"They said I'd be dead in a year."
Outwardly, Shannon Duke had it all: a beautiful home, nice cars, fancy vacations and a loving husband. In private, however, her health was suffering. Here's how she survived a stage-four cancer diagnosis, and changed her lifestyle
It’s a cool spring evening in downtown Calgary. Shannon Duke, a 48-year-old personal and corporate coach, and Dr. Gabor Maté, a Vancouver physician and author, are hosting a workshop called When the Body Says No…but the Soul Says Yes. All 35 participants, mostly women, are suffering from maladies—from cancer to depression, addictions to broken marriages. They are sitting in a circle along with Duke and Maté. The purpose of the event is for Duke and Maté to help group members discover their emotional wounds, because when they do, they may also find what is at the root of the distress in their lives. The two leaders’ style of interaction, while not typical, is well received.
“So you can’t quit smoking?” Duke asks a young blonde woman, who outwardly seems to have her life together. “Does smoking give you positive satisfaction?”
“No,” the woman replies, but then takes it back. “Yes. I love being in that moment when I am smoking.”
“And what does that moment feel like?” Duke prods.
“It’s a moment when I can be in my own thoughts. I love deep thinking,” the woman replies.
“What causes you to attach deep thinking to a cigarette?” Maté jumps in.
“Well…” the woman begins. “I started smoking in Switzerland in my early 20s. I love Europe. I feel more European than I do Canadian.”
“What is the correlation between the Canadian you and the European you?” Duke asks her.
“In Europe I am free. I am away from my family and not encumbered by my family’s rules. I can just be me.”
“Ahh….” Duke has a knowing look in her eye. “And what does freedom mean to you?”
“Freedom,” the woman replies slowly. “Freedom….from the pain in my family. Freedom from hiding the pain I am feeling. Freedom…to just be me.”
“You have just uncovered a very deep wound or source of pain inside of yourself,” Duke says with a smile. “A wound that is negatively controlling your life through smoking. I know this pattern well.”
The effects of stress on the body
That’s because for many years, Duke herself tried to hide from her own pain. She developed negative habits so she wouldn’t feel her hurt—and says she got sick as a result. Before she became a sought-after motivational speaker and counsellor, she was a high-powered manager at Microsoft. Outwardly, like the woman battling the smoking addiction, Duke had it all: a beautiful home, nice cars, fancy vacations and a loving husband, Mark, who also worked in the computer business. In private, however, she was a closet smoker. Plus, she was not eating enough, and not getting nearly adequate sleep (at five foot five, she weighed less than 110 lb., and slept just five hours a night at most, in order to keep up with the increasing demands of her job and social life). “I was go, go, go!” Duke says. “Something was driving me, pushing me, on this treadmill of success.”
Then, shortly after her second child, Tyler, was born in 2000, that treadmill came to a sudden stop. Duke discovered a seven-centimetre cancerous tumour in her left breast. She was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and the disease was spreading quickly, soon reaching her bones. During that first year of treatments, which included a mastectomy and chemotherapy, a doctor told her that patients who had metastasizing cancer like hers had only a five percent chance of survival. They thought she would be dead in a year.
Fast-forward to today. Duke is, as Maté tells people, a miracle. She still has two cancerous spots, one on her skull and the other on a rib. But these have not grown in six years. She is physically and mentally healthier than ever. Certainly part of her success is due to lifestyle changes: She no longer smokes and now sleeps regularly. She takes time out every day just for herself, to meditate, do yoga or read a good book, and she surrounds herself with healthy relationships.
But Duke also credits being alive to following the philosophy that Maté first put forward in his bestselling 2002 book, When the Body Says No: The Hidden Cost of Stress. Maté, who has had health columns in several Canadian newspapers, maintains what a growing number of health professionals are also conceding: He believes the brain and body systems that process emotions “are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system and the immune system. And so emotional stress, especially the hidden kind that people are not aware of, undermines immunity, disrupts the body’s physiological milieu and prepares the ground for disease.”
Duke, who read Maté’s book during her cancer treatments, knew that if she wanted to have a fighting shot at surviving, she had to discover, examine and undo the negative ’ thought and emotional patterns she had developed to conceal her pain and stress. “It was the only way I was going to get better,” says Duke.
Hiding her emotions
It all began in a quiet town in southwest Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills, where Duke grew up. Her parents ran the family’s busy farming and ranching business. The Christian fundamentalist upbringing that she and her three younger sisters received taught her to be stoic, always put on a happy face for the outside world and never show negative emotions such as anger, sadness or confusion. As a result, Duke had nowhere to turn to show her emotions in reaction to normal growing pains, like breaking up with her first boyfriend. Her coping mechanism was to push herself harder in school. Not surprisingly, she was a straight A student. “My motto, like many women, was: Do better, overachieve and never show anyone, including myself, what was going on inside,” says Duke.
