"Whatever takes us to our edge, to our outer limits, leads us to the heart of life's mystery, and there we find faith."--Sharon Salzberg

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Full Circle

In my end is my beginning.
T.S. Eliot

I struggle with endings of almost any sort, even though I comprehend the Zen teachings that there are no beginnings or endings, just the endless cycle of life expressing itself. Still, writing a blog about cancer needs to stop at some point. In full cycle mode, my last blog went back to the beginning of this cancer journey for me and for all of those caring souls who chose to come along for the ride. What better way to say goodbye to this blog than to go back to where it started with the observation of Sheldon Kopp, "Here I am again, wasn’t I?”

The problem with time is that past and future can easily become a playground for the mind where it seesaws between "what ifs?" and "what's next?". I have learned through experience that when turned loose onto such a playground, my mind usually trips and falls, scraping knees, hands, and sometimes head. Meditation and mindfulness techniques have helped me to soften the blows and to contain my hyperactive mind that sees nothing wrong with running into the street without looking both ways or hanging from the monkey bars until all blood leaves the lower extremities.

Faced with cancer, it seemed natural to wander into the past, before the problem was identified, or saunter into the future, when the problem is no more, for relief. The problem is that since past and future are illusions created by mind, no true healing can take place there. If any transformation is to take place, it will only happen in the now.

Seven months ago, I returned home from the hospital and sat with tears in my eyes on the couch with my wife, Kathy. Grateful beyond measure to be home again, I told her that perhaps I would finally overcome my old self and all of its anxieties as a result of this experience. It's only now, with surgery, chemo and radiation therapy, starting a new job, and the death of my father in my wake, that I'm beginning to understand that being a "new" person was never the issue.

These days, I am often amazed at how intact the "old me" still is. Old fears, anxieties, idiosyncrasies, and quirks arise with almost alarming frequency. Rather than approach them with a "what are you still doing here?" attitude, however, I'm trying to face these inner demons in a state of mindful acceptance. I find that they hang around for shorter periods and are not so frightening when my resistance to them is lowered. By turning my awareness to these traits of my old self, I find that there is a new understanding of my true self hidden behind them. In a perfect Zen paradox, the new element is something very old, even timeless. That's what the search has been all about. Or, as T.S. Eliot put it:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Finally, what better way to wrap this up than quoting those two great sages John Lennon and Paul McCartney:

Hello, hello, I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

To the Dogs

So, the dog keeps you in touch with
Being—beyond mind—Being, the innermost core.
Eckhart Tolle

It seems like the right time to write about how all of this got started. Of course, in the interconnected universe, where any event has multiple causes stretching back to creation itself, it would be easy to lose any sense of a story. For brevity’s sake, and in the hopes of making it more entertaining, I will only go as far back as November '09 and the dog that saved my life.

On the weekend after Thanksgiving, I went to Charlotte, North Carolina, to meet up with our son, Justin, to perform a good deed. The deed was a simple one; Kath and I would adopt their 18-month-old Great Dane, Daphne, so that Justin and Jenny would get some peace and quiet in order to focus on raising their 2-year-old daughter, our grandest of all grand daughters, Elizabeth Grace. This act was a no-brainer for Kath and me. We had fallen in love with Daphne the moment we had met her as a little pup (if Great Danes can ever be considered that.) When our son started talking about finding her a new home due to the stress of raising two toddlers, we knew that new home would be ours.

Daphne arrived at a new home that was already populated by one dog named Sage, four cats and four fish. I figured that given her size, she was going to need an outdoor pen to run around in. We had already set up a double kennel in order to allow Sage and her earlier companion, Cody, to spend time outdoors without mauling each other. Since Sage showed little interest in the pen, I decided to expand the two areas into one large pen for Daphne. I spent that Saturday raking up wet leaves (I know!) and moving large pieces of fencing around in order to create a space fit for a Great Dane.

By the time I was finished, my left shoulder and most of my arm were in pain with an intensity I had not experienced before. Similar problems had sent me to a cardiologist, and then to an orthopedist to have my left shoulder examined and scanned. The cortisone shot they had given me had helped immensely. However, on this day, the shot seemed to have lost all effectiveness and I decided that I needed something stronger. I headed to the local Urgent Care center to tell them that my bad shoulder was acting up and to ask if they could kick up the pain meds just a notch.

Most of my time at Urgent Care was uneventful and predictable. Blood pressure was fine; temperature within normal range, range of movement in my pained shoulder was good. The doctor in charge said that he couldn’t tell where the pain was coming from but stated that since I had told him that the sensation was stretching across my chest he wanted to do a chest x-ray. So the routine orders of “Stand here, hold onto this, turn this way,” were issued and, in ever-increasing pain, I waited for the results of the x-ray.

The world changed for me that day when the doctor came back into the room and asked me to lay back down on the examining table. Now, most of what I know about medicine comes from watching M.A.S.H and ER, but I knew that this was not a usual request. As he started poking and prodding various parts of my body, I began to experience the rush of a coming panic attack. My toes became very warm and I felt light headed. Without saying anything, the doctor left the room and the nurse returned and hooked me up to a blood pressure monitor. My pressure was sky high. When the nurse asked me what was wrong I replied that I was "a little freaked by what the doctor was looking for.” As she left the office, I overheard her confront the doctor saying, “What did you do to him, he was fine when he came in.”

A thousand other things unfolded from that encounter with a doctor who decided to take an x-ray of the one area no one had looked at recently. I often think back to that sunny day raking leaves in order to make a home for the newest member of our family. What would have happened had we decided not to take Daphne into our home? How much longer would I have lived with the shoulder pain, which, not so coincidentally, is now gone post removal of the tumor, before having another shoulder scan and thereby again just missing the growing mass only inches away?

While no one ever said it to me directly, my sense is that had I not seen the doctor on that November day, the tumor may not have been removable through surgery and what was there may not have responded to chemotherapy. I think of this every time I see Daphne running through the house swinging one of my pillows joyfully in her huge mouth, when she chases one of our more timid cats across the living room, and even when she pees on the floor in an obvious statement of “I told you that I needed to go out.” I like thinking that Daphne played a role in saving my life. It helps to replace the often fearful thought that the universe is mean and arbitrary with the faith that it’s actually a truly miraculous place and only our ignorance of its depth makes us afraid.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Instant Messengers

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers:
for thereby some have
entertained angels unawares.
Hebrews 13:2

One of the things thrown off while my body rids itself of all the nasty chemicals it has absorbed over the past few months has been my sleep cycle. Post surgery, I slept like a baby; aided, no doubt, by the pain meds and my body's need to repair itself. During active treatment, sleep came rather easily from sheer exhaustion of what my body was going through. These days, however, I often find myself tossing and turning as mind and body try to readjust to "normal" life.

