What do Jane Eyre, Odysseus, Katniss Everdeen, and King Arthur all have in common? They are heroines and heroes in literature. Heroes are just ordinary individuals who end up doing extraordinary things in the face of adversity, injustice, conflict, or oppression. Their stories also all follow the classic hero’s journey as originally broken down by Joseph Campbell and later simplified by Christopher Vogler (more on that to come). 

Now, what do Jane Eyre, Odysseus, Katniss Everdeen, and King Arthur have in common with you? Their journeys, like your own, are powerfully transformative, despite obstacles, setbacks, and periods of doubt and defeat. As you will soon discover, the hero’s journey and the patient’s journey are surprisingly parallel. 

A Hero in the Making 

As a literature lover, I have been on many heroes’ journeys. Despite my bird’s eye view of quests of all kinds, the similarity between these types of journeys and my own only occurred to me retrospectively. I actually didn’t realize how terrible I consistently felt, how much the quality of my life had been affected, and what true health really was until retrospectively either. 

From Dengue Fever (twice), Zika, Ehrlichia, and an H. pylori infection to back-to-back emotional traumas, cancer, and chronic sinusitis—I was unwell for a decade. However, I was young, stubborn, in denial, living life in the fast lane, and optimistic to a fault. As I reflect on my journey, I don’t know how I worked, surfed, traveled, and socialized as much as I did during my decade of disease. But, as Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently once exclaimed, “heroes are made in the hour of defeat. Success is, therefore, well described as a series of glorious defeats.” 

I certainly had plenty of glorious defeats. My ultimate defeat, though, and the true beginning of my “hero’s journey” came with a cancer diagnosis following Hurricane Irma. 

So, what is this hero’s journey, anyway? And how is it like yours and mine? 

First, let’s go back to literature 101.  

 Campbell and Vogler’s Hero’s Journey 

Joseph Campbell was an author, public speaker, and professor of comparative mythology and religion. He is best known for his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlines the myth-based framework, the hero’s journey, also known as the monomyth. Campbell defined three main stages of the journey, the departure act, the initiation act, and the return act. Within those three stages, he identified 17 steps. Almost 60 years later, in 2007, screenwriter Christopher Vogler simplified Campbell’s 17 steps and mapped out the 12 stages of the hero’s journey in his book, The Writer’s Journey

The 12 stages of the hero’s journey are: the ordinary world, the call of adventure, refusal of the call, meeting the mentor, crossing the first threshold, tests, allies, and enemies, approach, ordeal, reward, the road back, resurrection, and return with the elixir. 

From Star Wars and the Lion King to Little Women and Beowulf, the monomyth storyline and character development structure are followed. 

The Patient’s Journey from Illness to Health 

Maybe you’re just getting started and haven’t left your ordinary world yet, or perhaps you’re in the trifecta stage of tests, allies, and enemies—wherever you are, the monomyth roadmap can be a helpful tool in navigating your own health journey, especially once you start acknowledging yourself as a hero on a quest and not a dude or damsel in distress. 

Let’s examine some of the crossovers between the hero’s journey and the patient’s journey. 

The Departure Act 

The Departure Act or Act I includes: the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, and Meeting the Mentor. 

Welcome to the start of your heroic health journey! Although exciting, this act is sure to shake you up. Between stages 1 and 2, you have received a diagnosis or have concluded that your health has been compromised based on the persistent symptoms you are experiencing (i.e., chronic fatigue, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, digestive discomfort, etc.). This is the point in your journey where you are being called to act, or in other words, do something about the way you are feeling. 

Denial is a very common sentiment in the early stages of the patient’s journey, especially when the prognosis is still uncertain despite valiant efforts to identify the root enemy (for example, undiagnosed late disseminated Lyme disease). It is sometimes easier, temporarily, at least, to pretend everything is fine, or it’s “all in your head,” rather than accept the call to adventure. Denial can also take hold of the patient who has received a diagnosis that is difficult to digest. Either way, know that the refusal of the call is just part of the hero’s and patient’s journey and that help is on the way. 

Mentors can come in all forms. Sometimes they must be sought after, and sometimes they seem to just walk into your life when you least expect them. On your journey, you might have different mentors for different stages or just one godsent individual who helps you navigate all the trials and tribulations of your trek toward health. The primary roles of the mentor are to encourage, support, guide, advise, and inspire the hero (i.e., the patient). 

Support groups (in person or online) can be a great starting point to locate a mentor. Just as a little side note, it is important to keep in mind that not all support groups are created equally, and not all are supportive despite their titles. A mentor doesn’t always have to be someone who has shared a similar journey, though; finding one is more about being open-minded and open-hearted to receiving guidance and support from people who you align with and feel have something beneficial and benevolent to offer. 

The Initiation Act 

The Initiation Act or Act II includes: Crossing the First Threshold, Tests, Allies, and Enemies; Approach, Ordeal, and Reward. 

Congratulations! You’ve made the conscious decision to cross the first threshold. This is no easy feat! However, from this moment forward, even with the setbacks that are sure to come, you have decided to take the first significant step toward health. You have courageously left your ordinary world and have decided that despite the tests, setbacks, struggles, and ordeals that are part of this act, you are up for the challenge as you know that health is the greatest prize. 

This act can surely push you to your breaking point, but remember, there are valuable silver linings all along the way. While the ultimate goal is to heal, the lessons, accomplishments, allies, small victories (and sometimes roadblocks!) that are inevitably part of the long journey are also a significant part of your transformation and success in act III. 

