The Other Side

Now that I’ve passed the ten-year mark for ending up on the right side of the dirt in spite of a terminal cancer diagnosis, it’s easier to see the positive things that came out of it – especially since the “terminal” part of my diagnosis turned out to be mistaken.  Still, the cancer part was real enough and I went through the experience being treated as a goner, based on my doctors’ prognoses.  S**t, as they say, got real – and it got real right quick.

 

As it happens, I get complimented on being real and I take a bit of pride in that because I didn’t always get a lot of reinforcement for being myself when I was young.  It appears, however, that I simply can’t help it.  And, happily, getting real when you’re facing cancer – and death – may be the single best ability you can have.  Another thing I had going for me is a trust in the wisdom of life, in spite of having maintained the outrageously contradictory smoking addiction to which I had succumbed in my youth.  I had to get real about my responsibility to my own health, illnesses and – finally – my own death. While I was going through it, though, there were a lot of things I know now that I wish I’d known in the beginning.  With hope that these things will be helpful to someone in the middle of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, here are:

 

The Top Ten Things I Learned About Being a Cancer Patient

 

  1. You need to partner with someone to deal with cancer because one set of ears isn’t enough to hear everything the doctors are telling you. Call Gilda’s House or another advocacy support organization if you need to.  Then, learn all you can to educate yourself and your advocate on how to look out for you every minute before surgery and every minute after surgery until you’re out of the hospital.
  2. Some doctors will respect your right and ability to learn as much as you can about your cancer and its treatment and communicate with you accordingly.  Some will be astoundingly oblivious to you as a thinking, feeling person.  If they have the expertise you need, just remember that their considerable expertise may be the very thing that blunts their emotional intelligence.1
  3. It will break your heart to hear this – but you can’t rely on all doctors to put your best interests before theirs.  Some of them will provide outdated, unnecessary, or incorrect treatment because it’s what will profit – or be easy for – them, not you.2
  4. This is putting it too bluntly, but people want to be able to find a reason to blame your cancer on you, your actions, your environment, or your genes – because it makes them feel safer.  If you’re a smoker, you’ve made it real easy to do.  But, remember that true compassion doesn’t judge.3   
  5. If you’re a smoker, some people (even doctors) will rub it in, not realizing that we smokers with cancer are excruciatingly aware it’s our own fault.  Still, it’s never too late to quit smoking and, if you do, you stand a better chance of living – or a better chance of dying with dignity.  And it’s going to go one way or the other.
  6. The Internet is a blessing beyond price in educating yourself and connecting with others who have experience with your cancer.  If you’re as fortunate as I was, you will find that it’s possible to deeply love people you’ve never even met.
  7. Some people will think they know what’s best for you and will insist on doing things that are unwelcome or even downright stressful. Be grateful for their intention but trust your heart.  If it’s not something you want – and it really matters to you – now is the time to claim your power.  Seriously, if not now, when?
  8. When people start to call you after your diagnosis, accept sincerely caring and supportive calls from those who love you as the blessings that they are.  And, do your best to be polite to callers who speak to you in hushed, mournful tones as if you’re already laid out at the mortuary, and get off the phone as quickly as possible.  They’ve done their duty at that point and probably won’t be calling back.
  9. People will tell you that having a positive attitude or sufficient faith are the main keys to surviving cancer.  There’s no doubt both are important but, think about it.  If that were all there is to it, there would be a whole lot more dead mean, faithless people.
  10. Prepare to be surprised at what you can get real about once you finally have to. You’ll be surprised by who brings you comfort.  You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about your cancer and current treatment options in a short time – perhaps more than some of your doctors.  You’ll be surprised by how much love and compassion people can have.  You may be surprised at how much passing through your dwindling days can distill gratitude for your life into its very essence.

 

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Footnotes:

 

1.  OMG – there were so many examples of doctors’ insensitivity that, as stunning as they were at the time, finally became funny (and, perhaps, what I perceived as stunning insensitivity on their part was actually their version of getting real).  The first doc told me how hopelessly agonizing my death from cancer, in 6-18 months, was going to be and then told me to get a flu shot.  Yeah, like dying from the flu didn’t sound like a far better option at that point.  Another doc (head of the university oncology department) immediately told me I had not just the one metastasis (which turned out, after surgery, to have been benign) in my lungs but five (reducing my five-year-survival chances from 20% to 0%).  That doc then sent me on my way to the next doc for a bone scan to see if they could find more mets.  And then, that doc told me, yes, they’d found metastatic cancer in my rib cage (which turned out to have been a false positive).  At this point, I finally broke down and cried (but, I’m proud to say, only a little) at which point he asked, “What’s the matter?”  Like, godamighty, man – did you not hear what you just said?  I sure did.  And, finally, adding outrageous paternalism to the mix, the laparoscopic surgeon who told me during his consult not to worry my pretty little head about the surgery; he’d have me back on the beach in a bikini in no time.  Like I was EVER a candidate for sporting a bikini or that being bikini-worthy was my motivation in pursuing non-disfiguring surgery that wouldn’t leave me with a bulge on my side that I would brush with my arm with every step I took for the rest of my life (however short it might be).  I know all of that sounds like I’m just carping but my point is this:  get real clear that some of what docs “know” may be a very well educated guess – but it’s still just a guess.  