Being a firm believer in the notion that we cannot make sleep happen, we can only let go of wakefulness, I try not to struggle with these episodes. So, when wakefulness is stuck to me like Velcro, I will usually get out of bed and move into another room and let my mind wander as it will, knowing that it will eventually tire of itself. On one particular night, as I lay staring out our living room windows, the old Buddhist adage "When the student is ready the master will appear" came into my head. The idea is that when the time is right, not before, not after, our teacher, guide, guru, etc. will show up to lead us toward a higher level of consciousness. In the West, we are wired to think of this as always being a person whose wisdom will lead us toward everlasting life. In the East, it is taught that the guru can take any form and his, her, or its sole responsibility is to show us the path back toward our true self, our "inner guru."

As I lay there, legs still feeling like they were ready to run a marathon, mind already in full sprint mode, I thought, "Who is more ready than me, after everything I have been through? Where is my guru? Who is going to lead me out of this darkness? When is the master going to arrive? Why did I eat so many chicken wings? Did I take the garbage out? Which dog is licking my toes?” (My thinking is seldom linear during these moments.)

Suddenly, a question came to mind and it was like a light went on in my head. Or, maybe it was the motion spotlights outside illuminating the nightly visiting deer family hoping to munch on our garden’s latest offering. Whatever the case, I found myself wondering if it was possible that cancer itself was my teacher. Was it possible that while searching for a master, in the guise of a monkish figure come to Zen me out with his quirky insights, I had missed the obvious?

Instantly, the answer came with an equal flash. Nothing in my life has pushed me more toward present moment awareness, what the great masters have referred to as mindfulness, satori, moksha, or the kingdom of heaven, than thoughts about cancer. The moment I was diagnosed I began to shift from reading, thinking, and writing about mindfulness to actively engaging in its practices on a daily basis. Every anxious thought about what might happen next has been an alarm meant to wake me out of the dream of time, of past and future. Cancer has been there since the start like the Zen master’s board that he uses to slap the supposedly meditating student back into the here and now. (They actually do this; with love, of course.)

By no means am I suggesting that as I lay there that night I had become the Buddha--the awakened one. Heck, I didn’t even get a good night’s sleep, so I was the awake one. I did, however, gain a different perspective on my diagnosis and while I didn’t make friends with it, I did find some respect for what it has brought me in a positive sense. Its message seems clear; if we allow our greatest challenges to do their work, through acceptance not resistance, we just might find that the strangers who show up at our door are truly angels, literally “messengers,” in the ancient Greek text, who we mistook for intruders. The trick is that we have to be present in order to open the door when they knock.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What Now

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it,
move with it, and join the dance.
Alan Watts

I'm now in my third week post-chemotherapy and happy to report that my energy is returning with each passing day. I wish I could say the same for my hair, which has moved into the Chia Pet stage. As a result, I have developed phantom hair syndrome. This is where my hand reflexively moves over my scalp to brush back an imaginary mane. While the current style is perfect for our recent 100 degree days, I'm no longer interested in trying to tan my scalp and I long for the natural cover of my graying hair.

I have also ended my three month "sabbatical" and returned to work. This has been the longest period in my adult life of not reporting to work on a daily basis and I have to say it was a mixed blessing. While I appreciated the ability to rest when necessary, grocery shop during times when it was only me and a few other senior citizens in the store, and plan and cook elaborate dinners for my hard-working wife, the idle time began to wear on my brain. I knew it was time to get back to work when I considered putting together my own world cup soccer team with our pets. It might have worked if it was not for our Great Dane's proclivity toward turning every toy soccer ball into a pile of stuffing.

As Kath and I move beyond the treatment phase, we have developed some new rules. The first rule is that we are no longer allowed to say the word "chemotherapy." Instead we refer to that whole period as the time I was visited by the Dementors, minus all of the Harry Potter wizardry skills. Another rule is that any physical complaint I make, no matter how large or small, must be preceded by the phrase, "I know it's not cancer." A recent example of this was during our trip to Atlanta to see our granddaughter, when I uttered the phrase, "I know it's not cancer, but I've really gotta stop and pee." Another rule is that anytime we find ourselves lamenting over the events of the last year, we have to immediately follow that with a gratitude list of all of the things that have gone our way and the many miracles we have encountered throughout this journey. Finally, we make sure that we routinely review the unbelievable support and love offered by friends, family and strangers and send out healing energy to all.

In addition to the above rules, Kath and I try to make sure we include some form of mindful activity in every day. This will often take the form of a qigong exercise that we find both meditative and uplifting. Other examples include mindful walks with the dogs, formal mediation in our "yoga studio," meditative music before bed, formal yoga sessions, healing bio-energy sessions and, of course, the ever-popular mindful meal with a great glass of wine. All of these serve to break the habitual tendency of the mind to move into the future and the world of "what's next?" This is incredibly important when dealing with cancer or any type of health crisis as the imaginary future extends not only ad infinitum but ad nauseam.

We have also accepted the fact that there is no going back to the "normal" life before the cancer diagnosis. I have only a vague memory of what that was like anyway. (I blame the anesthesia and pain meds for that.) We try to spend as much time in the now as possible and trips down memory lane are mostly about times with friends and family and perhaps some awesome meal shared.

It is with a sense of wonder, awe, and the occasional mini panic attack, that we head into the summer of '10. A summer where I will encounter my first follow up CT scan on July 13th and the epic crossing over to the big 50 on July 25th. But that's another blog.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Soul Survivor

Kathy and me at Relay for Life celebrating the
milestone of the end of chemotherapy

Suffering cracks open the shell of ego,
and then comes a point when
it has served its purpose.
Suffering is necessary until
you realize it is unnecessary.
Eckhart Tolle

I visited a colleague recently, a cancer survivor who works in the field of substance abuse recovery. I sought her advice on how to make the transition from active cancer patient to recovering survivor. My burning question was "How do you resume “normal” life while carrying the fear that the cancer might come back some day and you'll have to do the whole treatment thing over again?”

She told me a story about how she believed she had neatly put away her own fears and anxieties regarding her illness only to have them come rushing back when a friend wrote her a very poignant letter about her view of her recovery from cancer. "I realized that I had simply put my fears in a box and put duct tape around them, thinking the tape would hold. It didn't." She mentioned how she was freaked out when she tried attending a support group. "It was too intense and there was too much anger," she said. This was a shock, coming from someone well trained in 12-Step support groups (you should hear the stuff recovering addicts talk about, it could make Satan gasp). She went on to say how she realized she had to come to an understanding of what had happened on her own terms.

"What about people who say that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them?" I asked, "That seems like a bit of a stretch to me." "That's the mind trying to put it in the box," was her immediate reply. "While I can say I have learned a lot through having cancer, I would gladly have learned those lessons in some other form," she added. "Yeah, it seems that what they really mean was that surviving cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them, I get that," was my reply.

