My Body, My Best Friend

October 5, 2011

I was recently reminded of how clearly our bodies speak to us when something is off.  I tend to get frightened when a new crop of pain catches my attention. I have what’s probably pretty common to a lot of people who have had cancer…fear-based avoidance.  I’ll go as long as I can to ignore what my body is giving voice to. Sometimes, I’m lucky and the symptoms go away or I remember what I did that may have triggered the ache.  Other times, I  can only go so long before I have to  call the doctor or healer of choice.

This time it was a simple urinary tract infection (UTI). I know that language that UTI’s speak through my body.  Still, I waited a few days to see if it might vanish, but it didn’t. At times like that, I’m glad to go on antibiotics.

This made me think about how fortunate we are to be  born into a vehicle that sends perceivable signals to our brain.  But we’re not terribly fluent at responding unless we can do it with food, sex, warmth, drugs, alcohol or another numbing agent.  We love quick fixes. The mythic magic bullet. We believe in them.  Look at the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry. It’s the easy-fix industry (and I was gladly supporting it after experiencing the pain of my UTI).

These days, we’re savvy enough to know the downside of medicating our symptoms. There’s no way around it: we’re a nation of addicts. I heard a news story today that there’s a whole population of people in America who are so addicted to opiate-based pain killers that they can’t kick them without terrible withdrawals and medical help. There’s also a new profession that’s been created from this demographic: nurses and other medical professionals who attend to newborn babies who are also addicted because their mothers are users. The newborns are presenting new problems that people don’t know how to treat, yet. Fetal alcohol syndrome now has a twin sister.

The idea of a magic bullet is seductive.  After experiencing chronic and intense pain, I became impatient, irritated and resentful—not only toward life itself—but also toward my own body.   I did everything I knew to do—including taking prescription meds—and  still lived with debilitating and restrictive pain. I had an insider’s view of what it could be like to become a pain-killing addict.  My body was speaking to me but no matter what I did, it didn’t seem to hear me. Throwing more drugs at the problem was tempting.

Eventually, tired of my own saga, I tried to quit resisting the pain and just accept it. I decided not to judge myself for it.  I wanted to allow the slower pace and quiet times it was forcing, without thinking less of myself and my life.  Bit by bit, a bigger picture came into view: my body is the most articulate communicator in my world, and it gives voice to both biological and emotional upsets. It’s wise to look at both the physical and non-physical world to interpret what our bodies are shouting from every cell that occupies us.

No one else could have told me I had a UTI.  My body did. And what of the cancer?  It was the loudest wake-up call I’ve ever had. A call to step up to living more from my heart, attend to my old grievances, forgive myself and others, eat well, let go, be present.

I don’t always listen, but I have come to respect my body as one of my truest friends. I know that it is intelligent beyond my understanding–especially in the way of communication and healing.  I accept that I have a 500-horse power spirit in the body of a 53 year old chassis that’s taken a few hits. But I love this vehicle, and I’m going to do my best to keep ‘er clean and running. And not to avoid her when she’s relaying a message.

What a blessed partnership this is. Even though sometimes it’s a pain.

 

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Community, Angels, and Technology

August 19, 2011

Community, and how we develop the ones that meet our needs, is a fascinating reflection of timing, circumstance, location and intent.

 The community I appreciate now is a mix of family, old friends new friends, and people I haven’t even met.

I am blessed with so many old friends that naming them could take up this entire blog. But this time around, I want to acknowledge how going through cancer broadened and deepened my understanding of what community really is.

 I never would have met Robin, for example, who is now one of my most treasured friends, had it not been for cancer. She is the ostomy nurse at the local hospital, and after my anal cancer progressed to rectal cancer, I needed a surgery that would obligate me to a colostomy for the rest of my life. Robin was the nurse who helped figure out some logistics, but it was her gentle wisdom and reassurance that left a lasting mark on my heart.

 Cancer also introduced me to Cindy. I went to her for microcurrent treatments after the surgery wouldn’t heal since my skin had been so badly radiated. Over the course of many months of treatment, we sat for hours and talked.  We still do, but now the conversations are over a glass of wine or some healthy food spiced with the laughter and tears of our current storyline.

 Other local doctors and health-care providers have become part of my community, but it is those people whom I’ve never even met that make me marvel at the positive changes that the combination of disease and technology has granted us.

 Several years ago, my 8th grade boyfriend, Steve, Googled me and soon, we reconnected. He lives inFlorida (where we met) and I live inColorado, but after some 35 years of no communication, we saw each other during his annual pilgrimage to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He is married to a woman who used come with him in between the triathlons they participated in, but Joan is now dealing with MS and can neither travel nor move so swiftly. Joan and I have never met, but we have grown a supportive and uplifting relationship through email. She has been a huge champion of my book and my perspective on healing. Meanwhile, I stand by her in a virtual way, believing that someday she will come to the festival again and feel the strength of her physical body in ways that now elude her.

