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July 4th, 2018

 Healing Women Series • Nicole Skibola

“In losing so much there is space to grow”

Nicole Skibola survived a rare endometrial cancer in her early thirties. A former New York lawyer, Nicole shares the emotional and physical trauma she endured in the wake of her diagnosis.  She recounts the grief of her partner leaving her during her absolute lowest point and how in the face of devastation and loss she rekindled a dormant creative practice. This creative grief work reignited her passion for art and provided her with much needed support and healing during her time of grief.  Nicole’s strength and resilience echoes as she shares how she’s used her illness as an opportunity for transformation.

A Northern California resident,  Nicole is a published author and entrepreneur in the cannabis world as the co-founder of Cosmic View, a high quality and organic line of cbd infused salves and tinctures.

 

Nicole Skibola

Nicole Skibola (R) pictured with her mother Dr. Christine Skibola.

 

You were diagnosed with a rare endometrial cancer at a young age. How did the illness present itself?

I always had really bad endometriosis and it got to the point where I was constantly on my period. I began haemorrhaging clots of blood the size of a grapefruit. It was really, really scary. My doctor thought I had a fibroid, so I had a laparoscopic surgery to remove the fibroid and they wound up shredding what ended up being a tumor inside of my body. As a result of women like me having this experience they’re actually in the process of requiring doctors to do a site test of the cells before they remove a growth. This was about 5 and half years ago.

 

What was your treatment protocol? 

The day that I received the cancer diagnosis, the doctor brought in a surgeon who told me I had a week before I was scheduled for a hysterectomy and double oophorectomy with no option for an egg retrieval, and anti-estrogens for five years. I left and thought, okay I guess I’m doing this in a week. Fortunately, my mom has a PhD and my sister’s a medical doctor.  They were frantically calling doctors to find second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth opinions. I wound up getting in to see my surgeon at Sloan Kettering who I fell in love with. She allowed me to do an egg retrieval and she gave me a month before my second surgery, with no anti-estrogens, which I was really, really happy about. My treatment was the surgery really, so I didn’t have to do anything beyond that like radiation or chemotherapy. For me, the real suffering around this was the emotional pain of going through that experience.

 

Were you ever worried the treatment wouldn’t work?

It was an incredibly difficult decision but I think I was also really lucky because I was surrounded by so many doctors and really smart incredible people. I had a very rare sarcoma and there weren’t really any known treatments and a lot of it was kind of a leap of faith. I was able to get to a point where I made my decision and I just knew I had to be okay with it. I knew that I would encounter people who weren’t okay with my decision and it never really bothered me. Because when I encounter that still, I think, you have no idea. I really advocate for people who have cancer to take control of their health and make their own decision whatever it is, whatever treatment they decide. Nobody is in a position to tell them what they should do with their body, absolutely nobody.

 

How was your recovery ?

My physical recovery was pretty fast. I’ve always been really active. Within a couple of weeks I was doing yoga again and probably within a couple of months I was running. And this was a second major abdominal surgery in a month. That’s the amazing thing I discovered about the human body is that when you take care of yourself and you eat well and you exercise, the human body is very resilient. My emotional recovery on the other hand is something that I am still working through. I had a lot of trauma associated with my illness and it’s a lifetime of work, really.

 

Did you prescribe to a certain kind of diet or way of eating?

I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit but I try to follow an Ayurveda diet. When I’m not totally following my dietary recommendations, I at least follow food-combining guidelines and avoid meat and dairy as much as possible. I also try my hardest not to eat refined sugar but I have been addicted to chocolate lately with so much stress related to the cross-country move. I generally don’t drink, though I will enjoy a frosty beer now and then or a glass of wine. I try not to deprive myself of the things I love because, well, life is short and you have to enjoy the moments of pleasure as they come.

 

How did nutrition impact your recovery?

Nutrition has always been a big part of my life, and it has only become increasingly important since being sick. I went full vegan for a while and have been extremely health conscious since. I used to drink quite a bit and smoke the occasional cigarette. That’s something that I have mostly phased out (I haven’t smoked a cigarette since I was diagnosed and will never smoke one ever again). I also am now an avid green juicer – I make my own every day.

 

 

Have you ever walked away from doctors or healthcare practitioners that you felt didn’t serve you or you didn’t align with?

I have three experiences that I can talk about. The first one was with the first surgeon I met with who was really conservative and I didn’t really align with. What I really love about my doctors at Sloan Kettering, which is considered one of the best cancer hospitals in the world, is that they really understood that the emotional side of disease was as important as the physical side. My doctor at Mount Sinai said I had to do this,  that I didn’t have a choice, and I couldn’t do an egg retrieval. It was very black and white. My doctors at Sloan Kettering were really compassionate, understood the risks of an egg retrieval, and they didn’t just look at the physical outcomes. They considered the emotional outcome, which is just as important for your recovery as a woman. I really loved that approach which is why I went to Sloan Kettering.

