After Cancer, I Am Better Than Before

Ts’it is’tsi’nako, Thought Woman,

is sitting in her room

and whatever she thinks about


Thought Woman, the spider,

named things and

as she named them

they appeared.

She is sitting in her room

thinking of a story now

I am telling you the story

she is thinking.

                                                                         —Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

Now that I am healthy again, in remission following a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, I am passionately engaged in recreating my life. Lately, cancer has not been something I have wanted to write about. But when a neighbor gave me an issue of the LA Times Parade Magazine dated June 20, 2010 containing an article about all the physical and emotional problems that even long-term cancer survivors suffer from, I felt that I had to raise my voice. This article talks about things like chronic severe pain, nerve damage, depression, fatigue, and cognitive impairment as being lifelong companions of those who once had cancer. In other words, we’re screwed.

Been There, Didn’t Do That

I was first diagnosed with Her2 positive breast cancer almost eight years ago. I had chemo, a mastectomy and reconstruction, Herceptin, and radiation. I went into remission for seven years and was considered cured. But I can clearly remember that during my year of battling cancer and recovering, I often said to my friends and family, “I don’t know that I’m ever going to be myself again and feel good in my body again.”

Fortunately for me, I had a client/friend named Larry Garrett, a tremendously gifted hypnotherapist who also worked with those fighting or recovering from cancer. Larry told me something that became my shining battle cry and mantra both then and now: “You won’t just feel like your old self. You will be better than before.”

I believed Larry. I had faith in what he was telling me and it became my inspiration. It was my goal to understand what that concept meant on all levels, not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well.

And it was true. During chemo, my mind stayed sharp enough to ghost-write a book on health and lifestyle with my client Mackie Shilstone. That book went on to sell tens of thousands of copies. I overcame exhaustion, depression, and conquered fear. I took all I had learned from my former illness and recreated my life anew in a way that I could never have imagined.

The only real after-effects I had to live with were a little pain now and then in the area of my implant because of the tightness of the scar tissue, but that resolves with gentle and consistent stretching. I had slight swelling in my arm on the affected side of my body because of lymph node removal, but I worked with a lymphadema therapist, Mary Jo, for several months and did self-massage for a year to “reroute” the lymph fluid to other lymph paths. I’ve had no problems since. I had some numbness in my toes that resolved and lately a numb area in my left arm has begun to have feeling again.

There Is a Reason for Everything That Happens to Us

As any readers of this blog know, I was diagnosed with metastasized stage 4 Her2 positive cancer this past January 2010. This was a shock to me and my doctor, John Link, and it was difficult to for us to understand. But since I basically believe I live in a Universe that is on my side, where everything happens for my higher good, I knew there was a reason for this. I went through an extraordinary life and death re-evaluation of my existence, what I felt I had accomplished so far, what I still hoped to accomplish, how much I wanted to live. And I asked for Grace. (And, yes, I was terrified.)

Grace was given to me and four months later when the doctors looked at the PET/CT scan, my body was completely cancer free. My second set of scans, taken a little over three weeks ago, show that I am still cancer free. Hallelujah!

Now I am on a journey to really understand myself and what kind of lessons I am being taught. I visited the ground zero of my soul, and now I am rebuilding and revisioning. I’ll let you know what I find out.

Where I Was Physically, Where I Am Physically Now – Where You Can Be Physically

I just don’t accept the word of people who say I’m going to be plagued with mental, physical, and emotional pain and distress for the rest of my life. It doesn’t resonate in my gut at all. I know how far I’ve come and I plan on continuing onward to complete physical wellbeing.

Starting in the late fall of 2009, I coughed violently all the time. Taking a shower was a near-death experience because I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And, indeed, I was in the emergency room twice because I felt that I couldn’t get my breath. I didn’t even get diagnosed until January of 2010, although I saw several doctors. Up until about six weeks ago, I couldn’t take a walk without feeling short of breath for hours. I was exhausted all the time.

My last chemo was about eight weeks ago and I’m getting stronger every day. I can’t walk for miles and miles yet, but from my work as a writer, I know that it takes time to rebuild cardiovascular fitness after months of virtual inactivity—and I’m getting there. When I recently visited my family in PA, I had a triumphal evening when my sister, myself, and the dog walked down her street, into the woods, down the long hill, down the road to the waterfall, then all the way back. While I had to stop a few times to rest and get my breath, I was able to do this with no excessive tiredness and no shortness of breath.

Yes, there are things that I’ve had to get “fixed” as a result of my illness. I’ve had to undergo tests to fully diagnose and fix acid reflux. My left vocal cord is partially paralyzed, probably from the cancer that was in my lung, but I’m in speech therapy now and my therapist told me that he can get me talking and singing again without surgery. It will just take time.

I’ve learned that I need to be patient and loving with myself, to make it a practice to work slowly but surely to get my strength back by actively walking, and to eat well and allow myself to go to bed an extra hour early.

