May 9, 2012 § 4 Comments
I’ve stormed through a sierra of feelings in the past couple weeks. Perhaps I’ve seen the worst of this battle with cancer, but a journey such as this is never simplistic. The lymph node biopsy results still await, and the future is uncertain as ever. I have been doing a number of things for my wellbeing: mistletoe therapy, naturopathy, acupuncture, massage, blue light therapy, homeopathy, psychosynthesis, reiki and continuing with journaling, restorative yoga and meditation. I’m beginning to explore ayurvedic approaches to cancer, body-talk therapy, emotional freedom technique, emotional healing, hyperthermia and enzyme therapy. The more I read and learn, the more I feel empowered. But sometimes it seems a degree of this journey lies outside of my own hands; it seems I am not entirely conscious or in control of all that passes through this body. Feelings pass through me and at times pull me, and the more I resist, the more suffering lies beneath my resistance. There lies a delicate balance of surrender and control in this journey through this tributary of the river of my life.
As I paddle along, I wish to stay constructive in my outlook; submitting to a consistent gloomy disposition in confrontation with cancer is likely not constructive. But not acknowledging the feelings that come, or glossing them over with a forced positivity can hardly create a kind of shield agains the dark forces of disease. My friends and family wish for my wellness and they want to see me well, so when they say, “be positive” or “smile”, I appreciate it all – I feel gratitude, and I know that on some level positivity helps in healing. But I can’t help to sense there’s something missing in the “smile-no-matter-what” approach. At one level, smiling works in dealing with physical pain and “not sweating the small stuff” is a wise adage to follow, but at a deeper level, where I feel deep healing takes place, forcing a smile can at times fall short. If an emotional pain needs acknowledgement, it will persist, usually hovering in the emotional field until it turns into a physical symptom. Positivity has it’s value; there are some emotional states it’s simply unhealthy in which to sink, some pains that can be effectively alchemized through upturning the corner of the lips. But there lies more to a life journey than smiling. Khalil Gibran writes his chapter “Joy and Sorrow” in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. / Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? /And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”
Remember The Truman Show? Remember at the beginning of the film where Truman lives in a literal and metaphoric bubble, enfolded in circle upon circle of contrived grins and shallow encounters, encapsulated in the repetition upon repetition of good morning, good afternoon and goodnight? The television show that has spun Truman has wielded him into a false personality, the bubble has him believing things he hasn’t truly chosen for himself. It seems the whole universe in which he lives has succumed into a dizzying disease of artificiality until, one day, Truman wakes up and realizes he isn’t happy after all. Don’t you think sometimes it takes a little discontent to realize there’s a life outside the bubble? Or even if we are not living in a televised bubble, metaphorical or not, it takes a bit of sorrow to then feel joy, a pain to carve out the flute that allows a joyful song to resonate through our lives. Even babies arrive in this world in tears. Some people favour joy over sorrow, others sorrow over joy, but Gibran says they are inseparable: “When you are sorrowful, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.” William Blake, in Auguries of Innocence similarly prophesizes:
Man was made for joy and woe
Then when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul to bind.
Two weeks ago, upon my return to England from holiday, I visited the fertility clinic at the local hospital. If I undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy, it will affect my fertility. Upon my diagnosis, the nurse immediately mentioned the possibility of freezing my eggs. I am young, childless, and I would like to have a baby. I was told the process of freezing my eggs would be covered by national health insurance.
Perhaps the receptionist’s cold reception at the fertility clinic that day might have had something to do with my reluctance to embrace this truth of potentially losing the possibility of having children. The woman looked me up and down, squinted her eyes, asked my name and then said, “Where’s your partner?”
“I am here because I have cancer.”
Her cold stare and abrupt manner remained unwavering.
“Why is she staring at me like that?” I wondered.
I’ve had cancer long enough to know that the word “cancer” falling upon some ears fails to evoke much sympathy. Some seem reluctant to speak with me, a cold awkwardness or an outright silence sits like a gulf between myself and the other. But as I stared back at this woman behind the desk, I thought, “Surely, other women of my age with a diagnosis of cancer had entered this clinic. She must know what I am talking about.”
“Chemo will kill my eggs.” I said, “If I have chemo, I have to freeze them … I want to have children …” and then I stopped trying to explain myself. I sensed then why the woman may have looking at me the way she was, why my presence in entering the clinic seemingly irked her as it so seemingly did.
“I’m single,” I said matter-of-factly, “I don’t have a partner.”
I felt judged for entering the fertility clinic without one. I had not expected that.
“You know, I wish I had someone with whom to share my life,” I thought, “someone to to help me through this difficult disease, someone to lie beside me at night in the moments I feel isolated, caught on the wrong side of the river, stationed on the bank of sickness when a rushing rapid of choice and uncertainty lies between myself and my health.”
The receptionist probably couldn’t hear my thoughts. She pushed a form towards me. Peering over her reading glasses, she told me curtly to fill out the first section. “Since you don’t have a partner, leave the second section blank,” she said abruptly. Then she asked for my passport.
I sat down in one of the pleather chairs in the waiting room. The room was relatively empty save an affectionate couple to my left, the guy with his arm around his beaming girl, seemingly enamoured, devoted and delighted to have a child together.
