Surviving Cancer Changed My Life—And Gave Me Permission to Be Audacious

"Mountains" Illustration by Nicole Skibola
In “Wakeful Night,” author Nicole Skibola shares the story of how her experience with cancer helped her find a new beginning.
“Mountains.” All illustrations by Nicole Skibola.

In her powerful illustrated exploration, “Wakeful Night,” author Nicole Skibola shares the story of how her experience with cancer helped her find a new beginning.

On a gray morning, I travel on two buses, one from war-torn Red Hook, a second from Downtown Brooklyn, through the deserted wasteland of lower Manhattan to a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side. It is two days after Hurricane Sandy, a holiday that would come to painfully mark the cataclysmic shift in the course of my life—a cancer diagnosis.

 
Surviving cancer is an accomplishment, but surviving cancer in New York in the dead of winter merits a medal of honor.
 

Surviving cancer is an accomplishment, but surviving cancer in New York in the dead of winter merits a medal of honor. There were dark, frigid mornings punctuated by desperate fertility treatments far on the upper edges of Manhattan, unabashed sobbing on subways and sidewalks, miles trudged through snow and biting wind for groceries and doctor visits. Through the tremendous losses that swallowed me one by one—a failed egg retrieval, my entire reproductive system, a boyfriend who cowardly ghosted me, I clung onto the carnage of my professional vision of myself and my life in New York.

"Lavender Black" by Nicole Skibola
“Lavender Black”
"Orange Black Cover" by Nicole Skibola
“Orange Black Cover”

I am the daughter of an immigrant father, one who instilled the refrain of hard work, and responsible financial decisions. The tantalizing whisper of the corporate ladder has influenced many of my decisions, including passing two bar exams, soul-sucking work at a midtown consulting firm and filling my closet with beautiful commute-friendly heels, edgy blazers and pencil skirts. The American dream of mainstream success was my assumed karma until cancer barreled through. Cancer dismantled my sense of self, and my professional failures and missteps were the most painful. By the time I’d completed my treatment, I was unemployed, poverty-stricken and completely lost as to a path forward. Cancer ushered deep isolation and shame—who was I without the self-prescribed professional benchmarks of achievement that I’d ambitiously followed my entire life?

Six months after my treatment, I crammed my belongings into a Brooklyn second-level storage cube, accessible only by a rickety ladder. I was out of work, out of money and was left with little other option than to retreat from New York City to my then-vacant family home in California. This period of time was punctuated by tremendous grief for what I would never have, for the deep betrayal I felt by a partner and my body. In my desperation to escape the pain, I found a pottery studio. I began writing and drawing. The late-in-life creative practice that I birthed fundamentally changed my life. It taught me that there are other ways to live, that my own suffering could fuel something beautiful and transformative.

 
Cancer stole many things from me. But it lifted a mirror to my programming. It gave me the permission to aspire to be audacious rather than to plot a career path.
 

It’s been several years since my illness, and last year I began Cosmic View, a health-focused cannabis company, with my mother—a UC Berkeley trained scientist. I spend my time working with salt of the earth cultivators to identify healing cannabis terpene profiles, hustle my medicinal tinctures and topical products in smoke-filled dab lounges and write cryptic communications to individuals with nicknames like Scissors, Rok and Jizzo. Legalization has come, but the industry is still one characterized by black market sensibilities and my mother and I often catch one another’s eyes in disbelief, giggling afterward about our own industry naiveté. Aside from the daily humor and frustration of this brave new world, we have the tremendous honor to help people work through cancer, tremors, anxiety, autoimmune diseases and numerous other conditions ameliorated by cannabis medicine.

Cosmic View is one vein in many that has come to define a new life that defies convention. This fall, I am publishing a book with Dottir Press called “Wakeful Night: A Structured Reflection on Loss and Illumination,” an interactive, illustrated journal that is part time capsule, part poetic thread of inquiries about life and death, hope and new beginnings, and above all a tool for readers to share and record their story of a cancer diagnosis, however it begins and ends. In between making cannabis products and writing, I also try to date, which still feels incredibly awkward as a 38-year-old woman making weed products with a morbid interest in grief.

Cancer stole many things from me. But it lifted a mirror to my programming. It gave me the permission to aspire to be audacious rather than to plot a career path. On the days I am most out of place, navigating booths at the Emerald Cup or educating budtenders on my products near a case of concentrates, I take a moment to chuckle. Every shadow contains space for humor and grace, and these are the strange and wonderful nuances that are worth living for.

"Orange Sun" by Nicole Skibola
“Orange Sun”

Read an excerpt of Nicole Skibola’s “Wakeful Night” here. More information on upcoming events for “Wakeful Night” here.