Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Whole Enchilada, The Whole Megilla, Or Whatever You Want To Call The Whole Story

(This is a big entry. They will generally be much shorter, so please don't feel overwhelmed like I do with my growing stack of unread New Yorkers. My fellow New Yorker readers know exactly what I mean.)

Many of you are curious about the details of what has presented itself to me, so here is a summary of how things have unfolded:

On August 14th, 2009 I came home from work feeling particularly hunched over. Steve and I were going out to see Julie and Julia (one of the most delightful films ever made) and I wanted to spend the few spare minutes I had moving, stretching, and arching backwards. This is something I do many times a day and is part of every longer "workout" I do, but this time I thought I had done too much without a sufficient warm-up. Part way through the film my chest began to ache. I assumed I had strained a rib or a pectoral muscle, but I was mistaken. It was just a coincidence that it began to hurt that evening.

The pain has gotten increasingly worse, and I can no longer work, or even lift my favorite mug when it's full. I apologize to all of you who asked how I was doing during these past 12 weeks, because I lied. Every few days my ache got worse, and eventually morphed into a constant searing pain that wrapped around to my upper back, creating that feeling of a burning spear embedded between my shoulder blades. After 9 weeks of doing everything I know how to do, taking every herbal and natural remedy, having Steve treat me, going for acupuncture, I began needing anti-inflammatories to get through my day. I crossed the line between positive thinking (oh, it will go away soon) and denial. I knew it was time for a work-up.

In the past 2 weeks I have had almoat every medical test you can think of. The good news is that they haven't found anything; the bad news is that they haven't found anything. That's why I agreed to have my sternal tumor biopsied. Next week there will be a result, and I have a few more tests you couldn't think of because you have probably never heard of them.

There is an answer, we just don't know it yet. I can live in the mystery and dive deeply into what this means about life, as long as I don't have to show up at work, pretend everything is okay, and take care of others. I need to stay home (yes, we canceled our European teaching trip) and focus on caring for myself. After 23 years in practice without more than 2 weeks off at a time, I think I have some "sick days" coming.

My friends, family, and all of you who have so graciously offered support have been incredibly generous and helpful. I've had dinner delivered after a day of CT scanning, lots of jokes and cartoons emailed, a variety of other lovely comfort items, and an emergency pick-up ride from Dominican after my biopsy yesterday, so that Steve could finish working and know I was being cared for while he finished seeing patients.

Many of you have asked for my permission for you to say prayers on my behalf, or observe some ritual that is part of your faith or spiritual path. To me, all religions and spiritual paths are "containers" for same thing. I generally welcome any thought, prayer, or ritual, as long as it doesn't involve animal or human sacrifice!

Many of you have thanked me for my sense of humor about all of this, and marveled at my ability to joke about anything right now. I experience my emotions like weather; they can at any point in time be judged as "good" or "bad." They keep changing. One minute I'm sad and frightened, the next I'm excited about getting to stay home and write another book. My friend Carole calls this "the life force coming through, and being stronger than the disease."

I am neither positive or negative about my future. I am not helped by imagery of "putting up a good fight" or "beating the odds." I don't expect life to be fair; it isn't. Just because I give a lot of love and caring doesn't guarantee I'll have a cure in return. There is no cosmic score keeping. All I can do is meet the moment and do the best that I can to care for myself. I certainly have the tools and resources and support. One moment I am crying and the next moment brings laughter. Crying too hard hurts my sternum (as does burping, sneezing, coughing, and clearing my throat) so I have to cry without too much chest heaving.

I haven't gotten angry (yet,) but anger is not my most easily accessed emotion. I don't have to like what's happening to accept it and find a way to adapt my life. I don't blame myself. I believe we all breathe the same polluted air (though less of it here in Santa Cruz,) drink the same tainted water, get exposed to pesticides, plastics, and a variety of other carcinogens. For some unknown reason, I have not been able to process whatever caused my system to become "incoherent" and allow this to grow out of control.

My mother died of ovarian cancer at 53, the same age I am now. Hmm... Her mother died of pancreatic cancer. Her father died of colon cancer. Her sister died at 47 of lung cancer. My mother's sister's daughter (my cousin) died of breast cancer at 32. My father's father died of breast cancer. One of my father's sisters died of breast cancer. I am caught in some ancestral glitch, but I believe we can break the patterns we carry from our biological families, even if they are measurable on genetic testing. We all carry genes that can either remain dormant and never express their cancer-causing potential, or they can get activated. If there's an "on/off" switch I'll find it!

If there is a moral to the story told in Julie and Julia, it had something to do with love and the profound dedication to the expression of what brings pleasure in life. Julia Child and her husband Paul both lived into their 90s, regardless of how much butter they ate. My life has similar ingredients: more olive oil than butter, but plenty of love, happiness,  gratitude, and multiple outlets for creative expression. I hope I get a chance to live as long as the Childs to express it all.