In my second experience, I ended up in this appointment with this sex therapist. It was two weeks before the surgery and I was haemorrhaging blood, going through an egg retrieval, getting hormone injections and this woman expected me to be this sexual being. There was nothing sexy about what I was feeling at that point. She was really sweet but the experience brought up a lot of shame about my sexuality and what I was actually going through.

The third example was with my medical oncologist (not my surgeon) who had horrible bedside manners.  The last time I saw her, which was about three years ago, she told me that I will never be cancer free because I have a really slow growing cancer that could come back in thirty years. While this may be factually true, I don’t think it’s necessary to be an asshole while repeating that to someone who is young, healthy and has clean scans. There are actually peer-reviewed studies of patients who have doctors with positive attitudes, have better outcomes.

 

 

Tell us about your creative grief work.   

I was with a partner when I was sick and that partner left me when I was sick. I was at end of my Saturn return and my life fell apart. I fought it for a really long time, like most New Yorkers do. I kept on trying to trudge through really hard times and I then I finally surrendered.

I wound up going to my family’s home in California, which was uninhabited at the time. With all of my new alone time, I developed a creative practice that I had neglected my entire adult life. It was incredibly transformative. I joined a writer’s group that was led by David Elliott – his wife, Lara Elliott, is one of my best friends and encouraged me to join. Some of the other people in the group, who I’m now close with, have developed entire creative practices around personal loss. One had a stillborn, one lost her mother, and it was really beautiful to see people who were okay with expressing sadness. I think that was the first time I really had permission to do that.

All of this work led to an illustrated memoir, and that eventually morphed into a structured journal called Wakeful Night. The book has abstract linocut prints that I made, paired with a series of questions that prompt the reader to think about their illness, the associated darkness and the opportunities for personal illumination.

Last year I worked with the University of Southern California Cancer Center to put on a few of workshops for patients around the journal. I tried to get the journal into more hospitals but it wasn’t working, so I put it down for a minute. One of my neighbours showed the journal to Jennifer Baumgardner, the former Executive Director of Feminist Press who has started her own indie publishing press, Dottir Press. Jennifer loved the book and wanted to publish it as part of her first release. There was a part of me that thought, of course she chose this one – the one I thought no one would care about. In the end, Wakeful Night is much bigger than I thought it would be – I thought I was going to be limited to drab hospital waiting rooms but I get to go on a book tour and write personal essays!

 


You were once trained as a lawyer. What made you step away from law?

I graduated during the financial crisis and had a hard time getting work. I decided pretty soon after not to practice law but to do business consulting. The thought of spending hours in a depressing law firm seemed awful. I began doing sustainability and corporate social responsibility work. I would have these stops and starts and financially it was just really tough. Something would be going well, then it would fall through. It was always a struggle. When I went back to California I started exploring this creative side of me that had been dormant for a long time. I got back to New York and was still doing some of my consulting work. I was living in New York in a new neighbourhood in Brooklyn called Red Hook which is full of really amazing artists, makers, builders and people who are just living really unconventional lives. It was the first time I realized that there were other ways to do this, that it wasn’t all heading to midtown wearing a pencil skirt and going to business meetings.

One of my friends in my building was working for this beautiful photography archive and she needed help so she hired me. And all of a sudden, I had these wonderful neighbours that were hiring me for projects. One hired me as an illustrator, another one hired me as a set designer. They would come over to my apartment and I would show them my drawings and they would hire me for these incredible projects. I had these moments where I was pinching myself. How did I get here?  I’ve struggled for sure. I can’t pretend it’s been a smooth road these past five years. But this was the universe’s way of telling me that I had a different path. I’ve had these really amazing things fall into my lap that have shown me that there are other ways to live that don’t involve traditional indicators of success. And now I’m working in the cannabis business.

 

What has cancer taught you?

That even the absolute worst things in life carry with them an opportunity for transformation. That I can face my darkness head on and I can survive however scary that can be. That I am meant to be an artist and that I have a gift for sitting in the face of devastation and loss and being fully present with other humans in their suffering.

 

How has your relationship with yourself changed because of your illness?

I’m really working on being less hard on myself. I’ll take certain things really seriously and then I’ll tell myself, dude, calm down, it’s just this little thing. I’m still searching for is more confidence in my creativity. I’ve been giving myself more emotional permission to be sad or to experience these tidal waves of emotion where I get lost in the sensory appreciation of how beautiful life can be – like my new home in Bolinas. I’m creating more space for myself because I feel things really deeply which can be hard but also magical.

 

 

 

 

Has your intuition guided you in this journey?

