Breast Cancer and Nourishment of Self

23 Nov

I have written about this before, but it bears repeating.  Breasts are symbolic of nourishment.  In this culture we tend to look upon breasts as symbols of sexual attraction, but obviously breasts were  made to feed babies.  Breasts are first and foremost about nourishment.

Last night a friend handed me a copy of Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body A-Z.  He gave it to me because I was having some back issues, but as I leafed through it, I found the section on “Breast Problems.”  Hay wrote as probable emotional cause: “A refusal to nourish the self.  Putting everyone else first.  Overmothering….”

So, I invite you to ask yourself:  “Do I put the needs of others before my own?”

If you are a woman – and especially if you are a mother, I am willing to bet that often the answer is yes.  And if you are a woman with elderly parents, or if you are a nurse or a social worker, or even if you are married, I bet the answer is often yes.

It seems many of us have been trained since we were very little to look after others.  We may have had younger brothers and sisters to look after; we may have been trained to cook and clean and do the laundry – certainly moreso than any brothers we may have had.   And when/if we married, most of us voluntarily took on the responsibility of most of the housecleaning and shopping and ferrying around of children.  Even in our jobs we may have been trained to take care of our boss’s needs rather than our own.

Even if we are conscious of patriarchy’s presence in our lives and we do what we can to honor the rights of ourselves as women, most of us are nevertheless firmly committed to kindness.  And while kindness is certainly a virtue, martyrdom is not.  And many of us unconsciously cross the line from kindness into martyrdom.

If you’ve had a really rough day at work, for instance, and you’re worn to an absolute frazzle, how many of you will push yourselves to make dinner rather than ask your husband to pick up some take-out or, heaven forbid, even do the cooking  himself?  How many of you will throw something together even if you’re dead on your feet rather than ask the kids to make themselves a sandwich?  I’m not saying we shouldn’t make nourishing our families a priority, I’m just suggesting that sometimes we need to honor our own needs first.  If we are so depleted that we get sick, we obviously are serving no one, least of all ourselves.

I was blessed to have a relatively stress-free life when I was married and raising my young stepson.  However in my fifties, my life got a bit more stressful.  I was working for a hospice organization and had thirty to forty patients to look after.  And then my mom had a heart attack and my dad had Alzheimer’s and so I jumped in to take care of them.  And then, needing money, I took another hospice job and so I was taking care of both parents plus a roster of patients.  Did I take care of myself?  Not so much.  I indulged in comfort food way too often.  Because I also had a long commute, I didn’t have much time or energy for walking or other exercise.  And generally, I was unhappy and exhausted and burned out.

I share this as a gentle reminder to women everywhere.  Be kind to yourself.  If at all possible, structure your life in such a way that you are not overburdened.  And if your choices are limited, make sure that at least there are plenty of release valves.  Figure out a time each day when you can take a short walk.  Or wake a bit earlier so that you can meditate.  And if you absolutely must work outside the home while simultaneously raising kids, if possible, have help around the house.  Delegate.  Negotiate with your partner and older children to make sure they do their fair share of the household chores.  Make sure you have time out with girlfriends during which you can just be yourself.  Try to make room for massages or a yoga class or gym membership in your budget.   Find ways to relieve stress.  Stress is a major factor in most illnesses, including breast cancer.

Like the flight attendants remind us at the beginning of each flight, put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child.  We can’t take care of others if we don’t first take care of ourselves.  And it is essential that we take care of ourselves while we are relatively well or we will be forced to do it when we are ill.

Don’t refuse to nourish yourself.  Don’t put everyone else first.  TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  Be kind to yourself.  Mother yourself!  And be well, my friends.

 

When Breasts Change

26 Sep

This post is for women.  Especially women of a certain age.  I confess I am rather hoping that the men I know do not read this.  But I’m learning that when things are uncomfortable for me, it doesn’t mean I’m not supposed to share.

This post is about “aging” breasts.

In this culture, breasts, for good or ill, are very much a part of what is considered sexually attractive.  I am fortunate that even after my lumpectomy and subsequent weight loss, I still have large breasts.  However now that I am officially considered menopausal – it has been over a year since I’ve stopped bleeding – I’ve noticed my breasts are different.  They are not as full and round and perky as they once were.

