Create a safe space to be really “real” about negative emotions — There is this fierce societal pressure to be positive, no matter what the situation is ahead. It takes courage to stand up to this pressure and to create this vulnerable space within ourselves to truly feel all those hard emotions that so many of us instinctively try to bury. The first step in being our most authentic and genuine positive self is to do just this. It’s a step that most people miss it because of this fierce societal pressure to always be positive and it explains why so many people struggle so much in shifting to their most authentic, positive mindset.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Erica Harris, the passionate Founder of RiseToday.com.
Dr. Erica Harris is the ultimate survivor, having defied every one of the odds stacked against her success, her happiness and her survival.
As a young mom, Erica has survived, and even thrived, after facing a 60 day terminal leukemia prognosis, a bone marrow transplant, a double lung transplant, another yearlong hospitalization facing a drug resistant viral strain, and even divorce at the end of it all. Be Inspired!
Once a thriving sports Chiropractor and Kinesiologist, now a Mental Health Champion and Empowered Mindset Expert, Dr. Erica is the passionate Founder of RiseToday.com, where she serves as a Self Empowerment TedX Speaker, Coach, Author, and Podcast Host to empower her clients and her community to bounce back from adversity and to rebound higher than ever before!
Thank you so much for doing this with us Erica! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
In my “previous life” as I have now come to call it, I had lived a life passionate about health and wellness. I ate only the highest quality, organic, non-processed foods. I hiked every mountain and soared down them all on my skis. Professionally, I served as a thriving Sports Chiropractor and Kinesiologist to inspire my community to live its best health status, and I certainly practiced what I preached, by every measure.
I was 35 years young. I was the doting mom to my two beautiful, baby boys; I was still nursing my youngest son. I was very happily married. We lived at the end of a family cul de sac, on the beautiful North Shore of Vancouver, and our home was filled with family, friends, great music and great food. We were truly living the dream!
And yet, seemingly in only the blink of an eye, the world I knew was ripped away from under my feet, never to return again. I didn’t see it coming, this big fire breathing dragon of cancer that had stormed right in to steal everything in its path, without any regard for my hopes, my dreams or for my plans ahead. I hadn’t even complained of feeling sick or unwell.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. Actually, the entire poem is of great relevance, but if I were to get a tattoo, it would simply be this, “Still I Rise”. I understand wholeheartedly that this poem is about racism, but for me, I would use Maya’s powerful words directed at my cancer. I still do today.
After being knocked down again and again and again, and having to navigate years of relentless, seemingly insurmountable feats, over and over and over again, “Still I Rise” defines every part of who I have become.
Tears even come to my eyes now, as I think of all of the times this short but mighty sentence powered me through, on even the darkest of days.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1. My strong mindset — To survive despite every one of the odds stacked against me, I had to learn how to optimize my mindset and how to activate principles of mind over body.
Despite my most valiant efforts, I devastatingly did not respond, even to the harshest of 24/7, in patient chemotherapy regimens, known as “salvage chemotherapy”. In the summer of 2012, with 2 babies in tow, I was told that I had only 60 days left to live. I was awarded this dire, 2month terminal prognosis and I was denied all further medical care, aside from palliative care moving forward. Sounds came out of me that I never knew existed before that moment. Worse yet, this catastrophic news was even reconfirmed after seeking a 2nd opinion days later from a leading leukemia institute in the United States.
My body had failed but my mind was strong. Even when no one else believed in me, I chose to believe in “me” and to believe in my own ability to effect change in my own circumstance and in my own success.
With only 60 days left to live, I took accountability for my own health and survival. I embarked on my fight of fights, pursuing any and everything in the natural health care realm. I left no stone unturned. Only in this time did I come to “hear” all of the lessons that cancer had brought with it. I truly transformed from within and by doing so, I achieved this glorious, miraculous, complete, spontaneous remission!
2, My passion and energy for life and my fierce determination to be MOM — I was not prepared to let cancer steal this great honour of being mom to my 2 gorgeous boys, without giving it my all! My fierce yearning to still ‘get’ to be mom was always my North Star, lighting me up from within and powering me with fuel to stay the course every step of the way!
I wanted so desperately to still “get” to be my boys’ loudest cheerleader and to be their shoulder to cry on. I wanted to wipe away their tears and to kiss their bumps and bruises when they fell. I wanted to stand on every mountain with them and soar down them all, together on our skis, side by side. I wanted to be the first to greet them every morning with smiles and to be the last to snuggle them in, under cover, every night. This all created this palpable, unstoppable life force that has since gifted me 8.5 bonus years to date!
