I am astonished that it has been over six months since I wrote my last blog. I imagine people finding my blog on WordPress, reading about my battle to overcome cancer, and saying, “What happened to her? Is she still with us or has her journey come to an end?”
No, I’m doing amazingly well, almost three years out from the day that my dear physician’s assistant Donna knelt in front of me and my family in the chemo room (because we had filled all the available chairs) and told me the results of my April 2010 PET/CT scan. “It’s good news, very good news. Every bit of the cancer is gone from your body. It’s a miracle.”
I said, “You’ve just made about 2,000 people who’ve been praying for me all over the world very happy.”
A Long and Amazing Journey
This past Wednesday, November 14, 2012 I went back to my oncologist’s office for another routine checkup. Dr. Link told me that I was such an amazing case that I should be in a medical journal. He talked about how well I’m doing and said that in all the decades that he’s been a doctor that he’s never seen anything quite like me—and that he’s seen a lot. That’s a pretty impressive statement coming from one of the country’s leading oncologists and researchers.
He also gave me some statistical observations. For example, it has been ten years since I was first diagnosed with cancer, and I’m still going strong. I hadn’t thought about how that “ten years,” which is a significant number in terms of still being healthy so long after the initial diagnosis, comes into play even if the cancer did come back once during that time. He also pointed out that it has been over a year since I have been off all the chemo and targeted therapies, and that I’m still clear of cancer. Apparently, many people who have had stage four cancer stay on things like Herceptin for as many years as they can get their insurance companies to pay for it. Dr. Link called getting off the drugs “a bold move on everyone’s part.” But I was ready for it. I wanted my own body back.
When Dr. Link asked me how I was, I told him that I knew what it felt like to be sick, and that I could feel the strength in my body. I told him that I love my life more each day, and give thanks for being alive in this indescribably beautiful world. I said that I make it my daily practice to control my stress and do things to make myself happy.
Sometimes Taking Time for Ourselves Turns into a Blessing
Even though I had seventeen more academic papers to read and grade for my university students, after my doctor visit, I gave myself a treat by taking myself out for lunch—a heart shaped scone with home-made raspberry preserves and a luscious Mediterranean salad—at my favorite restaurant, the Tea House on Los Rios. I could see afterward that I was meant to be there that afternoon, even though it meant carving two hours out of my hectic schedule, because I ended up having a very inspirational conversation with a young couple who were sitting at a nearby table.
I complimented the guy on the top hat he was wearing (you get your choice of hats at this tea room —what’s tea without a hat). They found out I was a writer and we started talking about my book about curanderismo and my other books about the history and the worldview of the Maya Indians. But when I told them the subject of my novel, which is about two women who change radically after a near-fatal illness, I filled in with some of my story about my own illness and miraculous recovery. “Somebody has to be a miracle in this world,” I told them. “That’s my job now, to live as fully as I can with all my heart, and to know that every day I remain alive gives hope to everyone around me. And I’m happy to be that person and to do that.”
The Balance between Surrender and Empowerment
There have been times in my life when I have been faced with situations that have felt so terrifying and overwhelming that the only thing I have been able to do is to completely surrender myself to a higher power, knowing that no matter what the outcome, everything would be all right, and that angelic forces I can’t even imagine watch over me day and night.
Lately, however, I have seen that there are times when it is not always in our own best interests to believe that the ultimate authority that decides our fate is outside of us in some other agency. I think about this most when I’m facing a situation like a checkup at my oncologist’s, when those scary voices in the back of my mind whisper, “Well, you feel good, but what if the cancer comes back?”
I’ve thought about this a good deal—that it is, after all, my life, and that I do have something to say about what happens to me, that in the end, I choose whether to live or die. These days when the voices whisper, I just say, “No, getting sick again is not an option. My job is embracing life and being truly alive in this magnificent world, with every cell of my being.”
Over that last three years I’ve changed a great deal, and I’m amazed to find that my ideas about my life, my health, my relationships with others all keep evolving, that new ideas and experiences keep coming fast and strong, even though I know I’ve learned so much. One thing I have come to believe lately, in the very deepest place in my heart, is that we get hamstrung by fear and doubt. If we can truly believe in the ability of our bodies to heal, no matter what, anything health-wise will be possible. We tell ourselves about “God’s will” and “our “higher good,” but over the past six months I’ve begun to believe that we have the ability and the right to decide what happens to us. Christ said that if we just had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed that we could move mountains. There’s so much stuff in our heads, engrained programming about our limitations, that I know it’s hard to stop being afraid and to really believe. It’s like a magical balancing act. But once you get beyond a certain point, something shifts. I can hardly believe how mysterious and amazing this feels, but I have to and I want to and I intend on keeping it going, because my very life is on the line. In my case, faith is an utterly important thing.
Writing Fiction Is a Great Teacher
The most amazing part of all these new ideas and experiences is the novel I am writing and what it is teaching me. Anyone who has ever written fiction knows that at times it seems to come from a place beyond ourselves. I’ve created two characters who wake up from their treatments from this mysterious disease that is striking people down all over the world, and find themselves in a place where all their irrational self-doubts and fears about their limitations are gone. One character’s therapist tries to give her a glimpse of what this will be like if she survives her illness:
“It’s as if you awaken, both literally and figuratively. The cacophony in your mind, the noise you have lived with all your life to the point where you hardly even notice it is gone. All your irrational fears are gone, your senseless self-doubt, your self-sabotaging thoughts. You can finally begin to glimpse yourself for who you really are and discover the potential you were born to fulfill. You are no longer separate from the world …”
After I wrote this, it occurred to me that there was nothing keeping me from just letting go of my fears and self-doubts. What purpose did they actually serve? They were just crap that had gotten stuck in my head and had nothing to do with reality. Like Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” I suddenly had a vision of what it would be like to just do the things I loved the most, in the belief that these are the gifts that I came into the world with, and that the world would embrace these gifts, even as I embraced the world.
It is so thrilling to have lived through something so devastating and found the grace and the support of extraordinary loving souls, because it has gotten me to a place where I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. And I am utterly captivated with the creativity and the ideas that are coming to me at this stage of my life, and with the amazing love I’m finding for people, the connections I’m feeling with them.
Not only am I still alive, but I am filled with excitement to see what’s up ahead because this journey continues to give me such gifts.