The ego part of me, the part of me that grew up in this American culture, struggles with this.   Here, breasts are prominently displayed on every other billboard, are blatantly paraded in movies and sit-coms, and are splashed throughout magazine ads.  We glorify breasts here, and we glorify young, round, pert ones.  We even adulate fake ones.  (But that’s a subject I’ll save for another time.)

The other part of me knows, deep down, that there is no shame in aging.  This wise part of me knows that we are all multi-dimensional beings who are ever so much more than our physical appearance.

But I cannot easily negate or erase the feelings the ego part of me has.

One time I was in a gathering which included two men from Africa.  I cannot remember how we got on the topic.  I think I was talking about older women and the subject of power.  Anyway, one of these gentlemen mentioned that there is a term in Africa for ‘the woman who fed you’  (breastfed you.)  It is a term of enormous respect and affection.  I love this!  I love that they honor these women who gave them nourishment and kept them alive.  I love that breasts are acknowledged and revered for nourishing and sustaining life.  I find it sad that we have sexualized breasts to such an extent that a woman cannot even breastfeed her baby in public without facing harassment or disapproval.  This is certainly not true in African and other parts of the world.

I used to think breasts got saggy because of simple gravity.  But now I am realizing it is because the milk ducts atrophy.  When a woman reaches menopause, there is no longer a possibility of giving birth (unless a miracle happens along the lines of Abraham’s wife, Sarah.)  And when there is no longer the need to care for a baby, the milk ducts shrink.  Hence, the breasts change shape and begin to sag a bit.

So… how do I – how do any of us – endeavor to feel sexy and attractive even with breasts that are aging, or scarred, or removed, or replaced with synthetic ones?  The best way, I imagine, is to focus on our overall health and inner beauty.  If we are healthy and happy, that beauty really will shine through.  The right people, the best people, will see your beauty no matter what.  It probably goes without saying, but anyone who “loves” you only for your breasts, obviously does not love you at all.

Be well, dear women.  And shine on!

When Your Inner Voice Says “Time Out”

28 Aug

Recently I stumbled upon and reread one of my journals from two years ago.  Two years ago was half a year after my breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent lumpectomy.  It was a time during which I had removed myself from much of “regular life.”  I was not working a “regular job,” I was not socializing, I was definitely being a bit of a hermit.  Cancer had thrown me for a loop and I was struggling to find my footing.  Withdrawing from life seemed necessary at the time, although that doesn’t mean I didn’t sometimes judge myself for it.

When I first discovered the symptoms that took me to my primary doctor and then very quickly to a breast specialist, I was busy working on a big project and trying to start a new business.  In the midst of all this busy-ness, I had a second appointment with the specialist.  As I was getting ready to go to the appointment, I was finding myself extremely and uncharacteristically anxious and agitated.  I was actually stumbling on things, I was so stressed.  When I took a moment to check in, I realized I was scarcely breathing and I felt like I was ready to scream.  Then it finally dawned on me that I’d become so busy worrying about making money that I hadn’t taken the time to even figure out what this momentous thing might mean for me and what I might want to do or not do as a result.  I was about to show up at this appointment completely unprepared.

I stopped for a moment and sat down to breathe.  And then – no surprise – I started to cry.  I gave myself permission to feel all my anxiety and fear.  From that moment on, my attitude changed.  NOTHING became as important as what was going on with my body and the decisions I had to make about my care.

As soon as I returned from that appointment I did a heck of a lot of research.  I also decided to go to the beach to have a small retreat and try to get clarity about my next course of action.  While there, I suddenly remembered a dream I once had but had “forgotten.”  In the dream I was asked, “How’s your cancer?”  I was stunned that I’d had that dream and then tucked it back into my subconscious.   I suddenly realized I didn’t need to stay at the shore anymore; I’d gotten what I came for.  I realized I needed to go home and look at my dream journals.  I also realized I wanted a different doctor.  I wanted someone who would listen to my concerns and include me in decisions about my treatment as opposed to simply telling me what “we” were going to do.