3, My tenacity, grit and ability to persevere — I thought I already conquered life’s hardest of feats by surviving a 60 day terminal cancer prognosis. But little did I know then of all that was still to come ahead.
Only once in remission was I able to serve as a recipient for a much needed bone marrow/stem cell transplant. I then grew strong and I was back to hiking every mountain and soaring down them all with my family! Happy Mama! And Still I Rise!
Yet this burst in great health was short-lived. A process of rejection had set in. My new, hearty immune system decided it didn’t recognize my own lungs and attacked them, as if they were an invader, much like a cold or a flu. This process literally obliterated my own lungs. I fell to 80lbs and was prescribed full time oxygen. I was told my only chance of survival would be to receive the gift of new lungs, which meant for something great to happen to me, something terrible had to happen to someone else. This was all so incredibly hard to grapple.
I declined rapidly each day in function. I had lost my vision with the high dose anti rejection medications. I could barely see; I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch tv, or seek any avenue of distraction, as I had even lost my “go to” stress reliever of exercise. I could barely walk across my own kitchen. Staying the course each day was brutally hard.
Only with the most heartfelt of thanks to the family of another who bestowed the gift of gifts at their hardest of times, was blessed with the gift of new lungs in August of 2015. The gift of breath, a gift we all readily take for granted. I grew strong once again, living life to the fullest! And Still I Rise!
Yet the rise and fall only continued. This storm was relentless. As a result of my compromised immune system, I then faced a multi drug resistant viral strain and nearly another yearlong hospital admission. I was known as the Hail Mary of our province’s largest hospital. I permanently lost the vision in my right eye during this time due to high dose medications and I endured unremitting complications. And then, another miracle in the spring of 2017 when I finally grew strong to this mean bug. I was finally back home and just so eager for that calm after the storm. And Still I Rise.
Yet the rise and fall only continued as I even then came to face divorce, only 6 weeks after finally being home. In the early days of my recovery, I had to face a move, legal action and adjusting to living life as a single mom. And Still I Rise.
Still today, I face ongoing challenges and complications. My kidney function has been compromised by the lofty toll of my medications and one day soon to come, I will need a kidney transplant too,. All of the drugs that have saved my life, also risk my life with harsh side effects and complications of secondary cancers and risk of infections. I always ride a fine teeter totter of rejection, cancer, infection and a failing kidney.
And Still I Rise. I even thrive!
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
From the outside looking in, I’ve lost almost everything that I previously identified with as “me”. I lost that once strong muscular frame that used to propel me up all of those mountains. I’ve lost the deepest parts of me by losing my own bone marrow and my own lungs. I lost all of the vision in my right eye, and even some in my left. I lost my monthly cycle and with that, I lost my ability to have more children. I lost much of my kidney function and much of my bone density. I lost my once strong immune system. I lost the ability to practice in my chosen career. I lost my once happy marriage, I lost our treasured family home, and I lost that family unit of 4, that I have always valued so dearly.
I have faced extreme physical, personal and professional loss. And Still I Rise.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
60 days to live with 2 babies in tow says it all.
How did you react in the short term?
The depth of my heartache and heartbreak was indescribable. I remember going to the beach with my husband, only hours after hearing my prognosis. I had fought to get out of hospital on a 2hour pass. It was July 31st 2012 and it was such a gorgeous summer evening. The beach was packed, with people everywhere living life to the fullest; enjoying picnic dinners, riding bikes along the seawall and playing beach volleyball.
I watched it all, in silence and in awe of the buzz of life. I wanted so desperately to get to be out there, without a care in the world, living my life to the fullest with my beautiful family. I stood in disbelief trying to process the reality of having only 60 days left to live.
I questioned what I had done so wrong to have caused this. I was the one who had inspired others to live their healthiest lives, even in my professional pursuits. I was literally the poster child for health and wellness in my “previous life”. Did I eat too many fruit and vegetables? I had never smoked, engaged in recreational drugs or even consumed very much alcohol. I had lived a clean life to the best of my ability.
I felt so defeated, so overwhelmed and so full of hurt. All the while, flashes of my boys raced in my mind, every second. It was the most extreme emotional and physical agony, all happening so deep within…but yet on the surface I just stared out towards the beach, and at everyone smiling and living.