 There are other people who are part of the fabric of my community whom I’ve not met.  Many are negotiating their way through the cancer journey. With each person who reaches out to me, my community grows larger. And what I so appreciate is that we’re reveling mostly in the hope and promise that the choices we’re making to be well are right and empowering for us—no matter what other people do or think. We’re supporting each other’s strengths and inner authority. We’re sharing new ways of healing from cancer because we’re aware of both the ups and downs of conventional treatments and we know there are more ways to heal than just a few.

 The last few months have been tough for me.  Scar tissue grew deep inside my hip near my sciatic nerve. It was removed in July, but the nerve still recalls the injury and it’s still very painful. Because of the pain, I’ve been in and out of low-grade depression and less involved with my vast and diverse community. But through this, I’ve been astounded at what community has done for me: Whether they are mined from the silver of old relationships or the gold of new ones, whether I’ve been drinking up their physical presence in my life for decades or whether I’ve never even seen their photo, I’ve gained love and support in ways I didn’t suspect—and that my mother never would have dreamed of. The phone calls from friends and emails from “strangers” have been nothing short of sustaining. Comments and “Likes” on Facebook have been like little jolts of spiritual pain medication. The messages I get weekly from someone who is grateful for my book and wants to share their own story of healing enables me to relax, let go and breathe more confidently into my own healing.

 Community has never been defined so richly and deeply. Even though I have had the urge to heal in hibernation and sit in the stillness of solitude, I cannot dismiss how fortunate I am to live in a time when each one of us is surrounded by a community of loving angels who we can literally access through the tips of our fingers. Here’s to modern times!


Living with Uncertainty

July 12, 2011

It’s been months since I blogged. Not because I had nothing to say. Rather, I didn’t know how to say what is going on inside me. Simply put, I’m back in the house of uncertainty once again.

 It’s been nearly five years of intense medical issues including three cancer diagnoses. I also successfully wrote and published a book about new ways to deal with cancer, after which I began to feel that my life had triumphantly found its way back to a comfortable place. Yet now, I’m faced again with a significant health challenge.

 It appears that the mass leaning against my sciatic nerve, often causing terrible pain, is scar tissue. We think it developed after multiple doses of radiation. That’s what we think.

 A surgeon tried to remove it three months ago; but oddly, he couldn’t find it. I’m now due to try again with a different surgeon inLos Angeles. Unfortunately, he’s not “in network” with my insurance provider so I’m back in the familiar and dizzying maze of the insurance co-pay–what bill I’ll be left with and whether it’s worth adding to my already burdensome pile of medical fees.

 But the house of uncertainty is not about the practical stresses of having a health challenge. It’s about the questions that come to mind during both waking and sleeping hours. Questions I asked after each of my three cancer diagnoses: Why did this happen? Why me? Why not to someone who has a bad diet? Someone who doesn’t exercise? This time around I’ve asked: Why, after all I’ve been through, do I have to go through something else? I thought I was finished! What’s going on?

The house of uncertainty is typically dark, imploding, and cold. It’s frightening to be there. But when there are no quick and definitive answers, uncertainty is where we often find ourselves.

 After those years with cancer, I came to realize that the sanest way to occupy the house of uncertainty is to answer to a single charge: To find the best way to love myself.

 Loving oneself is neither narcissistic nor selfish. It’s about being your own best friend, your greatest advocate, your most devoted caretaker. Loving yourself can come in different ways. For me, it has meant getting a massage, taking a sauna, or laying in bed with my dog and petting her. Sometimes it means calling one of my girlfriends and asking her to listen. Other times it means falling into the arms of my husband and crying. These days, if I remember, it means asking God to help me transcend the worry and fear that comes with uncertainty, and to perceive the beauty and love that’s present throughout my day.

 Lately, I’ve been seeing more beauty and have been open to more love. Yesterday, for the first time, I thought a stop sign was pretty. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I was truly wowed by the brilliant red background in juxtaposition to the white letters. The shape is also cool. It’s a simple design and it works. Simple beauty indeed, but after seeing tens of thousands of stop signs, this one reflected beauty.

 I’m waiting to hear from the insurance provider, and how much it will pay for the next surgery. It’s still uncertain. I’m waiting to find out if I can still grab an affordable flight toLos Angeles.  More uncertainty. I’m wondering if this surgeon can do the trick and if I’ll be pain-free and able to go about my life as I had intended. That’s uncertain, too.

