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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 busyness, I had a second appointment with the specialist.  As I was getting ready to go to the appointment, I was finding myself stumbling on things, I was so stressed.  When I took a moment to check in, I realized I was extremely anxious.  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 “breast 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.  And 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.  After a couple hours there with the sun and the ocean, I suddenly remembered a dream I had once had but then “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 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, and I was worried about whether I’d “done enough” to fight the cancer I’d been diagnosed with.  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 was 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

Tips for the Newly Diagnosed

2 Sep

Tips for the Newly Diagnosed

September 1, 2012

I found out this morning that another friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.

It really does feel like a bit of an epidemic.  At least among those in my age range (40- 60 years old.)

Now I know that the idea I had a couple of days ago is right on target.  I need to summarize what I’ve learned in the last fifteen months so that someone who is newly diagnosed will have some tips on how to navigate the first month or two following a diagnosis.

So here you are, Lisa.  And anyone else out there who has just received “the news” that they have breast cancer.

 

  1. Give yourself the time and space to feel your feelings.  It is normal to “freak out” emotionally when you get this news.  You may look normal to the outsider, but on the inside, be assured there is some panic going on.  Even if you seem strangely calm, do not be deceived – you are likely in shock.  You may notice, for instance, that your normally assertive and intelligent self fails to ask for definitions of the many new terms being thrown at you by the radiologist who reviews your mammograms and/or your primary doctor and/or your breast doctor.  You may notice that when asked if you have any questions, your mind draws a blank.  It’s because you’re in shock, my dear.  Believe me, the questions are likely to come later – probably when you’re trying to sleep.  If you don’t give yourself time to feel your feelings and begin to process them, you may find yourself a bit vulnerable to accidents (hopefully minor) or unexpected outbursts.  Like the time I was getting ready to go for a consultation and I found myself bumping into furniture, stubbing my toes, and dropping things.  I was so nervous.  I finally realized that if I didn’t take the time to sit down and really breathe – or cry, I was probably going to really hurt myself!  If you allow time and space for emotional outbursts, you are less likely, as well, to freak out in an inappropriate situation like at work or with your children.  If you actually schedule time to be alone – at home, at a park, or (I know this sounds oxymoronic) with a dear friend, you can allow yourself to scream, to cry, to rant, or to curl up in a fetal position.  Just try not to hyperventilate.  Remember to breathe.
  2. Make sure you’re comfortable with your doctors, surgeons, radiologists.  There is a good chance you are going to be seeing them several times and it is imperative that you trust them and that they show you respect.  If you have a good working relationship with your clinicians, it makes the whole process ever so much easier.  The very last thing you need right now is someone who is overbearing, rude, abrupt, or untrustworthy.  If you have any doubts, get a second opinion from another doctor.  I changed to a second doctor/expert early on and I was so very glad I did.
  3. Take time to make the decisions regarding treatment that are right for you.  This was the most helpful advice I ever got.  My dear friend, Julia, reminded me that the vast majority of cancers grow slowly over a period of time.  If you need a week or two or three to sort through the many options, do it!  This is your body and you must feel comfortable with your course of treatment.  Do not let doctors or clinicians pressure you to do something unless or until you have decided that it is an appropriate course of action for you.  Take the time to do research.  Look online, read books, talk to other breast cancer patients and survivors.  My advice is: use your brain, but in the end, trust your gut feelings.