I decided then and there that if I had 2 months to live, I that had a lot of living to do! I decided I would make every one of those days count and that I would own every single second, leaving no stone unturned. That decision not only changed the course of my day, but the course of my entire life.
And Still I Rise… not just 60 days later, but 3203 days later! How lucky am I??
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
1. The practice of mindfulness and acceptance — This was such an integral component of coming to a place of understanding. I did acknowledge the grandiose power that this fire breathing dragon of cancer brought with it and I truly allowed myself the space to experience all of the negative emotions that came with the words “you have 60 days to live”, with 2 babies in tow… anger, hurt, sorrow, grief…listing those emotions here doesn’t even touch the surface of the depth of it all. I truly transformed myself from a place of self judgment to one of self compassion. That alone was so incredibly freeing!
2. Music — I used music to sing out my hurt. Music brings connection and we can hear our pain in the song of others. Most songs are about break ups and exes, but I would use these same songs to sing them out to my cancer. For example, Kelly Clarkson’s, What Doesn’t Kill you Makes you Stronger… oh did I ever sing that one, headphones and all, as if I were the next Canadian Idol. It’s how I would release my hurt and take back my power from cancer.
3. Meditation — Wow, what a gift meditation has been. Itbecame a powerfully grounding force for me, and yet equally uplifting at the same time. It brought me out of the chaos and into the calm of the power of now, where I could be fully present in life, not focused on the heaviness of death that lingered all around. In the power of now, I could truly LIVE life each day that I was gifted, with my focus on the journey, rather than the destination and on the outcome. And I did just that! I became so full of gratitude for the smallest of moments, for the simplest of gestures and of for literally everything in nature!
4. Visualizations were also incredibly powerful. I truly envisioned, felt and even experienced my future success and the inherent pride that came with it. I saw myself on my future graduation stage of health, with all of my nearest and dearest in there to cheer on my success. I still practice visualizations today. I always see myself at 80 years old, pushing my future grand babies in a stroller, along the West Vancouver Seawall, with the smell of the ocean all around, the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, and my boys right beside me! It’s all incredibly powerful!
5. Inspirational role models- I found strength and hope from inspirational role models who had overcome substantial adversity themselves. It’s so important to surround ourselves with positive examples of success and adopt those traits that we feel led to their successes.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
I have experienced extreme loss and yet, I am also a living miracle. We all have a choice in what we choose to focus on. I choose to focus on the miracle that life is and to live it all, awake and alive, every second that I am gifted. I think we all have a responsibility to do so in honour of all of those who have been taken from us too soon and who would give anything to come back, for even one day or one hour to hold the ones they love most. Life is beautiful and life is hard. Go live it, love it and let your bright light shine!
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
My secret weapon in shifting my thoughts, my perspective and my emotions in any setting, at any time, is my Personal Power Statement, aka “Go Fighters Go Mama”!
It was first said by my oldest son at the age of 4 after I had explained that this big word leukemia basically meant mommy’s fighters to fight colds and bugs weren’t as strong as they needed to be. As I left for the hospital, my oldest shouted out with so much heart and exuberance, “Go Fighters Go Mama!”. He’s always had this amazing ability to make any room a brighter and happier space, just as he had done on that very hard and dark day. And all of a sudden, we were all smiling, ear to ear!
This short but empowering sentence was so full of enthusiasm, hope, positivity and promise. It instantly became what I now refer to as my Personal Power Statement. It’s one that I would repeat to myself silently in my mind, anytime I doubted my ability to stay the course for another day, hour or minute ahead. I sometimes even shouted it out, over and over and over again. And without fail, it always gifted me the strength I needed to persevere.
Even now I use it all the time. It instantly brings to a better space of calm, happiness and gratitude, no matter the hardships of the day. It’s a fierce reminder that no matter what is happening, I “get” to be here today, in this moment and I need to make it count. It inspires me to live my best life every, single day with the gift of today!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been incredibly blessed with this fierce force of love and support, from family, friends, near and dear ones, and even complete strangers from all corners of our great world. I am humbled and forever grateful. All of them have been teachers on my path and I’ve learned invaluable lessons about myself and about life, from each and every one of them.
But in honing in on one particular person, yes, I am alive today because of the power of HOPE. This hope, given to me by a complete stranger from halfway around the world, fueled me with all the energy I needed to stay the course and rise.
After a worldwide search had been hailed on my behalf to find a donor for my much needed bone marrow transplant, my team finally came racing in sporting the best news- a perfect 10/19 donor match had been found! It was the best day ever! With this gift, I just knew that I would not only survive, but thrive! And yet, the very next day is when I learned that I had only 2 months to live, and worse yet, I was no longer eligible to serve as a recipient for this bone marrow transplant as I was not in remission.
