Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Weight of Attachments

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When I was in yoga teacher training, I learned a meditation and visualization technique for overcoming obstacles.  I found it tremendously helpful in helping me to find my teaching voice and to be more confident in my ability to communicate.  I have been using this same practice at each of my chemotherapy sessions to aid me in climbing over the obstacle of my cancer. The technique is nothing complicated, yet I am always amazed at the insights I glean from this simple practice, and I am often surprised at the direction the meditation takes me.

I always have one full uninterrupted hour during chemotherapy when I am getting my Taxol infusion, so I put on some headphones, lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and start with a simple survey of the body, systematically relaxing everything from head down to toes. I then follow my breath, letting it become even and relaxed.

The meditation begins as I visualize a garden gate.  This gate will open only for me. Nobody else is allowed in my garden, and the gate is sealed behind me. I follow the pathways of the garden that lead me to a set of stairs that brings me to the door of a room. Sometimes the stairs go up, sometimes they go down. Again, the door to this room can only be opened with a key that I possess or with the touch of my hand. Most of the time when I do this meditation the room is not very fleshed out. It's usually a little bit like the scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry momentarily dies and is in a very white soft looking version of Kings Cross Station.  There is always a set of french doors in my room that open to the world. At this point, I visualize whatever my obstacle is and hold it in my hands. I then throw the obstacle out the window and watch it fall away.

When I first started doing this meditation at my initial chemotherapy sessions, my cancer manifested itself as a black, gooey, tar-like substance that covered my hands and was so sticky, that there was no way I could simply throw it out the window. I had to enlist the help of a brilliant and cleansing stream of liquid light that helped to take it away and wash my hands clean.

Each week, the visualization of the cancer in my hands has changed. It has become less sticky over time, and just a little easier to release out into the world. This week, however, was different. This week, the cancer was not black or sticky. It was relatively easy to handle, more like a smooth, malleable clay that I formed into small balls. This time I didn't throw them all out the window but I instead put them in a woven basket.  As I placed them in the basket, I had a startling realization.  I knew at that moment, that the real obstacle at this point was not my cancer. There was something else that needed to be released.

I have been, without fully realizing it, mourning the loss of the me that was "before metastatic cancer". I am no longer that person who can just eat or drink something without thinking too much about how it will impact cancer growth.  I am no longer that person who can confidently put age 92 in her retirement planning calculator. I am no longer that person who beat cancer. All the plans I had for that person are now shrouded in uncertainty. I was pretty attached to that person and the plans I had made for her.

I recognized in that moment that I was suffering because of the attachments and the expectations that I had for myself. I had to allow myself to let go of my attachment to those plans, and I had to embrace the idea of simply walking the path each day as it unfolds. I was reminded that none of us is guaranteed a thing. We suffer because we try to hold onto that which has no permanence, that which has no guarantees.

So, I held in my hands the hurt, the pain, and the sorrow of lost expectations, and I rolled them into little heavy balls and put them into my basket. There was the cancer, the sorrow, and the expectations, all nestled in the basket, waiting for me to figure out how to release them out the window. I didn't quite know how to let them go, so I walked to the window and held the basket in my arms, contemplating what to do.

At that moment, an elderly grandmother of sorts came to my window. She was a beautiful old woman with long gray hair framing her face and kind eyes full of wisdom.  She took my basket from me. She gave me a hug, smiled at me and touched my cheek, and then disappeared with my basket in hand. I don't know who she was, or what she represents, but I felt the weight of those attachments disappear. I walked out of my garden feeling the sun shine on me, and a deep peace within me. I even found myself with a little spring in my step all afternoon.

It is entirely possible that I may beat cancer again.  It is entirely possible that I will live to age 92 or beyond. I am still making plans for the future even though I don't have, and have never had, any guarantees. None of us do. But what we do have is today. We do have this moment right here, right now. We do have the sweet ability to breathe in and breathe out. Whatever happens, we can live our lives as well as we possibly can today.  We don't have to be so intent on a destination. We can just travel lightly and enjoy the view on the journey. Maybe we'll arrive at a place that is better than what we had expected.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Climbing Back up the Mountain with Good News

Last week was a difficult week for me. I woke up the day after my chemotherapy treatment feeling much more tired than usual.  I began to experience some severe lower GI issues that lasted multiple days and resulted in me becoming dangerously dehydrated and lacking any real desire to eat. I gradually improved through the week, but I still felt tired every day.  Just getting up the stairs at my office to get to my desk was enough to have me out of breath, and I wondered how on earth I could keep climbing this mountain with so little strength.