"I wish I could tell you that there is a precise way to drop the fears and go on," she said with more than a hint of empathy. "I will tell you that when I finished my treatment I met with my oncologist and told him that I was tired of worrying about this all of the time so I was giving it to him to worry about. I told him it was his job now, that I was resigning." She said it didn't work completely, but it felt good at the time.

I thanked her as she handed me her business card. It had her cell phone number on it and she told me I could call anytime or stop by again. We hugged and said our goodbyes and I drove on to my appointment at the oncologist's office. Later, reflecting on our conversation, I realized that I had experienced the purest form of therapy: Two people sharing a deeply personal experience and being willing to avoid demonizing or exalting it to try to gain some artificial control over it. It was a true exchange of compassion. That mutual compassion is something that I have experienced repeatedly since my diagnosis. I realized that this might be the best thing to come out of my experience; cancer has been a bridge that has allowed souls to meet on common ground, hearts open.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Good Grief!

He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep pain
that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom to us
by the awful grace of God.

A very good friend, upon learning about the recent death of my father, sent the following text message, "You must feel like Job.” He was, of course, referring to the biblical character who becomes the target of a wager between God and Satan as to how much crap he can take before turning his shaking fist at the heavens and telling God to piss off. Without knowing it, my friend had hit the nail on its already pounded and sore head. I told him that I had just finished reading a book by the author Richard Rohr entitled Job and the Mystery of Suffering because I desperately wanted to know how Job managed to keep the faith.

I trace my own “Jobness” back to that cool November day last year when a routine visit to an Urgent Care center to have my shoulder checked out turned into the nightmare of "There's something on your x-ray that is not supposed to be there." Then it was confirmed that it was a tumor and not a smudge left by a careless radiologist. Not only was it a tumor, it was the kind that needed to come out. Next, the news that it was not the kind that could come out by way of laparoscopic surgery; it would require the Full Monty of thoracic surgery to neatly divide my chest in half. Then the pathology report came back with the news that it was not the benign friendly tumor that stayed encapsulated; it was the not-so-friendly kind that had invaded more borders than Saddam Hussein. Upping the ante was the news that the previous plan for "Just radiation that would be nothing more than a simple sunburn" was now going to be a full on assault of 30 sessions of radiation and 4 weeks of chemotherapy. This regimen was neatly summed up by a consulting oncologist this way, "You're gonna get spanked."

Needless to say, with this in our wake, (in the interest of brevity I left out some of the other lightning bolts sent our way) my wife, Kathy, and I left for Western New York for my father's memorial service feeling that life had become, as Winston Churchill once said of history, "one damn thing after another." I was certain that this final straw, of multiple final straws, would finally snap the ever-thinning thread of sanity I was clinging to and that the journey to my childhood home would be a grief-fest of Biblical proportions.

The problem with grief is that it comes out of nowhere. One day you're laughing and playfully dancing through life's meadow and the next day you're Dancing With the Stars who have been unceremoniously told that they have two left feet and no sense of rhythm.

So it was with great surprise and relief, or grielief,™ that I discovered that even during a Niagara of tears one could find peace. As I sat around telling stories about dad's passions, quirks and talents in the kitchen, I noticed that I was no longer thinking about cancer, chemo, radiation, blood work, or CT scans. Here, among family and friends, I was not a patient, I was brother, uncle, husband, son and friend. I routinely found myself smiling at the sense of calm this brought and silently prayed that there would be more of this in the future (minus the whole grief thing, of course). I was sure that I was experiencing what Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as the “miracle of mindfulness" a sense of well being one gets when totally engaged in the present moment, even if that moment is something the mind would label as upsetting.

Back home, the ups and downs of loving and missing my dad now mix with final chemo appointments, plans to return to work, chasing the dogs around, and all of life's other magic moments. However, I find that mindfulness techniques help me regain the sense of my deeper self by moving me into what Richard Rohr calls Job's "sacred suffering." This comes from no longer seeking the answer to why we suffer and instead allowing our suffering to move us into a closer relationship with the source of all life.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In Loving Memory

This week's blog was going to be about my attempts to make the transition from active cancer patient to recovering cancer survivor. But if the last six months have taught me anything it's to expect the unexpected. My father died suddenly on Tuesday afternoon. While my head is full of thoughts, I'm at a loss for words. So I've turned to Thich Nhat Hanh to express my feelings about this moment in time:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

CheMo' Better Blues

Of course, there are a lot of ways you can treat
the blues, but it will still be the blues.

Count Basie

Monday was supposed to be the first day of my last round of chemo. It was with great anticipation that I sat in the reclining chair awaiting the stick of the needle that would begin this final series. The fact that my chemo nurse, Susan, was not able to find a working vein was an omen of things to come. After the third attempt she whispered, "I already broke my two tries rule so I'm going to have someone else try." As another nurse came over, I dug my fingers into the armrest and awaited the fourth puncture. She hit it on the first attempt. "I love that vein," she said with a hint of pride. However, she had forgotten that she needed to get a blood sample and had to remove the tape that held the IV needle in place, taking with it a good patch of arm hair. "That hurt more than the needle sticks," I only half-joked. Finally, my blood was drawn and I awaited the news of the CBC results.

Before long, Susan returned with an apologetic look. “I'm sorry, that was all for nothing," she said. She handed me the results of the blood test and pointed out that my white blood cell and neutrophils (the most common type of white blood cell comprising about 50-70% of all white blood cells, according to wiseGeek.com) counts were low. This meant there would be no treatment this week and that I would have to come back on Friday for a recheck. (If my counts are up I start on Monday, the 24th, and my last treatment will be on Tuesday, June 1st).

Needless to say, I left the office with a bit of a drag to my step. What would I do with another week of waiting for the end of chemotherapy? It was as if I was a little child running downstairs on Christmas morning to find that Santa was stuck in the chimney and the only thing to do was wait until he shed a few pounds and could slide down to deliver his bag of goodies.