This gift of life that has just been extended the day before was brutally ripped away, not even 24 hours later. But I held on to hope, hope that I had been given this insight about my donor as a sign from above to hold and to keep fighting… and that I did! The power of hope is what sparked my miraculous spontaneous remission!
And here is the coolest part…only years later did I come to learn the name of my amazing donor, “Fabian Hoppe”. I know well his last name isn’t pronounced as HOPE in his home country of Germany, but it all means Hope all the same to me! Always remember, we rise by lifting others!
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
Yes, absolutely! I was told in the early days of my cancer diagnosis that I was coming into this chapter as a caterpillar and that on this path I would slowly evolve into this beautiful butterfly with wings to fly! This was a powerful metaphor of my journey.
As I cocooned in those years, I embarked on a process of growth and learning. Every time I was knocked down, I’ve come to realize that I still had more lessons to learn; lessons I never before knew I even needed to learn. In my “previous life’ I never would have slowed down long enough to have allowed myself the space to truly “hear” those lessons.
I needed those 4 white walls of my hospital room, and all that I endured, to stop me in my tracks, to get me off this go go go roller coaster of life and to find this calm in my heart that I had never before had. And what a gift it is, this newfound calm has truly been!
As they say, what goes down, must come up! I have certainly rebounded higher on the rebound than I could have ever imagined possible! I have grown my vibrantly coloured wings to fly and I now soar to the highest of heights, feeling so free and so alive! I live this incredibly rich and beautiful life and I truly live a million more lives every day, with each day that I am gifted. I truly couldn’t be luckier!
I feel as though I have been chosen to go through this crazy, tumultuous tidal wave, to be pummeled around and around and around to “get” to come out of it all to serve in the capacity that I do now in helping others rise and bounce back! And Still I Rise!
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I learned a lot…and I’m still learning as I go!
I learned that I am stronger because I had to be. I learned that I am smarter because of my mistakes. I learned that I am happier because of the sadness that I’ve known and that I’m wiser because I chose to learn, every step of the way.
And Still I Rise!
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Create a safe space to be really “real” about negative emotions — There is this fierce societal pressure to be positive, no matter what the situation is ahead. It takes courage to stand up to this pressure and to create this vulnerable space within ourselves to truly feel all those hard emotions that so many of us instinctively try to bury. The first step in being our most authentic and genuine positive self is to do just this. It’s a step that most people miss it because of this fierce societal pressure to always be positive and it explains why so many people struggle so much in shifting to their most authentic, positive mindset.
I passionately share a message that emotions serve as a survival mechanism. In response to the emotions we experience, we adapt and change our behaviour accordingly. Yet, if we bury these emotions, we then don’t have the appropriate behavioural response to the situation at hand.
Just take me for example; in the early days of my cancer diagnosis, I had tried so hard to not let in the fear… “I’ll be fine” I would say, “just a blip on the path”. I built these thick walls to not let any of it sink in and I was on autopilot. In turn, I lacked the appropriate fight or flight response that should come in tow with fear. I was “comfortable” in letting my doctors take charge of my health. I also didn’t allow myself to feel the depth of the sadness, which is intended slow us down and force us to reflect, learn and grow. In turn, I stayed spinning my wheels… both literally and figuratively by endlessly riding the exercise bike on my hospital floor, with 2 huge poles of chemotherapy right by side… pushing through the pain of how terrible I truly felt on the inside.
Yet, the profound awakening that came with the sobering reality wake up call of a 60 day terminal cancer prognosis, brought all that fear to the surface and finally activated this “all in” fight mode that I should have adopted since day one of my diagnosis. Feeling the fear and acknowledging the big beast of cancer by preparing for the worst and writing those heartfelt notes, memory albums and recording for my kids in my final days finally made me stand up to cancer and fight with all my might and take back my power.
I urge you all to create the space, for both yourselves and for your loved ones, to feel the array of emotions that come with grief, hardship, loss and challenge. Don’t’ try to “fix’ it, just feel it all! These emotions are an essential survival mechanism and are essential as fuel to propel us onwards and upwards!
2. Adopt a proactive mindset — Take accountability and take charge of your own success, happiness and survival. Believe in your own ability to effect change in your own circumstance, and to create your own positive outcome, even when no one else believes in your ability to do so.
