People and things…

I feel things so much more deeply these days. I was told this would happen…

One of the first “whoa” moments (yes, it’s a modification of the great O’s “aha” but I can’t just be re-using coined phrases, can I?), came a few days after my diagnosis. Gotta stop here to say that if this is the first of my posts you’ve ever read, that weird little parenthesized aside up there came in much earlier than normal. Not usually first paragraph stuff so I apologize, although you may want to just settle in and get used to it. It’s my voice. What can I say?

Back to business – I want to spend a few posts talking about extraordinary people and things that have made me say “whoa” or “oh my god” or “HO. LEE. SHIT. WOW. OKAY THEN” or even rendered me speechless (rare). All of these things, call them whatever cute little catch phrase you like, are synonymous with my amazement in having the universe just flat out drop things in my lap when I have most needed them. The “things” came in various form: answers, understanding, patience, calm, forgiveness, hope, composure, strength, vulnerability, and love like you wouldn’t believe! These things I’ve been given were made possible by the most amazing gift from a relative stranger that, without question, changed the course of my life.

If I was a director setting the scene, as it was, when this life-changer occurred, it would look something like:

Woman, 47, has just been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and has been basically existing in a state of shock and panic for several days. She hasn’t yet shared the news with family, including her children, but randomly told a trusted colleague and friend, perhaps an effort to practice breaking the news although it is unclear. She is sure she is going to be dead in a year and can barely look her daughter in the eye because it’s too painful to imagine not watching her grow up. It’s pretty bad.

The colleague/friend has shared the woman’s news with his other friend, who is also a highly esteemed oncologist currently on sabbatical. The doctor, not knowing a thing about the woman other than her diagnosis, offers to call her. The friend asks the woman how she feels about that? The woman replies “sure, that’s fine” with little expression. It plays out like this:

And so I was driving, kind of lost. Lost in my thoughts and lost in the confusion of the cancer but also literally lost, as in, I hate my GPS and I’m late and I have no idea how to get back to I-5, lost. I was thinking about being lost, too. About how what I really need now was to navigate through this mess, figuratively, literally, the works. As I am pondering away, my phone rings. It is the doctor, friend of my friend. I had completely spaced the conversation, but found a place to pull over to talk. Honestly, I was thinking it would be about a 5 minute conversation. I doubt he really wanted to be spending his time off (turns out he is also on vacation) talking to cancer patients. I was wrong. Turns out that this man, who has never been my actual doctor, was  about to initiate my healing, over the phone, from Palm Springs.

The first thing he said was that he wasn’t calling to give medical advice, and that because he wasn’t currently practicing, he couldn’t do so anyway. He wanted, rather, to talk about the process I was about to go through. He didn’t use the word journey, which I thoroughly appreciated. He asked me to describe my diagnosis, my family situation, my job, and my life in general. He listened to me go on and on, interjecting only briefly for clarification, until I had, for the first time, shared my story in its entirety. He then spoke to me and, even months later, I can still remember the sensation of my numbness being replaced by something new – hope, maybe? It was electrifying.

He told me that cancer was systemic and that my approach needed to reflect that. Although I would feel overwhelmed by the many doctors and tests and would likely be inclined to look ahead and what is next, I needed to remain in step with whatever tests or treatments were currently being done. All I had been able to think about was whether or not the cancer had spread and to where and how much. He told me that it would be revealed in time and that it was important to stay in the moment. He also told me, as did the radiologist when he unofficially diagnosed the tumor he found, that “cancer is not a death sentence.” A good one to remember.

He also told me that for all the questions and uncertainty that I would encounter in coming weeks and months, there were a couple things I could be certain of.  These “couple of things” ended up being everything – the driving force through which I have been able to manage this crazy ride for the past five months and I am beyond grateful to have them as my guide. Here they are. Seriously, you’re going to want to cut and paste this shit, whether you have cancer or not.

He said (and of course I’m paraphrasing – it’s not like I was writing it down),

“Tracy, there are a couple of things you can be sure will happen.

You are going to experience a lot of twists and turns as you go through this process. You will receive both good news and then you’ll get bad news, repeatedly. It’s just the way it goes. You’ll never know what’s coming next and you shouldn’t waste your energy guessing or worrying. You just need to accept that. The important thing is that you take care of yourself and of your family, and do what you can to facilitate the healing process.”

That was some good stuff, but it got better. The next thing he said is more fundamental to my existence and my relationship to the universe  than I can begin to describe. I have used it to reign myself in when I feel scared by a lump or a cough or a headache. I have drawn on its power when I feel frustrated or impatient or stressed out or when I think I’m too busy writing these posts to sit down with my daughter and talk about middle school girl drama. Most importantly, I use it when I feel like a victim of cancer, or anything else for that matter, and instead, it helps me to feel joy and gratitude for the moments I’ve been given. Again, I paraphrase,

“Lastly, I will tell you this and it is the best news by far. You may not know what the future holds, but know that in the end, you will be better. You will be a better mother, daughter, sister, and friend. And you will be a better person for having experienced cancer. You will be more compassionate, empathetic and grateful and you will help others become better as well. And you know what else? You will love more strongly than ever, and you will hold on tighter to the people who you love in ways that people who haven’t gone through cancer can’t even fathom. I’m sure it’s not the ideal way to achieve this, but it’s going to feel really good.”

This conversation with the doctor – it brought me no closer to knowing whether I would live or not live through cancer. There was no new insight provided that suggested what stage or phase my cancer was in, or whether it was hormone receptor positive or genetic. Months of tests would answer those questions. It was, our conversation, my GPS (one that actually worked) and my salvation. It wasn’t about do I live it was, from then on, about how I would live. It hasn’t all been smooth, and there will always be twists and turns, but it’s good, this living. It’s really, really good.

Note:  I’ve re-gifted this many times, adding my own small pieces here and there. I hope you will, too. 🙂

Love Peace Gratitude 4Life©

I’m not really much of a pink ribbon girl, turns out…

I’m not really down with a lot of the traditional cancer hoopla. Personally, walks for hope and ribbons don’t make me feel better or stronger but rather like a distraction from the purposeful activities intended to reduce my risk of recurrence. Talking with others who have had or have breast cancer, on the other hand, does make me feel good because I want us to help each other stay positive and live life well. So does eating organic food, taking supplements, banning chemicals from my space, reducing stressors and the RSO I  take every night before sleep that makes me dream a little weird but helps to kill any loose cancer cells that may be floating around.

My point is, I don’t think that wearing a ribbon or a pink visor or an I Heart Boobies bracelet has any actual healing properties. It may incite a level of hope but, independent of action, that can be a dangerously ineffective proposition. When you’ve got cancer, pure hope is best left to the poets. Encouraging and empowering as it may seem, pink can’t replace the mindful, targeted actions that can affect positive outcomes. b59e6cf3e70fa491a93743ffd00ff584

I’ve heard it said that ‘the power of positive thinking’ is everything and I totally disagree. You can’t think your way out of cancer or any other health affliction any more than you can think your way to the perfect beach body by June. Fortunately though, things like proper diet, exercise, sleep and meditation will make you healthier and happier. It’s kind of like my Gold’s Gym key fob – totally worthless if I don’t leave the couch. My advice? Don’t rely on a color to get you through what is probably the greatest and most consequential period that you’ve ever gone through. Rather, supplement your swag with, for example, a big handful of kale in your organic smoothie and a walk in the park.