In the mail a few days ago came the report of the results from my recent MRI. Along with the mammogram, the MRI is one of the ways the medical folks keep an eye on me after my cancer treatment. I am more than 3 years past the day I received the breast cancer diagnosis, and 2-and-a-half years past the end of chemotherapy. That’s when the countdown, for me, to that critical 3- and then 5-year mark began.

The MRI may seem like overkill, especially with its added expense and the dogged determination of the medical community to promote mammograms. But it’s necessary for me because the mammogram tends to fail those of us who have dense breast tissue — a factor that is finally starting to show up on lists of risks for breast cancer. Besides the annual mammogram and MRI, I visit my oncologist every 6 months for blood tests and a review of my status. My last 6-month check-up, back in April, showed only some lingering whacked-out red blood cells.

At that time, I had developed a new pain in my right abdomen, one that had hung around for a few weeks, consequently triggering my internal alarm. The pain had passed the 2-week mark I had been coached to observe. And so I followed the oncologist’s suggestion to have an abdominal ultrasound, which fortunately, like the mammogram and MRI, showed nothing wrong. (Cancer, the “gift” that can keep on giving — you just don’t know when.)

Although my body seems to be recovering well, is actually intent on reclaiming its good health, I am still struggling with the mental, emotional,and spiritual recovery. My body has its own mind. The mind itself needs to catch up.

The nurse had already called me to report the MRI results, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to see the full report in print on the page in my hand.  And in that small space of silence after reading the results, when I let out the breath I had been  holding, a tiny thought crept in. A new and, for me, startling thought.

It just might be possible to be cured of this disease.

The body will know when that happens. The mind might never be sure.

A Rite of Passage?

cancer 2011

cancer 2011 (Photo credit: mike r baker)

Take a close look at the photos on the homepage of these two websites:

What do you notice about those young, gorgeous women in the photos you see?

What I noticed is precisely that they are young, and gorgeous.

Off the top of my head, here’s a list of people I know of who have had cancer:

My grandmother, my father, my mother, one aunt, two uncles, two neighbors, four colleagues, two friends of my parents, the wife and the mother of our contractor, the father of one of my students, my sister-in-law’s brother-in-law, two colleagues of my sister, a friend and her father, another friend’s sister, the mother of my daughter’s friend, my physical therapist, and the father of my husband’s colleague.

Oh, and me too.

Twenty-seven people. Ten types of cancer — the predominant ones being breast, colon, and lung, an array that reflects the rank of cancer types in the United States. Some of these people have had more than one type of cancer, and some had a recurrence after many years of remission. Eleven of them have died. Of these 27, a third (including me) were under the age of 50 when they were diagnosed. From the look of those gorgeous women on the websites, cancer is increasingly common among younger adults.

A couple weeks ago, I came across a chilling statement in the People’s Pharmacy column, which is syndicated in many national newspapers. A writer commented, “When I told my doctor that I am reluctant to take Premarin for fear of cancer, she actually said that cancer is no big deal. It is just a way of life now: Get cancer, get treatment, and get over it…”.

So is this what we’ve come to? With no cures in sight for many of these cancers, and so many of us being given this diagnosis, has the experience of cancer become a rite of passage — like puberty or a midlife crisis?

With the ever-increasing numbers of people affected, the challenge is not to “get over” cancer, but find out why we aren’t working as hard to prevent it as we are to cure it. I’d like to start by eliminating the chemical stew our corporations have cooked up for us to eat, drink and breathe.



I Say I Want a Resolution

One year ago, I finished chemotherapy. According to the oncologist, that’s when the countdown (count up?) of survivorship begins. Not with diagnosis. Not with surgery. But the end of chemo. So this has been the first year of my survivorship.

With that year comes a new look

And a new perspective.

I am – like most of us – looking back to make resolutions going forward. I’ve spent the year immersed in healing techniques on this journey toward wellness: colorful stones and other good health charms, massage, Reiki, acupuncture, therapies involving sound and mind, prayer, yoga and many other approaches.

And this is how it all shakes out for me (your mileage may vary):

I don’t know if the stones and charms make any difference, but it’s comforting to have them on hand (or in pocket).

Of the various mind/body therapies, craniosacral, yoga, sound healing, and what little meditation or breath work I’m able to do seem to help most. Through these I’ve recognized the essential importance of working out stress through the body and voice (in singing and chanting, not just talking). Talk therapy is good, but limited, and the body has its own energy that dispels, perhaps more effectively, the tensions of the mind and spirit.

I wouldn’t say my body actually talks to me (though I did hear an internal voice saying “I’m in trouble” shortly before the lump appeared). But I can now read its signals better and identify when it feels clear. The yoga and sound therapy in particular have changed my perspective. I see myself less as a single, solitary being holding on to concerns and events and more a spirit connected to the flow of life.

This change in perspective is difficult to describe, but I think now in terms of letting events and worries flow through me instead of getting stuck in me. It’s that process of “letting go” that we hear about, but for me was only an intellectual concept before.

So that’s looking back.

What resolutions take me forward?

This year, I’m limiting it to one: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness appears in Buddhism as the concept of being in the “ever-present now.” In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle gives this example:

If your current task is to look up a number in the phone book, that is all you give your attention to – looking up that number. It is the only thing you are meant to do, your sole purpose at that time. If you give your full attention to looking up that number, then you are truly alive in that moment.

Strangely, this idea actually appeared in the practical, Midwest American advice my dad used to give me as a child: Pay attention to what you’re doing! (I suspect he might have occasionally said that as a warning, or in exasperation. I was a child, after all.)

Who knew there were Buddhists disguised as accountants in Ohio in the 1960s?

Richard Berger, M.D., at the University of Washington, covered this point in his presentation at a cancer seminar I attended last spring. As he put it, mindfulness is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Good concepts for anyone, not just cancer patients. Mindfulness enables you to feel like you’re living, not just waiting for something to come or watching your life slip away, wondering if it has any meaning.

I “get” the concept, but am not very good at it yet. Too many years of learning to worry and being “proactive,” as they say in the business world. It’s only recently that I’ve really understood that worrying is a waste of time (and an addiction). It’s unavoidable, sure, but you can get the worry under control. And you do that by being mindful.

Nothing frightening happens when you give up the worry and focus on the moment you’re in. When I’m able to do it, I find relief – space, lightness, breath — it goes by many names.

And there, I think, lies the secret of the fountain of youth.

Prolong your life by being present in it.

Be mindful.

A drop of water frozen by flash

Image via Wikipedia