Fuel your mind, your soul and your body and leave no stone unturned in your pursuits. Fire anyone in your circle who doesn’t support your goals or who doesn’t light you up from within. Be conscious of the energy that others either draw from you, or give to you, and make choices that conserve and protect your own energy space. Reciprocity of respect is necessary in any relationship you maintain. At the end of the day, self care is health care. With 60 days left to live, these lessons have become abundantly clear.
3. Embrace an attitude of gratitude and write your most empowered version of your story — Find the meaning that comes with loss and in adversity. Find your calm in the chaos to “hear” the lessons. Change the story of what happened “to” you to what happened “for” you. Perspective is everything! Change the lens through which you choose to see your struggle and choose your brightest and most vibrant lens to do so! Choose to focus on the strength that you’ve gained, the clarity that you’ve achieved and the wisdom that you’ve been bestowed.
4. Be present in the power of now and a personal power statement that helps us to achieve it — We all need to take our focus off the destination and off our hardship, and bring it back to the power of now! We need to live with presence and to be alive and awake, finding the beauty that lies in the moment of right here and right now. In the end, it’s not the big trips and the grandiose adventures that count as much as the little, everyday moments that so many of us take for granted. Let’s all go hug the ones we love today and tell them just how much they mean to us!
My Personal Power Statement, as I referenced above, helps me to do just this and live in the present moment, no matter what the circumstance. Craft out your own Personal Power Statement today; make it a short, concise sentence, one that is full of empowerment, action, hope, positivity and promise!
Live your legacy today in the way that you want to be remembered tomorrow if tomorrow never comes. What is the mark you want to leave on this world and on those you love most? What are the lessons you want them to learn from you? I promise, if you live this way today, you will live your richest and most vibrant life, no matter how hard the day.
5. Be purposeful, be of service and be of contribution every day, no matter what comes your way — this is the secret sauce to thriving through adversity! No matter how big or how small the contribution, we can all be of service and make the day better for someone else, even in the smallest of ways by extending gratitude or friendly hellos.
For me, I needed to fight to get out of hospital everyday at 2:30pm to pick up my boys from school, to make a family dinner, to take them to their team practices and to tuck them in before bed…. all before racing back to the hospital in time for my nighttime IV drip. I’m sure a million people could have done this on my behalf, but these were my babies and this was my job. I needed to be the one to do so.
Always keep your fierce sense of purpose in our great world. It gives us all the fight we need to stay the course and thrive! When we do so, it takes our focus off of our hardship and onto something outside of us that is bigger than us. Be of service my friends!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would lobby governments to change policies on organ donation from opt in to opt out, so that everyone is automatically enrolled, unless they choose to opt out. I would also challenge policies to include bone marrow and stem cell donation.
I only “get” to be alive today because of the kindness, generosity and selflessness of complete strangers, who all chose to give the gift of life. But there are so many more, just like me, waiting for the gift of life who will not be as lucky as I have been. I am on a mission to encourage as many people around the world as possible to donate blood, organ and bone marrow/stem cells so that no one is left waiting.
You can be a superhero today! Please sign your organ donation card, register on the International stem cell registry, and give blood. Give Life today! It’s in you to give!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Vishen Lakhiani, the Founder of Mindvalley. I consider Vishen to be this force of goodness and a pioneer in creating a platform for endless learning, for self betterment and for personal growth and development. Vishen has filled the Mindvalley platform not just with his own insights, but with countless inspirational leaders and with a multitude of powerful courses, that leave us all inspired and empowered to be our best versions of ourselves.
He himself leads by example in showing how he chooses to fuel his mind and his growth. I am thankful to Vishen for his efforts in introducing me to the work of so many incredible heroes in the arena of personal development and triumph, such as Jim Kwik. I consider Vishen to be such an inspirational role model and I would love the opportunity to learn more about what inspired his pursuits and how he chose to serve our great world as he does today!
And if I could be so lucky to get to name 2 inspirational forces, I feel compelled to also name Jay Shetty, a young monk, taking the world by storm in making wisdom go viral. He’s a powerful storyteller, and through the power of story, he cuts right to the heart of humanity and leaves us all with a greater sense of understanding and compassion, both for ourselves and for others. Jay and I have both spent extensive time on our “travels” inwards, reflecting, processing, growing and evolving. I think a conversation between the two of us would be fascinating!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I invite readers to visit my website at RiseToday.com and to follow and engage with me on social media!
FB @ Rise Today
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you Pirie!