The question I have been asking myself for over a year now is “Why am I still here? How does someone who had cancer, and became healthy again, stay alive?” I can’t answer for the whole world, but I believe I have found answers for myself, and I want to share those, not only with people facing cancer, but with anyone facing health challenges or life challenges that seem overwhelming. And, God knows, we all have to face these kinds of challenges.
Over the last two years I have known four people who died of metastasized cancer, three of whom died less than a year ago. As I have written earlier in this blog, after seven years cancer free, in January of 2010, I was diagnosed with stage 4cancer that was in my lungs, my liver, and in many of my bones. By the end of April 2010, my body was cancer free once more. My oncologist’s staff refer to me as their “little miracle” and hold me up as hope for others with metastasized cancer who come to them for help.
This April 20, I will have been healthy for a full year. But the question still is, how have I done this? Not only that, but I’ve actually reached the point inside where I know I am healthy and I believe I will never get cancer again. I’ve had to go through a lot to get here. I’ve known months where I could hardly walk up a flight of steps, where my breathing was so bad that folding clothes in my laundry room or taking a shower felt like a “near-death” experience.
I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. Here’s what I’ve learned about staying alive.
My daily life has become what I call a “Living Practice,” a compassionate awareness of what is happening in my mind, my emotions, and my body and what I need to pay attention to. One can’t just have cancer and forget about it. After a great deal of work with a great many people, I’ve realized that both times I had cancer, I was under tremendous stress, filled with unbelievable amounts of grief and anger. I know now that I can never allow myself to fall heedlessly into that kind of black hole again. I must pay attention to myself and take care of myself.
I have a dear friend named Larry who is a master hypnotherapist, and he has made me three wonderful hypnotherapy CDs. On the last one, called “Listen to Your Body,” he talks about how we can think of stress, upset, and anger on a scale of 1 to 10. Anything 5 or under is okay, but when we start to move toward 6, we need to immediately pay attention, be present with the situation, and work with it, get through it, get back down below 5. It works.
I’ve also learned from Larry and from my oncologist about the power of words to either heal us or help us. Words shape our thoughts, and our thoughts have power over our bodies and our emotions. For months and months I’ve listened to CDs as I’ve fallen asleep. An excellent one is called “Healthy Immune System” by Bellruth Naperstack. It talks you through the workings of your immune system, helps you visualize every aspect of that system as powerful and efficient, and ends with affirmations, such as “My body is my oldest and most reliable friend, my most powerful ally.” She has helped me believe in my body once more.
Larry’s hypnotherapy CDs have affected my waking thoughts in countless ways. I usually listen to his voice when I lay down to sleep. On each CD, over and over, he tells me how vibrantly healthy I am, how my body is being rejuvenated and becoming stronger. On one CD he says, “Only look in the mirror when you have confidence that you are healthy because only then are you being truly honest with yourself.” In context, this means that you don’t stand in front of a mirror and anxiously fret when you’re feeling fear. Look closely at yourself, into your own eyes, when you feel calm and sure of your wellbeing.
Ironically, hearing these words has literally created the reality of that wellbeing. Frequently now, I look into my mirror and think, “My God, who is that healthy, vibrant, strong woman looking back at me? I’ve had a tough day at work, and I’m really tired, but my body looks fantastic and my spirit looks so strong. The body can’t lie, it can’t fake it, so I know I’m all right.”
So, the words I seek out, that I feed my soul with, are words of empowerment, health, compassion, love, and strength. That includes the words of the people with whom I surround myself.
Ask for Help
In this culture, we are taught to tough it out, to isolate ourselves from others when we feel bad so that we won’t be a burden to anyone. I still have to fight this, but I’ve been learning that when something happens to me that triggers fear or depression, I need to call a trusted friend or family member and tell them what I’m going through, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, and I’ve imagined a lot of ridiculous things, believe me. It’s only been recently that every time I cough I don’t imagine that I have lung cancer. (And since I coughed violently for four months before someone got smart enough to diagnose me, I compassionately understand why I would feel that way. It’s called post-traumatic stress.)
So, my body has been weak as it has recovered, and my emotions have not always been under my control. I’ve been subject to panic attacks and bouts of depression. But talking about these things with people has helped me to get a grip on myself again, to get a better perspective.
We have to learn how to control our minds, because that is where fear begins. We most often create fear where nothing really exists.
I’ve known a lot of debilitating fear over the last year and a half. Again, it’s only been recently that I’ve been free of it. I used to look down on people who could not control their emotions, thinking they were weak. Now I realize that sometimes the body and mind just can’t cope with the challenges with which we are being faced and everything gets out of kilter. At my worst, back in February of 2010, I was having such terrible attacks of fear and anxiety that one afternoon I just collapsed in my hallway. I just couldn’t stand up. It really scared me.
My friends and family talked, prayed, and loved me through it. My doctor prescribed 1 mg. of Ativan, and I only take it once a day before I go to sleep. I decided against the anti-depressant she suggested when I realized that the possible side effects and withdrawal symptoms were worse than the anxiety.
Believe in Miracles
Every time I lay down to sleep, I used to listen to a healing or hypnotherapy CD because if I didn’t, I would be filled with dread and could not get to sleep. But I had a turning point recently that helped me get completely beyond that. Ironically, it was at the end of a time at the end of February 2011 when I’d been in abdominal pain for a solid week, with almost no release. I was convinced that I had cancer again, back in my liver and probably in my pancreas because it hurt on that side of the abdomen as well. I was sure that I had only two months to live.