As I sat in the parking lot on that rainy Monday, I anticipated that I was going to be ruminating about this all week. Meditation, qigong, reiki, and even a few cold margaritas would help, but there was no way I was going to, in the words of my personal yoga instructor and friend, Sherry, “dump the grump.” So I did what any self-respecting, soon to be fifty-year-old, does when he has the blues. I wrote a song about it. Like ta hear it? Here it go:

My arms are achin’
My nerves are shakin’
Ain't front page news
Just the chemo' better blues

My counts been droppin’
So the treatment is stoppin’
Ain't nothin’ I'd choose
Just them chemo' better blues

Like a bird that can't fly
Like drugs with no high
Feeling drunk with no booze
Got the chemo' better blues

Fillin’ the verses
With doctors and nurses
It’s no joke, nor no ruse
Just the high flyin’...
catfish fryin’...
I ain't lyin’...
Chemo' better blues

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Seek a sanctuary,
Respect it, as it is holy,
Walk into it with a bare mind, bare feet
and plain clothing,
Nurture your body, mind and spirit
through a healing ritual,
Leave it with a pure heart
until you find your way to it again.
Master Jin Kwon

Wednesday, May 5th, was my final day of radiation therapy. It was the last of 30 sessions, six weeks worth of ritualistically lying down on a cold table while radiation therapists methodically moved my body into just the right position. I would leave each session with my esophagus ablaze, two very distinct freckled red patches, and three little tattoos that were used as markers to align the Star Trek-like machine that sent out a high pitch squeal while delivering the radiation.

My wife, Kathy (also a psychotherapist), and I agreed that this represented an important milestone in what has turned out to be a very interesting year so far. But how to mark this event? How to celebrate the ending of something so pivotal? This was especially perplexing since our usual manner of celebrating special events, steaks au poivre cooked to perfection and accompanied by a bottle of bold red wine with a nose of red berries and a finish of pepper, chocolate and just the right amount of tannin, was out of the question due to the lingering effects of esophagitis.

It was Kath who hit upon the perfect solution; burn the punch card that the therapist initialed every day to indicate that another session had been completed. This burning ritual would be done with the use of a sage smudge stick (given to us by a good friend, and Kath's self-proclaimed guardian angel), and an abalone shell. I was especially pleased with this idea after the final session of radiation turned out to be very anti-climactic. While I knew there wouldn't be balloons and cake, I was surprised to find that at the end of my final treatment there was no review of the impact of the radiation, no discussion about the state of my recovery and no meeting with the doctor so that he could tell me what a great patient I had been. It was made memorable, however, by my radiation therapist telling me that she would be praying that the treatments were effective and then saying, "I have a special song to play for you." With that, she tuned her iPod to the song "Hit the Road Jack."

At home that evening, Kathy and I stood on the deck with a few close friends. We placed the card in the abalone shell along with some dried sage. For the first time I shared some of the specific details about what it was like going through the radiation treatment process and then lit the card. I was surprised and pleased with how well it burned. Using the sage stick, Kathy then performed a Native American smudging ritual to purify my body and the air of negative energy. After brief words and hugs all around, we returned inside for the ritual opening of a bottle of champagne, and then the rest of the evening we celebrated Cinco de Mayo.

The next morning I took the ashes from the abalone shell and scattered them around our garden. I thought about our ritual and the importance of ceremonies like it during difficult times in life. Most of the rituals we develop are simply habitual patterns that tend to make life simpler; your morning routine from shower to work as an example. When done with intention and shared with others, however, rituals take on a deeper meaning that can be used to reframe difficult situations. In this way they become markers, not for life’s tragedies, but for its triumphs. This is of great importance when facing a health crisis as many of the routines we fall into are done in an almost hypnotic state. This can lead to mindless activities that actually hinder our recovery. Healing rituals, on the other hand, become mindful rest stops for the soul on it's journey through the profound mystery of life, and they reconnect us to those who join us along the way.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Armistice Day

The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities... It is best to win without fighting.
Sun Tzu--The Art of War

Sitting in the chemo room last week, a man and his wife approached me after I gave them the international signal for "It's ok, I want to talk." By this, I mean I took out my earphones and turned off my iPod. The man, who appeared to be in his early 70s, asked me "What kind of cancer do you have, if you don't mind my asking?" This is the chemo room version of the jailhouse "What are you in for?" I told him it was a rare thymic cancer but that surgery had removed the tumor. "Is it aggressive?" he asked. By now, I was thinking I should have kept the earphones in and started laughing loudly to the audio book I had been listening to; I hate answering this question. "They say it is," was my reply.

With his wife standing next to him, he quickly told me his story. He had been "battling" prostate cancer for twenty-eight years and it was now in his bones. "The only thing I can tell you," he said "is keep fighting and have a lot of support." He followed that with "God bless you," and left with his wife.

This exchange got me thinking about the war mentality of treating cancer. It seems with many other diseases we manage them, we learn to adjust, or we develop "healthy lifestyles" to offset their impact. With cancer, however, we bring out the big guns. I understand this mentality completely; cancer is a destructive force and the idea of conquering it gives one a sense of control. The war against cancer is as problematic as the war on terror, with cancer being the Osama bin Laden of all diseases. It often strikes without warning, it moves from place to place and just when you think you have it captured it sneaks away into some secret hideaway to plan its next appearance.

The other issue I have with the idea of fighting cancer is that it seems such an unfair fight as the war zone is the body itself. Chemical weapons of cellular destruction are sent throughout the body, while radiation waves create collateral damage. Reinforcements come in the form of more and more drugs to help bolster the bodies depleting defenses. Yes, this is war in all of its non-glory and those of us diagnosed with cancer are drafted to "fight the good fight."

How to find peace during such times? How to soothe body, mind and spirit in the face of such upheaval and avoid the inevitable PTSD that comes from having to face such a ruthless enemy? One of the strategies to move into the spiritual demilitarized zone of Zen and practice of mindful meditation.

The core of Zen practice is the unconditional surrender to the now, to accept what in the East is called the "suchness" of life. To be present with whatever is happening puts an end to the psychological warfare that is ever-present when we face a crisis. Zen calls upon us to look deeply into our struggles and to see that they feed on our illusion of separateness and control. This is not a call for surrendering to illness and letting it have its way. To the contrary, it is marshalling our deeper inner knowledge that all things are one and that our energies are best used in service of this truth.

In a practical sense, this allows us to heal our shell-shock and seek the true freedom that comes from intentional awareness. We can still hate our disease, rail against it, hold protests and march in honor of its defeat. When this is done with our full attention, we turn battlefields into practice fields, where all events become meditative moments that enrich the soul. In this light, even putting one’s iPod shield back in place, becomes an act of self-kindness that tells the world, “This warrior is heading for Switzerland for some neutrality and perhaps a spa and a fondue.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A New Tune

Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson

With only five sessions of radiation therapy left to go, I had to take a break this past week. This was a painful decision, as I really want this part of my treatment to be over. However, that pain was easily trumped by the burning pain in my esophagus, which the doctors had warned me was going to be an unavoidable consequence of radiation.

The time off allowed me to soothe the area with various concoctions made up by the pharmacy for just these side effects. It also gave me time to think about this phase of my treatment and I came to the stunning realization that I'm anxious about ending the treatments. Before you think, "My God they've radiated his brain too," I'll explain. This past week I realized I have become attached to the hope that the radiation will kill off any stray cancer cells that might have escaped the surgeon's blade. As long as I keep going, I can stay in "It's going to work" mode. When it's over, I shift into the unsteady "I hope it worked" mode. This type of mental transition is not always easy for me, which is why I find mindfulness training to stay in the present moment so important and necessary.

