Tonight marks the end of my year with peritoneal cancer, one year since I took myself to the hospital, knowing that something wasn’t right.
I started the morning in the car, only a couple of blocks from the house when I told my husband to turn around so I could take myself to the E.R. I sent him and my nine year old son on to Disney, went home and took a few hours to relax. I watched a good movie—the kind that makes you laugh and cry. Then, I took a long nap in the quiet of an empty house. A rarity. When I woke up, I took a shower and drove myself to the hospital.
So, I cannot say I was surprised when they told me they suspected cancer. It was more of a confirmation of a lingering feeling.
I spent a week in the hospital as they hunted down the cells that would confirm what all the pieces pointed to. During that time, I had a good deal of time to think, to make decisions, to “come to terms” with everything, most of all myself.
I fundamentally believe in the connection of mind, body, and spirit. I knew that I had just been barely surviving the prior few years. The four-year decline of my mother through Acquired Hemophilia and then into Dementia. Having to get the state to declare her incompetent in order to care of her. Her eventual death and the grief and guilt of all of it. The subsequent effects on and changes in my family. My husband quit his job of 11 years to start a business. We moved into my childhood home to deal with the life of a paper hoarder in order to untangle the mess of her estate and to renovate the property. We sold the home we thought we would raise our child in. Stress and strife became the norm as we tried to make sense of the tectonic shifts that had occurred in our lives. And, the changes and challenges of an increasingly demoralizing education system within the polarizing political environment made my career, something that had always been a source of pride and inspiration, significantly less-fulfilling.
I was tapped out and unhappy on so many levels.
I had been sandwiched between a young child and an aging parent. I was doing my best for my family and for my students, but I was drowning and depressed. I felt like I was failing at all of it because of the perfectionist who lives in my head. And, ultimately, I felt like I had lost huge pieces of me along the way while at the same time questioning whether I had ever really uncovered the real me from years of trying to measure up to some abstract “ideal” of what I was supposed to want or how I was supposed to act.
And then… Cancer. Mortality. Mid-life.
So, as I sat waiting for the diagnosis of cancer, I had the gift of time. Time to reflect on my life. Time to think about what parts of my thinking, my lifestyle, my choices had contributed to lowering my immune system such that cancer was welcome to take hold in my body.
And, I had the gift of death on my shoulder. It was no longer an abstract concept that I could put off to think about another day. And, the truth is that it was a topic I had spent too much time thinking about as I ushered my mother into her final transition. Regardless, with the announcement of cancer, Death suddenly and very concretely became present. A constant companion.
So with the gifts of time and perspective, I focused my mind, body, and spirit on healing. Knowing what I needed to do to take care of myself never had been the problem; it was doing it. I realized I could no longer wait to get around to it. I had to make me the project. The focus. I had to change me so that the environment in my body, mind, and spirit would no longer allow cancer.
I’m not a doctor, nor scientist. And, I am not saying I caused my cancer. I carry the BRCA2 gene, so my chances of developing many different types of cancer are much higher than in the general population. But, not everyone who carries the mutation develops cancer.
As someone who had always appreciated Eastern, holistic approaches, I had to get right with myself about using chemo, all sorts of drugs, and surgery as tools of success. I knew that just as I would be frustrated by someone who dismissed the value of Eastern medicine, I needed to embrace the benefits of Western medicine. In the end, I came to see it quite simply.
The doctors had to work on the “bad.” They had to use the tools of Western medicine to eradicate the cancer cells. And, I had to do my best to magnify the “good.” I had to use more holistic approaches of the East to give my immune system the best chance it had to kick ass. (Yes, my inner cancer warrior is most definitely a badass!)
Prior to my diagnosis, I had read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I had even considered using the book and film in one of my courses. Perhaps that is why the idea of a mountain trek came to my mind when I faced cancer and the journey to come.
I realized it would be harder than anything I had ever done before. I doubted my ability to endure the pain and physical torment, but I knew that doubt would be my greatest enemy. So, I needed a clear end goal.
The simple question I had to ask myself was “Why do you want to live? “
That might sound callous or harsh, but I wasn’t delicate with myself. Death was sitting next to me, and I needed to get real.
I had allowed myself too often to wallow in self-pity or doubt. Or any one of a myriad of negative emotions. I had squandered time. The last few years had pushed me to my limits. I had doubted my ability, and in the darkest moments, my desire, to continue.
And, then, cancer.
Death was no longer the fantasy of a welcome out but rather the nightmare of a determined assassin.
So, “Do you want to live?”
My answer was “YES!”
But, when I was honest with myself, I had not been living that way, at least not for very long. I had resolved that 2016 would be the year I focused on HEALTH and had actually begun yoga 3-5 times a week in December of 2015, not waiting for the New Year. I was pleased that I had stuck with it, worked through my fear and inadequacy, and was seeing progress.
When I was diagnosed, the resolution to focus on HEALTH in 2016 instantly became a mandate.
Focus on my HEALTH. Live or die.
If I was going to live, I had to give myself the best chance. I had to focus on my greatest motivation. My son.
In my mind’s eye, I imagined him being kidnapped, taken deep into the Himalayan Mountains. I saw myself being told that the only way to get him was to walk in and get him myself. No other options. Me. I had to do it. No excuses. No negotiations.
I saw cancer as this trek, up and down mountains. I knew I needed to give myself the best chance of success through my daily choices, but more than anything, if I was going to put my foot on the path, I had to believe I COULD do it.
I decided the cancer would be gone by the time I went to surgery, and I declared that the PET scan to be done prior to surgery would show no cancer. And, I made significant changes, on the physical, mental, and spiritual levels to get there.
I continued with yoga. Thankfully, I had a month of consistent practice as a foundation when I was diagnosed and I continued that practice until my immunity dropped and I could no longer continue. The support I got on all levels from my practice and community gave me a belief in my ability to make it through. To endure. To get through the hard stuff. To trust myself.
I reached out to my community of family and friends. I set up a Facebook group and shared my story. It gave my husband a place to post updates and to ask for help as he became fully responsible for managing our family and me. I asked a couple of friends to vet the online research because I realized I could handle bite-size chunks of information that would not cause me to panic. I also had Celebration of Life parties after each round of chemo, before the effects hit. We dyed our hair teal, the color of ovarian cancer, had a henna party when I went bald, and made beaded jewelry that we could wear and share.
I began eating as much organic as possible and eliminated sugar and other processed foods from my diet. And, a friend gave me a juicer to get in the most nutrition when I could. Note: there is a danger of raw foods and bacteria when cancer has caused reduced immunity; I did this against my doctor’s and general medical advice.
I listened to music, meditated and did tai chi regularly. I worked on what “record” I allowed to play in my mind, and journaled to process my thoughts and feelings. I did my best to remain positive and grateful despite my daily circumstances.
My PET scan on April 1st showed no cancer, and when I had surgery on April 18th, the surgeon and biopsies confirmed that it was gone. I had had stage 4 peritoneal cancer with ascites meaning my abdomen had been filled with cancerous cells.
I believe that the combination of Western and Eastern approaches, attacking the bad and nurturing the good, is what brought me such an amazing result.
By far, the greatest lesson for me was about myself and my ability to endure. I came to see my cancer journey as a microcosm of life. In daily life, the cycles of good and bad, of ease and hardship, are extended over time. With cancer, the ups and downs, the battles and triumphs, come in rapid succession. I didn’t have time to forget or doubt my ability to endure. I had to keep walking. And having the Grim Reaper as a walking partner turned out to be the motivation of a lifetime.
She’s been in there all along!
Amazing video about the healing power of nature at How Forests Heal People