Applying the 12 Steps of AA to My Cancer Journey


Looking back on my experiences with leukemia and with alcoholism, I realized that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can be applied to life with cancer.

cartoon drawing of blogger and AML survivor, Mary Sansone

When I went into treatment for alcoholism back in 1997, I memorized and actuated the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to the best of my ability. When my parents read the 12 steps, they replied in unison that these life ladder rungs were not just for addicts; they were a way of life that could benefit anyone.

Now, I did not (intentionally) “feed” my acute myeloid leukemia like I did my addiction. I did not lie and steal from others so that I could maintain my cancer. How could I correlate the journey of my recovery from an unasked-for cancer to the recovery journey of a lying rapacious alcoholic?

It is not the same. Yet, I found that applying the 12 Steps of AA to my cancer recovery struggle helped me achieve some serenity

For “normies” with a cancer diagnosis who never had a desire to over-imbibe, the steps can be an antidote for fear and a way to move forward as your best self. Or not. If someone does not find them applicable, perhaps they may at least find them interesting. Like the "Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous" states, these steps are suggestions.

This is how I used the 12 Steps while being treated and while recovering from acute myeloid leukemia. (These steps were taken from the “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous”).

Alcoholics Anonymous Step 1: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable.”

Applying to my cancer:  First, I wanted to get better. Step one: CHECK!

I could not wish away the cancer. Wallowing in self-pity at home without treatment was not an option. I would die.

I knew that without help, my affairs would go kaput. 

AA Step 2: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Applying to my cancer:  My desire to be better was infuriately not the panacea to my leukemia! I had to TRUST others and our Creator.

Fortunately, God created a whole bunch of lifesavers and medicines created by more lifesavers.

God and my lifesavers were my higher power.

AA Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.”

Applying to my cancer: Believing in a higher power during tough times can be a tall order. Moreover, turning things over can be mind-bending. I believe everyone has a personal method to make this happen, albeit imperfectly.

I comfortably believed in the doctors, and recognized how progress was being made without my help.

  • I did not scrutinize the pharmacology pamphlets given to me about cytarabine and other chemo cocktails. I just let the meds go straight into my veins.
  • I turned over the search for a bone marrow donor to BeTheMatch. They miraculously found the only donor match from a woman in Israel.
  • I turned over my mental anguish to God and family. Unconditional love abounded.

AA Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Applying to my cancer: The morbidity and mortality rates of those who receive a bone marrow transplant are tough to hear.

I had to make a will. I wanted the will to be meaningful and not just reflect stark percentage rates of my unexpended assets. I thought of the people and charities that meant the most to me throughout my life. (Not that I had a lot of money, by the way,)

This kind of inventory also revealed my character assets and defects.

I am NOT going to open Pandora’s box and reveal my defects.

You’re welcome.

A nice part of the exercise is that I also got to reflect on my unique talents and positive peculiarities. I will keep these.Doing this step helped me get a better perspective on my life. 

AA Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselvesand to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Applying to my cancer: First, why is it suggested that we do this?

Festering is a known stressor. Cancer covets stress. It kidnaps any semblance of peace if you let it.

You’ve probably said, “I feel better already” after venting to a friend. I spoke about my fears in support groups and shared them with trusted counsel. Being vulnerable with family, chaplains, therapists, support groupsand social workers helped construct a protection barrier against the famished cancer cells. 

AA Step 6: “We’re entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.”

Applying to my cancer: Well, cancer is a big-ass defect, is it not? “Have at it, God! I’m ready to be better.”

I badly wanted to have depression eliminated and supplanted with hope for survival. I also desired grace and dignity no matter what the outcome. I was eager to let God do what He had to do to make this happen.

Yet, I still liked a few of my minor vices; I’m a work in progress. 

AA Step 7: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings”

Applying to my cancer: Literally and metaphorically, I humbly took off my cap, exposed my bald headand smiled for the camera.

Steps 8 through 10 cleanse the soul. I did not want to leave this earth without at least trying to make reparations for my wrongs. And if I survived, I would have a cleaner state of being.

AA Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”

AA Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others. “

AA Step 10: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”

AA Step 11: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”

Applying to my cancer: I suck at asking “only for His will for us ...”I find myself asking for a bunch of stuff!

I’ve received many miracles such as surviving accidents, addiction, depression and cancer multiple times. But that doesn’t stop me from getting pouty or confused when my prayers aren’t answered in the way I want.

I sometimes wonder if God finds me too mediocre to visit. He’d think “I’d rather spend time with the ultra-good and bad.” I’d think, “Yeah, I would too. Much more interesting.”

Worldly counsel sighs. “He doesn’t find you boring. He loves you. All in God’s time.”

But I’m getting better. Breathing, meditating, praying and doing the next right thing go a long way in achieving peace of mind. For me, this step is about constantly seeking.

AA Step 12: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Applying to my cancer: I survived acute myeloid leukemia twice, and even became joyful. It was time to give back.

I became a member of the Moffitt Cancer Center Patient and Family Advisory Council. I am part of their Comfort Care Companion program sitting vigil bedside for dying patients without family. I am an Imerman Angel, serving as a mentor to other leukemia patients in the throes of treatment. I contribute essays to CURE®. I try to help others.

For some, volunteering may be a trigger or may be difficult to fit into a schedule. Practicing self-care and being kind is a grand contribution to the world.

I am ridiculously imperfect with these steps, but I find that trying to follow them is not a damn bad way to live.

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