During the course of the next several days, weeks, and months, I spent a great deal of time in the process of introspection and reflection.  Meanwhile, I wasn’t bringing in any money.  Needless to say, that was a tiny bit stressful, but I couldn’t seem to focus on anything as mundane as a job.  I know that sounds ridiculous, but nothing in me wanted to work at a regular job.  I was seriously burned out from several years of hospice work and intensive caregiving (of others, not me!)  And I was actually feeling strongly guided to not begin another job at that point.  And then the Universe conspired to support me in that decision by causing my car to break down.  I had no money to fix my car and so I stayed home.  And continued with my introspection, reflection, and research.

I also took a lot of walks.  And  I wrote.  A lot.  I called a few friends.  I also did something I hadn’t done in many, many years.  I vegged.  In extreme.  I watched loads of Netflix.  I did the Facebook thing.  I sat in front of the screen of my laptop more hours than I care to admit.  But this was where I was at at the time – in a place of non-doing.  I didn’t feel like being a contributing member of society.  I just needed to be by myself.  A lot.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t judge myself.  I did that a lot, too.  This society doesn’t look kindly upon idleness.  I confess I got a bit depressed.  I was poor, I had no car, I had no job except for the occasional odd job.  But now, two years later, I realize this fallow time was absolutely necessary from a spiritual perspective.

Cancer is such a wake-up call.  It is seldom simply a physical disease.  It is always, if we let it be, an impetus for change and growth.  Healthy growth.

My guess is that a lot of women who get breast cancer have been neglecting themselves.  Most women are oh so very good at taking care of others.  Here is what the four years prior to my diagnosis looked like:

  • For a couple years I was a hospice chaplain in New Mexico.  At one point I was serving two offices and commuting upwards of four hours a day – not counting all the driving between clients scattered throughout the central part of the state.
  • My workload increased as the job of bereavement counselor was added to my duties.
  • Then I left the hospice job and started doing private caregiving.
  • Then I moved back home to help care for my parents.  My mother had had a heart attack and a small stroke, and Dad was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
  • While caring for my parents, I got some more caregiving jobs.
  • The opportunity arose to become a hospice chaplain yet again, this time in New Jersey.  And once again, I had almost an hour’s commute each way.

So for four years I was caring for other people.  Relentlessly.  That was my job.  I cared for clients, staff, parents.  But not so much myself.  I felt pretty much in survival mode for much of that time.  My energy reserves were very low.  I did my work as well as I possibly could, and then when I got home, I kind of crashed.  It was hard to summon up the energy to prepare myself a good meal.  And on weekends, I was happy to just stay home.  I didn’t feel like driving anywhere.

In retrospect, it is so obvious  why I got cancer.  I needed something drastic to happen before I would have the courage and wisdom to say no to obsessively caring for others and yes to caring for me.  Not that I wouldn’t care for others on an emotional level (although my energy for that was more limited), but that I wouldn’t subsume myself in the needs of others at the expense of my own.

After a month or so I decided to stop fighting this desire to not work.  I realized that if my intuition was guiding me to not work a “regular job,” then I would simply need to find a way to reduce my expenses.  They were already fairly low, but I did have rent.  That was my biggest expense.  Then my intuition kicked in again. It said  to ask a friend if I could live with them for a while and barter my rent.  They said yes!

During that next year I wrote,  I walked their dog (and myself), I slept, I dreamed, I prepared healthy food, I drew, I painted, I gave a few massages, did a few odd jobs.  But mostly, I simply cocooned.  I badly needed to hibernate and stop focusing so much on others.

Here is what I now realize.  That downtime, that retreat time, that withdrawal from the world, enabled my energy to rise again.  I had to give myself that time to determine what my spirit needed and what I needed my life to look like.  I had to ask myself “What did I want to do less of?” and “What did I want to do more of?”  And very gradually, as I sank into and allowed this delicious downtime, the sap began to flow again.  My energy began to return.  I knew what my spirit wanted to do.  I began to pursue my dreams.  I allowed myself to make plans to move.  I began focusing on my passions and my purpose.  And I finally realized that focusing on my own deepest dreams and desires was what most greatly contributed to my highest health and well-being.