 

2.  There were many examples of doctors putting their interests above mine.  First, the internist who first diagnosed me with terminal kidney cancer referred me to an oncologist, from whose practice I later surmised, he benefitted financially (and I suspect this is common).  The oncologist, in turn, referred me to a urologic surgeon to whom, as I later discovered, he was related by marriage.  The urologic surgeon provided the best evidence that not one of them was – foremost – looking out for my best interest.  Since I was facing kidney removal as part of my treatment, I had read all about nephrectomy before my visit with the urologic surgeon.  Let’s just say that the traditional procedure for kidney removal severs tissue, from the navel all the way around to the spine, in a way that can be most succinctly described as “the magician’s accident” that might occur just after he says, “Watch me saw this lady in half.”  However, a newer and far less invasive method, laparoscopic nephrectomy, had been in use for several years and was available in the area.  When I asked this particular surgeon about having this kind of surgery, he said, “Why should I have to work through keyholes?”  Clearly, not to spare me from ending up with a permanently protruding bulge that results from traditional nephrectomy.  God forbid he would have to inconvenience himself by staying current in his field and learning to perform procedures in a way that produce far less disfigurement.  Again, I’m not trying to complain but rather explain how real I had to get when thinking about recommendations based on how much it would profit the people making them. 

 

3.  Yes, smokers are second-class cancer patients.  Have you ever seen a fundraising event being held for a lung cancer patient that doesn’t include the phrase, “non-smoker?”  I never have –and can’t image a jar in the minute mart with a sign that that says “Lifelong smoker with cancer needs your help – please donate.”  In fact, if you ever see a fundraiser for someone with lung cancer, it will emphasize that the person is a non-smoker.  It’s hard for people who’ve never been personally touched by a tendency toward addiction or compulsion to understand that not everyone can overcome their tendency toward addiction.  Please pray that you will be able to have strength and compassion – for yourself or for others – to give or to receive, as needed.

 

It is my prayer that anyone reading this who is experiencing a cancer diagnosis also discovers deep reservoirs of strength filled with the help of old friends, special family, compassionate doctors, attentive nurses, and the people you find through the Internet, going through what you’re going through, who become best friends you’ve never met. 

 

 

 

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Compassion Courts

Today, as I’ve traveled along the path of gratitude on my way to the Happy LIFE, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am that I’ve never succumbed to addiction in a way that landed me in jail.  If you could be convicted for being overweight as proof positive of a food addiction, I’d be in the slammer for sure.  How lucky am I that my circumstances never put me at sufficient risk to discover that a substance other than food (or cigarettes, back in the day) has the same nearly irrepressible sway over my better judgment?  And, I really do think the difference between me and many of the people who find themselves on the skids comes down to the luck of the draw, mainly in the form of being born to parents who were fortunate and functional enough to provide decent nutrition, appropriate clothing, a stable home along with a focus on education, hard work, common decency, love and affection.  All of those things also likely came together to provide me with robust physical health and at least a semblance of mental health. 

My generation was lucky, too, at least when it came to the relative danger of the illegal “drugs du jour” and I can’t help but be grateful for that as well.  Back then, the drug scourge consisted primarily of marijuana, powder cocaine, heroin, LSD and a few pharmaceuticals.  As much devastation as that era of street drugs caused compared to the 21st century’s underground pharmacopeia, today’s law enforcement, penal and social systems might consider those the “good ol’ days.”  An old friend, who is an addiction counselor, told me years ago that he thought cocaine had the most destructive power when it came ripping someone’s potential apart – until crack came along with an exponential increase in its ability to tear up lives.  Then, along came meth, which upped the ante and raised crack by another factor of ten.  My generation may have faced a barrage of potential addictions that were largely unknown and unfathomable to our parents but this generation is faced with addictions of mass destruction that are largely unknown to us.

Between addiction and mental illness, I learned today, we have the root cause of the incarceration of 60% of women, and 30% of men, in our state’s jails.   However, slowly but surely, “drug courts” are being established to prevent our jails from being filled with the addicted and mentally ill at the expense of our ability to incarcerate violent criminals.  Cutting to the chase, our judicial and social agencies are working collaboratively to help non-violent offenders who are able and willing to help themselves – but only those who request access to the services it provides after they’ve served their sentences.  Violent criminals, no matter what their mental health or addiction issues, need not apply.

