catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 13 :: 2007.06.29 — 2007.07.13


The other side of illness

There are as many ways to experience cancer as there are people. 
I don’t propose to share my path to be an inspiration to you or to
offer a direction for anyone.  Although cancer survivors appear to
have some shared awareness, I have learned that each journey through
the cancer experience is unique, as it is a journey into the self.

My own journey began with a long drop down from the illusion of
invincibility.  I never smoked, was not much for alcohol and there
was never any history of breast cancer in my family, so I never even
considered the possibility of being the first woman in my family on
either side to develop breast cancer. 

But I certainly could run myself ragged:  a fast-tracked career
woman, wife, mother, home and garden enthusiast!  I was a control
freak (which causes anxiety in oneself—and others) an overachiever, and
not one to be outdone.  There is a theory that people who are
always late, overscheduled, and over-involved are really running from
death.  That was me. The premise is that the grim reaper will have
a harder time hitting a moving target.  Well, he doesn’t.

Being that tightly wound can create a level of stress that comes to
feel normal.  And if this state of living at the speed of light
doesn’t cause cancer, it certainly doesn’t leave one’s heart, soul,
mind, and soma open to the things that can nurture them.  It’s not
to say I didn’t have an interesting life.  I just think the rate
at which I was living it made me somewhat of a spectator to my own
experience.  Ban Breathnach said it best in her book Simple Abundance:  “hurtling through real life as if it were an out-of-body experience.”

Then I was stopped—like a bullet hitting a lead wall.  Being
diagnosed with breast cancer really can put one in the moment. 
But, I believe it was God’s plan for me to slow down.  I think
previously, I may not have been ‘open’ to the message; therefore, more
drastic measures came into play.  And for a person who is at home
with the illusion of control, slowing down can be very uncomfortable.

It was not a good time to get cancer.  I had lost my job. 
In fact, there were many things about the past ten years that had
become less than perfect—messy marriage, messier divorce, single
parenting, financial pressures, financial risk, failed business
venture, crooked business partner, rotten romantic life.  My life
was catching up with me. 

I have to say I cried and was inconsolable with sadness for several
weeks following the news.  The depth of my sadness stemmed from
the realization that I would deeply miss my daughter and my regret at
the possibility of leaving her at a time when she needed me, and I so
much wanted to be with her.  Other relationships were
affected.  People I didn’t know, or hadn’t heard from in ages,
‘crawled out of the woodwork’ and were there to help me in large
measures.  Conversely, there were those I knew would stand by me
in any circumstance, who, ‘disappeared into the woodwork’. 

I did not feel sorry for myself.  And, I never wondered, “Why
me?”  This is not to say I didn’t have my share of anger, but I
never felt abandoned by God.  I always felt that God carried
me.  And, at times, there really were only one set of prints in
the sand.  I don’t know why, but I always felt blessed or luckier
than most—even when struggling through surgeries to take parts out or
put them in or chemo or radiation.  Oddly, when I look back on the
whole of the experience, I think of it less as a time of illness and
more as a time of revelation and miracles.

Then, a year after the initial diagnosis, while undergoing a course
of radiation treatment, I was diagnosed with stage two—on my
birthday.  Because the area in question could not be biopsied, the
oncologist said he had requested two other opinions.  One
concurred with the metastatic diagnosis, but he was still waiting on
the other, from a highly regarded radiologist from out of state. 
My daughter was baking a cake at the neighbor’s as a surprise for me
while I was at the appointment.  I remember praying and bargaining
with God the whole drive home and when I ducked into my house to wash
the tears away before going next door to smile and blow out the
candles, I quickly checked the message machine.  I ask you …What
were the chances?  The caller identified himself as an associate
of the radiologist providing the final opinion.  He said it was no
promise, but they didn’t think the x-ray was showing metastasis. 
I decided to believe him, even though doctors continued to clash over
the diagnosis for years. 

For many, the event of a life threatening illness or experience is a
catalyst to connect with one’s spirituality.  In my case, God
preceded cancer…just lucky I guess.  I’m sure it would have been a
more tumultuous journey out there in the storm alone. I might add that
in my younger years I had been a staunch and rather eloquent atheist
who singlehandedly took on debating small clusters of Jehovah Witnesses
and Baptists for sport.  A great one for proof, as the years
progressed, I found my self somewhere where proof had no place:
faith.  God was something I began to feel as an ongoing presence
in my life, something I could neither explain nor deny, and I excused
myself from having to do either.  Belief in God was, in essence, a
personal indulgence, a gift I gave myself.  It went against every
paradigm I held dear…and yet, I felt so comfortable with it.

And though I felt God’s arms around me right from the start of the
journey, the hardest part had been telling my nine-year-old.  She
understood enough about the C word to know that it had a connection
with death. Knowing I was a year late getting my mammogram, I felt deep
sadness and disappointment in my sense of responsibility to my
child.  It was interesting to observe her efforts to make sense of
my going for treatment (chemo) and coming home worse than when I
left.  She would lie on my bed with me and we would play with her
home-constructed board game: Cancer.  Select a Cancer Card and
“Move two spaces forward…just because you feel like it”; or, “Take ten
steps back…you don’t know why”. 

