Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Beginning in beauty

In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty,
It is finished in beauty.

'Sa'ah naaghéi, Bik'eh hózhó
—from a Navajo Ceremony
(Four Masterworks of American Indian 
Literature, ed. by John Bierhorst, 1974)

I start radiation therapy tomorrow. Of every part of my journey so far, this is the one that seems to draw the most negativity from people. I have heard that radiation will make me hot and uncomfortable, and I will want to lie for hours under a cool ceiling fan. I will get a sunburn. My skin will break down and ooze. I should take the last couple of weeks off work because I will be in so much pain. I will get very tired during the end of the treatments, a fatigue that will last for months afterward.

Yikes! That sounds horrible! At some point yesterday I realized I had been taking these experiences too much to heart. Believing that would be my experience as well, it was almost as if I was already living in this painful future.

That’s no way to be.

That New Age phrase “you create your own reality” usually makes me cringe. It seems an overly simplistic platitude. There is some truth to the concept, however. My attitude in a situation makes a huge difference in how I experience it. Just think about my experience with getting blood drawn. When I’m relaxed and calm, I have little pain or bruising. But when I’m anxious, I experience more pain and more bruising afterward. 

One way that I have found to shift my experience in this way is to practice reframing, or finding alternate ways of viewing situations. Needles become “spears of healing” instead of simply being torture devices. Or I visualize my body as made of butterflies; I simply ask the cancer butterflies to fly away. 

Since it seems that everyone’s experience with radiation therapy is slightly different, this could be a very good place to practice some reframing.

An approach has started to emerge that draws on my past experience with Native American spirituality.  Instead of a difficult, potentially painful, pain-in-the-ass thing I need to get through, why can't I instead reframe this as a sacred time of healing? Maybe a six-week-long shamanic healing ceremony? 

With my thoughts along those lines, the Navajo prayer that begins this post arose in my mind during this morning’s meditation:

With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.

What a lovely antidote to the unpleasant images I have been hearing about radiation! I love it!

And since taking walks in the woods was my favorite part of my healing process, and a habit I plan to continue during the course of radiation, this lovely prayer can be a way to bring that happiness with me into the treatments. 

I’ll have to ruminate on this some more. My radiation sessions are first thing in the morning before work. Maybe I will pull out my drum or rattle each morning? Make offerings of herbs? It’s been a long time since I walked the shamanic path. Perhaps it is time to bring some of that back into my life.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Struggling with change

Last week brought a lot of changes. My mother could tell you that I have always found change challenging. Apparently when I was a wee thing threw fits every time I had to change my wardrobe with the seasons.  As an adult, I have found ways to lessen the hardships of the seasonal wardrobe change (read: shopping therapy). But other changes often still throw me for a loop for a few days.

Take last week. My full time disability benefits were over; it was time to return to work. 

One week I’m taking a leisurely breakfast on the balcony followed by walking in the woods for an hour or more. The next week I’m eating a hurried breakfast, then spending the next six hours in a windowless office (I am taking advantage of my part-time disability benefits and only working an average of 6 hours a day.) 

Now, I am one of those people who is *very* sensitive to natural light. I struggle with sleepiness and sadness every autumn, until I remember to keep the desk lamp with the full spectrum light bulb burning during the work day.

So, it took me a few days (okay, a week) to get used to being inside under artificial light during the day. I eventually remembered to turn on the full spectrum light and life gradually got better.

Another big change last week came during my meeting with the radiation oncologist, on Thursday of last week. She said I was ready to start the radiation treatments in two weeks. I had known I would be starting radiation between 6 and 8 weeks after the surgery, but somehow, delusionally, I had convinced myself it was farther away. I wanted more time to adjust to working again--more of a normal life-- before my schedule was uprooted again by radiation treatments. 

Still pretty unsteady with the transition to work, the reality of this additional upcoming change shook me even more. Two weeks! I’m not ready!

Feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger surfaced over the next few days. My husband listened to them all, correctly naming them as issues related to a feeling of lack of control. Oh, yes--those feelings of lack of control that every cancer patient wrestles with. Cancer grabs you and shakes you, and reminds you that the sense of control we think we have over our lives is just an illusion. 

Finally, my husband said, “You know, I think this is just more of that anxiety you feel in the in-between times, when you are waiting for the next phase of treatment. I bet you’ll be fine once the radiation treatments start.”

He’s probably right. The treatments start in five days, so I guess we’ll see then!

For now, I have completed two full weeks of work, and I’m finally getting my “groove” back (though I am still having some trouble getting out of bed in the morning!). My energy levels are up to normal, and so is my mood (thank goodness!). I still have the hematoma in my left breast, but it is muuuch smaller than it was. The surgeon took a look at it this week, and said it would heal up just fine.  I even got my first massage since surgery!

I’m doing alright.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What got me through

It has been four weeks since my surgery. I can lift my arms over my head and do some light weight lifting. I went to a Tai Chi class today for the first time since surgery, and did pretty well. My full-time disability days are coming to a close; I go back to work on Monday.

This seems like a turning point. One chapter of the journey is over, and another is about to begin. The next step will be six weeks of radiation treatments, then after that five years of hormone therapy. I have heard from several people that the hardest part is yet to come. But to me, from my current vantage point, it feels like the most difficult hurdles are behind me. For one thing, the cancer is out of my body now, which feels huge! For another, there are far fewer needles ahead of me than behind me. I think I'll have to get blood drawn every six months, and there's always the possibility of having to go through another MRI scan or biopsy round. But neither is staring me in the face in the next few months!