These drug courts provide the support to get addicts off illicit drugs and get the mentally ill on licit ones.  As strongly as I believe we, as a society, are over (and often unnecessarily) medicating heartache (and a host of other temporary, adaptive responses), I believe just as strongly that some people have chemical imbalances in their neurochemistry and need to be and stay on some high-powered psychoactive meds.  The alternative is for them to be in and out of jail, eventually losing their ability to secure either work or housing, at which point they end up back in jail where they are more expensive to house than if they were out in the world, living in subsidized housing and working as productively as possible.

So, today, I’m grateful to live in a time and place where our community leaders are working to find a more compassionate – and cost effective – way to support people who find themselves where, but for the grace of God (and lack of exposure), might have gone I (or you).  If the butterfly had flapped its wings differently, who’s to say I (or you) wouldn’t have ended up trying to keep body and soul (and an addiction) together by committing crimes like shop lifting, writing bad checks, theft and so on – all the things that people who are living on the edge might do to keep from falling over.

I greatly admire the people who’ve found their way back after falling over the edge.  And I’m very grateful to the people who’ve shown the compassion to help them do it.

Opening

The universe is trying to tell me a lot of things but I’m a little “hard of listening” even (or maybe especially) when the message is self-affirming.  Lately, what the universe is apparently trying to help me hear, using several really lovely and admirable people as messengers, is that I’m beautiful, inspiring and even admirable.  I started to tear up a little as soon as I wrote that, especially at the thought of writing it as part of a blog entry, which I typically then post publicly.  And that last thought – sharing this publicly – made me start to feel a little nauseated with fear.  If fear is a signpost, here’s my sign, right?

I’m also doing my best to let the messages sink in and really believe them.  And, you know why?  It’s because of the Happy LIFE – and the awareness it’s creating in me.

Marianne Williamson said, in essence, that our greatest fear is how brilliant the light we’re not allowing to shine through us might be.  If that’s so (and it sure has a powerful and frightening ring to it), then I guess fear uses denial to prevent us from believing we even have a light.  

Is it possible that I might overcome whatever deep-rooted compunction it is I have that makes me feel – so wrong – for believing (and certainly for saying) such a thing as “I’m beautiful?”  Coaching psychology would describe that “anti-who-I-am” compunction as the “Inner Critic” or “Saboteur” (a concept touched on in an earlier post).  In shorthand, it’s the voice that I still hear ringing in my ears, saying, “Don’t wear out your welcome,” or “Don’t get too big for your britches.”  Did I mention I grew up in the South?  Shocking when you hear such urbane and sophisticated phrasing, I know. 

What I’m noticing, though, is that the people who tend to be happiest – or at least more satisfied and functional in their lives – are the ones who are the most open.  They’re not rigid in their judgments or in their ideologies.  Sure, they have strong convictions and maintain integrity in their relationships but they also are open to possibilities instead of being focused on problems.  Note the key word there is “open.”  It’s really the positivity factor again.  It’s starting to look as if people who have learned (or are blessed) to see and linger over the positive things in their lives are the happiest.  Or, at the very least, they’re the ones who are the most enriching to be around.

These are the people whose openness has made them compassionate toward themselves and toward others.  They’re the people who choose to be comfortable with and grateful for their blessings without having to criticize others for their misfortunes (or even their poor choices).  They’re the ones who know what’s right for them but don’t insist that makes it right for everyone else.  They’re the ones who choose to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and truly know that, if not for the grace of God, they’d be wearing the very same shoes without the luxury of being able to take them off.  They know that, given the very same personality with the very same background and the very same experiences, they’d be in the very same position, even if that position were death row for an unspeakable crime.  They’re the people who know that freedom of choice is hard to exercise within the confines of low expectations. 

All of this is to say, open up.  That’s how your light finds its way out.

Ongoing Creation

Bear with me a minute.  This one’s going to take a circuitous path to the Positively Happy part.

 I saw a man today who made me think of serial killers or child molesters – or maybe someone just very, very introverted.  Broken, somehow.  And, yes, creepy.

 He walked with an oddly stiff posture, rigidly upright and yet somehow slinking.  His face was frozen almost straight ahead yet turned ever so slightly away, which exaggerated even further his  completely averted eyes.  This was a man whose facial expression screamed “No eye contact! Don’t look at me!”  As he came closer, I couldn’t help but take in the oddness of his square, shiny bald head over which he had combed a scant few strands of hair which, most oddly of all, he appeared to have dyed a fairly bright shade of red.  His attire, while in and of itself was not odd (he wore a short-sleeved, white dress-type shirt, gray slacks, which he had cinched tight, geek-style, with a belt and what we used to call “hard shoes”), it was certainly out of place on a beautiful Spring Saturday morning on a wooded walking trail.