Too often we wait for something rather catastrophic to happen before making big changes.  Don’t wait.  If you’re feeling depressed, stressed, anxious, unsettled, there’s a reason for this.  Be kind to yourself and figure out what you’ve always wanted to do.  Then give yourself permission to do it.  You will find yourself with more vitality than you’ve felt in a long time.

May you be happy!  May you be healthy.

Abundant blessings to you.

Cindy

Second Post-lumpectomy Mammo

8 Oct

I have already announced the results on Facebook, but for those who don’t know me in that context, I finally, finally, finally, finally got my second post-lumpectomy mammogram.  It was twenty months after the first follow-up one, which was fourteen months after they wanted me to have one.  (And the first follow-up one was three months after they recommended me to have one.  Can you tell I’m not crazy about mammograms???)  Two psychics and an intuitive had told me I was cancer-free, but I did the mammo for peace of mind for myself and for any friends who had concerns.

I was able to make the one-hour trip to the hospital free of anxiety.  I was able to walk to the receptionist and then the radiology department anxiety-free.  I was even okay while the technician lifted each breast into place, squashed them, and radiated them.  I also felt fine while waiting for her to upload the films to the radiologist who was off-site that day.  (Apparently the social worker scheduled me on a day when the radiologist was not on-site.  Those with a history of breast cancer are supposed to come Mondays and Tuesdays.  Fortunately the technician kindly allowed me to continue with the mammo that Wednesday due to the fact that I had made an hour-long trip to get there.)  (I live in a tiny mountain town in Colorado, one hour from the two nearest hospitals.)

But even though I didn’t consciously feel any anxiety, after I heard the results I was amazed at how relieved I felt.  “You are free and clear,” she said.  Phew.  It was like I finally let go of the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.  I had thought that I’d probably ultimately be fine, but I thought (like the last few times) there would be something “suspicious” or “disturbing” that they’d want to investigate further.  At some level I just expected them to want to do extra x-rays (like they had before) or ultrasounds (like they had before) and then to want to do various rather invasive, uncomfortable biopsies (like they had before.)  Somehow I was not prepared for:  You’re good to go!

I felt so incredibly light walking out of that hospital.  I felt like I was floating.  I continued to feel joy for the rest of the day.

I am so very, very grateful for this gift.

And I am sending much, much, much love to the numerous friends who have not been so blessed.

Another Lesson to Learn

30 Jun

Hi everyone.

Okay, so I have had two “cancer dreams” this week.  In the first one, there were several of us looking at a whole array of things designed to fight cancer.  After looking at everything, I came to a place of surrender.  I decided I didn’t want to do all this stuff.  I was either going to be well or I was not.

In the second dream, I had had a mammogram and there were two places of concern I was supposed to talk to the radiologist about.

I imagine these are warning dreams.  They are saying, “Please, go get a mammogram now!”  On the other hand, they could be fear dreams.  They could be saying, “You are afraid of a cancer recurrence and we will reflect your fears to you.”

The primary reason I have not had a mammo in the past six to eight months is: I don’t have insurance.  I made several calls and appointments to try to get a reduced-price mammogram and I didn’t get anywhere.  And I’m sad to say, I gave up.  Or rather, I put it aside for a while.  Now these dreams and my intuition are saying, “Get it done.  Find a way and get it done.”

I had an insight today while listening to Christi Calvano Maybo at Circle of Miracles (a place to go on a Sunday morning to be inspired by spiritually enlightened people.)  She was speaking about how if we are in service to others but not to ourselves, we will get ourselves in trouble.  We will find our joy rapidly disappearing. She spoke about how essential it is to be kind to ourselves.  She spoke about the need to receive as well as give.  She spoke about how we need to stop listening to the “supposed to’s” and listen instead to our heart.  Our heart will steer us rightly.  Our heart will tell us what is right for us.

This is a lesson I thought I had learned.  I know I had “lost myself” when caring for my parents.  But eventually I made changes and started listening to my heart’s desires.  This was good.  However I realized this morning that there might be an additional lesson.  And I think it is this:  I need to learn to take care of myself even when I think I can’t afford it.

