I hope all is well in your world as I write post number two.
It’s been a few months since my diagnosis, and I didn’t start writing about my experience right off the top. I figured I’d better see if I could learn a few things first. So I’ll just play catch-up now, starting with the day of my surgery in late July of 2010. Something extraordinary happened to me that day, and I think it could happen to you, too, if it hasn’t already. I hope the story will be helpful, and worthy of the precious time you spend reading this.
You and I each bring a certain amount of conscious and unconscious baggage (both helpful and not so helpful varieties) to the table when making any kind of decision. Here’s a wee insight into mine, to give some context to whatever conversation might ensue. As a community nurse working in one of the most multi-cultural urban centres on earth, I cared for thousands of patients with every conceivable illness. I’ll never find words to describe the value of the education I received behind the doors of every kind of home Toronto has to offer, from Post Road mansions to crumbling, roach-infested rooming houses and shelters – and sometimes no houses at all. The most important thing is: I came to see that illness is a great equalizer; it strips away all illusions of “difference” brought on by privilege or poverty. Through my work, I came to have a profound respect and fierce love for humanity – that includes you - and for the miraculous, resilient, transcendent human spirit. A human being – any human being - is the most beautiful garden on Earth.
As long as their choices couldn’t potentially cause harm I always supported my patient’s treatment decisions, no matter how unusual, because I understand how important a part belief plays in healing. My own beliefs about healing were shaped during a very nature-inspired upbringing by a European immigrant mother who considered diet, herbs, baths, and an attitude of courage to be the best doctors. I still agree, though I would add prayer to that list. So when I learned my own diagnosis, and heard that surgery was necessary in short order if I didn’t want to be pushing up asters by Thanksgiving, I had a real dilemma on my hands. All the healing methods I believed in take time*… clearly not one of the features of ovarian cancer, which is typically diagnosed at a late stage because of the absence of overt symptoms. I was not mentally or spiritually prepared for the battlefield approach that seemed the only reasonable course of action to save my life.
After deciding without a doubt that I wanted to live and therefore would take the advice of several trustworthy physicians who had my best interest at heart, I was able to embrace the idea of major abdominal surgery. But I pulled up short at the prospect of chemotherapy. Although some drugs used in the ovarian cancer protocol here in Canada are plant based (ex:Taxol) , they are all highly refined and extremely toxic, and there are several additional medications one must take in order to endure the effects of chemo upon the body. No, this was not for me; I felt sure of it. I made the decision to have surgery, followed by a rigorous program of herbs, prayer, diet, and supplements. I felt confident with my choice, was otherwise healthy and strong in every way, and my doctors were not expecting to discover a worst-case scenario at surgery. Dilemma solved with a minimum of compromise - or so I thought.
If by any chance dear traveler, you’re a mother who, let’s say, entered into the childbirth experience with clear and noble ideas about how you wanted to welcome your little one into the world (no anaesthesia, no hospital, for instance), and subsequently needed an emergency C-section in order to save your child’s life, you already know what I’m going to say here. In the final analysis, it’s about preserving life. The stakes are high, life is precious, and in the searing moment of reality it’s not about ideas and ideals any more, it just IS. The axis shifts; the light pours in. It’s no longer about the birth; it’s about the baby. Suddenly, the decision is easy. Sometimes that same kind of illumination happens simply by grace – with no emergency at hand, and without you or I ever realizing the need to re-examine our ideas. That’s what happened with my plan about not doing chemo.
When I awoke from surgery, before reaching full consciousness, everything was so still. I felt saturated with peace. Eyes still closed, I observed within my little cocoon of peace a warm light, and glimmering somewhere in the light was a concept. The concept was “Now it’s time to do chemo.” I lay there smiling and felt strangely, deeply happy, as if some well-loved voice had announced: “Now there is no more suffering in the world.” Seconds later, my mind sputtered “Wait a minute - Chemo? That can’t be right – I’m SO not doing chemo!” In my utterly simple state I decided I didn’t like the feeling of this second "voice". I focused on the lovely light again. The peace returned. I thought “How can this be? Am I really supposed to have chemo? How can I reconcile that with everything I believe?” But I didn’t turn away from the peace. I just thought to myself, well, it must be that the soul knows things the mind does not. I decided to trust this, and see what would unfold. Later, after hearing the results of the surgery from my Doctor, I would learn why chemo was the right choice for me. But it’s not those cold facts that give me the courage to stay the hellish course. It's my decision to trust in the absolute clarity of that moment of peace, when I listened to my inner voice, that brought me the strength I need to rise to this challenge.
You and I have the privilege of choice. Even when severely constrained by outer circumstances, we have limitless inner choices: how we will view things, how we will judge, how we’ll act if action is possible. For any given scenario there’s always a path of least resistance – usually a lazy one, well worn by habit and paved with notions that have little basis in reality. There’s a path of obligation, the one we take when pleasing others is our priority. There’s a path of hard knocks, where we wilfully and self-destructively – for various, unsound reasons - turn away from what’s in our best interest and put ourselves in harm’s way. There are myriad paths and you and I have been down most of them. Now I'm learning there’s a very different kind of road we can travel.. I call what I experienced after surgery “the path that unfurls.” There’s a natural ease, and a beckoning, and a sense of “rightness” on this path, and if I pay attention to those feelings as I navigate this illness, I can tell when I’m veering off course. It’s not always easy; I end up in the ditch a lot. It takes practice. The road’s never familiar; it springs, perennially new, from the still-glistening edge of the previous moment. But when I can stay with it, it always carries me safely to my next crossroad. None of this is to say that planning is a bad thing; quite the contrary. It's just that often our best-laid plans don't unfold as we'd envisioned, because we can't always see the big picture at the outset. That's when the "path that unfurls" can show us the detours around whatever obstacle we've encountered. Wouldn't it be amazing to always live this way, feeling the welcoming road unfurl before us like a beautiful carpet, always sure of which way to go?
So, dear traveler, here’s what I’d like to share with you about treatment decisions: In truth, it’s not about having chemo or not having chemo.. It's about letting go of old prejudices - no matter how well-founded they may seem - so grace can find a way into your life. It’s about accepting the best choices that life, in its compassionate wisdom, offers you (and it WILL offer). It’s about having faith in the inner guidance that’s available to each one of us.
If you look around in there, I know you’ll find the trailhead to the path that unfurls just for you, no matter how dark it seems at first. And if you don't find it right away, just be gentle with yourself and make the best decisions you can in the mean time. Life is kind and will meet you half way. One more thing: Your path and mine may be very different, even if our circumstances seem similar. My little planet has its own secret highways and byways, just like yours. It’s OK to ask for directions sometimes, but always remember: it’s your little planet; you’re the one with the map.
* with the exception of prayer, which I believe – and have witnessed – is sometimes answered with miracles that operate beyond the limitations of time.