In 1981, after high school, Duke left Saskatchewan for Calgary, where she worked for an oil and gas supply company. But then came some bad news: Duke’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shockingly, not long after that, her sister, Connie, 13, was diagnosed with leukemia, and another sister, Wanda, 16, with a brain tumour. Her mother survived, but Duke’s sisters died within six months of each other in 1982. “I was angry, really angry,” says Duke. “My sisters were beautiful souls, but my family didn’t want to talk about all the sadness. I did what I always did to deal with trauma: I went into overdrive, helping plan funeral arrangements and avoiding painful emotions.”
Following the funerals, Duke got a computer science degree and then, in the mid-1980s, she joined Microsoft. She earned a handsome salary with stock options, and threw herself into 18-hour days, seven days a week, to make her way up the corporate ladder. “My appetite for success was insatiable,” she says. “I became addicted to work and overachieving. And, like any addiction, there was a lot of goodness that came out of it, such as the perks that came with having money. Keeping so busy, I didn’t need to look inward to see how unhappy I was and how much pain I was holding.”
"Work had defined my identity"
Duke’s lifestyle began to reveal some cracks after her daughter, Kayla, was born in 1997. Duke returned to work after her maternity leave. And for about a year, she continued her fast-paced schedule. She’d leave the office at 6 or 7 p.m. in the evening and, after Kayla went to bed, return to her computer until 3 or 4 a.m. But then Duke was offered a promotion that entailed travel and time away from Kayla. “If I took the promotion,” says Duke, “I’d have more money and ‘stuff,’ but I would have less time with Kayla. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t make the choice.”
Duke surprised even herself and entered therapy to help her understand her conflicting emotions. The behavioural modification one-on-one counselling program helped her understand her drive to perfectionism, and thanks to that she not only turned down the promotion, she quit her job. She started a part-time computer consulting business she could do from home. “It was a very difficult transition,” she says. “Work had defined my identity. But I knew if I stayed on the road I was on, I would lose my child.”
About a year later, the big blow came: Three months after her son Tyler was born, Duke learned she had cancer. “The inner journey I had started after having Kayla wasn’t enough,” she says. “To get healthy, I felt
I had to go deeper.”
So, in addition to conventional medical treatments, Duke attended a number of workshops over the course of two years at the Psychological Counseling Services in Scottsdale, Arizona, one of the top addiction and counselling centres in the world. Doctors and experts from a variety of fields facilitated individual and group sessions in which Duke learned how to do hypnosis and visualization exercises, and to meditate and pray. “I saw that for my entire life, I had never released anything negative,” she says. “I had kept everything, including the grief of losing my sisters, all to myself. We’re meant to live through things and release things.”
During one visualization exercise, a psychologist had Duke imagine walking down a set of stairs and design for herself a safe place where she could always return when she felt overwhelmed with life. Duke saw herself sitting on the dock at her cottage in Montana, her legs dangling in the water, with a man sitting beside her. Duke told the man she felt burdened by her cancer, her drive for success and the pain from which she was desperately trying to run. “He put his hand on my back and said, ‘This is too much for you to carry. Give it to me,’ ” says Duke. “And then he put all these bad feelings I had in his backpack. I felt at peace. I didn’t have to be this super-person anymore. This was pivotal in my healing, because I needed to come to a place of healthy spirituality for myself. Giving my burdens to God took away a lot of my fears about dying.”
Now, living life to the fullest
In the years since then, Duke has peeled away emotional layer after layer. Now, whenever a negative emotion or thought comes up, she examines its origins and then lets it go. When she finds herself slipping into old patterns, she stops herself. “It hasn’t been easy,” she says of the emotional journey she has been on. “Every time I reached a plateau, it was only a temporary reprieve before going down even further into even more deep-seated emotions and things I have held on to.”
Eventually, she and her husband separated; he was still on a fast-paced lifestyle, but she had chosen a different path. Duke returned to school to become a counsellor, and she and Maté teamed up professionally in 2008. They continue to speak publicly and hold workshops together. Maté describes Duke as the living embodiment of his work. She’s more humble. “I had many, many dark, mournful days,” she says. “But, to quote Marianne Williamson [an American author best known for her spiritual teachings], I allowed my crisis to be my initiation into the fullness of myself. For me, the spiritual medicine, often so bitter tasting when it is going down, saved my life.” By combining the scientific medicine of the West, the traditions of the East and the journey into her own soul, Duke has created her own recipe for living life to the fullest.