We did our best with this time of waiting.  Who lives? Who
dies?  Why?  These questions loomed over us like B-52
bombers.  Women with no node involvement: gone in months. 
Others with the same type of cancer and a dozen positive nodes removed:
here for years.  Cancer is an unpredictable condition with a lot
of variables in play.  I think there certainly are some
generalities about the disease that influence survival: general health,
confidence in one’s practitioners, receptiveness to treatment, purpose,
and hope.  And the least of these is not hope.   Even
though sometimes healing from the disease may mean moving to the next
level through death, each of us is entitled to map and travel our own
journey and to hold on to hope no matter the odds in reaching our

I cannot summarize how cancer has changed me.  My journey
continues. I can tell you that my circuits are still a bit overloaded
from all I had to absorb.  Re-entry has been a little
disorienting.  Coming out of cancer is akin to being put off the
train suddenly in an unfamiliar place.   And that unfamiliar
place is me.  I am different from before the disease, mentally,
spiritually, emotionally and physically.  And, what worked before
doesn’t work now.  The station stop finds me just coming out of
the ‘culture of illness’—the state of being sickly that develops a life
of its own.  In my case, it was as a result of being immersed in
stage two disease, 12 surgeries, chemo and radiation, and the full
compliment of side affects including lymphodema, fibromyalgia,
migraines, and hair loss.  Which is great for the legs, plus I
found out my head shape is really nice…nicer than Demi Moore’s. 
It was very liberating not having to deal with hair issues.  You
can’t have a bad hair day when you don’t have hair—just rinse your head
and go!  Although, the look would have come off so much better if
I had had eyebrows.  And even though it is an older and less
attractive skin, I am now more comfortable in my own skin.  I am
open to learning about the next me. 

I value myself more, am more tender with myself and more accepting of
my frailties.  Things like missing eyebrows found their quiet
place in the larger scheme of things. After moving beyond the self
alienation that was initiated by the sense of being betrayed by my own
body, I have developed a more intimate relationship with my self. 
I have come to realize that I too broke quite a few promises to my body
regarding nutrition, rest and stress. We are now in the making up and
negotiating phase where we are setting new ground rules, and I am
searching to find alternatives to that which I feel I have lost. That
relationship includes getting in touch with the things that renew me
make and my spirit soar. One of these is horses.

Horses are my conduit to the earth’s energy.  It’s a different
passion for everyone: music, gardening, golf, cooking.  I believe
tapping that energy through your passion is vital to living…for however
long.  I was away from horses for awhile before I became
ill.  Chance brought me into a relationship with a horse following
my cancer that challenged my perception of myself and made me take a
second look at who I thought I was.  For the last four years I
have reared a Dutch Warmblood Stallion from a yearling.  He is now
18 hands and 1400 pounds.  If you know anything about horses, you
understand that in a herd of horses, leadership and doubt do not reside
in tandem.  Horses are prey animals, and being dinner, they are
evolutionarily programmed to follow a confident leader to
safety.   If you have observed a school of fish or a herd of
wildebeest move as one, you know there are no maps being distributed
prior to take-off, yet all are in sync through curves and turns. 
The members of these collectives react through an acute ability to
instantly pick up and respond to energy and subtle cues.  So, if
you lack confidence, a horse will know it immediately, even if you, or
your human companions, don’t. 

Well, I did, and he knew.  And, when my stallion hit his ‘terrible
twos’, he wasn’t a baby anymore, but a herd animal gaining confidence
and size, and at 16 hands and 1000 pounds, he wasn’t about to follow a
leader with a hollow scepter.  I didn’t know how badly the disease
shook my confidence.  But he knew.  And regaining the role of
leader required me to dig deeply to access the real thing.  You
can’t fake it with a horse.  They respond to signals that come
from a much deeper level.  I can assure you it has little to do
with physical strength.  My horse has been my faithful friend and
partner on a healing journey that has gone beyond the body to the
core—one that helped me understand that the definition of health
encompasses more than the absence of illness in the body.  I know
no matter how badly I feel physically, when I am standing next to
him—even in the mud with sleet coming down—I feel good. This year at
age 53, I will begin his training under saddle.  And I am not a
horse trainer; but I do have the good sense to be guided by one.

I would like to tell you that as a result of this experience all of my
priorities have fallen in order, I am never dissatisfied, and things is
my life run much smoother.  But that wouldn’t be the
truth.   The good news is: as a direct result of experiencing
a life threatening illness, I have developed a strong awareness of what
is really important in my life.  Before, it was clouded. 
Now, it’s clear.  The bad news is I don’t always honor those
priorities and allow them to guide my choices.  I mess up
sometimes, occasionally still run things to the wire, push the limits,
and take risks.  But, in a sense, that is also the good news,
because things are getting back to normal.  Only now, there is an
abiding sense of gratitude that has taken up residence within me, and a
deeper appreciation of each day.

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