  4. Change your diet right now.  Chances are there is room for improvement.  If you eat meat and dairy, greatly reduce consumption of both or make sure you are using hormone-free products – preferably also organic and/or locally raised.  (Locally raised livestock are less likely to be filled with all the chemicals and toxins that agribusiness routinely uses in their food “production.”)  Double, triple, quadruple the number of vegetables and fruits you consume.  Most veggies and fruits are not only extremely nutritious and supportive of your immune system, but many actually fight cancer.  They fight free radicals, they slow tumor growth, they neutralize nitrosamines and toxins, they balance out hormones, and they even help make changes at the DNA level.  You can’t afford NOT to eat lots of produce.  (Again, please try to make it organic if at all possible, or from local farms and gardens.)  Consume lots of salads and soups and smoothies.  And throw in things like chopped kale, onions, carrots, and flaxseed into almost everything you consume.
  5. Make your environment as pure as possible.   Drink pure, filtered water whenever possible.  Use natural cleaning products and detergents.  Don’t use air fresheners, hair sprays, and certainly no weedkillers on your lawn or pesticides around your home.  Consider not using nail polish or hair gel or perms or harsh dyes.  And definitely don’t drink out of plastic drink containers that have been left in a hot, sunny car.  And definitely don’t microwave in plastic containers.  (In fact, try to avoid microwaving as there are some studies which show the nutrition is completely lost in the process.)
  6. Cut way back on alcohol consumption.  Quit smoking cigarettes.
  7. Exercise.  Maintain a healthy body weight.  Personally, I find walking good for my spirit as well as my body.
  8. Try to get as much sleep as you can and make your bedroom dark at night. (Except for moonlight.  Moonlight is very good for you.)
  9. Under your doctor’s guidance, make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D.  Those lacking sufficient Vitamin D are more prone to cancer.  Consider also the possibility of adding other medicinal herbs or supplements to your health regime.
  10. STOP DOING THOSE THINGS THAT STRESS YOU OUT!  If you hate your job, now might be an excellent time to leave it.  If the company of certain people makes you anxious, stop spending time with them.  If you are over-committed and overwhelmed, let go of as many commitments as possible.  This is major TAKE-CARE-OF-YOURSELF TIME!!!  Everyone and everything else must take a lower priority right now.  Even if you have children, you must place your needs at the top of the list right now.  After all, if you don’t do all that you can to get well, they could lose their mother.  YOU are the priority!  YOU!!!
  11. Enlist and/or accept the support you need right now.  If someone offers to take care of your kids, if they are a responsible person, by all means, say yes.  If someone offers to accompany you to an appointment or to drive you, if that would be comforting and helpful, say yes.  If someone offers to make you some healthy food, say yes!  Now is not the time to be a martyr and do it all yourself.  Allow yourself to be supported.
  12. If you are uninsured or do not have the funds to pay for your treatment, ask the doctor’s office to put you in touch with a social worker.  All hospitals have social workers and they can help you navigate the system and get the care you need.  In Pennsylvania, at least, if you have breast or ovarian cancer, my understanding is they will expedite your medical assistance application.
  13. Give yourself time to do the work on your emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues.  Oftentimes there is an unexplored or unresolved old issue or habit that can be part of the root of your illness.  For instance, many women are trained from a very young age to take care of everyone else first.  If this describes you, you may need to learn the lesson that you are important and worthy of care.  For others, they may have had a lifelong dream to do something very big or meaningful or special or exciting.  It may be time to dust off that dream.  For others, they may have a deep spiritual yearning for greater connection with the divine or greater peace.  This may be time to deepen your spiritual practices.  Find friends that you trust, a good counselor or clergyperson or spiritual advisor, and give yourself permission to work to get healthier on many levels – not simply at the physical level.
  14. Above all, now is the time for MAXIMUM SELF-CARE!  Now is the time for flowers on your table, delicious healthy food, movies, books, time in nature – whatever represents nurturing to you.  And now may be the time for massages, facials, Reiki, or acupuncture.  (Check with your doctor about any contraindications.)  Treat yourself the way you would treat an especially beloved friend or family member.  You deserve to be treated well!!!

