Through the Looking Glass of Cancer

Here’s an example of what I mean by looking at life through the looking glass of cancer, or I would imagine, through the lens of any illness that makes hearts skip a few beats because mortality is instantly and permanently a heavy shadow in the room for everyone.

Anyone who knows me knows I like to be in control (or at least have the illusion of it) and to direct the course of my life. More realistically, I am captaining a ship on a sea that is moving under much larger influences. As the captain, I must tune into the sea. Connect. Surrender. I can work with it or against it. Only one way has any hope of success.

I ask myself, why is it that “knowing” and “doing” are so far apart. Truthfully I rarely slow down enough to ask myself what I need, much less to give myself what I need. I think of many of us are so busy “managing” day to day that we don’t take the time for ourselves. (Anyone else notice how I just switched from “I” to “We” because I am uncomfortable standing alone with this one! Let me try that again…) I am so busy managing my day to day that I don’t take time to ask myself if I am working toward what I really want or need. Auto-pilot and getting through the necessities of life dominate.

Whether the seas are rough or calm, as the captain, I certainly have influence. I am acutely aware that I don’t get to choose the climate. My control lies in my response. Cancer, midlife, and a up-close view of mortality motivate me to figure out some core stuff, to “manage” and “fight” less and to “flow” and “surrender” more.

Sshheeesh, why does it take a lifetime to figure this stuff out? (Oh yeah, Patience is another big part of this for me that apparently I can’t wait to talk about. Ha! Sarcasm. Doozies.)

Anyway, today’s revelation was that I must give myself permission to ask for what I need directly. I must absolutely ask for that which gives me energy and must graciously refuse that which drains. I must decide consciously what goes into and out of my tank, conserve my reserves for that which serves my highest good and pass on that which depletes. Cancer clarity.

Today, was my first day of chemo, and I spent nine hours in an easy chair as the chemo was administered. Far too much of that time was spent on my phone. Cancer is consuming, in more ways than one!

I am blessed beyond belief to have so many people willing to offer their love and support. Since my diagnosis, I have gotten love messages—by text, email, and phone—every day. They have lifted my spirits and made me know the depths of the support I have. And, of my value to so many.  I think one of the smartest things I have done so far is to create a private Facebook group for those who are willing to trek this terrain with me. That way, I can share info and ask for help quickly and efficiently.

Today was a long day, and I was mentally, physically and emotionally wiped out. I really needed to rest. And, I also realized that I needed to make an honest request of my support team to help me consolidate communications because today, my first day of chemo, I was overwhelmed.   I need one place where I can check in when I can manage it and check out when I can’t.

When I get a text message, I feel obligated to give a much quicker response, so I need my support team to ask general questions—like how I am doing or about how I am doing on the group where I can I answer it once for everyone. Or, personal messages that are not time-sensitive can go through Facebook messenger. That way, I will know my texts are what require a more urgent response.

I know for sure that I need to put down my phone and step away far more often. I need to close my eyes, to breathe, and to relax into my body. I need to slow down to a pace I can manage and be fully present in the moment.

A dear friend came to sit and be with me for a while today. She always makes me laugh, and I treasure her friendship and company. She generously brought lunch for me and Karl, who was also faithfully by my side.

When she arrived, with a delicious warm meal, the nurse had also just hung the first chemo medication.   Everything up until then had been medications to best prepare my body to handle the hard stuff. I had a deep knowing that I needed to be present in my body. Then. That was the time.

So, although it was hard to ask because I feared offending, I asked that she and my husband go find a place to eat together while I took time to meditate. I was proud of myself for asking. I took time to do a lovingkindness meditation. I relaxed and was grateful for the chemo, welcoming it into my body. I blessed it and directed it toward the cancer cells, asking it to go after that which is not serving me. I filled my body with golden light and envisioned the malignancies melting, evaporating away and my healthy cells and organs coated in protection.

The timing sucked for social graces. When they came back, they watched me eat rather than breaking bread together. I knew my friend would not judge me for this request, but the voice in my head is less kind. That self-doubting, self-loathing beast brought up all sorts of guilt, but I am glad I sent her packing. The stronger voice said, “They are your SUPPORT TEAM. They love you and want you to survive. If you believe you need this time, you have to take it. This is your life. You need to honor yourself. Sacrificing isn’t the only way to be polite. You can also politely honor your supportive, loving friends and family by getting clear on what you need and explaining it with kindness and compassion. They want you to survive and thrive. Speak your truth. Tell them what you need.”

Man, those conversations upstairs can be exhausting!

I get that my diagnosis is overwhelming, for me and for all of my loved ones. I completely get it. And, I am so very grateful for all of the compassion, caring and encouragement that has been directed my way. When I think about the outpouring of love my family and I have received over the last two weeks, that is what has brought me to tears. I have been humbled and awe-struck to receive the visible, repeated evidence of how many people think of me so many times every single day. How those messages have lifted and supported me!  How that love has bolstered my spirit!

But I also need to draw a boundary. Cancer cannot be all consuming. It is not my whole story, although I am pretty sure it is going to be a life-changing part.