Inflammation – Be Proactive

We’ve all read about how “inflammation” is the cause of so many illnesses and problems. In fact, the Parade article talked about how these lingering physical and emotional problems from which cancer survivors suffered were often caused by inflammation and an over-active immune system trying to fight it.

Well, folks, there’s things you can take to reduce inflammation. A few that I take are co-enzyme Q10 (also great for your heart), an herb-based supplement called Zyflammend (which has been studied extensively in the context of prostate cancer), and fish oil capsules. Digestive enzymes and probiotics are also high on the list because a great deal of inflammation and overtaxing of the immune system results from improperly digested food. (In the book form of this blog I’ll go into more detail and quote research chapter and verse.)

Know That Anything is Possible

The most important thing a person can do is to not believe “negative talk.” Read books written by people who have overcome adversity. Spend time with friends who make you feel hopeful, strong, and optimistic.

I have a friend named Isabelle who always cheers me up and inspires me when we get together. Her favorite joke is that when I’m 90 I’ll still be alive and outrageous, spitting on the sidewalk, wearing purple, and mooning unsuspecting pedestrians—and that she’ll be right there alongside of me.

There are so many stories of miracles out there. Why not me? Why not you? For example, in Michael Talbot’s book The Holographic Universe, he reported a story of a man who had such severe hip cancer that his leg had fallen out of the hip socket and was floating free. This man bathed in the waters of Lourdes. What did he have to lose?

What was interesting was that his next scan showed his cancer disappearing and his hip seeming to regenerate. His doctor was so fascinated by this that he and his colleagues followed this man’s progress over the course of at least a year. The cancer disappeared, the man’s hip completely regenerated, the socket regrew, and the man walked again. The conclusion that the doctors came to was that either this was an out-and-out miracle, or that the body had regenerative powers that we as yet know nothing about. They went on to say that there is a great deal that we don’t understand about the body.

I’m Keeping a Record

My body has been clear of cancer for at least four months and I am in the process of recreating my life, of meditating, of listening to the still small voice inside, asking it how I can better fulfill my purpose in this marvelous, beautiful life that has been returned to me. I am living mindfully.  And, you know, there’s no guarantees, but if I were a racehorse, honestly, I’d put my money on me.

I’ll send you dispatches from the journey.

Choose a Strong Story

In her poem “Ceremony,” Leslie Marmon Silko writes:

I will tell you something about stories,

[he said]

They aren’t just entertainment,

Don’t be fooled,

They are all we have, you see,

all we have to fight off

illness and death,

You don’t have anything

without the stories….

And in the belly of the story

the rituals and the ceremony

are still growing.

Choose your story well. Use it to create your life anew, to embrace hope, to believe in the impossible, to know that miracles happen every day, to remind yourself that you are strong enough to get through this, imaginative enough, creative enough. And that someday soon, with patience, self-love, an open heart, and perseverance, you will be better than before.

About Joy Parker

As a three-time cancer survivor and storyteller, I felt compelled to create this blog because I felt the need to connect with an audience and immediately share what I am learning as I am learning it. The material in this blog is serving as the basis for two books that I am writing. The first book talks about how illness is a vehicle that takes us into the unknown land, teaches us things we couldn’t otherwise learn, and then gives us the opportunity to bring them back to our community. It offers a compass and creates a map of the unknown land so that others might find their path more easily. Most important, it shares what I have learned about waking up and being truly alive in this magnificent world. That might sound simple enough, but the actual experience is devastatingly beautiful and powerful. The second project is a book with medicine cards discussing many of the lessons I’ve learned from my experiences with healing and as a healer, the indigenous world, and walking a spiritual path. Most important, it is the story of the development of my own personal mythology. People tend to think of myths as massive stories and beliefs that develop in a culture over hundreds or thousands of years. We now live in a time of crisis and we don’t have a hundred years. The time for healing and transformation is now, and we are the ones we have been waiting for.
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2 Responses to After Cancer, I Am Better Than Before

  1. Wow, we lose communication for a short time and all things can happen. I am so excited my words resonated with you. I live by those words and know each day is such a gift and a challenge as you have been through is a gift of creating strength. I have been saying new words, “As long as I feel good, nothing can hurt me!” It is the fear which cripples us and creates physical challenges. Inflamation is a piece of cake with self hypnosis as when you relax yourself the area which is inflamed begins to open for healing. Live well Joy, bless each day and you will come out better than you were before your challenges. I wish you well, I wish you healing and I wish you love,

  2. Tayria Ward says:

    Joy, I am just now catching up on e-mail after traveling, and am so moved to read this. This is gorgeous writing, for all of us, not only cancer survivors but life survivors. You speak to the soul of all of us. Your advice is powerful for every single day of life. I want to be so careful about what stories I am listening to, you say it very wisely. I’m so happy that you are feeling better than ever. You’re an amazing woman. I’ll spit on the sidewalk in honor of you! Much love, Tayria

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