Less than four months after settling on Whidbey Island, Barbara Wolf Terao’s life changed forever in 2016, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
With her tendency to bottle up emotions and please others, she knew her stress played a part in the development of her illness. With the fear of dying came the realization that she needed to change — or better, find her true self — for her own sake.
After a long journey of physical and mental healing, Terao is no longer the same woman she used to be. In leaving her old ways behind, she found she could love herself and others more fully.
“I’ve reconfigured body, mind and spirit,” she said. “Be yourself. Keep your emotions in motion. Don’t stuff them. Because that contributes to health issues, and how we deal with stress is important.”
Now, she hopes to help others with her memoir, “Reconfigured,” which she will be presenting at the Freeland Library on July 20.
“Spoiler alert: I’m still here,” said Terao, who is now happily cancer-free.
When the pandemic hit, Terao — a seasoned writer with a portfolio of newspaper columns, essays and book reviews — knew how to make the best out of isolation. Remembering how she used to find comfort in reading memoirs of cancer patients, she realized that she, too, could turn her own pain into something that could help herself and others.
Throughout the first year of the pandemic, Terao poured onto the pages all of the memories, thoughts and feelings from the time she was battling cancer. Her desire to give people hope gave her the strength to continue writing when reliving those moments became hard. Often, she would find solace in reconnecting with Whidbey’s nature.
Though Terao initially worried that only people with breast cancer could find the story useful or relatable, several men who have dealt with cancer approached her to express how they related to her story. With teary eyes, she recalled the surprise she felt when she realized her book could reach more people than she expected she ever could. After feeling unheard since childhood, she found people’s responses to her story to be very touching.
“To be heard in this way, really means a lot,” she said.
“Reconfigured” isn’t only for people who have experienced cancer, but for anyone who might struggle with marital problems, finding their own identity, loving themselves or even navigating the medical system.
Despite her epiphany and her three degrees in psychology, finding the real Barbara was a long process. However, she believes the island was exactly where she needed to be.
Before leaving her home in Illinois, Terao felt a strong pull to Whidbey, which in hindsight she sees as no coincidence, but rather, one of those events she can only attribute to mystical forces.
But most importantly, she found the peace she needed to get better.
Spiritualism is another important theme in Terao’s memoir. While waiting for her diagnosis, she came across a photo of her grandmother, Helen Wolf, from whom Terao inherited her middle name. In that moment, she remembered she had died of breast cancer.
“Maybe she nudged me to get that mammogram,” she said. “When your life calls, listen.”
By listening, Terao found herself in a community of like-minded people she could relate to, but also rely on. Upon learning about her diagnosis, her neighbors would reach out and bring her food and gifts.
“Langley and Freeland have been especially friendly places to me,” she said.
With the support of her newfound community, the beauty of Whidbey island, her Buddhist faith and her inner strength, Terao fell in love with life and became a person she feels proud of.
“It would be uplifting to me that I could come out the other side of it and feel as happy as I do, and to know myself in a new kind of way,” she said, imagining how her old self would react to her book.
In a way, Terao’s journey can be compared to a lotus in Buddhism.
“The muckier and dirtier the swamp is, the more beautiful and pure the lotus is,” she said. “And that’s kind of like our lives. We go through crap, but we emerge.”