so much loss, how do we ring any bells at all?”

Initially, I panicked and begrudged my limitations—our lives don’t often lend themselves to silence. Slowly the silent spaces softened with common humanity and self-compassion leading the way. Some tiny bells I hadn’t noticed before began ringing.

May the silence open us to hear what we could not when there was a great choir of bells.

Go easy—if the silence is new, it can be unsettling. “Easy does it” is a common saying in 12-step communities, and it fits here too. Learning a new self is no small thing.

May the bells that are silent honor the loss—in places words can’t touch, but silence can hold. Hallowed spaces where the bells keep watch but do not ring, like the friend who comes and just sits by your bed.


Right alongside the sacred silence, there are still bells to be rung, and we all have notes we can still play, even if they are few and different from what we are used to. It is in our very willingness to ring a bell, to celebrate anyway, that we are opened to see the audacious rays streaming through the cracks.

One of the ways that this has happened most poignantly for me over the past year has been in the somewhat odd ritual of “serving mortality a piece of cake” before each of my surgeries.

The night before my double mastectomy my dad encouraged me and my husband to “go ahead and celebrate” one of our daughter’s birthdays a little early.

Initially I thought it would be a somber night, a gearing up, but I hesitantly agreed to this alternative plan. We bought huge helium balloons, wrapped gifts, and baked a cake. The girls were all too glad to get out the birthday hats. Lighting candles and singing, it all felt right. Somehow, there were bells that could still ring, even that night.

Then again, when my next surgery approached, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s birthday the night before. Impending surgery didn’t dampen the celebration—if anything, it heightened the sweetness.

So, the day before my hysterectomy (a couple of weeks ago), chocolate cake with chocolate icing felt right.

A friend and I had been talking about the ways that mortality seems more real, closer, when you are dealing with a diagnosis or undergoing major surgery. I spoke about how mortality sneaks up on me and stops me sometimes, knocks the wind out. It can make me feel out of step with my cohort… lonely, different, other.

And, to be fair, there have also been a few times when my heightened sense of mortality has given me clarity, motivation, and courage.

My friend asked if I thought I could befriend mortality. “Not yet, but I could see myself getting there someday,” I replied.

Cancer has loosened my grip on “the perfect” …on my hustle. Painfully at first, it has welcomed me to a different pace, a “like it or not, you will have this limp,” type of a pace. And aren’t we all limping in some way? Perhaps it is precisely because of our limp that we move slowly enough to see what we couldn’t when we thought we were whole.

In my faith tradition, light is often used as a metaphor for God. And in the stories of the Light… over and over those who tried to bring perfect offerings were often the ones who missed the Light all together.

Our silence, our limp–imperfect offerings. Our need breaks cracks in the façade of perfection, where the Light can get in.

I wouldn’t say that we’re friends yet–me and mortality–but I will continue to serve cake, light candles, and ring the bells… it’s imperfect, but it cultivates joy, acceptance, and connection with those around the table.

It’s how the Light gets in.