Those of you who know me well know that I have long had struggles over money issues.  This continues to be an area in need of healing and major shift.  I am quite aware that if I were more financially abundant, I would be getting mammograms, going to doctor appointments, eating much healthier on a much more consistent basis, going to various healers, and taking various supplements.  All of this is difficult with no “extra” money and no insurance. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be taking care of myself!  I can’t use this as an excuse.

If I had a friend who wasn’t getting medical care because of a lack of money, I would rapidly suggest many options to her (i.e., make this phone call, go to that clinic, etc.)  I would nudge and nag and encourage her to follow whatever avenues were available.  I would pray for her and support her in whatever way I could.  Should I not then do the same for myself???

This is a big, big lesson for me.  Don’t stop taking care of yourself just because it’s hard, Cindy.  Find a way.  Find a way.

Stalling on Getting Another Mammogram

30 Jun

(I wrote this on April 16, 2013.  It’s now June 30th.  Clearly I’m stalling not only on getting a mammogram, but on sharing this with you all.)

Hi folks.  I decided it’s time to admit to you all (and me) that I have been stalling.  My last mammogram was January of 2012.  It’s now fifteen months later and I still haven’t gotten another one.  For the average woman, this would be just fine.  But I was diagnosed with early breast cancer (DCIS – ductal carcinoma in situ) during the summer of 2011.  General practice is to get six-month mammograms for a year or two after that to keep tabs on things.  I rejected that recommendation for reasons listed in a previous blog (concerns about radiation, etc.) however even I know that I’m kind of pushing the envelope here.  I was going to compromise and get a mammogram at ten months.  Then I pushed it back to one year.  And here I still haven’t had one.

Initially I tried to get one but found it too difficult.  I still don’t have health insurance and I was surprised to find that there weren’t any free or discounted mammograms available.  Or at least none that I could easily find.  Then I was caught up in caring for my parents, preparing for and leading a retreat, packing up and moving to Colorado, and I just didn’t feel I could put anything else on my plate.

I confess I am of two minds.  There is one part of me that is worried I might have cancer again.  I continue to second-guess myself about choosing not to follow the allopathic recommendations of my surgeon and the oncologists – ie, drugs and radiation.  I haven’t been as pure with my diet as I should be and I have gotten lax with taking the supplements that would help me.  (It’s kind of mind-boggling that I have let myself get so lax with the supplements.)

There is another part of me.  This is the positive-thinking, spiritual side of me.  (Some might call it a Pollyanna rose-colored glasses side.)  Although I may not be perfect in the care of my physical body, I have made great strides in the care of my emotional/mental/spiritual side.  I have made changes in my life that feel really good to my spirit.  I’ve moved to a place that makes me happy, I am doing work that I love, I have very little stress, and I am immersed in more spiritual practices than I have been for a long time.  I know of cases in which cancer has disappeared when the person began making much-needed changes and began living the life they always wanted to live.  There is a part of me that believes I am so on the right track now.  Haven’t I learned the lessons of cancer and embraced a new life for myself?

On the other hand, I worry that if I focus on cancer – ie, get a mammogram, I will be calling it to me.  As I write that last sentence I kind of cringe at how dumb that sounds.  Simply getting a mammogram does not exactly equate with “focusing on cancer.”  I’m quite sure the average person would say, “Just get the darn mammogram so you can set your mind at ease!”

I still have reservations about mammograms.  I still think they are unhealthy in many ways – not just the radiation, but the squishing of a breast that has already faced trauma multiple times.  It just doesn’t feel like a very respectful or safe way to treat an already injured breast with previous cancer cells.  (Why doesn’t someone invent another method???  Come on now!)

I realize if I get the darn mammogram and it looks clear, I don’t have to have these small niggling worries.  On the other hand, if it shows a possibility of cancer again, yikes.

I’m noticing I’m reluctant to share this post with my friends.  They’re going to get on my case and tell me to hop to it.  I know they are.

Well, I guess it’s time to be brave and ‘fess up.  I need a mammogram.

When Fear Raises Its Head – Again

4 Nov

When Fear Raises Its Head – Again

November 1, 2012

Whenever someone has been diagnosed with breast cancer, the specter of fear is always waiting, ready to haunt again. After taking a long hiatus, it raised its ugly head again recently.