This got me thinking about hope and its role in the life of anyone facing a serious health crisis. Over the past several months, I have found hope to be a fickle companion. At times, it stands sturdy with Obama-like audacity, while at other times, it seems to be as fragile as a soap bubble, bursting at a mere breath. On one level, hope is a deal that the mind makes with itself. The agreement is something along the lines of "I'll keep thinking things will turn out ok so that I won't think about the things that will happen if they don't." I term this "surface hope" and the cause of mental gymnastics as the mind tries to contort itself to accommodate reality. This goes something like "Ok, I was hoping it wouldn't be cancer but now I hope that it won't require surgery but if it does, I'll hope that the surgery takes care of it and I won't have to go through chemotherapy but if that happens then . . . "

On a much deeper level hope is, as the French proverb says, "the dream of a soul awake." This hope is the thread that weaves its way through life's ups and down, victories and defeats, and triumphs and tragedies creating the safety net one falls into when reasoning fails and the mind is at a loss for words. This hope has a different look to it and I often see it on the faces of the people I sit with in the chemo room, radiation waiting room, oncologist's office and, strangely enough, every once in awhile, in the express checkout lane at the grocery store.

Contrary to the dreamy, "I hope I win the lottery" expression, this deeper hope is marked by a look that mirrors the real world where pain and pleasure, suffering and joy, and health and illness trade places with alarming regularity. The expression says, "I know that I don't know what's coming next, just bring it on." Daily, I sit with these folks who are heroes, not because of their fight against cancer, but because of their courage in facing the inner demons that all crises stir up. Whenever I find myself struggling to hear the tune of "the thing with feathers," I think of them and I find my hope for better days returning.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Battle Fatigue

Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.
Kurt Vonnegut

Prior to starting chemotherapy and radiation, my doctor described the fatigue that accompanies these treatments as "the feeling you have after you've been at the beach all day, times ten." I experienced this phenomenon this past week and there was very little in it that I would consider beachy. What I experienced was exhaustion on a cellular level. It was as if every bodily process had just completed a triathlon and now lay sprawled on the ground gasping for air.

I was caught off guard by this latest side effect, which is so common it even has the initials CRF, for Cancer-Related Fatigue. (Although I think Can't Really Function is more appropriate.) My first two weeks of treatment were marked by an almost hyperkinetic energy, fueled no doubt by anxiety and the steroids I was receiving every two days. I was able to carry on all my usual activities, including working, without as much as a yawn. "This is going to be much easier than I had imagined," my overly active mind assured me. By the end of my first series, my doctor even joked with my wife, Kathy, that I was looking too good and he was going to have to increase my dose. (If he wasn't joking, I planned to find a new doctor, post haste.)

Then the wheels fell off the energy bus, to be followed quickly by the transmission and engine. Not only was reporting to work no longer an option, as supervisors tend to frown on frequent power naps, but minor activities became a test of endurance. Imagine becoming winded after vacuuming, light headed after walking the dogs, and in need of oxygen after grocery shopping. (That last bit was for dramatic effect; I didn't really need oxygen, but let's just say it's a good thing I had a cart to lean on.)

According to Chemocare.com the exact causes of CRF are unknown. Although, in my case, I'm told it's partly the result of the reduction of red blood cells and my body having to restore the healthy cells that are being destroyed by radiation. The website lists the warning signs of CRF as: tired eyes, tired legs, whole-body tiredness, stiff shoulders, decreased energy or a lack of energy, inability to concentrate, weakness or malaise, boredom or lack of motivation, sleepiness, increased irritability, nervousness, anxiety or impatience. While it's fair to say that at least half of the above menu described me even before my diagnosis, the difference is the shear weight of them all happening at once, minus the ability to recharge one's battery.

The psychological impact of CRF is just as profound. It's hard to imagine that you're getting better when your body feels like a rapidly deflating balloon. It's much easier for the mind to spin anxious tales of health-related horrors, converting each bump and bruise into a new tumor. The saving grace is that CRF eventually exhausts the mind. This means that thought processes that once flowed with Class 5 whitewater momentum, slow to a trickle. This creates gaps in thinking that are normally experienced only by advanced yogis tucked away in a mountainside, eating rice one grain at a time. These gaps are highly prized in the mindfulness world as they are seen as the dwelling place of true peace. In my case, they offer wonderful opportunities for meditation practice without the constant interruption of what Buddhists call the "monkey mind." The extra payoff is that meditation helps restore one's energy and reconnects one to the life that lies beneath all health related concerns.

Following the advice of Chemocare.com, I have learned to conserve the energy that I have, rest when I need to, give my body the nutrients it needs, and limit my stress. Following the wisdom of the ages, I routinely throw in a "This too shall pass," prayer for good measure.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Writer's Block

Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.
Steve Martin

Since starting this blog, it's been relatively easy to pick out a theme to sum up the week's events. I have even developed a list of rules to help keep the entry from becoming one long rant about the evils of cancer treatment. They are:
1. Inject humor whenever possible.
2. Limit the time on the soapbox.
3. Always look for a connection to the practice of mindfulness.
4. Stay off the pity pot.
5. Avoid split infinitives (My spell checker keeps telling me to really work on this grammar rule.)
6. Avoid becoming emotionally attached to what I write. At least until after the last edit.
7. No listening to music while I write. This only leads to writing that is so emotionally toxic that only someone with a therapist's license, or wearing a HAZMAT suit, should wade through.
8. Always end on an upbeat note or, in the absence of a positive frame of mind, a Zen koan (the unanswerable questions given to Zen students to drive them out of their heads).

These rules have served me well, until this past week when I restarted chemo and had a major reaction to one of the drugs. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many drafts I prepared in my head, I could not fit the shakes, the chills, the fever, the rash and beet-red face into this frame. Even catchy titles such as You Can Beet This, Rash Decisions, and For God's Sake Will Someone Turn the Heat Off, couldn't contain my runaway thoughts about the week that was.

It occurred to me that I could always skip an entry for the week. I could just let things settle down, gather my wits and await the return of a gentler muse. Perhaps it would even be therapeutic in a "let go of the past" sort of way. Or, maybe it never really happened. Who's to say? So much of this seems like a dream anyway.

