Saturday, November 21, 2009

"The Cancer Brouhaha" & Gratitude (Not Necessarily Connected)

It's shocking when someone you know is diagnosed with cancer. It's even more frightful when that person is one of the healthiest people you know. What could be more distressing than a cancer diagnosis in someone who is considered an expert in sensing and perceiving the structure and function of the body? How does a person cope with learning that one of the people on whom they rely for reassurance about their health has gotten cancer themselves?

There is no way to make sense of this situation, so let's not waste precious life energy thinking we can figure this out or draw any conclusions. 

I find it helpful to accept a few things about life:
Life is not fair. It doesn't always make sense.
Cause and effect is not only not obvious; it frequently doesn't exist.
There is no such thing as life without problems.
No one is perfect or immune from misfortune.
Assigning blame does not help.
There's no cosmic meaning inherent in being given a "life lesson" like cancer.
The only meaning I care about is the one I create. (This is not the same as "positive thinking." I'll say more about this in a future entry.)
At this point, why or how I got this cancer is unknowable.
What really matters is how I meet it now that it's here.

You might ask, "What do I do to care for myself in light of all this confusing cancer information?"

As they say on NPR, "But first the news..."
For all of you who had an outpouring of concern over my falling asleep in parking lots, Steve is home until Dec 1st and is taking unbelievably good care of me. He is going with me to all my appointments, cooking (he's a better cook than I am), cleaning, redecorating the house, treating me, and making me laugh so much and so hard I have to beg him to let me rest. He's the love of my life and he does magic with cruciferous vegetables.

My second bone scan shows nothing new. Great news! The rest of my bones are clear. All my tumor markers are showing great potential for response to estrogen-blocking treatment. In the meantime, I am doing everything I can in the alternative treatment realm to minimize my own estrogen via nutrition, supplements, and other endeavors, which I'm not interested in discussing right now.

I still haven't started any "mainstream" treatment because they (my local oncologist and the one at Stanford) are attempting to be as precise as possible in what they recommend.

Anyone who follows the news knows that one of the most hotly debated issues right now is that many people, particularly women with breast cancer, have been massively overtreated. I don't want this to happen to me, and thankfully, neither do my oncologists. We all agree that rushing into a treatment plan is not a good way to go. We're taking our time to gather all the information we can before starting any allopathic treatment regimen.

The more information they have about my tumor/s, the more specific they can be in their recommendations. Everything they've suggested so far is based on my sternum biopsy results. Now I am waiting to have both breasts biopsied. BUT, since what I have can't be seen on a mammogram or an ultrasound, I have to have the biopsy guided by another MRI. They are debating who should do it and where the best place is to have it done. I hope to have it done next week sometime at either Dominican or Stanford.

Returning to that important question, "What do I do to care for myself in light of all this confusing cancer information?" I am reminded of a story...

I was 22 in 1978 when Greg Louganis won his gold medals in diving at the Seoul Olympics. I remember a TV commentator interviewing him and asking if he was a great diver because he had no fear when he dived off that 10 meter platform. Louganis explained that he was as afraid as the next guy, but he was courageous, and did not let his fear get in the way of doing his best. I was so inspired by this. I couldn't make my fears go away, but I could learn to co-exist with them and cultivate courage. I have tried to do my best, even when I'm afraid. You can do this too. Stop reading for a moment, close your eyes, breathe, and ponder this before you read on...

Fear is helpful when you are driving with a friend who's had too much to drink and you need to make a choice about what to do. Fear informs us when we're bicycling downhill too fast. Fear is a valuable instinct. But if we constantly overreact to perceived threats, rather than be selective and attend to what we really need to be informed about, we will end up doing 1 of 2 things; we will either play dead or run until we drop. In most people, this manifests as variations on being depressed, or being a control freak. Which do you tend to do?

The most powerful fears are the ones of which we are unaware. Our unconscious guides us, (or drags us around) and shapes our lives. It's the topic of my friend and fellow Continuum teacher Carole's book, not this blog to discuss the power of the unconscious. (Those of you who know her, help encourage her to write more and finish her book.) I can only comment on the fears we know about. And right now, everyone I talk to is afraid of cancer. What can you do?

It's helpful to sort out the things you can and cannot change, as they say in The Serenity prayer, "...grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." You can change what you eat, how you breathe, how you care for yourself. You can't change the plastic residue that flows in our waters, the air pollution, the DDT you breathed as a child when they drove down your street and sprayed for mosquito control, but you can change how charged you feel about these things and not allow them to hurt you more than they already have. You can't change your genes, but maybe you can explore getting them to not express themselves. It all boils down to meeting the moment and attending to what you can. Let go of the rest and don't let what you can't handle suck the life energy out of what precious time you have left.

Forgive me for grossly oversimplifying. I know it's more complex than this.

For those of you who are interested, here are links to some of the recent New York Times articles about the current controversies in cancer prevention, mainstream medical screening and treatment that I found interesting:

I have about 6 half-written blog entries, but first, we're celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend in my home. My favorite holiday! It's all about gratitude, fabulous food, no religion to have an emotional reaction to, and in my family, we listen to "Alice's Restaurant," play a very long complex game of Settler's of Catan (the best board game ever made, a brilliant and totally fun game from Germany). For the bah-hum-bug in me about X-giving commemorating the slaughter of the Native Americans, I read or listen to Sarah Vowell's stories about her own family coming from Oklahoma to New York City to share the holiday ("Pilgrim's Progress" is the story I love), and her stories about the first Thanksgiving. Check her out; She's a brilliant quirky historical comedian, a thoroughly unique blend. Hearing her voice directly is quite amusing. Click here to listen to clips of her reading her own stories ("Trail of Tears" is the story on this link) from one of my favorite radio shows, This American Life.

Gratitude is proven to be good for your health. For you physiology fans like me, it increases heart rate variability, a very good thing to do. Find something, anything, for which to be grateful and celebrate Thanksgiving with me this weekend. If I could hand it to you on a prescription pad, I would write, "Do this as often as needed. Unlimited refills."