There is a beautiful Cherokee elder who lives in Bucks County.  I had met her many years ago and recently had the opportunity to reconnect with her because she knows my housemate well.  One day a couple months ago, we sat down and had a nice long chat on the back patio.  In the course of the conversation, I had casually mentioned I’d had a health scare last year.  When she asked for more details, I told her briefly and afterwards I noticed her gazing at my chest a few times, as if trying to discern something.

She showed up again the end of September and knocked on my door.  She asked me if I’d be interested in trying some mushroom medicine she had.  (Turkey tail mushroom has had remarkable success in altering the course of some people’s cancers.)  She also wanted to pray for me.

We were outside at this point and I stood facing her with my hands upturned in a receiving posture.  She placed her hands over mine facing downward but not touching, and then she began to sing in a loud and clear voice this beautiful prayer in the Cherokee tongue.

I stood there in humble gratitude with a huge smile on my face, filled with the grace and beauty of this prayer.  The prayer came to an end and then she spoke a prayer in English so that I would understand.

Interesting, isn’t it, that such an act of grace and beauty would subsequently begin, once again, the niggling dance of fear?

I found myself thinking, ‘What did she see?  What does she know?  Do I have cancer again?’

I found myself looking for other clues.  I began to notice that once again my breast, after being completely pain-free for many months, would sometimes be a little achy/uncomfortable/sore.  (And no, it is not related to my menstrual cycle which has been “on hold” for a few months now.  And yes, I’m quite aware that this could be psychosomatic.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not  uncomfortable and disconcerting.)

I decided to do an inventory of my dreams from the last month, as the elder had indicated I might have a significant one.  I noticed the following:

  • I was startled to remember I’d had a “cancer dream” just a couple days before  the Cherokee prayer.  At the end of the dream I said, “Okay, I’ll get myself checked out.”
  • In the first dream after her visit, I wrote in my journal:  “Waiting for a little message.  Instead it’s a big wave – an over-the-heads, can’t-be-ignored, get-everything-clean message.”  (That’s all I remember about the dream and it’s all I wrote down.)
  • I had two doctor dreams.  In one, a doctor was helping me birth a baby.  He knew I was stubborn and literally prayed I would come to my senses and do things in a way he felt was safe.
  • There is a coffin-sized box downstairs with someone in it.  I am freaked out by the thought of that coffin.  (Yes, I’m sure this is symbolic of me being afraid of death.)
  • In another, I am signing into a cancer center.  In this cancer center, the patients are expected to dance every day.  I am dancing – kind of cha-cha-cha-ing backwards, and am full of joy.  It’s fun!
  • Three young women approach a health food store.  It’s dark and looks closed.  The door appears to be locked.  But then I see them inside walking down the aisles.
  • I have a few dreams of family members being sick or in dangerous situations or being suicidal.
  • I have one dream of an explosion, and one dream of a gun being fired.
  • I have two dreams about rats.  In one, I am being bitten on the toe by a rat and call out, “Help me help me help me help me help me!”
  • I dream also of sharks (they don’t appear ominous), and I have a wonderful dream of a praying mantis on a flying carpet-type leaf which comes to land on me, and also a dream about finding beautiful feathers that look like they belong to a phoenix.

In the face of all this, I have decided to get another mammogram. The last one was in January.  My breast doctor wanted me to get another one in July.  A November mammogram will be my compromise.

I also started acknowledging my fears to a few friends, which helped emotionally but did not necessarily help the fears to fade.  Then I found myself voicing my fears to my therapist, and that helped greatly.  (Thank goodness for both good friends and good therapists!)

Meanwhile, I am getting back on track with my supplements.   And my diet.   My diet is largely “not bad,” but there is certainly room for improvement!  I confess I do still veer off-track with my food choices, but I come back on track more quickly and stay on track longer.  (I don’t know if I’ll ever be the kind of person who can be totally strict and rigid with anything.  But I am the kind of person who can keep fairly balanced.)

This is my update, friends.  I share it not so that you’ll worry about me, but so that any women out there in a similar boat will know that this dance with fear is normal.

(And yes, I will keep you updated.)

May you be well.

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