– Lessons I am Learning

November, 2012 – soon after diagnosis of Stage IV breast cancer and prognosis of just weeks to live.

Five years ago, I had Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), which is Stage 0, pre-cancer. Not really even considered cancer to most doctors. But the cells in the mass in my right breast were seen as aggressive and on the verge of turning invasive so the doctors at MD Anderson felt strongly that I needed to have a mastectomy. So I did. They also took 6 lymph nodes in my armpit to determine if any invasive cells had “left the building”. None were found but some cytokeratin was found in those cells. That could be from one of two things… cancer that might turn invasive had exited or, the more likely scenario, they were leftover cells from the numerous biopsies I had had. They said that preventive chemotherapy was available for me. I asked what was the chance that it was invasive cancer and that the chemo was needed. They said about a half of 1%. I said that my research showed that I had at least a 10% chance of getting leukemia or some other type of deadly cancer from the chemo itself. I’m not a math major but it seems that it was 20 times better to not do the preventive chemo. They said if I put it that way, I shouldn’t do the chemo. I thought, “shouldn’t you be putting it that way? I mean, isn’t that kind of your job?”

Well, five years later, this little smart ass is full of invasive breast cancer, so I guess I should have had that preventive chemo. But see, I was so full of my smart and sassy self who had researched all the causes of cancer and the naturopathic ways of preventing and defeating it, without chemo and radiation. Yes, I had played chicken, and had the surgery in the interest of keeping time on my side, but I was so convinced that I could defeat cancer and keep it at bay with what I had learned. 50% of the people on my mother’s side of the family had had cancer, so clearly there was a genetic link. I discovered we had hereditary hemochromatosis, which results in too much iron, which feeds cancer. By giving blood, I could keep the iron levels down and negate the problem.

The naturopathic prevention and cure of cancer revolve around three aspects of your “bioterrain”… toxins, nutrients, and emotions. I completely changed my diet to organic, nutrition-rich, anti-inflammatory, plant-based, cancer-preventative foods and detoxified my body regularly. For five years. Yes, I was guilty of putting occasional toxins in but I felt that my regular detox regimen would take care of the few toxins I cheated on.

The CDC states that 85% of disease is caused by emotions. I did a lot of emotional work. I opened up my mind and heart to dealing with previously unresolved issues. I felt cancer changed me in so many significant ways. I grew so much emotionally, I really felt changed. But this, I believe is where I fell short and I left the door open for cancer to return and ravage me. The last couple of years were very stressful for me and I did not handle the stress well. It’s like I forgot what I learned or I was too lazy or in denial. I started to internalize the stress in a very toxic way. And from where I stand now, fighting for my life, the things that I stressed about are not as important as they seemed at the time.

I’m telling you this because we are all stressing about similar things these days and I want you to think about how you are handling the stress in your life and how you can handle it in a healthier fashion than I did. I need to think long and hard about how to really internalize and incorporate deep-seated emotional changes into my life if I want to survive this.

The world seems to be going through so many changes right now. Most of them are difficult but so many of us feel that maybe we are heading for a deeper crisis from which a new world order can emerge because our current priorities and lifestyles are not sustainable. It all seems to center on selfishness and greed. The collapse of our personal wealth was caused by people who got too greedy. The demise of our ecosystems, our weather, our planet, our home, is being caused by our individual unwillingness to have less than our neighbors or what we had yesterday. A timely example of the madness… today is Black Friday, where people trample each other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.

There are very few of us that have not been affected by the economic downturn. It has lasted longer and been worse than any of us were prepared for. We’d like to think that we are bumping along the bottom now and that things will be improving soon but it could just as easily go the other way. The situation has changed the behavior of the average person you deal with. In my case, I pay my bills by providing housing to people and I seem to have landed on the bottom of the food chain. When people don’t have money, it seems the landlord is the last to get paid. After 20 years of being a landlord, I found myself in the position of being owed $20,000 and, for the first time, had to evict two parties and take another 3 to court. I felt I had no choice, people were not taking responsibility for their own lives and it was all landing on me. With every action, I tried to do the right thing and handle everything with heart. But in some cases, people turned absolutely vicious and it took a serious emotional toll on me. I had to borrow $20,000 from the bank at high fees to turn around and pay my mortgages or risk losing everything I’d worked my entire life for. That doesn’t necessarily make me greedy. But the stress and worry from my attachment to material possessions created a toxic bioterrain where cancer gained control. Would I trade it all now to be cancer-free and not facing my own mortality?

Five years ago, I emerged from cancer with the commitment that I had to be less responsible for other people’s happiness. That included a dozen tenants. I put one of my properties up for sale… 2 months before the market crashed. I kept lowering the price too late, chasing the plunging market. It is now worth less than half of what it was 5 years ago. So many people have lost more. I’m one of the lucky ones. But I have clung, for too long, to the unrealistic expectation that I must not go backwards… that preserving my material worth is necessary for the survival for myself and my son. As a single mom who worked very hard for every scrap of it, I suppose I can be forgiven. But, if I am lucky enough to survive this cancer, it will be because I can get myself to a place where I can truly let go, cut my losses, be free of the chains of financial attachment and stress, and focus on what’s truly important…. love and light.