As a cancer survivor, my act II looked like this (very condensed version): 

Cross the First Threshold: For six months, I had been experiencing debilitating fatigue. I convinced myself that non-negotiable two-hour daily naps and an 8 P.M. bedtime resulted from overworking, traveling too much, and surfing like a maniac. As the months went on, though, the fatigue increasingly interfered with my life. In April 2017, I could no longer deny that there was something very wrong. I made an appointment to see my doctor at the Beachside Clinic in Costa Rica. 

Test, Allies, and Enemies: Long story short, after blood tests, a suspicious and barely visible at the time lump on the front of my neck, a four-month “let’s wait and see” period, and an ultrasound of the now very noticeable node, my doctor concluded with an urgency that I needed to get a biopsy as soon as possible. 

As an eternal optimist, I figured I’d fly back to Florida, get the biopsy; it’d be something benign, I’d have the lump removed for esthetic reasons, and be back in Costa Rica feeling fantastic in a few weeks. Pre-biopsy, the doctor told me the node could be one of four things, and the only serious diagnosis would be cancer. He said the lump was too perfectly shaped to be cancer, though. 

It turns out it was thyroid cancer. I was also diagnosed with severe sinus disease that same week. 

For brevity’s sake, I won’t go into detail, but I had a lot of allies in Costa Rica, Florida, and beyond during this stage. I definitely couldn’t have gotten to this step or gone any further without my family, boyfriend, friends, chocolate labrador, doctors, nurses, neighbors, and colleagues.   

Approach and Ordeal: Two surgeries, long-lasting anesthesia side effects, physically healing from the surgeries, radiation therapy, new medication, regularly being given false hope that I could go home soon, and being estranged from the Pacific Ocean and Nature for six months, unleashed the worst of me. When I took my dog to the vet one afternoon after my first surgery, and we were both diagnosed with ringworm, I was pushed to the very edge of my sanity. 

While I was fortunate to have thyroid cancer over another more aggressive form, the emotional struggles I endured during these two stages were far worse to me than the actual cancer and sinus disease combined. I worried that the terribly despondent, weak, brain fogged, and lackluster post-surgery me was the new me, and that was terrifying. However, I persevered, just barely, and eventually realized that version of me was only temporary. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have battled through these two steps alone. 

Reward: I had my entire thyroid removed, was cancer-free, and after my sinuses healed, I could finally breathe out of my nose for the first time in over a decade and also start freediving again. While I was physically healed, the emotional trauma and transformation that took place during this act took a heavy toll on me. The road back and the resurrection were hard stages and required a lot of introspection, patience, self-care, healing, and time to get to know and embrace the real new me, which would turn out to be the best me (so far). 

The Return Act 

The Return Act or Act III includes: The Road Back, the Resurrection, and Return with Elixir. 

The Return Act is the healing, reflecting, accepting, and sharing act. It is the act when you “return to your ordinary world,” but as “the hero of your own story,” as Joseph Campbell says. What’s unique about this act is that not only do you return, but you return with an elixir. The elixir is a concoction of all the knowledge you acquired and lessons you learned on your quest to reclaim your health. 

This elixir is meant to be shared, though, in whatever capacity feels right to you—maybe it’s just sharing your story and offering mentorship to one person you know who is going through something similar, or perhaps you want to reach a broader audience and offer your experience, wisdom, and encouragement in the form of a support group, online forum or podcast. Many of our own Innovative Medicine patients go on to create inspiring, uplifting projects like LymeLight Journey

The Silver Linings of the Patient’s Journey 

While there are countless negatives about having cancer, Lyme disease, a yet-to-be diagnosed illness, or any chronic condition for that matter, there are silver linings to the journey if you open your mind to them. For starters, there is an inevitable perspective shift that occurs on the heroic patient’s journey. The shift begins with realizing that health is our greatest asset and is the pinnacle of our life pyramid. When our health collapses, everything underneath also becomes compromised and in danger of crumbling. A profound appreciation for one’s health often comes from having lost it. The patient’s quest is universally rooted in recovering that lost health, and all sorts of additional silver linings can bloom from those roots. 

The journey from illness to health can inspire you to reevaluate your priorities, your allocation of time and energy, and your relationships with others and yourself. The journey might also cause you to change your habits, lifestyle, goals, general outlook on life, and your purpose in the world. Having and eliminating cancer from my life had profound effects on me and still does. Today, I am more present-minded, health-centric, proactive, passionate, confident, unapologetically me, and immensely grateful. 

Looking back on those years of my life now that I am healthier and happier than I’ve ever been, I realize that what happened needed to happen; otherwise, I still might be the pre-cancer version of myself instead of the best (yet) version. 

What will the silver linings of your heroic patient’s journey be? 

Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products or treatments mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a licensed medical practitioner for medical advice.

At Innovative Medicine, we believe in transparency. We want you to know that we may participate in affiliate advertising programs pertaining to products mentioned herein.

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Meet the Author

Jenn Parker

Originally from Florida, and after ten years of thriving in Costa Rica, Jenn Parker now lives on a small tropical island on the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. She is an avid surfer, nature photographer, environmental conservationist, traveler, yogi, and self-educated nutritionist and wellness advocate. She has long adhered to a plant-based diet, and full-heartedly believes in the power of nutrition. She has been working full-time as a professional wellness, travel, and lifestyle writer since the start of 2015. Passionate about sharing what she has learned along her journey and through extensive reading and research, she hopes to inspire others to lead a more mindful, environmentally conscious, happy, fulfilled, and healthy lifestyle.
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