From Darkness to Light
One woman’s cancer diagnosis sparks a journey of self-discovery, healing, and creation.
by Bill Donahue

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 14,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. In December of 2018, Danielle Massi became one of them.
Massi was on the cusp of 30 when the phone call came. The ensuing weeks of doctor’s appointments, consultations, and surgeries disrupted her life. Once she had time to process everything that had happened, she became mired in depression, while coping with anger and shame for having missed or ignored the subtle signs her body had been giving her. 
Massi refused to let the experience define her. After she completed her treatment, she adopted several changes to better care for herself and others. 
A native of Long Island, New York, Massi moved to Philadelphia at age 17 to attend Temple University, where she studied psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and has since forged a career as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Her education and expertise guided her in founding two creations designed to provide others with the resources needed to self-heal: The Wellness Collective, a Philadelphia-based wellness center rooted in holistic healing; and SELF(ish)philly, a daylong self-care conference for women.
As part of her recovery, she participated in shadow work, a form of therapy with ties to the Swiss  psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung. Shadow work addresses the aspects of the self that have been exiled or hidden away, and attempts to undo the repression that often causes an imbalance within a person’s mind, body, and spirit. It’s a fascinating premise: By interrupting the subconscious feedback loop of experiences, chemical reactions, physical reactions, and thoughts associated with these aspects of the self, shadow work helps to create new neural pathways and replace the pathways that may be causing someone harm. Essentially, it’s meant to heal the traumas of a past that people might not even know they have been holding onto—even traumas from past lives, according to devotees of shadow work—as a means to stimulate the healing process.
Although the thought of reliving some of her most traumatic moments by delving deeply into her unconscious mind did not appeal to Massi initially, her earliest shadow-work sessions had a profound effect on her. She had already studied up on shadow work, but her experience compelled her to look more deeply into the science. Her revelations, pulled from her own research and personal experiences, are detailed in her recently published book, Shadow Work: Face Hidden Fears, Heal Trauma, Awaken Your Dream Life.
We spoke with Massi about her cancer journey, what she learned through shadow work, and the importance of self-care.
Based on my conversations with other people who have gone through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, the experience changes you on almost every level. How did your life change? 

It’s the biggest cliché, but I stopped feeling so immortal. Before that point, I felt that I had all the time in the world. Life became so precious. Now I sit down, take a breath, and take the time appreciate everything. It took cancer to do that. 

I received my diagnosis in 2018 and was completely clear in 2019. Now I’m feeling very healthy. I switched so many things in my life. I remember asking the doctor for resources for preventative things to make sure something like this never happens again, and the doctor told me, “There are a couple of pamphlets in the hallway.” That was very disheartening for me. 
After I was done with cancer, I founded The Wellness Collective, a holistic healing practice that has moved all virtual since the pandemic, but it used to be in Center City. I wanted to include a lot of things I used to help me as a way to help other people: free yoga sessions, psychotherapy, shadow work, and past-life regression. We also have traditional coaching, reiki, and other services to help people learn how to self-heal. 
I was unfamiliar with shadow work until recently. How and why did you get involved in it, and what have you learned through it? 
I did my first session with Allison Kelsey, a shadow worker from the U.K. As part of it, she regressed me back to a past life. I could smell it, taste it, feel it in the air—it was so vivid as if it happened to me. It also helped me realize I was carrying things I didn’t recognize—childhood moments, high school moments, things I blacked out after my cancer surgery. With [Kelsey], I went back over and over again and healed those things completely. The change was so significant, even my voice sounded different, and everything felt lighter. 

I had a hysterectomy because of my cancer. Doctors decided I didn’t have another option, though I wish I had gotten a second opinion, because they push you to just get [the cancer] out of your body as soon as possible. After the surgery happened, I was very afraid, but I couldn’t figure out why. Every time I saw something shiny, my body ran cold; it could be something as simple as a butter knife. I had an open-stomach hysterectomy, where they cut me from hip to hip, and my body remembers that trauma. My body felt like it would happen again. With shadow work, you don’t realize what it is that bothers you, those triggers; it could be someone saying something that sends you into an anger spiral. Your body just responds. At the time you’re not thinking about why it triggered you, about the bullying that happened in second grade when another kid stole your pencil.
I imagine some people will be skeptical of shadow work, either because the idea frightens them or they simply don’t believe it works. What would you say to them?
It wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t believe in it either, but it’s hard to deny. You feel it in your body, and you smell the things that are around you, and it creates these emotions that are so vivid. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist, and holding people’s secrets is a huge burden to carry. I had my own therapist, and I always felt therapy took me part of the way, but never all the way there. As a therapist, I knew my clients felt the same way. Shadow work allows you to get to the core of your issues.

When I was diagnosed [with cancer], it was the week of my 30th birthday. I was hellbent on understanding why I was able to develop cancer in the first place. In every generation that has come since the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, the rate of developing cancer has gone up. The No. 1 cause of cancer and autoimmune illness is stress. Once I made that connection, I wanted to realize why I was so stressed out. I had a perfect family and a great career, but inside I was in turmoil. Shadow work brings up these moments that may be causing you pain, and interrupts the subconscious feedback loop on a physical level. When we change our response, everything about it can change. The mind is clear and the body is calm. That’s the power of shadow work. When you’re doing it, it feels like magic.  
You share your own personal journey, your life and traumas, through your book, Shadow Work. Why was it important to share stories from your own life? 
It was mildly terrifying, because it is a vulnerable experience; you don’t know how people will react. I wanted to structure the book based on being informative for anyone, no matter their background. I begin by talking a lot about the science. Then I really try to help people understand the process and what types of changes it will create. It also gets into the spiritual piece … so I hope it makes people feel more connected to their spirituality. Internally, I think we have an innate understanding of where we came from. We all have the tools we need, but we’re taught to not listen to our thoughts.    
You also started a conference called SELF(ish)philly. The word selfish tends to have a negative connotation, but sometimes we have to be selfish to take care of ourselves. Tell me about the need for the conference and how it has grown.
The conference came out of my cancer journey. The thought behind it was that women are taught to give to others, to nurture, to be of service. … I wanted to make a day about putting yourself first, where you will be the priority, and bring in all these wellness resources and services so people could test these services out. Education, to me, is huge. We have speakers and panels, talking on a variety of topics; one of this year’s speakers focused on “Biohacking Your Health.” The whole conference is geared around women’s health, including cancers that impact women, and addressing the traumas we carry that are specific to our gender.  
Photo courtesy of Danielle Massi/The Wellness Collective
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life, October 2022.