I’m also guilty of having wanted too much for my son in other ways and that created deadly stress levels as well. I am guilty of overmothering my son. I have been unable to separate myself from his own personal challenges and let him figure things out more independently and on his own. I knew that on some level and that’s why his Amazon survival semester has been so important, to both of us. Also imperative for my survival, and his, is that I accept and embrace who comes out of the jungle next week. Our roles will be reversed. He will be taking care of me. And this little control freak needs to surrender wholeheartedly to that.

And I need to meditate everyday on how lucky I am to have him and all of my loved ones. And that every day is a gift, no matter how it’s wrapped. I love and appreciate every one for what they have given me in my life.

I walk the path of the warrior. I do not accept that I will die from cancer anytime soon. It doesn’t matter what others tell me. I have my own truth which I must live. Or I will die. Spontaneous healing happens. Miracles in medicine are being discovered everyday. We each must find our own path. But it is clear that we must not give up. Or is it?

I am fighting the good fight. I am cleansing my body of toxins and providing it with nutrients and anti-cancer remedies, both naturopathic and toxic modern medicine. I am exploring my emotional landscape now as my primary unexploited weapon. And I become increasingly less comfortable with the metaphors of war.

I do believe that my inappropriate handling of emotional stress contributed to cancer returning and ravaging me. I think that my innate tendency to control my world is part of that stress. I think about acceptance and grace and surrender and how to incorporate that seemingly opposite concept into my fight. It’s like the Buddhist paradox… in order to achieve enlightenment, one must give up all goals. Yet achieving enlightenment is a goal in itself and requires commitment to that goal.

So, how do I eliminate stress and my control-freak tendencies that feed cancer while being determined to rewrite my own destiny by kicking cancer’s ass? How do I incorporate grace and acceptance that my path may not lead to survival and achieve serenity from that surrender into my fight for survival?

Thoughts and emotions are part of the physical landscape and they are crucial to the healing process. I’ve tried to get tough with my cancer. I’ve tried to direct anger towards it. But it feels wrong. Anger is a toxic, negative emotion. Cancer feeds on negativity and toxicity. And, frankly, I am grateful to cancer for what it is teaching me… again.

Five years ago, I focused on kicking cancer’s butt. I felt alive. I took care of my body. I made sure everybody knew that I loved them. I focused on beauty. I focused on sending love to my breast. I knew she was scared because whenever anyone mentioned mastectomy, she throbbed with pain. I assured her that we were a family and that no one was going to break us up. I dreamt that my breasts talked to each other while I slept…. sister to sister. I wrote my breast a letter…

“Dear Boobalicious, I love you. I’m sorry you are hurt. You are not alone in your fight. You are still beautiful. You will grow new cells that are healthy. The old, broken cells will die and pass through and away from us. Be strong in who you are and know that you are loved and will endure. Nobody’s taking you away from me, we will grow old together. Your sister will give you strength and help you heal.”

I wrote my cancer a letter and proposed a deal…“I know why you came and I thank you. You are no longer needed and your purpose no longer exists. I now appreciate life and love, thanks to you. Your time is over. You can live out your natural life. There will be no more violence unless you violate this treaty by continuing to multiply. Multiplying hurts me, it hurts my breast, it hurts you. It will not be tolerated. Go in peace.”

I thought about giving up, leaving it to the Fates, the doctors, God… anyone, as long as I didn’t have to take responsibility anymore. It was bigger than me. But I thought, if I give up, then life has no meaning… it has all happened for nothing. I’ve always envied those with a sense of purpose, those whose destiny is clear. This, apparently, was my destiny, and I needed to rise to the occasion. I decided that my strength was greater than my fear and that my strength would heal me.

But I had that mastectomy. And that cancer didn’t go away. Now, 5 years later, I have Stage IV cancer that the doctors say will kill me. I look for answers, all day every day. What if the only answer is that there is no answer? That this just happened because life’s a bitch… and then you die? What if my legacy is not to teach people how to fight? What it if is to teach people how to surrender to and die with grace?

Naaaaahhhh! Sorry, but it makes me giggle. I really do need to embrace and incorporate grace. But who I am is a fighter that makes life on my own terms. I must fight stronger and harder than I did five years ago. I am not ready to surrender. I have served cancer an eviction notice as an ironic swipe at my landlord stress over the last year. I will do everything in my power to get it out and try to keep it from coming back. I will continue to be tough and committed and I will not yet entertain the notion that I might not prevail.

And I will meditate on grace and love and beauty and light and use them to vanquish my foe in ways I didn’t understand then.

I will walk the path of the graceful warrior.


Update note: In May, 2016, I celebrated two years of being NED (No Evidence of Disease). : )



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