One of the things we promote at Cosmic View is this notion of bodily intuition. So many of us are looking for answers, looking for someone to tell us what to do, and one of the things I’ve learned to tap into more is just listen to what my body is saying, and what feels right. I’ve also learned to trust. Trust is so important, especially with Cosmic View. I’ve had many moments where things got really hard, and I ask myself what am I doing? These doubts are generally followed by moments of illumination where I am reminded that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I’m choosing to trust a lot more than I used to.

 

What advice would you give someone who’s on their healing journey and might be struggling?

Follow your intuition. Be informed and take control of your health. Be selective about the information you use to inform decisions about your health and your life. Establish boundaries with people who do not serve you and who don’t respect your decisions.

 

What does self-care mean to you? What are your self-care practices? Any non-negotiables?

Self care means doing things that resonate with your soul.  One of my most favorite self-care rituals is riding my bike somewhere far with my best friend and eating something not great for my body but absolutely soul nourishing like pizza and just enjoying it without feeling guilty. A big ritual for me is the ocean. It’s where my soul resides. Sometimes, living in New York, I’d travel for hours just to get to the water and to immerse myself in the arms of the ocean. It’s how I face death and my own mortality because the ocean is a place of mystery and wonder, but also a place of danger no matter how good of a swimmer you are. Another non-negotiable for me right now is seeing Dominique Sire. It’s definitely a financial sacrifice but its something I know that I have to do for myself.

 

What are some resources that have helped guide you?

I’ve learned to minimize my exposure to a lot of new age literature honestly. I’ve found the most inspiration from artists and other people who have brazenly paved their own paths in the face of life’s ups and downs and have found a way to be honest and raw about pain and loss. Some artists who inspire me with their personal struggles are the famous ones like Agnes Martin, Frieda Kahlo, Noguchi, and some are the lesser known ones who I know personally who have never given up on their art despite not achieving mainstream recognition like Margaret Evangeline, an artist I worked for in New York.

My early mentor is an artist named Robert Perkins who passed away a couple of weeks ago. He was the first one to see my talent as an adult and encourage me to go for it. He changed my life and I will always be grateful to him for that.

Zoe Inman is an intuitive I have been working with for over a decade. She taught me to sit with my darkness. To get over the ‘its not fair’ narrative and use cancer as a tool to change my life. Dominique Sire is another intuitive I just began working with to untangle some of the trauma associated with the heartbreak I experienced during my illness. We’ve been doing dreams analysis and visualization. It’s hard, hard work and really devastating at times but I am so thrilled to be working with her

Fire Lotus Zen Temple in Brooklyn. I just moved from Brooklyn but the monastics and lay Buddhists at this temple are such amazing human beings. Sitting in silence and then listening to a Dharma talk is a truly transformative experience. I love how disciplined zen is. It’s about a dedicated practice and work which sounds counter intuitive for meditation but I like how it doesn’t promise an easy fix. It’s honest about the hard work we have to do to find inner peace, even if for moments at a time.

I love poetry so much. When I am feeling stuck, I will pick up one of my favourites and dive in. It gets me out of my head and into my heart. My all time favourite poem is Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. I’ve probably read it over 500 times. Also inspiring is the incredibly beautiful writing of Anne Carson.

 

 

What was the hardest part of your recovery?

Getting over the emotional trauma of having a partner leave you at your absolute lowest point in life.

 

How do you navigate those subconscious negative beliefs (that the treatment might not work, I’m not worthy, etc)?

I dive and look at them. Darkness is a part of life. We have to sit with those thoughts sometimes. I’ve been practicing zen meditation for a few years and zen (and any meditation really) is about sitting with your thoughts and letting them pass. I think in our culture, especially as health conscious people we want to make things go away. But we can’t. Our negative thought patterns are a part of us and we need to understand what they are telling us before we can let them go. We need to look in the mirror and its painful and scary sometimes but it’s part of the work.

 

What’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever received?

Zoe Inman told me right after my diagnosis that you always have a choice. You are in control because you always have a choice over what you want to do with your body. Especially with medical decisions where it might seem like you have no choice. I could choose which doctor I wanted to work with, how severe of a treatment I wanted to do, etc. We often think we have no choice, but within that there are all these smaller choices that we make and that’s incredibly empowering. Am I going to drink tea or water? You always have a choice.

 

Who inspires you?

My mother, every single day even when she drives me nuts. My artist friends: Andy Cavatorta, Erin Durant, and Lauren Spencer King.

 

 

How has CBD impacted your life?

I’d prefer to rephrase this question as how has cannabis impacted your life. I think it’s important to talk about whole plant medicine. CBD is an amazing cannabinoid, but it’s part of an amazing plant. One part. It works with other parts of the plant, including other cannabinoids like THC. CBD is one tool in my belt to deal with inflammation and there is actually a recent study that shows CBD actually kills endometrial cancer cells, which is amazing. Cannabis has helped me to move away from alcohol (which is poison for our bodies, really… though I do like a drink now and then!) and be present. I try not to use cannabis in an escapist way, though sometimes I do, when I am stressed. But I’ve found it to be an incredible tool to focus on one activity, whether vacuuming or spending hours on an intricate drawing. It brings me down to earth and regain my sense of the present moment.