I began Dr. Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine & Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing From a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients. Siegel was mocked by the medical community in the 80s for advocating for the mind-body connections. Research eventually vindicated him. I found a reference to his book on a blog and it “zinged” with me. That’s what I have come to call that intuitive hit that I feel in my knowing when I am supposed to pay attention to something, kind of like that morning that every cell in my being was telling me to get to the ER. Sometimes it is how I pick books. Sometimes it is how I pick people. Anyway, here is a quote from the introduction that struck me…”When we awaken to our mortality we refuse to live the life that is killing us and start living and being our true selves. On a practical level it may mean changing occupations, moving, healing, or ending relationships and bringing meaning and a new attitude into life and working for the right Lord.” Like I said, Clarity.

My journey began on the day I walked into the ER. That is probably inaccurate; the shifts began when my mom began to decline and exploded when she passed.  But this piece is acutely significant now, and the shifts that I have already had to make—mentally, emotionally, and physically–in order to give myself the best chance of survival, are immense. I must cultivate inner peace, joy and well being. I must turn these nebulous ideals into daily practice. While I have always worked on self-development, there are huge pieces (no pun intended) that I have neglected. I can no longer “get to it someday.” And, I have got to stop beating myself up for not getting it sooner. This is my time to learn to trust, to surrender, to float. The day has come. This is the ordained time.

Accept. Trust. Know.

Cancer is a Command…Live!

At 9:00 a.m. this morning, my cancer recovery begins. I started to write my cancer “journey” begins, but that is not true. It began on the 10th when I took myself to the ER and the grim reaper faces of the ER doc and nurse told me that the abdominal CAT scan showed concerning abnormalities that often meant a cancer diagnosis.

The next few days, I cocooned myself in my hospital room, rested, and wrapped my head around the diagnosis. While the doctors searched for the cells that would confirm their theories, my bloodwork and symptoms were enough to deduce the inevitable. I could either grab my son and do a whirlwind world tour or stay and fight. The “choice” seemed obvious.

My husband and son, my life, are worth fighting for.

I must confess that I don’t like this word “fight.” It doesn’t seem right somehow. It feels like more of a need to surrender, to the process, to the journey, to whatever this part of my life is that requires this experience.   To fight feels more like to deny or resist the diagnosis and my body, this journey, to resist this life, not just the cancer.

I had determined back in December that I was going to focus on my health and well-being in 2016. Believe me, I am focused. RAZOR. SHARP. FOCUS.

Thankfully, I have been doing yoga many times each week, and it includes meditation and breath work.   Repeatedly, my teachers have said, class after class, “Don’t fight the pain. Give in to it. Don’t resist. Breathe. You can endure this. It is temporary. You are choosing to stay in your body and experience this. It will pass. Sorrow, Joy. They pass. Hold on. Breathe. You can do this. It will be over before you know it.”

I hear the words in my head many times each day. I am learning to endure. To go through the hard. To harden. To strengthen. To know my strength.

It has been clear from the many messages of support , encouragement, and love that my friends and family view me as strong and my attitude as impressive. On some levels, I get that, yet on others, this doesn’t seem so strong or courageous to me. It seems obvious and simple: live or die. Endure or give up. There is no middle ground. Walk. Move forward. One step at at a time.

I can spin and dash and weave all I want, turn it over and over again in my mind, but there is no escape. No avoiding. I have no option but to put my foot on the path and keep going. Despite the doubts. Or fear. Or resistance. Or reluctance. Or self-pity. Or anger.

I must walk this path, whatever it holds. And, if I do it with a positive attitude, my likelihood of recovery and survival increase exponentially. Medicine has recognized this body mind connection. There certainly will be moments of anger and despair. And, I must be willing to go there when I must. But, I cannot allow myself to stay there.

A cancer diagnosis is incredibly clarifying. So often in my life I over analyze, unable to get comfortable with a decision, afraid of getting it wrong. I have not trusted myself. Now, I must. I must put myself on the path and believe I can endure. I can do this. There is no choice.

A cancer diagnosis is a command. Live!

Last night, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep, I was overcome with a wave of fear. I saw myself at the base of a mountain range, looking at the clearly defined trail marker up ahead. I felt panicked. It is one thing to contemplate the climb and another entirely to begin it.

I was terrified. What if I can’t do it? What if I am not strong enough? What if I can’t handle it? What if it is so bad I want to give up?

I tried to direct my thoughts elsewhere, but my mind was locked into the fear. So, instead of fighting, I decided to breathe. Not to resist but to float, to know that I could feel the fear and acknowledge it without letting it consume me.

I realize that I am not the first to walk this path, nor the last. And, I realize how fortunate I am that I don’t have to climb alone. Yes, it is my climb, and I must do the hard work and endure the physical challenges. I must keep putting one foot in front of the other even when it feels like it is too much.

However, most who trek a mountain range do it alone, with only occasional stops in distant, sporadic outposts along the way. They go through internal landscapes along the path, places that they would have never explored had they not put themselves to such an ultimate challenge. They must keep moving or perish.

Although I would never have actively chosen this path through cancer, I can’t help but think that I, too, will be forever changed because of this journey.

I just have to keep climbing. To endure.

And I choose to believe that while there will be bleak and desolate places along the path, there will also be vistas and beauty that can’t even be imagined from down here at the trail head.

So, as I sit preparing to begin this journey, I ask that you remind me when I forget.

It is very simple. Keep moving or give up. There is no time to linger in self-pity or doubt on the trail. Endure. This too shall pass. Look up. There is beauty here and now, and there is even more just beyond the next turn.