 I remain seated in this house of uncertainty. But I am now deliberate about stopping to notice the light on the clouds or neighboring elms. I pause to fully perceive my daughter and son and how beautiful they’ve become in their teen-aged bodies. And each day, I gratefully acknowledge that I’m worth whatever it takes to be well, to live a full life, and to receive and give love whenever possible.

 When I remember to be in the presence of love and beauty, the house of uncertainty isn’t so cramped and scary. It’s livable. It even dissolves and becomes my home. The place I can comfortably occupy every day, even without knowing all the answers.


Finding Meaning During Life’s Hard Times

March 4, 2011

“She’s decided she’s unlovable,” I thought as I passed a mother and her daughter in the grocery store and was struck by what their bodies revealed about them. The mother was overweight and slouched as she shuffled through the aisle. Her hair was unkempt, her expression flat and lifeless.

 Her daughter, maybe ten years old, was chubby but cute. Her eyes darted about, scanning the store for people she might know or snacks she might want to eat. She skipped playfully as she pushed the cart behind her scuffling mother. “She’s trying to figure out who she is and how she’s worth loving,” I heard the voice within proclaim.

 I have no idea, really, why the mother looked so unhappy and carried herself without even a glimmer of glee. But what strikes me as absolutely true is that all of us start out as I perceived the daughter: in search of self worth.

But life is full of seemingly unanswerable questions and deflating difficulties. Many people grow weary as they age so that by the time they are that mother’s age—probably in her early 30’s—they walk through life wounded and feeling defeated. The search for self-worth too often turns into self loathing.

A cancer diagnosis—or any serious illness—forces the question of whether life is really worth living. And if so, where’s the meaning in all the pain?

After my third cancer diagnosis I was very clear that I wanted to live. I would embrace my life in a new way—hardships and all—because the love of and for my children, my husband and myself was strong and vibrant. In my search for meaning, I discovered some useful stepping stones. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter in my book called Meaning:

 Eventually, [my journey] translated into a deepening of self-love and the ongoing exploration of who I was. I no longer believed I was my body, so what did that leave me? Mining my own consciousness.

As time when on, I laid the paving stones for how I could live with and give meaning to adversity. They included:

  • Accepting the situation. Giving up resistance to what is; giving up whatever I was fighting against and giving my energy instead to clarifying what I wanted. On some days that meant being present or patient; on other days it meant finding the right way to relieve pain. Overall, it meant becoming well.
  • Surrendering. This wasn’t about giving up or failing. Surrender meant allowing the Divine intelligence within to take over and guide me. Surrendering opened my heart to new ways of being and continually accepting that what showed up could impart meaning that I may have missed before. Surrender meant allowing what came forth, and proceeding in peace and hope rather than in anger, apathy, or resignation.
  • Forgiving. That added up to forgiving myself, others, God, even life itself. I had to forgive everything. Forgiveness became central to my healing and being able to recognize and trust the bigger story that was playing out.
  • Being grateful. Once I quit seeing what I lacked and instead realized the abundance of blessings that surrounded me, it was no longer difficult to find meaning. I looked around and was stunned at the beauty all around me. Every day, still, I take note of what I have. I do my best to dwell in joyous appreciation.
  • Deliver me to love. This has a double meaning. It was, and continues to be, a request to both give and receive love. Being within both the giving and receiving end of love is healing. Love is at the heart of meaning.

In my years before cancer, I had been in the midst of a crisis. I had lost sight of my meaning and purpose for life. Certain dreams hadn’t manifested, my husband and I were tormented by conflicts we couldn’t seem to resolve, things didn’t come to pass in the way I thought they would and I began to resign that they never would. I thought that was acceptance—but it wasn’t. It was sad resignation. I ventured into apathy and lost my vigor for living.

When the third diagnosis came, I found meaning through my work. Writing this book gave me a sense of purpose and further extended the meaning of my experience.

Writing about the transcendent journey of cancer has deeply satisfied my need for meaning. It has spoken to my need to help others by sharing my journey and my perception of the power we all possess. The book, in many ways, has saved me.

Meaning comes not despite, but because of, trauma.


The Artist Behind the Cancer

February 18, 2011

I had a dream that our lives are paintings. When we’re born, half of the canvas is already painted. The other half is blank, but will be colored and shaped by the choices we make throughout our lives. The dream revealed that to finish the painting, we had to turn it up side down to get the perspective right.