May you be well, friends.  May you be healthy and well. This is a scary time, but it can also be a powerful, life-changing time.  Take it one day at a time.  And take care of you.

Healing as a Process

15 Apr

April 10, 2012

 

I will be getting another stereotactic biopsy on Monday.  I’m hoping it’s my last one.  I’m ready to be done with all this cancer drama.  I’m ready to be “just me,” as my friend Art used to always say.  (“How are you?”  I’d say.   “I’m just me,” he’d reply.)

 

Also, it’s been a little over ten months since this saga has begun.  It feels like a good time for reflection.

 

This is what I’ve noticed.  For about eight of the last ten months, I feel like I’ve been pretty worthless on a productivity level.   I like to think of myself as being pretty strong, but it seems clear this health scare threw me for a much greater metaphysical loop than I’d ever have imagined.

 

I truly did not have much energy for doing much of anything.  I certainly didn’t have energy for work.  Or for being responsible.  Or for doing things for other people.  If I put on my judgmental hat, I would have all kinds of rather nasty, disapproving things to say about myself.  But if I put on my wings and look at myself from a place of greater compassion, I realize I was a bit more fragile than I thought I was.  And whether it was completely conscious or not, I ended up giving myself plenty of time to truly process things.

 

I’d written a blog post a couple weeks ago in which I was wallowing in my shame about this non-productive time in my life.  I ended up not publishing it, and have to say I’m glad.  Because since that time, I’ve had a couple instances of reassurance that I wasn’t just a total slug, that important work was going on.

 

First, I had a session with a friend who is highly intuitive.  (She has a great gift and she offered me a session as part of an exchange.  I took care of her house and her wonderful dog. Along with some money, she gave me a reading. Yay!)  One of the things she told me was that I’d done a lot of work in the last two years and that the next two years would be good ones as a result.

 

I’d done a lot of work?  I can’t tell you how happy my spirit was to hear that!  I had been bashing myself quite a bit, flagellating myself for not getting myself more together. (My eyes are flooding with tears as I type this.)  I was so embarrassed about how little paying work I’d been doing.   I hadn’t had a lot of work, and I hadn’t had the energy to go look for it.  Nor had I any idea what I really wanted to do.  Except, that is, those things that I love to do – all those things which were not yet bringing me much money.  (ie, writing, art, teaching.)   To receive the acknowledgment that I had indeed been “doing work” was a huge, huge gift for me.

 

I’m sure when she said “work,” she was referring to emotional/spiritual work.  This kind of work is very hard to do in the workaday world.  The soul requires time and space to do this kind of work. And this culture doesn’t really look kindly upon people taking time off for soul-searching. Not that I was consciously “taking time off.”  I was simply in a one-day-at-a-time mode. I just didn’t have the usual reserves of energy, nor the usual font of ideas and inspiration for anything more far-reaching than the next day or two.

 

The second thing that happened was a dear friend of mine said that I’d been a catalyst for a really big change and growth process in her life.  She said that I had had a major impact on her just by being me, just by being a loving presence.

 

This was also so affirming for me.  I had asked her, several months ago, for a favor.  I had offered some services in exchange for this favor.  What I discovered was, though these services were and are appreciated, it was apparently my presence which had been most valuable. What this told me was that Spirit was at work, whether I realized it or not.  There was grace happening in the midst of struggle and in the midst of this not-so-honored-by-society fallow time.

 

Once these two events of affirmation happened, I began to lighten up.  I began to trust that I was being of service in the world – even without trying so hard.  I began to realize that even such mundane things as making posts on Facebook and giving hugs at church were benefiting the world in a small way.  Maybe I didn’t have to do the “big” things – like midwife people into the afterlife with hospice work, or bring in a large paycheck.  Maybe it was okay to just “be me.”  Maybe I wasn’t such a slacker after all.

 

And with that realization, I can – right this minute, feel my heart opening.  I feel a greater connection to Spirit. I imagine the angels cheering as I realize I am okay the way I am; that I don’t have to be more, better.

 

I also notice that in the past month or two, my energy has been returning. I’m not talking about physical energy.  I’m talking about the energy to be more present to other people.  I’m talking about the energy to be more responsible for something larger than myself.   I’m talking about the energy to be of service in the world again.

 

Just as cancer generally takes quite a while to grow, perhaps our spirit takes a while to heal.  Perhaps it’s a process that can’t be rushed.  Like grieving or childbirth, it unfolds in its own time, and no amount of rushing will make it go faster.

 

Maybe I’m okay just the way I am.  Cancer or not.  Money or not.  Busy or not.  Maybe it’s all okay.  It’s all just a process – life is a process; healing is a process.  I am healing in process.  But I think… I think it just may be possible that this chapter in my life is coming to a close.

 

And if not, well that’s okay, too.  In ten months, no doubt I’ll have another realization or two.

 

Blessings to each of you.  Thank you for reading this.

45-days Post-breast-surgery

15 Nov

The Breast Blog #17

October 13, 2011

It’s been one and a half months since my breast surgery and I thought I would update you on how things have been. The good news is that the anxiety has largely passed.  I now “believe” the pathology reports.  I believe that the lumpectomy was successful in removing the cancer in the right breast and that there is nothing cancerous in the left one. However, having said that, I must admit that once one has received a cancer diagnosis, I don’t think it’s completely possible to not worry about it a little bit.  Will it recur?  Will it manifest on the other side?

