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Posts Tagged ‘mental-health’

This is the Certificate of Merit that the hospital gave to patients upon finishing radiation:

The crude diploma impressed me that the doctors recognized our need for a proper pat on the back and something tangible to hold on to by way of closure. I wanted closure anyway. After 6 weeks of a work-a-day rhythm that involved visiting a bunch of lovely people whose job descriptions included saving my life, I had a groove in my weekdays. They say it takes 21 days to make a behavior, good or bad, a habit, and I’d been getting my breast blasted for 30. Seems silly, but I missed the routine a little, and so I met one of my radiation buddies for tea.

Marisa (pronounced ma ree sa) and I had struck up a comradery during an unusual delay in the waiting area. Self identified as a “high anxiety” type,  Marisa’s blood pressure spiked when the radiation tech explained the delay was due to equipment malfunctions. She reasoned that faulty equipment might also malfunction on her breast, panicked, and turned to me to talk her down. I was committed to trusting the process, so I probably said so, and, really, I have no idea what I said to soothe her, maybe it was simply that I listened and let her blow off steam. Whatever, she calmed down enough to wait out the delay and stick to her radiation regimen. I remember that I fancied myself her savior that day, but, I wonder now if tending to Marisa was a divine distraction for me. Given some free time, I was just as able to concoct a scary story.

As it happened, we both received our Certificates of Merit with our breasts intact and, so, arranged to celebrate by meeting for tea. As we shared our breast cancer stories over steaming mugs, I learned (what came as no surprise to me) that Marisa and I had very different approaches to our diagnoses. As I wrote at the start of this blog, when the doctor told me to line up a surgeon because the two lumps in my right breast were malignant, a calm washed over me as the still, small, quiet voice within me whispered “this is your walk with God.” Marisa reported that when the doctor told her she had cancer, she screamed. Yet, despite our different temperaments, we had similar approaches. Marisa determined at the start, like me, that it was futile to wallow in  “Why?” or “Why me?” and chose to focus instead on how to heal. And, now at the end of arduous healing journeys, we both shared greatly enhanced appreciations for life as we sipped our herbal teas.

We did not manage to keep in touch, but I have a keepsake from my radiation buddy that I have in a scrapbook right next to my Certificate of Merit. It’s an essay written in 1989 by Anonymous (a terminally ill person) that described how Marisa hoped to be in her post cancer life. It’s entitled I’d Pick More Daisies:

If I had my life to live over, I’d try to make more mistakes next time. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things that I would take seriously. I would be crazier. I would be less hygienic. I would climb more mountains, swim more rivers and watch more sunsets. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would have more active troubles and fewer imaginary ones. You see, I am one of those people that lives life prophylactically and sensibly and sanely, hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I have had my moments, and if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I have been one of those people who never go anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had it to do over again, I would go places and do things and travel lighter than I have. If I had my life to live over, I would start barefooted earlier in the spring and stay that way until fall. I would play hooky more. I wouldn’t make such good grades except by accident. I would ride on more merry-go-rounds. I’d pick more daisies.

Thank you, friend and teacher Marisa, for the reminder as there are new daisy fields to ravage, there are new adventures just around the bend, as this epic healing journey is almost done.

to be cont…. one mo’ time.

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People told me an array of stories as I entered the next phase of treatment most of which featured radiation as a villain that distorted cell structure, fried skin, and enervated the spirit, so I didn’t want to proceed and challenged my doctors’ protocol.

“If the chemo killed all those fast splitting systemic cells, why do I have to have radiation?” I begged.

Their responses didn’t satisfy me. They may have thoroughly explained the scientific or biological or statistical yada yada; but all I heard was a familiar “because I said so, that’s why, kid.” So my inner teenager slammed her bedroom door shut which terrified my inner child and, in turn, sent my fairly healthy inner parent into a tizzy.

As I’ve repeated throughout this blog, I needed to believe in the course of action I was taking in order to feel confident of success. I have not and I do not endorse a particular medical or alternative healing modality. To me, belief is key. I feel that I, and anyone making important choices, need to aline head, heart, and gut/soul; and that the process of alinement or at-one-ment is the way to true healing from this and probably all dis-ease. Which is to say that I wanted my belligerent inner teenager, quivering inner child, and flustered inner parent to reconcile on this matter of radiation.

My inner parent stood outside the locked bedroom door and reasoned with my inner teen, “the doctors must know what they’re talking about: they’re experts, all they do is treat breast cancer, they’ve seen thousands of women, they’ve been doing this for years.”

My inner teen ‘s response was to turn up the volume and shriek “Killing in the Name”.

My inner child clutched her blankey and sucked her thumb.

Inner parent threw up her hands, “Well, we have an appointment to meet the radiation oncologist today and we’re going whether you like it or not.” I told my selves to calm down – breathe – we didn’t need to make a decision today. Just for today, we were merely gathering information.