I laughed when I awoke from this dream because I didn’t realize how ungrateful and unappreciative I was until cancer turned my life up side down. I describe it in the book this way:

Gratitude, I’ve learned, can fish us out of the deepest reservoir of despair. I didn’t know that before. I lived, instead, wrapped tightly in the sharp scrutiny of a discerning eye. My habit was to look for what needed to be improved, beautified, discarded, altered, or changed in any number of ways to make it, or my perception of it, better. I was unaware that by living that way, I was living out of lack, which is a stepchild of fear. Nothing was ever quite good enough because I rarely took notice of what was very good indeed. Rather, I gave my attention elsewhere, feeling completely justified because after my makeover, things would surly improve. Sometimes they did. And if I were paying attention to something I couldn’t “fix,” such as the crime rate or inept government, I would talk for hours on end with my husband or my friends about the horrible injustices that surrounded us.

Even though I was an upbeat person, I had the perpetual glass-half-empty syndrome, which I hadn’t known about myself until my world was turned upside down and I suddenly saw the glass as half full—well, maybe even completely full. Or better yet, brimming over.

The shift took place when I understood that I might fall into the great abyss. Indeed, my toes were curled over the precipice of the terrain of this life, and my balance was tenuous. This is a vantage point that rocks the hell out of you. When you think it’s all about to disappear, when you think you’re about to lose it all—lose your very breath and heartbeat—suddenly, perhaps for the first time, you see everything you could lose—which is everything you have—which is so very, very much.

As I continue to heal (because the layers of the onion will always present us with something more!), I have come to know that being grateful or appreciative, and paying attention to the bounty of blessings before us, is perhaps, along with forgiveness, the greatest key to inner peace and freedom available to us.

Giving attention to all the good that inhabits our lives rather than what we don’t have or what seems “bad,” somehow, miraculously, brings about more good. I believe it’s one of the best-kept secrets of the universe.
***** ****** ****** ****** ******

I’ll never know for sure if cancer was already painted on my canvas before I arrived on this earth or if it’s something my own brush strokes produced. Regardless, there’s something I do know with all certainty: Cancer can be the very thing that catapults us into a better life. One where we no longer take for granted the beauty that surrounds us, the love that sustains us and the reason for living a full, playful, and purposeful life. It can be a powerful lesson for the artist who continues to complete the painting.


World Cancer Day

February 4, 2011

Today is World Cancer Day. What a concept. I wish it were World Healing Day. It’s disturbing that we place so much emphasis on disease—we put the majority of our attention on the horrors of disease—and it can be terribly depressing. Scary. Everyone’s vulnerable to getting cancer. Focusing on the disease is haunting. Focusing on disease tends to make us feel hopeless. Focusing on disease can make us sick.

If we turn our attention to healing instead, we can take a good and honest look at ourselves. What might we be doing that could contribute to the creation of disease? What are we doing that plays into our health and wellbeing? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that lifestyle is largely connected to why we become sick. Doctors I interviewed for Embrace, Release Heal say that 80% of all lung cancers would be eradicated if people quit smoking. No drug on earth can claim that result in relation to cancer. Only the choices we make can promise outcomes that make our jaws drop. But how many of us would rather take a pill to feel better or free ourselves of disease than change those precious habits we so dearly protect?

What about people like myself who ate well, didn’t smoke, exercised regularly and still got cancer? Living a healthy lifestyle and finding myself with a life-threatening disease forced me to ask: where do I look now? After three cancer diagnoses, it became clear that the only place to look was within.

Quantum science is now able to illustrate how our thoughts and feelings impact our cells. I started to explore my inner landscape and unearthed old grievances that I hadn’t yet freed up; I acknowledged resentments that I had been ignoring; I fessed up to judgments against myself and others that were left over from years past. I wasn’t an unhappy person when I was diagnosed, but I was housing the energetic debris from leftover events and circumstances that, through the years, ate away at my cells.

This is no fairy tale; understanding the real relationship between the mind and body is rooted in fact. For those who get what it means, it’s invigorating, opening up entirely new possibilities for health and wellness. It signals that we have much more power than we knew until now, and that harnessing that power can create what we call miracles. But I’ve come to believe that miracles happen all the time if we simply line up with the stuff we’re made of and give ourselves to believing in it.

For World Healing Day, I would suggest that people spend 100% of their time reading uplifting books (a classic I just finished was Norman Cousin’s Anatomy of an Illness. http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/Annotation?action=view&annid=1700) or watching inspiring movies (Blue Butterfly (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0313300/), not the best movie ever, but wonderfully uplifting and especially good for people with cancer), or looking into the eyes of someone they love until their eyes water with the tears of joy, or sitting in nature, grinning at the magnificent beauty that surrounds us. If we focus on what heals our hearts, that golden thread can penetrate into our cells and sew them into the fabric of perfect health. It’s worth doing not just on my newly created World Healing Day, but every day of the week.


