Bringing a Relationship Systems Lens to Living with Cancer:

A personal story of putting ORSC™ tools in practice – by Hanna Cooper


In May 2016, just two weeks shy of my 49th birthday, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  An enormous shock and surprise, the news sent ripples reverberating throughout my entire personal and professional life.  Cancer: the personal development course no one would ever willingly sign up for.

But as we say in Organisation and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™), who knows what is good and what is bad?  In many ways, I was remarkably prepared to navigate the waters of a serious and usually quickly fatal cancer diagnosis: I’d been a caregiver for my mother during the eight years she lived with lung cancer, a mindfulness meditation practitioner for nearly 25 years, and an individual and systems coaching practitioner for 12 years, including my CRR Global ORSC™ training and certification.  I had an inner knowing I’d need to rally all those tools, along with exceptional medical care and the love and care of my family and community, to face the challenges in front of me.

As a trained relationship systems coach, bringing a relationship systems lens to cancer isn’t just a set of professional tools: it’s essential to how I navigate my personal life.  Both consciously and unconsciously, my ORSC™ training allowed me to tap into the inherent wisdom available in the various entities surrounding me.  Tapping into Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) to be in right relationship with self, others and with illness as well as the reality of death became an important part of how I have handled and managed the inevitable stresses and challenges of illness and treatment, and the possibility of healing.

Relationship with Self

Having been a caregiver for my mother —when she faced stage four lung cancer nearly 20 years ago— I had experience that informed me about what might be ahead:  uncertainty, fear and few guideposts.   While others surrounded me with their abundant love, care and concern, I knew that as the patient, only I could captain this ship of treatment and healing.  No matter how much the people who loved me surrounded and nurtured me, I would inevitably face some of this alone, and that putting myself in the driver’s seat was important.

What that meant for me was being clear on how I consciously wanted to “be” with cancer and with myself.  From nearly 25 years of meditation experience, I knew that being with our experiences, exactly as they are in the moment, could reduce suffering and pain — or at least not create more difficulty than already existed.  Being able to notice and appreciate the beauty of my life, in nature, or in the kindness and generosity of the people around me helped me be present to my life as it was, even if the circumstances of a serious cancer diagnosis and treatment weren’t always exactly as I’d wish them to be.

Relationship with Others

Leaning into the ORSC™ skill of a Designed Team Alliance with those around me was also critical: with my immediate family, friends, caregivers and health care providers.  Five friends gathered around our family of four and became our Core Team. The Core Team’s work ran the gamut of practical help in setting up meals and rides to medical appointments, to some emotional heavy-lifting including acting as gatekeepers to manage the outpouring of concern from our community.

Creating formal and informal boundaries and agreements with the core team, my extended family and the broader community was important for the health of all the interlocking relationship systems around me.  While these agreements weren’t always necessarily formalized, naming the atmosphere my family needed while going through this experience, as well as the responsibilities and accountabilities we wanted to hold with each other mattered. We expressly told our community, larger family and core team what we did and didn’t want; what was helpful and what was not both pragmatically and emotionally.  Equally, our extended family and community had to set their own set of limits of what they could and couldn’t do with and for us.  While those weren’t always easy conversations, it meant that the needs we had were more evenly spread among our helping community, and that help we received was more useful.

Designing the relationship with health care providers was more challenging, due to the rank and privilege typically afforded medical practitioners.  My most meaningful working relationships with health care providers have been the ones where they saw me as an equal partner in my healing; when they tapped into my inherent wisdom about the healing process; and when the providers themselves could be vulnerable and express their humanity about my health and care.

Relationship with Illness & Death

Perhaps the most challenging relationship I have navigated has been with illness and death itself.  Few people likely want to explore their relationship with dying, until they have to.

For me, the most difficult aspect of the prospect of early death was the idea that I would abandon my teenage children and that that loss would irreparably harm them.  I reached out to friends whose mothers had been sick and/or died when they were teenagers to learn about their experience and get their insight: what did they wish adults had done differently?  What would have been helpful for them as children with a sick or dying parent?

As I have faced head-on the possibility of dying and not being able to mother my children, I came to an important realization: that I had already given them everything they needed, and that they would be OK, no matter what happened to me.  That, of course, my death would be sad, it would be hard on them because we love each other; but that truly they had access to the skills to handle it, and at least on a spiritual level, I would always be with them.

The Third Entity technique helped me to look at Death as an aspect outside of me in order to explore my relationship with dying. I was able to hear not only my perspective, but also “hear” directly from Death.  Investigating Death’s position, I learned that Death wasn’t out to “get me”.  When I could think about Death not as a ghostly specter intent on bringing inevitable harm and pain to my family and me, but instead as just another element of living this human life, I discovered that the essence of our relationship was a dance.   Cloaked in his dark hood, sometimes dancing with Death feels like a calm gentle slow dance; and other times, more playful and loose, with Death jitterbugging away right next to me.

What’s Next

Regardless of what happens next with my health, I know that I will forever be in relationship to cancer.  How to do that consciously and intentionally, as much as I can, given the unknown factors of life, particularly the ones out of my control, is the opportunity ahead of me.  My relationship systems coaching mindset provided critical tools for working with the challenging circumstances of facing illness and death, ones I’ll continue to draw on as skills for being in right relationship with both life and death.

About the Author:

Hanna Cooper, MPH, PCC, CPCC, ORSCC is a certified professional coach for mission-driven leaders and team.  Diagnosed unexpectedly at age 48 with state three pancreatic cancerm she’s writing a book about managing life’s inevitable losses and griefs based on her experience.

Read more on Hanna’s blog at,
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