“Whatever.” The lock on the bedroom door clicked open and inner teenager, tight-lipped and still fuming, took inner child by the hand to the hospital to meet a new doctor.

Dr. Margaret Torrey, the radiation oncologist at Nyack Hospital, a branch of Columbia Presbyterian that is closer to my home, impressed me as very smart and very nice. She was patient with my questions and gave thorough explanations about why she believed radiation would be the optimum course for me, described the process, and the side effects. The primary message I took from that visit was that the road I had traveled thus far – surgeries, tests, chemo – statistically proves to be the most effective, that my care had been superb, and that the prognosis for no recurrence was great. In her educated opinion, radiation would seal that happy fate.

Inner teenager pumped a fist in the air, “YEAH,” inner child’s thumb popped out of her mouth and she jumped for joy, inner parent glowed with pride, and my whole self integrated in that moment. I determined that I would continue along the prescribed medical path. Of course, I intended to customize my experience though.

There was one story among the scary stories told me about radiation that did not have the same negative point of view. This story came from a friend who was grateful for radiation therapy not only for deleting his prostate cancer, but also because he learned how to meditate while undergoing treatment. He said that his Higher Power, whom he chose to call God, forced him to learn how to meditate by having him sit still for twenty minutes at the radiation clinic each day.

My life style had returned to busy as soon as I had recouped my energy after the summer of chemo, so the idea of a mandatory stillness in which I could meditate excited me. I decided to adopt this man’s attitude of gratitude, and to make the most of the two months of 5 blasts a week of radiation.

And, I intended to get creative in order to minimize and even eradicate those potential side effects.

(to be cont.) L.

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In the midst of the cancer treatments during the summer of ’09, friends sent this fabulous audio get well card  that featured Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna kvetching – “I’m depressed, I get wet, my face broke out, I’m nauseous, I’m constipated, my feet swelled, my gums are bleeding, my sinuses are clogged, I’ve heartburn, I’m cranky, and I have gas” – which pretty much summed up how I felt.

The three days of support drugs after each chemo infusion were rugged, and the cumulative effect made the aftermath of the fourth and final infusion much worse. In addition to the complaints listed above, I also had disrupted sleep, headaches, head sweats, an icky metallic taste, a crash-like fatigue and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The PTSD was a surprise. I had expected to feel so grateful and relieved that the worst was behind me, and instead I felt anxious with wormy thoughts like: “What if the chemo didn’t work?”

The very nature of PTSD is that the past haunts the present, and, as is often the case, my fears were fictions about the future. All of my heebie-jeebies were products of my mind zig-zagging through time, thus, to calm myself down, I needed to train my thoughts on the now in which all was safe and all was well regardless of physical discomforts. I needed to breath into my feet, and to be very zen thoughtful in my actions which was easy to do since the chemo made me sloth-like. A wise soul had once told me to “move a muscle, change a thought.” So, every time a squirmy idea surfaced, I got my sloth-like self up off the couch and washed a dish or dialed the phone or did a little Qigong.

A very little Qigong was all I knew, but those few flowing motions connected to conscious breathing and attention to energy were so soothing. Qi (or chi) is Chinese for “vital life force” and gong means to “practice with skill”, and, although I did not feel skillful at Qigong, I believed that I was increasing or enhancing or harnessing my vital life force merely by taking the action and having an intention to access healing energy. It was like giving Reiki to myself, and, I think it’s the same. Reiki, Qi, White Light – healing energy by any other name would be as sweet.

And, contributing to the sweetness of my qigong experience was that my teacher was a darling man from Spain named Nacho. Nacho from Valencia was interning at the peace organization where I work and I liked him instantly because he did not blink an eye when he was introduced to bald me. He may have never considered my physical appearance as he seemed to view people’s essence, but I felt a need to explain; and as soon as I told him that I was bald due to chemo for breast cancer, he insisted that he would teach me qigong. I thought that qigong might entail yoga-like contortions or require marshal arts-like stamina and so I politely refused. Nacho would not take no for an answer though and organized a little class for the entire organization. My colleagues provided peer pressure as well as support, and a lot of laughs. And, as it happened, those few simple moves that Nacho taught us that morning would become immensely helpful for me in those PTSD days after the final infusion.

Another aid for my PChemoSD came in an out-of-the-blue phone call from a friend who had experienced more rigorous chemotherapy on two different occasions that involved different perhaps stronger drugs and longer courses of treatment. This woman with extensive experience confirmed that my fears were natural. When I told her about my anxieties, she told me that she confronted the same what-if-the-chemo-didn’t work fears at the end of both of her rounds; and I exhaled.

I find that “me too” are the two most healing words ever spoken.

In gratitude, L.

ps. I need confess that I am losing steam for Lump Lessons. My intention is to write one more post about radiation, and perhaps an epilogue, and then on to other projects. It has been two and 1/2 years since this blog journey began and it has been an extremely healing endeavor for me. I believe that writing and sharing has been my aftercare. My hope is that there have been a few readers that have had “me too” healing moments along the way.

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