I have been meaning to write about the things that have gotten me through the journey this far. Now seems like a good time.

First, the non-woo:

1. Tig Notaro. Like, big time. Tig is a stand-up comedian who performed live just days after getting a diagnosis of breast cancer. She had tumors in both breasts and has since had a double mastectomy. Her 30 minute show, called "Live" (with a short "i", as in, to stay alive), was recorded and has now been released as a CD. I bought the download for $5.

An excerpt from the show was played on a episode of This American Life. You can listen to it here.

2. My friends, students, teachers and healers. The response on my Facebook post about the diagnosis was overwhelming. I felt so much love and support, it was just amazing. I was also very lucky to have several women in my meditation and yoga classes who have experienced breast cancer first or second hand and could give me understanding and advice. I am so blessed.

3. My husband. He's been fantastic through this. He's been with me every step of the way, always telling me that everything will be fine. And only a couple of times needing to be reminded that I'm in need of more special care than usual.

4. I already listed the books I have used.

Now, the woo:  

1. Prayer and meditation. I generally begin my day with yoga, followed by a few moments of prayer or meditation. But after my diagnosis through the surgery I increased my daily contemplative time to 10 minutes or so. It really helped keep me centered when I had to go to work. Here are some of my favorite prayers.

The Serenity Prayer
Goddess grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I said this one a lot in the beginning, while I was still really grappling with the diagnosis.

The Metta Prayer
May I be safe,
May I be healthy,
May I be free from suffering,
May I live with ease.

This Buddhist prayer was my go-to meditation whenever feelings of anxiety or sadness became too much. I repeated it over and over in my mind during my lunchtime walk or on my way from my car to the office before work. It always calmed me very quickly.

Humme Hum Brahm Hum

I searched hard for a mantra to chant internally during scary medical procedures, as a way to distract me, calm my mind and relax my body. It had to be short enough to repeat on one breath, easy to remember, and pleasant to my inner ear. "Om" felt too short, and Frank Herbert's "Litany Against Fear" was too long. I finally settled on "Hummee Hum Brahm Hum" (from the Kundalini Yoga tradition). The usual Sanskrit translation is "We are we, we are God". The word Hum also relates to the heart center, and one of its meanings is the grounding of Universal Form in the body. So the mantra can be translated to mean "God is in my very being," which I love.

Hummee Hum Brahm Hum also has a lovely tune, which you can hear in this YouTube video.

2. Visualization. Two visualizations came to me during the months before the surgery.

a. One was visualizing my body turned into a flock of butterflies. Most of my body was black butterflies with blue markings. The cancer cells appeared as red and black butterflies. I picked them out of my butterfly body and asked them to fly elsewhere.

Closer to the surgery, the butterflies in the visualization all turned into bright blue butterflies with black markings (think Morpho butterflies). The red cancer butterflies were absent. I took this as a very good sign.

b. The second visualization that came to me was of a sphere, a ball I could either hold or put up around me. When faced with needles of any sort, I put my fear in the ball and bounced it away from me. Or if someone irritated or stressed me when I was at work or otherwise out and about in daily life, the sphere expanded to include all of me, as a shield against the irritation. This visualization of a sphere of power has come to me several times now; I think it will stay with me.

3. Affirmation. Each week, I took a couple of hours out of my weekend for contemplation. This is when I found the mantras and prayers I wanted to work with. I would usually do some gentle grounding yoga to get in touch with me inner strength: Warrior 1, Warrior 2, Tree Pose. Some breath work to calm me.

I also looked for the perfect affirmations for my healing. I will end with a page from my notebook of my favorite affirmations. The symbol at the bottom is the Sanskrit symbol for Hum.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Getting more active

I started taking walks in our neighborhood about 6 days after the surgery, 40+ minutes, once or twice a day. Getting some exercise did me a world of good; it was wonderful to be moving again. But I was still feeling fatigued in the late afternoon and would lie down for a few hours, maybe napping, usually just listening to a podcast.

A week after that, I remembered that there is a nice metropark just 15-20 minutes drive from where we live now. The weather was perfect: clear blue skies and unseasonably cool temperatures in the upper 60's.

It. Was. Glorious!

I chose a 2.5 mile loop trail. I encountered a number of runners, mostly women, wearing their cute running outfits. There I was, in my button-down cotton blouse from the thrift store, purchased to wear while I'm recovering and not allowed to lift my arms over my head, and my hiking shorts that are a size too big because I've lost weight since I bought them, and I didn't care! I was all, I had breast surgery two weeks ago, and here I am hiking on a real trail in the woods, motherfuckers!

By the time I finished I was grinning ear to ear.

I walked there every day last week, with the exception of one day off for recovery. I pulled out my hiking boots, and started extending the length of my walks: 3 miles,  3.5 miles. I had forgotten just how much I love hiking. I love the solitude, and the exercise. And I love the sounds: wind rustling the leaves, my boots striking the ground, water sloshing in my water bottle.

Maybe it's the exercise, or all the sun I've been getting, or maybe it's just the healing process, but I no longer find myself tired in the afternoons. I'm able to get a few things done around the house. I have shopped for a cooked my breakfasts and lunches.

I was afraid I would be bored on disability, far from it.

One day last week, I made homemade deodorant, following a recipe I found online.

The following day, I hemmed a couple of pants. Not quite as interesting as making deodorant, but useful.

Disability is starting to feel more like a vacation. I'm not ready for it to end!