Infinite Possibilities

December 27, 2010

I believe things happen for a reason. I was just getting ready to write this, my first blog, when the phone rang. It was my cousin, David, whose wife will soon die of cancer. She had three diagnoses, just like me, and she did all the things her doctors suggested, just like me. But round after round of chemotherapy, and session after session of radiation were not effective in keeping Ellen’s cancer from returning. 

Poisoning and burning people to kill cancer cells does work sometimes, but often, these barbaric treatments do not work. They certainly didn’t work for Ellen, and consequently, this has been what David called “a soft Christmas.”

I know what he means. When cancer becomes synonymous with the name of a loved one, things tend to soften. We’re not as hard pressed to get up and head straight for work—especially at meaningless jobs. We release the company of friends with hard edges. We want to give ourselves almost entirely to children, parents, dear friends and family, animals, nature and that which gives us faith. Our hearts open and we find a way to forgive long held grievances and the people we’ve long since alienated. Contrary to what some might believe, softening is not a weakening but rather a strengthening of character.  It enables us to see clearly and completely what matters most and how we want to live the rest of our lives, regardless of how long that may be.

After my third diagnosis, the doctors had few options and offered little hope. Conventional treatment had not worked for me, either. I nearly drowned in despair at the thought of disappearing from my two young children and leaving my husband with the burden of those wounds.  After non-stop contemplation and receiving wise counsel from others, I decided that it was up to me to find my way through because I wasn’t done with being a mother, a wife, and most especially, the bundle I call myself.

Once that decision was made, I ventured out on the greatest journey of my life. My biggest challenge was to bust through the brick wall of belief that I could not heal and somehow come to believe that I would heal. It takes deep and unyielding commitment to rewire your mind to believe that it can stop a speeding locomotive that’s heading right for you.

To craft a new story for myself, I listened to the stories of others who transcended their grim prognosis. They became my heroes.  I also tapped the knowledge of both alternative and allopathic doctors about the latest and least-known discoveries that might help resolve cancer. In doing so, I was glad to know that some of our richest scientific minds also believe there is more to cancer treatment than the standard, often ineffective fare. They also helped me learn what role food plays in both the potential cause and recovery of cancer. Finally, I wanted to unleash the power of my mind so it could be my greatest instrument for healing.  

I decided to write a book during my journey because it would help keep me focused. Plus, if what I found had merit, I knew it could help others, too.

My treatment choices included becoming a raw foodist, giving up all forms of sugar, and doing regular enemas. I worked with (and still do) a doctor who uses herbs and homeopathic supplements to build immunity and recalibrate the body to its healthiest and most natural homeostatic state.  I underwent the latest version of radiation treatment. I received monthly sessions of acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments.  Mostly, I engaged in understanding the power that my thoughts and emotions deal out and how they impact my body. This led to an honest inventory of my inner life and participating in deep forgiveness work.

I interviewed more than 30 people. Some recounted how they went from being called “terminal” after chemo and radiation failed them, to being cancer free. Others were doctors and researchers who explained how the mind and body interact and how we can tap that relationship for healing purposes. They also cited the scientific studies that can now demonstrate that diet does indeed influence cancer cells—either positively or negatively.

A year after embarking on my journey, I had written Embrace, Release, Heal: An Empowering Guide to Thinking About, Talking About and Treating Cancer. It is a chronicle of these interviews as well as my journey from despair and terror, to empowerment and becoming cancer free.

The book does not suggest that people disregard conventional treatments; I simply urge readers to assess the many treatment options available (that their doctors likely don’t know about and probably won’t condone), then choose the best fit for themselves. Once the protocol is chosen, I coach readers into using the power of their mind and heart to heal.  This healing extends beyond the physical body because I have come to believe that cancer is as much a disease of our state of mind and unhealed emotional lives as it is a physical one that’s barraged by a world of chemical pollutants.

Environmental toxins are out of our control. But how we think and what we do with our emotional lives is entirely within our command. The frightening epidemic of cancer may well be a wake-up call that many of us are living in and acting out the fearful, critical, or angry edges of our mindset.  Perhaps it’s a call from our souls that it is time to loosen the grip of sharp judgments and ragged self righteousness and give ourselves to a softer, more compassionate, forgiving, grateful and loving way of living.

My cousin David and his wife Ellen are a reminder that life is temporary no matter how long we live. There is both beauty and strength in being gentle, forgiving, kind and loving. It feeds our spirits and now we also know, it nurtures and can heal our bodies.


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