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
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,
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.