Then on Friday, leaving the oncologist's office, less red but still shaken, I ended up on the elevator with a young woman who was also leaving the office. She looked at my pinkish new scalp and asked, "Are you through?" "About halfway," I responded. She then touched her full head of hair saying, "I'm done and this is the first growth." She added, “I gained 40 pounds from the steroids.” As the doors opened on the ground floor she said, "I have my first CT scan since finishing and I'm scared it's coming back." "I know," was the only thing I could think of to say. As we headed outside into the beautiful day, me going to radiation therapy, her to whatever her future holds, I quipped, "I can think of a million things I'd rather be doing." "Make it ten million," she responded with a faint smile and walked away.

I sat in my truck and a decided that she would be my focus as this week ended. I shook off my "I gots the red skin blues" and offered her a prayer of loving-kindness:

May you be free from fear. May you be free from suffering.
May you be happy. May you be filled with loving-kindness.
May all people everywhere be happy and filled with loving-kindness.

“Oh yeah,” I whispered, “I'll have some of that too.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dragon Slayer?

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives
are princesses who are only waiting
to see us act, just once,
with beauty and courage.
Rainer Maria Rilke

Anyone facing a serious illness knows all too well the roller coaster rides that are moments of profound courage and absolute fear. If they are like me, they have most likely noticed that acts of courage seem to be an uphill climb with the full weight of gravity pressing against one's chest. Moments of fear, on the other hand, seem like a free fall with ever-increasing speed that are best encountered with eyes closed.

The transformation from feeling like a well-rooted tree to shaking like a leaf comes so quickly at times that one has to wonder who it is that resides at the core of the soul, hero or coward. In my case, it often feels like the very attempt to keep a stiff upper lip makes my whole body tremble. It's as if the effort to resist fear and weakness drains me of the energy I need at the time. What a trap. How to slay today's dragon after, in the words of Monty Python, "soiling my armor"?

This past week's monster was in the form of the chemo beast that was feeding on my hair follicles. The shock I felt with each handful of hair was not just the "What am I going to look like bald?" question (although, believe me, that was the primary concern) but the stunning reminder of how potent the chemical mix in my body is and what it's doing on a cellular level. Here was a not so subtle reminder of why the word cancer can cause even the bravest of souls to quiver; its very treatment is hazardous and, let's face it, toxic. Searching for the Holy Grail of recovery in the face of such a nemesis would seem to require King Arthur-like resolve with a touch of a Bruce Willis "Yippee ki yay," attitude (Never my forte).

What I found, however, was that the ability to face this, and all of my recovery related crises, came not from steeling myself for the attack but in the act of surrender. Not surrender in the white flag, I lose, sense, but the deeper surrender that comes from no longer fighting what is. Saying "yes" to the present moment is the cornerstone of mindfulness practice and the source of great strength. It is quite simply, fear minus the resistance; the courage to stay right where you are and not seek shelter in the past or future.

The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, "There is no escaping the things we hate, we can only transform them into the things we love." We do this by turning the light of our awareness on the things that scare us the most. This means that we don't have to slay our dragons, which in the end is only a struggle with the self. By staying with the present moment, in a nonjudgmental frame of mind, we find, as the German writer Rilke suggested, that "Everything that frightens us, is in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

So it was that I walked head long (pun intended) into my local hair salon and told the woman who normally cuts my hair what adventure awaited us today. As she held the Excalibur of all shears in hand she asked, "How much are we taking off?" "All of it," I managed to choke out. And that's the last I remember before passing out. Just kidding, I was conscious throughout, but strangely detached. As she spun the chair around to the mirror, so that I was now looking directly at the new me, I had to admit I felt somewhat proud of what I had accomplished. Now there would be no more mornings cleaning out the shower drain, no more having to sweep the bathroom floor after every combing, and no more anxious moments spent wondering how long before anyone noticed the man with the incredible thinning hair.

I walked out of that salon feeling triumphant, buoyed no doubt by one hair stylist's comments that she "loved the look" (Yeah, I still got it). I wish you could have seen the moment, shaven head held high, sunglasses on, cool breeze blowing across a freshly mown scalp. It was a thing of beauty.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Springs to Mind

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.
Rainer Maria Rilke

I marked the return of spring and warmer weather in an unusual manner recently. I decided to feel sorry for myself. Until just the other day, the world outside the window where I receive chemotherapy was rather cold and gray. That felt about right. Then, suddenly, the sun crashed through the window like a brick with a note tied to it that read, "What the hell are you doing in there? Get outside! It's spring!"

Thus began my first chemo-related pity party. While it's true that misery loves company, pity is not afraid to go it alone. Hand it a bucket of worries and you're ready for an all-nighter. To my credit, I did not let this go on into the wee hours. Still, there it was in all of its non-glory pushing me closer to the edge of "I can't do this anymore." While this was happening, however, there was a part of me that was able to observe where this was leading me and ask, ever so quietly, "Do you really want to head down this path?" "Yes," cried the chunk of brain that was still in control of most of my senses, "you do want to go down this path. Look at it outside, this is fishing weather; you could be on the boat hauling in a trophy-size bass!"

I decided to break this inner dialogue by mentioning it to my nurse, who had already shared with me that she had gone through her own cancer treatment. Quietly and with clear understanding, she said, "You're gonna feel that way, just take it one day at time." I didn't share with her that I was way past "one day" and was knee-deep in one minute at time. However, her words clearly came from that deep place inside her that had squared off with the same demons I was wrestling with now, and that helped pull me out of my thoughts. My mindless wandering interrupted; I was able to return to the practice of mindful breathing.

In this state, I reminded myself that one need not corral the runaway mind and, in fact, attempting to corner and trap it only makes it more dangerous. Through meditation and other present moment experiences, one learns to simply let thoughts be as they are. No longer fed by endless attention, thoughts move on into their own silent void. As the Tao Te Ching says, "No fight, no blame."

I would be stretching things a bit to suggest that the next warm, sunny day I'm in the chemo recliner or on the radiation table, I will be one with the universe. I will, however, use my mindfulness techniques to keep from going into my mind and into the empty caverns of "poor me." This way, I can save the pity party for a true spring ritual; having a monster bass jump off my line before I get him in the boat.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Humor Me

Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
William James

My older brother, who created all of the original artwork on this blog, thought it would be humorous to Photoshop a picture of what I might look like should I lose my hair during chemotherapy. He started with a picture of me, circa 1966. I wish I still had that impish look to go with my beard! I laughed hysterically at the picture and my wife loved it so much she put it up as our screensaver.

While he could have expressed his concern for what I'm going through any number of ways, my brother knew intuitively what I needed at the time. I can picture him working on the photo, smiling and probably laughing to himself as he put on the final touches. I feel fortunate that he would use his God-given talents to try and bring comfort to me during these trying times. I hope he knows that paybacks are a bitch and that I have an album of old family photographs just waiting next to my scanner.