But a miracle happened on two levels. On a Wednesday evening, a client of mine who is a healer and has become my friend, called me to see how I was doing. I told him how sick I felt and that I was having an ultrasound of the abdomen that Friday and that I was scared to death. He reassured me and said he would pray for me.
The next thing I did was ask my hypnotherapist friend for help. I wrote him an email asking him to make me another CD, specific to my situation. He emailed back immediately and suggested that I call him. We talked for about an hour and he was able to show me exactly what sort of emotional state I had been in both times I’d succumbed to cancer. Both times I was filled with rage and was grieving deeply for the loss of things I’d lost—a relationship with a man I adored, a job I loved with all my heart, and a beloved animal companion.
Larry pointed out to me that this level of anger and grief does not happen overnight, that it is a result of neglecting our hearts and souls, of letting things slide and slide. I also realized that part of the abdominal pain was an acid reflex reaction to the extreme stress I was under at work grading 46 huge working drafts of my students’ papers, with much more grading and work to go before the term ended. I had gone back to teaching three weeks following gall bladder surgery, and was just not ready. But I needed the money and my health insurance was running out.
My conversation with Larry empowered me to believe that I really was in control of my health. I could choose whether to get sick again or stay healthy, whether to live or die.
The next morning I woke up and the pain was completely gone. The following day the ultrasound showed no problems in the abdominal cavity or in my liver or pancreas, and the bloodwork showed that my elevated liver enzymes had dropped by 20 points. The burning acid reflex stopped as I focused on giving thanks for my job, and I stopped feeling dread and fear for my survival every time I lay my head down upon my pillow at night. It…all…just…stopped.
We will be tested over and over again until the epiphany strikes, until we are freed from fear, but it will come. It will happen. The important thing is not to give up.
Choosing to Live
There were many times while I had cancer, while I was going through chemo, while I was recovering from chemo, or while I was dealing with the after-effects of my illness—such as my clogged up gallbladder that required yet another debilitating surgery—when I felt like maybe life just wasn’t worth living and that death would be preferable. But each time I firmly and consciously chose life. I told God, “I don’t care how hard it is, or what it takes. I want to live. I’m going to live. I’m going to keep on living.” I made that decision over and over and over again. It wasn’t always easy, but I kept doing it.
And living is more than just existing. It’s being truly alive in this beautiful world, knowing pleasure and joy and love.
A friend of mine who does healing work that opens the heart, did an induction on me to open my heart chakra. Since then, I consciously try to think, act, and move from the heart. That seems like the key to me, the key to true living. Last November, when I underwent my last PET/CT scan, which was an utterly terrifying experience because they were looking to see if the cancer had come back, I spent those 45 minutes on the table sending love and prayers to everyone I knew, all my family, all my friends, over and over again. And the scan showed me cancer free.
I believe that no disease can exist in my body when I am in a state of love. So love has become part of my Living Practice.
I have learned to laugh at myself and my fears. A week and a half ago, I had dinner with my friend Barbara and I shared with her that when I coughed, or had abdominal pain, or found a bump, I not only was sure I had cancer, but that I only had two months to live.
I told her about March 10, my birthday, when I taught my last class of the term at UCI and had walked off campus in a state of emotional triumph that I had gotten through the term; that my body, which has been exhausted when I began, felt vibrantly healthy. That moment I finally knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my body was cancer free and that I was never going to get cancer again. Even with a paralyzed vocal cord, I had taught the best term of my career and my students and I had bonded in a very special way.
Then when I got home, I found a lump on the side of my hip and cold fear went through me. I thought, “This is not fair that on the day of my greatest triumph, when I am sure that I am finally all right, that this should happen. I need this spring break. I want to rest and be happy, and now I am facing a week and a half of visiting the doctor, setting up a test, and waiting for the results.”
Barbara asked me, “So, what changed between walking off the campus and knowing you were all right and getting home and finding the lump and deciding you had two months to live?”
I said, “My mind changed.”
She answered, “Exactly.”
That was another epiphany. That I was doing this to myself, making myself worried about things that had not been diagnosed and most likely did not even exist. (And the tests on my hip had shown that the lump was not cancer.) My sister had been telling me for months not to do this to myself, but I hadn’t completely gotten it until that moment.
What followed was a half hour of me telling Barbara all of the times in the last six months when I’d had a cough or a pain, how I’d self-diagnosed myself to be dying (usually in two months, for some reason), and how it had all turned out to be false alarms. I told her that recently a large vitamin pill had gone down wrong, hurting my throat, and how I had decided after a couple of days of a bruised throat that I had thyroid cancer, and two months to live, maybe even two weeks.
We started laughing as I told her these stories because I finally heard how ridiculous they were. We laughed and laughed and got sillier and sillier. And it was like slaying the dragon of my mind. I killed that dragon with my laughter and with the laughter of my friend. Fear may visit now and then, but it will never have the strength it once had.
So, Why Am I Still Alive?
I am here today, alive and healthy, because I have learned something about how to control my mind, how to laugh at fear, how to take care of myself, how to ask for help, how to choose life and live with the intention of holding love in my heart and acting from that place of compassion and joy.
That’s what works for me.