I was worried that chemotherapy this week would be all the more challenging if I was starting from several paces back.  My doctor was worried that one of the drugs I'm getting may have been the culprit for my intestinal distress, but the more we discussed it, the more we realized that, perhaps this didn't have anything to do with my treatment. As we talked about when the onset of symptoms started, it dawned on us that we may have made a rookie mistake. Perhaps, the Chinese Buffet where we had lunch at after chemotherapy last week was a very poor choice for an immune compromised person to have lunch. Perhaps that shrimp had been sitting out just a wee bit longer than it should have been.  The lesson has been learned. We will forevermore avoid the Chinese Buffet.

It's truly amazing what IV fluid replacement will do for a person. We added fluids to my treatment regimen this week, and I left chemotherapy yesterday feeling worlds better than when I walked in. In fact, I feel like I'm back to my normal self again. Well, the new normal, anyway.

Truthfully, nothing ever stays normal for long.  If there's one thing we can always count on it's that things are bound to change.  What's normal one day is totally abnormal another day.  For example, I never thought it would be a normal occurrence for me and my husband to own matching superhero socks. But now we have several pairs.

Change can be a very good thing. It's a very good thing when your doctor calls you early on a Friday morning to tell you that your tumor markers have changed again.  It's an extremely good thing when she tells you that they have gone from 408 down to 218.  That's a drop of 640 points from before I started treatment, and I'm only halfway through. We like this kind of change.

Last week at this time, I was feeling like I had fallen down the mountain. This week, I'm feeling strong enough to climb back up towards the top.  Thank you to everyone who keeps throwing me ropes and helping to pull me up. I'll get there as soon as I can.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Halfway There

Today marked something of a milestone for me. I am now halfway done with my weekly Taxol infusions.  I've got six under my belt, and only six more to go.  So far, I've tolerated it very well. I get a little tired on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, but, usually by Sunday evening I've perked back up and am ready for another week.  My white blood cell and red blood cell counts have remained in, or very close, to normal range each week.  If it stays that way, I have high hopes that I can maintain my energy and get through the last half without too much drama.  Treatment will not end at that point, but at least the most toxic drug will be over.

Of course, chemo is not a picnic for me or my family. It's killing healthy cells in my body right and left even as I write this. I anticipate that, by the end of these 12 weeks, I will be experiencing some of the more difficult side effects. I've already lost the hair on my head, for the most part, and I'm OK with just wearing hats, scarves, and wigs. Although I confess that I had forgotten how truly miserable it is to wear a wig, so you won't see me in one much. I am not terribly vexed about being bald other than it's pretty darned cold in Minnesota in February. Much harder is losing eyebrows, and eyelashes.  It's amazing how much they help to keep your eyes clear.  And you really don't realize just how much your nose hair is of benefit to you until you don't have any.

The hair loss is really one of the more minimal side effects. I will also, likely, have tingling in my fingers by the end (neuropathy), and very sensitive fingernail beds.  Taxol, and the Perjeta I get every three weeks are pretty rough on the GI tract as well.  I have lost four pounds since diagnosis, which is pretty noticeable for a person of my small stature.

Still, there are some good things about chemotherapy days.  First, I have some solid evidence with my tumor markers that the treatment is doing what it is supposed to do.  I also feel quite a difference in my lungs and have found that my cough is tremendously diminished.

Another good thing is that one of my premeds is a steroid called Decadron.  There is most definitely a reason why athletes try to cheat and use steroids to enhance performance. They really do provide a tremendous boost of energy. I generally feel great on chemo days because of my nice little packet of Decadron.

But probably the best good thing is that it gives me a little extra time each week with my husband. Just the simple pleasure of being able to have lunch together once a week is a welcome event, and I'm grateful for this as a side benefit of chemo days.

It is hard to be the person going through cancer treatment, but it is just as hard, if not harder, for the person who has to watch someone they love going through it. You wonder what you can do to help, but feel powerless. But perhaps you don't know that your presence is enough. Your expressed concern is enough. Your love is enough.

I am so fortunate to have so many supporters in my life.  While I would never wish cancer on anyone, I would wish for everyone to experience even a small fraction of the love and kindness that I receive daily. Every simple kindness creates a ripple effect that extends out so much farther than we may ever realize. I may never be able to give back as much as I've been given, but I will do my very best to let all the ripples of kindness I have experienced continue to expand their reach.  Clearly, I need to stick around for a long time.  I've got a lot of ripples to make.