We are told that keeping a sense of humor is critical to making it through difficult times, yet it's often one of the first casualties. All too often sarcasm and gallows humor take the place of true laughter as life literally begins to feel heavier. Surrendering to seriousness and cynicism, we rob ourselves of a natural healing method of which the worst side effect is that our sides ache, or if it was really funny, we pee our pants.

Scientific literature is filled with studies about the positive benefits of having a good laugh. Just a few of these include:

Enhanced respiration
Increased number of immune cells and an increase in immune-cell proliferation
Decrease in cortisol
Increase in endorphins
Increase in salivary immunoglobulin type A concentrations
Lower blood pressure
Fewer repeat heart attack

It seems that nature gave us a funny bone so that we might assist in healing ourselves.

In the mindfulness world there are even laughing meditations, "laugh clubs" and laughing yoga to help rev up what we could consider our seventh sense. Humor heals because in order to find something funny we have to be able to shift our mindset from something we are worrying about in the future or past to the here and now. It doesn't work to say, "Yeah, that will probably be funny to me in about a week, ha, ha." It is the spontaneous dropping of the ego's defenses that opens the door to the healing effects of humor. It feels good to laugh because the soul is nourished when it basks in the moment of what is.

My first day of radiation treatment I was handed a card that had my picture on it and a list of the number of treatments that I was scheduled to undergo. After the treatment the tech initialed a square on the card. I took a stab at lightening the moment by asking, "Do I get a free sandwich when I fill this up?" Not a bad one, I thought, considering the circumstances. The tech, not missing a beat, responded, "No, but you do get a toaster." I knew I was in good hands.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Stare Master

The cause of your misery is not in your outer life;
it is in you, as your ego.
Ramana Maharshi

A coworker recently commented that she sees me staring out the window a lot these days. “I’m meditating,” was my knee-jerk response. However, that wasn’t totally honest. I have a regular practice of meditation, and staring mindlessly out the window is not part of the practice. The operant word here is mindless. While mindfully staring out the window—simply being the observer of the world detached from all judging—would be helpful, mindlessly staring is nothing but trouble waiting to happen.

One of the biggest problems facing many people with a major health problem is what to do with the mind machine. How do I stop the incessant parade of facts, dark fantasies, and just pure fear stirred up by the mind? What do I do when the soundtrack in my head is like a hyper-kinetic version of Meet the Press? Why, for the love of God, can’t I just look out the window, see the rebirth that is spring, and sense the smell and feel of the warming air rather than think “I'll bet I’m going to glow in the dark by the time radiation treatments are over.”

The core difference between mindfulness and mindlessness is where the little troll known as the ego resides during the process. When we practice mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” the ego takes a back seat. All of the ego's cries of "Are we there yet?" are simply treated with benign neglect. When we are in a mindless state, the ego is not only in the front seat, but behind the wheel, drunk, with the GPS turned off. Mindlessness is characterized by a glazed look that says, “I know I'm lost, but there's no way in hell I'm pulling over to ask for directions.” When one is in a mindful state, however, there is generally a look of peace and a half-smile on one’s face. Quite the contrast.

My ego has been hit hard by this cancer diagnosis. It asks a lot of questions these days, and in the absence of what it considers good answers, it takes to looking off into the distance, as if this staring contest with the world will force some sort of sense out it. “I have ways of making you talk," it seems to be saying to the world, "and I will continue to look at you this way until you tell me what I need to know." The world, for its part, simply goes about its business knowing that the true answer is beyond the ego's grasp.

I have learned to wrestle the steering wheel out of the ego's tight grip by turning my attention to my breathing. This works like the snap of the hypnotist's fingers to bring me back to the here and now. If I'm in really deep, I'll even throw in a mantra for good luck. Two of my currents favorites are "The Kingdom of Heaven is now," and "Guru Guru Wahe Guru Guru Ram Das Guru (Oh Divine Guide, Divine Guide who carries me across the troubles and turmoil of life. How grateful I am for Your greatness, Divine Guide. You have taken form as the light of Guru Ram Das. In that form, guide me always.) These act as lullabies to the ego, thereby allowing me to get some well-earned rest. Not while driving, of course.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Acceptance Speech

Acceptance of what has happened
is the first step
to overcoming the consequences
of any misfortune.
William James

“If I had just gotten the news you did, I’d be on my knees praying every night,” my friend said as we talked about the fact that my biopsy had confirmed a diagnosis of cancer. “I have been praying a lot lately,” I responded, “but mostly for acceptance and the strength to handle whatever comes.” I sensed that he was somewhat baffled by my reply. To be honest, so was I, to some extent. It is certainly in my religious make-up to believe that if I would just ask God with the right amount of humility and devotion, he would make this cancer nightmare go away. However, this no longer fits with my current view of all things spiritual.

My mind, ever since the cancer diagnosis, has been busy trying to sort out a plan for getting around the painful anxiety that is bound to worsen. Praying to God to spare me this ordeal has been top on the list of things to do. In my heart, however, I hear the recent quote of Eckhart Tolle, “The world is not here to make you happy, it is here to wake you up,” as well as the words of Jesus, “Pick up your cross and follow me,” and the wisdom of Nisagardatta Maharaj “Accept life as it comes and you will find it a blessing.”

That‘s where I want to be; right smack in the middle of the peace that comes from surrendering to whatever life throws my way. However, I find that my reflexive response to a crisis is to reach for the old tools of denial, anger, depression, and bargaining. These are well worn and within easy reach. Acceptance, on the other hand, feels awkward due to lack of use, and there is a gnawing sense that if I’m not careful with it I could hurt myself.

All of this takes me back to my prayers. Sure, it would be miraculous to have an illness cured, a suffering taken away or a burden lifted. But perhaps the true miracle is to experience the hand of God in whatever we are given. Real peace comes not from the absence of life’s upheavals, but by experiencing them at very core of the true self.

This is not to say that I have developed a fearless, “bring it on” attitude. To the contrary, I’m a long standing member of the “be careful what you ask for” club. Nor have I entered into a state of complete flow where my moods no longer ride the rough and tumble waves of uncertainty. No, I’m still an ocean of emotions, and the pending trips into chemotherapy and radiation treatments are my own personal tsunami. But in the depth of my heart, I believe my prayer for strength and acceptance will be answered, and that I need only turn down the noise of resistance to hear that answer clearly.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


They also serve who only stand and wait
John Milton

If you’re going to get sick, as in “need to see doctors on a regular basis” sick, then you had better get good at waiting. I don’t mean waiting for the bus, waiting for the rain to stop, or waiting for something good to turn up on pay-per-view type of waiting. The kind of waiting I’m talking about is the gut wrenching, soul squeezing, “The doctor will be with you in a minute,” waiting that anyone with a serious illness knows about all too well.