Called in by the nurse, she pointed to the scale and I stepped on. She measured my height. 51 kg and 173 cm.
“Have you always been underweight?” She said.
“Not only am I cancerous and single,” I thought, “but I’m too skinny!”
Then small Indian doctor opened her door and sat me down next to her. In great detail explained to me the complex process of stimulating ovulation and storing my eggs as well as the urgency of doing this all before surgery and treatment began. She barraged me with statistics and figures of probable outcomes before saying: “Please keep in mind because you are single, you will have to self-fund this process.”
“Pardon me?” I responded.
“If you had a partner, the NHS would fund this, but because you’re single, you’ll have to pay for it.”
It’s difficult to have cancer, to face a life-threatening illness and see all plans I had for my life stand still in their tracks. I write this having already lost a breast to surgery, and with that loss have images of myself, of mothering, sexuality and femininity entered into a dusty tailspin. Looking at my uneven chest, scared and bandaged, I fear losing my attractiveness to the opposite sex. I fear on some dark nights the cancer may have already spread, and that if I go through chemotherapy, that I’ll lose my hair and my fertility, or possibly despite my positive efforts, my life.
Even without cancer and its accompanying fears, it’s difficult to find myself in my mid-thirties single and still wanting children, to have entered and left relationship after relationship with those who seemed to be right, with those who seemed to have wanted the same things as I, then to experience disappointment when those same people decide they wanted something else. I see all this and experience all this and it is not easy. But why am I now, with cancer, being discriminated against having children at all, ever, simply because I am at this moment have not found someone with which to share a life and child?
The doctor pushed the consent forms across the desk.
“Do you want to start this process right away?” She said.
I looked at my hands, shyly folded in my lap. I wondered how I would manage the costs of all of it : the thousands and thousands of pounds on top of the hundreds of pounds my family and I have been putting down on alternative therapies, supplements, organic foods and all the etc. it takes to win the battle against cancer. I’ve cut down my working hours after leaving a stressful job all in an effort to ensure my long-term survival. But now, because I’m single, I’m being asked to pay what would be free if I were to have had a man beside me.
I took the forms, folded them, held them for a minute between my fingers, then inserted them in my handbag. “I’ll think about it,” I said.
The following Tuesday I entered the hospital again. My date was not with the short Indian fertility doctor this time but with the elderly radiologist followed by a meeting with my Chinese surgeon and English breast clinic nurse. I had delayed surgery by two weeks having read about and spoken with women who had cured their cancer completely naturally without any conventional therapies. I had been doing reiki for three hours a day, had begun a new cancer-fighting diet, and was exploring new therapies. I hadn’t had much time to work with any of these, but I figured an imaging scan would assure both me and my oncologist that whatever I had been doing I could keep doing. If the tumour hadn’t grown, or if as if by miracle it had shrunk, I knew I had more time to keep working on non-toxic and non-invasive natural therapies. With the right results from an ultrasound, I knew I’d have permission to delay surgery a little longer, and possibly save myself from losing a breast.
The images of an ultrasound were inconclusive. Hidden directly beneath my left nipple, the tumour remained a dark and mysterious crab-like beast, sticking its head in the sand just when we wanted to bring it to light. But the surgeon and radiologist could agree on one thing. Since the last scan in early March, the tumour had grown about 6mm. It certainly hadn’t shrunk, and it clearly hadn’t stayed the same. They recommended an immediate mastectomy at the next available possibility.
Panicked, I signed.
Unfortunately that story, the one of the mastectomy itself my continuing recovery will have to be the subject of another post.I’m tired, and it’s well past my bedtime. These days, I tire quickly. I still feel woozy from this morning’s acupuncture, and I’m carting around a bottle of bodily fluid attached by a tube to the fresh wound where my breast once was. For the first time in this journey of cancer, I feel sick. In some ways, I feel relieved. But today, I’m mourning the loss of this beautiful body part. I feel wounded, and I feel afraid. I fear becoming a burden. I fear I might not be able to have children. I feel lopsided and drained. My body and mind are sore and numb all at the same time.
Many of you have commented on my positive outlook. I remain optimistic in this writing post along the journey of a disease. When a spontaneous smile comes, or a laugh that jolts me out of my physical discomfort, it can be powerful in irradiating energy throughout the body and can certainly “trick” the mind and trigger a chain of physical and emotional states that no doubt foster healing. In no way am I leaving out those moments.
When I’m genuinely happy, I smile. When I’m genuinely sad, genuinely mourning, genuinely frustrated, or genuinely angry, I’d prefer to feel what is passing through me and not gloss it over with the pretence of a smile. I give myself permission to give some space for all the feelings on this journey until they genuinely pass. If I force myself to smile and think positively all the time, I risk pushing all those feelings down, down, down. That act may even create a new cancer in some other area of my body. The more I bury, the more I risk just give birth to a tumour filled with different encapsulated, crab-like feelings, cowering in the sand, reluctant to show its face to my immune system because the world – or my body – just wants to see a happy, happy face.
Anyway, I’m not alone in having feelings. In the fourteenth century, Rumi had them too. So let me leave you with a poem called “The Guesthouse”. In honouring of letting what is, be.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.