 

Products from Cosmic View. An incredible organic line of cannabis infused products (salves +tinctures) created  by Nicole and her mother, Christine, in Northern California.

 

Any advice for someone who’s interested in trying CBD? What should they look for, avoid? What are the marks of a quality product? 

Major things to look for:

  • Is it cannabis or hemp derived?
  • Where is it grown?
  • Is it organic?
  • How is it extracted? (CO2, ethanol or mechanical methods like rosin pressing or cold water hash are ok) Some extraction methods use really toxic solvents like hexane and butane. Stay far away from those!
  • Are there other additives, preservatives or fragrances?
  • Is it an isolate or full spectrum? There’s no marijuana plant that has no THC. A whole plant will have a spectrum of cannabinoids, terpenes, waxes, resins, etc. There’s all these components that work together to offer maximum benefits. If you’re buying a medicinal grade CBD oil, it’s going to have some THC in it. Do not buy something that has zero THC. It is an isolate and is not medicine.

This is all another reminder to take control of what’s going in your body and to make sure you’re not consuming something that might be toxic. Don’t be shy about asking questions.

Disclaimer: This applies to people that live in the states that have access to medical grade marijuana. Now if you only have access to a hemp product, it’s better than nothing.

 

Comic View’s Solstice Stick

How do you celebrate yourself?

One thing that David Elliott always taught us in the writer’s group, which I still try to do even though I’m no longer in the group, is to carve out literal celebrations for all things, even tiny milestones. Buy yourself that nice chocolate bar, go on a leisurely walk down the road, buy yourself some flowers at the grocery store. It’s important to go through the motions of a celebration even though my tendency is to think that I don’t deserve it, not yet, I’ll celebrate when… I’m trying to be more intentional with affirming this good thing that just happened. I need to celebrate this and then the next good thing will happen.



Do you have a morning and/or evening routine?

AM: I write down my dreams if I can remember them, first thing. Make my bed every single day. I can’t remember a day in my entire adult life I didn’t make my bed. Cold brew coffee with homemade almond milk every single day. It’s perhaps my favourite part of every day. When I am in my routine, sitting in silence for 12-15 minutes, though I’ve been bad lately with moving and everything.

PM: I have such a routine, it’s a problem sometimes! I am such a creature of habit. The routine includes my neti pot, oil pulling, stretching before bed, sitting in silence for a few minutes, and always, always reading a book. Right now I’m on the 3rd book of the Elena Ferrante books.

 

On rotation or favorite

Way to relax: Draw, cook a giant meal, swim in the ocean.

Herb: Marjoram to cook, Bladderwrack Atlantic Seaweed for my health. Not sure if that counts as an herb, but its an important plant to me. Sometimes I take a sleep potion with California poppy and skullcap. I make tea with Sun Potion‘s Ashwagandha, but sometimes though I have to admit that it freaks me out that it’s sourced from India. And obviously cannabis. I avoid most herbal supplements because they are not regulated and are often sourced from places with zero standards. That’s what happens when your mom is a toxicologist.

Skin care line: Brooklyn Herborium. The founder Emma is such an incredible source of knowledge of herbalism and has transformed my skin. I love all of their products so much. I love mixing their face oil with our CBD tincture. I also love our Solstice Stick, which is our only beauty product and saved me this past New York winter. I also get wild crafted rosehip seed oil and that is generally all I use for face wash.

Tea: I love the Brooklyn Herborium blends; genmaicha, and a really good matcha

Online journal/magazine/blog: I don’t really read blogs honestly. I prefer the New Yorker, the New York Times, Lenny Letter.

Movie: I saw 13th recently and I think it should be required watching for everyone in this country. It’s about race and the criminal justice system and it brings up systemic problems that we need to address. As a person in the cannabis business, it hits close to home. I want to be part of the solution in fixing how the war on drugs has targeted people of colour in this country.

Book: Autobiography of Red is a recent favourite

Podcast: This American Life, Invisibilia and gritty ones like Criminal and Strangers. I also love the occasional OnBeing — I have some episodes I come back to again and again like Brene Brown and Paulo Coelho.

Healer: My mom, Caroline Goff for kinesiology in Brooklyn, my doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Dr. Ginger Gardner, Zoe Inman, Dominique Sire.

 

If you could leave the reader with one thing, what would it be?

It would be you always have a choice. Whether it’s over a physical thing or how you experience something. I can go through a stressful time and choose to break down or take deep breaths.  I can choose to step into a situation with grace.

 

 

Connect with Nicole

 

 Healing Women Series • Nicole Skibola

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