We don’t live in an environmentally pure world, and though my diet is vastly improved, it is not perfect.  There are yet risks.  However the fear has gone farther below the surface.  I can now focus on other things in my life.  I have more energy for more things than I once did.  I am ready to be more of service again and not so focused on my own navel (read: breasts, mortality, etc.)  This is a great relief.

My breasts feel much better now.  For several weeks I was unable to go for more than a half hour without a bra on.  I could feel the pulling (mostly on the internal stitches) and it felt physically uncomfortable and emotionally stressful worrying about whether or not I was impeding the healing.  I have been blessed with slightly larger breasts and I imagine my healing process is a tiny bit more involved than that of someone with a smaller cup size.

My surgeon had  told me not only would I need to wear a sports bra during the healing process but that it would be unwise for me to go without a bra ever.  This was somewhat distressing to hear as I had always found it uncomfortable to wear a bra during all my waking hours.  Many is the day that when I got home from work one of the first things I would do is take off my bra.  For larger breasted women, NOT wearing a bra all day is not comfortable, but wearing one all day is not comfortable either!  So imagine wearing one 24 hours a day!  Ick!

Recently I passed a milestone.  I was able to go all night without a bra on.  YEA!!!!  Freedom!!!

The first night with my lover sans bra, I could feel his delight in having the opportunity to once again “look and touch.”  We had had to be so careful for so long.  It was so wonderful to not feel so fragile.  It was so wonderful to be touched again.  He had been so reluctant to touch my breasts before because he was afraid he’d hurt me.  And I’d also been afraid of feeling pain because my breasts were truly super sensitive for a while.  I was also afraid of causing distress to my healing tissues.  Truthfully the latter worry has still not disappeared.

As we were lying there together, I felt myself welling up with gratitude that I still had breasts at all.  I truly had not wanted to lose them.  I love being a woman.  And I really was and am fond of my breasts.  My breasts are one part of this changed and changing middle-aged body that I am not embarrassed about.  As I let myself feel the emotion of gratitude for still being a breasted woman, I began to feel great sadness for all the women who lose their breasts due to breast cancer.

During this tearful episode of gratitude, I had a startling image come to my mind of a great crowd of women without breasts, or perhaps with only one, and off to the side I saw this big trash heap filled with discarded breasts.  What a disturbing painting that would be.  I know women choose mastectomies in order to increase their longevity on the planet.  Given the choice of living without breasts or not living at all, almost everyone would choose the former, right?  However, isn’t it sad that this is necessary?  Can you even begin to imagine the loss these women feel?  This culture equates breasts with physical beauty and sexual attractiveness.  Imagine what a struggle it must be to continue to feel attractive without breasts.  Imagine also if the option of breastfeeding a newborn were no longer an option.  (This is, after all, what breasts are really for.)

Of course many women choose to get implants, and thankfully insurance now covers this. But that has its own share of problems and emotional and physical adjustments as many women who have had reconstruction will tell you.

One dear girlfriend had a double mastectomy a few years ago.  She now has gorgeous looking pert round model-like breasts, but she said her husband doesn’t even touch her breasts anymore.  Her breasts feel cold and lifeless to him and there is no sensation to her so he figures what’s the point?  She said her breasts often feel disconnected from the rest of her body. Without someone to touch them, there is little opportunity to help incorporate them.  (“Incorporate” means literally “bring into the body.”)  As her massage therapist as well as her friend, she has asked me to please touch them/include them in the massage and help to integrate them energetically with the rest of her body.  (I have never before or since touched a woman’s breasts so much!)

Anyway, suffice it to say I am MORE than grateful to still have my breasts, scars and all.  As one social worker friend said, those scars mark me as a warrior.  I have, thus far, survived the battle against breast cancer.  I guess I am now a veteran of this war.  But it’s not a fight that will ever truly be over.  It’s not a war from which one can retire or go AWOL.  One must remain continually vigilant.

And for those of you who are reading this now who have been blessedly healthy and free from cancer, please don’t become complacent.  Do everything at your disposal to live a healthy lifestyle.  Each person I can help to get well or keep well will make this a worthwhile experience.  (And actually, it already has been worthwhile in many, many ways.  As are most of the experiences in my life.)

Be well, everyone!  Be vibrantly exuberantly WELL!!!!  Celebrate each day!  Life is good!