(Photo above courtesy of Alex Caldwell)
Buddhability spoke with Alex Caldwell after learning about her powerful experience overcoming cancer, all the while fully living her life without being defeated.
Alex Caldwell: Last year, I started the year with fresh, clear and decisive determinations, and I was ready to win! I had major career goals and was ready to get my anxiety under control. The year 2022, as promised, was a wild ride. It started as a year full of positives. I had just become an SGI-USA member, my relationship with my new partner was really flourishing, I was making great progress in mental health, and by the end of January, I had already accomplished one of my goals: signing with a new agent!
Buddhability: Wow, sounds like an amazing start to the year!
Alex: And then it happened. Everything came to a screeching halt all at once.
Buddhability: What happened?
Alex: Last May 4, I was diagnosed with what would ultimately turn out to be stage 2b breast cancer. I felt like my entire world was falling apart. I was young and healthy, taking good care of myself, and my body betrayed me anyway.
Mid freakout, I collected my thoughts, chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for 5 minutes to calm down and then immediately started researching and setting up doctor’s appointments. I knew time was of the essence and wallowing any further would just be a waste of it. I learned all I could about the type of cancer I had, plus available treatment plans, surgical procedures and reconstruction options. I had a list of questions ready for my first appointment, before I even knew who I’d be seeing and where I would receive treatment. I kept chanting with courage in my heart before every single doctor’s appointment and before every single decision I had to make.
I kept chanting with courage in my heart before every single doctor’s appointment and before every single decision I had to make.
Buddhability: Your ability to take action after hearing about your diagnosis is really inspiring. After chanting and going to the doctor, how did you decide on the best next steps?
Alex: In late June, with the support of my partner, friends and family, I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy with the hopes of having direct-to-implant reconstruction. There were plans B, C and D in place, of course, but I had been chanting for immediate reconstruction. I could only afford one major surgery, and I wanted to get back to my life as soon as possible. It was terrifying to know that I wouldn’t know the surgeon’s decision until after it was already made.
As I was getting marked up with a sharpie and getting my IV inserted, one of the nurses could see the panic in my face. She asked me what would calm me down, and I squeaked out, “Chanting.” She told me that she was also a Buddhist, and while not a member of the SGI, agreed that chanting would be a good idea. We said Nam-myoho-renge-kyo together three times. When I woke up, I was so relieved to look down and see that I had had a bilateral mastectomy with direct-to-implant reconstruction.
The surgery was successful, and I was healing quickly. Unfortunately, they found a small amount of cancer in one of my lymph nodes, and I learned that I’d have to start chemo. I was so bummed. Going into surgery, the doctors believed that it hadn’t spread and that I’d likely avoid chemo, but that just wasn’t the case. I chanted to stay positive and hold out hope; maybe it wouldn’t be that bad!
Buddhability: What happened next?
Alex: In August I started chemo, and as promised, it was certainly no walk in the park. Some days I would just feel a little tired; other days my major accomplishment was making it from my bed to the couch without needing to stop at the bathroom in between. When it would get particularly difficult, I would read from a letter that the 13th-century Buddhist reformer Nichiren Daishonin wrote to a follower whose child was sick:
The lion king is said to advance three steps, then gather himself to spring, unleashing the same power whether he traps a tiny ant or attacks a fierce animal. In inscribing this Gohonzon for her protection, Nichiren was like the lion king. This is what the sutra means by “the power [of the Buddhas] that has the lion’s ferocity.” Believe in this mandala with all your heart. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What sickness can therefore be an obstacle?
“Reply to Kyo-o, The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 412
Attending Buddhist meetings in my community helped me to never give up. Just as I was starting to lose my hair and really feel down, I began studying about the Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda’s own experience of battling tuberculosis from a young age. and I felt I could also overcome my illness. Because I could attend my local Buddhist meetings, Wednesdays went from being “chemo day,” something I dreaded, to a day that would be long but ultimately rewarding.
Buddhability: What a deep transformation. And I heard that you have amazing news!
Alex: On December 14, 2022, I received my very last dose of chemotherapy, rang the bell and was declared in remission. I’ve gained so much perspective through this experience and such an appreciation for my life. The amount of grace and understanding I was able to give myself during this battle is something I’m determined to uphold now that I’m well. I’ve still got major career and life goals in mind for 2023, but most importantly, I’m determined to help and support other people in my immediate environment to believe in themselves and never stop fighting, no matter the size of the obstacle they may face.