 So much did I get a creepy feeling that, because we were outdoors doing a little volunteer maintenance on the trails, I called out for my friend, J., who was out of sight, checking on another part of the trail.  I didn’t think we’d been out of one another’s sight long enough for anything to happen to her, but I sure felt like I’d better make sure. 

 She was fine, thank God; it’s not that kind of story.

 Still, though, because I am curious by nature I find myself drawn, hours later, to the sense of creepiness I felt – and how I just can’t help but wonder what kind of depravity he might do, have done or have been contemplating and planning in those woods that would account for the high creep factor he exuded.

 But then, and only with a bit of conscious effort, I manage to eke out a bit of compassion and a little more curiosity.  What else could explain his creepily odd behavior?  Perhaps he was just a lonely man who had from childhood been bullied and cowed into complete avoidance of other people and he was just hoping to get away to a quiet place in nature, away from all the people who treat him like he’s creepy.  Perhaps he’s never had a friend in his whole life or perhaps he’s just lost his only friend, the only other person on the planet quirky enough or loving enough to be his friend and he is suddenly utterly alone on a world that has been very unkind to him. 

It’s a struggle, I think, to know the difference between intuition and what is simply a bias against anything unusual.   We have only recently, given the entire course of our ongoing creation, exploded into consciousness.  By ongoing creation, I mean to convey a concept similar to evolution but different enough that it includes the idea that God was the creator who set it all in motion, unless you believe that Genesis is referring to literal twenty-four-hour days in which case, um, no.  We’re probably not going to be able to connect on the rest of this. 

Anyway, we don’t seem to be that good at tolerating differences much less fully exploring and then embracing them.  Perhaps we humans are evolved enough – but only just barely – to be able to tolerate the occasional mutation, the very odd duck.  After all, most social animals insist on conformity.  By way of illustration, we had a Golden Retriever who was prone to occasional seizures during which the two other Retrievers would attack her.  It was clear they were startled and, not to over-anthropomorphize, taken aback by her sudden change in behavior, by her sudden and very marked difference from the behavioral norm.  Most animals that look a lot like one another and hang out together in packs or flocks will attack another one of their own that is different in some marked way.  I suspect the idea of treating a perfectly legitimate child as a “redheaded stepchild” describes exactly the treatment many poor recessive redheads received when they happened to pop up out of a long line of dominant brunettes. 

Back to the creepy guy:  Maybe he was OK and in no way a deserving of the judgmental feelings I had about him.  But – what about intuition?  What about that “still small voice”?  That sense that is telling us that something is or isn’t right.  How do we learn to listen to   – and act on – what the angel on our shoulder is telling us? 

Perhaps quiet solitude and inward reflection – getting perfectly still – helps us be better able to hear that still small voice.  Perhaps prayer is a better way to describe meditation that focuses on the scriptural word of God.  Either way, whichever practice you follow, isn’t directing our thoughts in a way that relieves us of petty irritations and grudges, to focus us on physical, emotional and spiritual healing better than the alternatives of rumination and obsession with our wounds and weaknesses?  Without doubt, we can’t avoid or gloss over our suffering – especially the self-inflicted kind.  We have to face it to discover the depth of understanding it has to offer us.

 The only thing I’m pretty sure about is this:  If the earth and the sun, the moon and the stars, and the universe and everything in it are all part of an ongoing creation that is renewing itself every moment, then I have to also assume that each of us is an ongoing creation, too.  Each of us is responding and adapting to the course of our lives, capable of learning, growing and changing, if needed, to make the best of the talents we’ve been given.

I say all of this to say that I’m puzzled and sad at the reactions some people – and thankfully, they are very few – who have expressed that meditation is a threat or counter to their religion.  Obviously, it’s not up to me to make that call for anyone else but I’d have to ask if they might consider that, maybe, meditation is not a threat at all; maybe it’s just different and outside their experience.  I’d add that, if it’s not something you’d find benefit in – or if it’s just so different that you think there’s something creepy about it – that’s OK.  Don’t meditate.  It’s not for you. 

 It seems to me that most of the prayers I’ve heard are more about us talking to God, thanking Him for some things and asking him for others.  Meditation can work that way as well; we contemplate what life (or God) has given us and we offer gratitude for it and ask for a sense of good will toward all others with whom we share Creation. 

 Here’s the bottom line:  Meditation and prayer may be mutually exclusive to some but, to me, they’re both God’s way of saying, “Please, be quiet and listen.  I’m speaking to you.”