This isn’t a rant about the medical profession and its apparent twisted sense of time, I want to talk about the psychological nature of waiting itself. The word actually means “to watch over” or simply to “watch.” This seems relatively harmless and even somewhat quaint--as in “I think I’ll just watch to see if those clouds are ever going away.” The problem, of course, comes from the time-addicted mind and its need to keep things moving. Waiting is to the mind what being stranded on the beach is to a fish. So it is that a mind forced into idleness flaps around gasping for something to worry about.

The smorgasbord of waiting that is laid out before you when you fall ill would be farcical were it not so physically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally draining. From the time of my diagnosis to the time of my surgery six weeks passed by. There was the waiting for test results, waiting to have the procedure done, waiting for the drugs to wear off, waiting for the drugs to kick in, waiting to get into the hospital, waiting to get out of the hospital…and so forth. In the spirit of the Olympic season, I think I deserve at least the Bronze Medal in waiting.

Sure losing one’s cool seems like a good idea when asked to wait one too many times. However, it seldom has the desired effect. The inner tension that builds is simply one more form of stress that the body has to confront. The externalization of that stress on the poor receptionist, who has seen one too many meltdowns, simply earns one the extra notation in the chart, “Mr. Verano is not handling his recovery very well.” Believe me; no one waits longer than the one tagged with the asterisk “Needs to practice being more patient.”

My wife and I have chosen another course when it comes to time not spent--we engage in meditative practices. Now don’t imagine some new age couple sitting in lotus position in the oncology office chanting “Om.” What we do, instead, is turn waiting back into its origin and simply watch. We watch our breathing, watch our thoughts mindfully (without judging), and watch the ebb and flow of inner energy. In this way, our waiting becomes our practice; an invitation to meet ourselves in the present moment. In this now moment comes a sense of calm that one seldom finds while waiting to hear that both radiation and chemo are recommended . When this process really catches hold, we finds ourselves getting a little annoyed when the nurse finally arrives to take us back to see the doctor. “Just when I was on the verge of nirvana.” Oh well, there will always be next time.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


In the depth of winter,
I finally learned that there was within me
an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

“You’re going to walk through the fire, and you’re going to be ok.” These are words that I will never forget. They were spoken by a coworker who had learned that my CT scan had confirmed that there was a mass nestled under my sternum that was clearly not supposed to be there. Then she pointed to a scar on her right cheek and said, “I got this for my 39th birthday, cancer of the mouth.” She hugged me with the kind of the hug that says, “You’re one of us now.”

I was humbled by her openness and compassion but I was also confused, in my denial. What fire? There was no fire, simply some blob of something that would turn out to be a mere smudge from the radiologist’s finger. Or, perhaps there would just be a low burning ember, like “Well, Mr. Verano, it’s not supposed to be there but it’s not going to hurt anything to leave it alone.”

Not only were my coworker’s words prophetic, as I was, in fact, about to join the club of people diagnosed with cancer, they also pointed to a profound truth. This truth is that life after a major medical diagnosis is never the same and the challenges ahead are initiation rites of the highest order. Only one who had crossed that blazing bed of charcoal briquettes can possibly look someone in the eye and, without a hint of uncertainty, say “I’ll see you on the other side.”

There are many ways that illnesses get interpreted. From the lofty heights of “God’s will” to the street level “shit happens,“ not only are we given a health crisis we are faced with giving it meaning. A central message passed down through ages is that while our joys make life sweeter, it is our sufferings that define who we are. Despite appearing hardwired for good times, it seems profoundly true that it is our pain, not our pleasure, that make us grow. This is surely why the great teachers from both the East and West spent so much time talking about facing our suffering. It’s not that they were kill-joys looking to rain on everybody’s parade, they were pointing directly at the fertile ground that lies within our very souls. Ground that so often looks like a deep pit, a road to nowhere or even a path of pure fire.

This is why so few take the trip willingly. A push of some sort is usually required to break the “I like things just the way they are“ mentality. When it comes to this nudge toward a new path, cancer is like the big bully who waits at the public pool for some poor unsuspecting soul who is trying to get up the nerve to enter one toe at a time when all the sudden, SPLASH! Now it’s sink or swim time.

The first few days after my surgery I often found myself repeating my coworker’s words over and over like a mantra. Especially the “you’re going to be ok,” part. It had an immediately calming effect, the source of which was much deeper than mere positive thinking. When I would say these words, it was as if I was in contact with the very spirit in her that had already sorted out all the fears, questions, uncertainties and disjointed thoughts that were rattling around in my head. Bless her for having done all of that work for me ahead of time.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Time That Wasn't Lost

So many wings flew around
The mountains of sorrow
And so many wheels beat
The highway of our destiny,
We had nothing left to lose.
And our weeping ended.

Pablo Neruda

Too often, when illness strikes or we encounter some unexpected form of suffering, it is as if life is put on hold. We even talk about having lost time while sick or recovering from a traumatic life event. The notion is that our lives move in certain trajectories and that ill health is a deviation from that course.

This sense of time wasted, of a life that has jumped the track and is now stuck on the sidelines, adds an extra burden to our psyches. We watch as healthy and vibrant people move care free with seemingly orchestrated ease. If we really want to push our grief deeper, we envy them and their nonchalant approach to their days. Secretly, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, lingers the unanswerable “Why me, why now, why this?”

But what if these moments do not represent a pause in life? What if they are not detours but a direct path? Less traveled surely, but no less valuable than the well mapped out roads more desired? Is it possible that we were meant to live our illnesses with the same curiosity and willingness normally reserved for “the good life?” Perhaps the ancient teachings of the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Jesus, that called us to find peace amidst suffering, were practical, not metaphorical.

My experience since being diagnosed with a rare form of thymic cancer and undergoing thoracic surgery to remove the tumor, coupled with four years of studying mindfulness techniques, has convinced me that the great masters were correct. They saw no distinction between up and down, yes or no, health or illness. They saw only manifestations of a singular loving source that calls to us to wake up and live life in the present moment. Their message is as simple as it is profound; the peace we seek is no further away than our next breath and the path we seek is no further away than our next step.

In the end, there is no such thing as lost time. Illness does not take us out of the game; it pushes us deeply into the heart of the matter. Whether or not we experience gain or loss depends on whether our pain brings openings or shuts us off from being able to live life fully. Personally, I found that the door of awareness rests on loose hinges. At times, it swings easily into the realm of depression and “what ifs.” However, with the same ease, it opens on the vast experience of life in the now.

Sharing my experience helps me make sense of what I have been through, not by reliving it, but by living through it with others. If this experience has taught me anything it is that none of us goes it alone. I whole-heartedly believe that the path to my recovery is paved by the thoughts, prayers and healing energy of others. My hope is that by sharing this episode in my life I might repay some of the overwhelming kindness shown to me. My health felt like a very personal thing, my illness is a social event that has reframed my notion of wellness.