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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

Deciding to Change Doctors

14 Jul

June 23, 2011 

After discovering I had “suspicious” mammograms and ultrasounds, I was referred by my primary doctor to a breast specialist. I was decidedly ambivalent about him.  He was certainly charming enough.  I liked him, was even a bit attracted to him.  But I found myself frustrated with his communication skills.  For instance, two different times I went to his office assuming I was getting my biopsies done.  Apparently, this was not on the agenda either time.

In retrospect, I guess I was terribly naïve.  But I’m a hospital novice!  (I am one of those blessed few who has never been admitted to a hospital.)  And I’m certainly a novice when it comes to breast concerns.   This is all new to me.  I wish someone somewhere along the line had explained the course of action a bit better.  All I knew was the mammograms and ultrasound showed two different concerning situations and I assumed biopsies would be the next course of action.  So why was I having repeated consultations with this supposed specialist?  Twice!  It felt wholly unnecessary.  I wasn’t really sure why I was seeing him.  What was he supposed to be doing?  It was all rather strange and confusing.

When I returned for my second appointment – having once again psyched myself up for at least one biopsy – I found out that we were again in consultation mode only.   Frustrating to say the least!  But what was worse was that he told me what he planned to do.  His plan of action was:  1) Do what is called a stereotactic biopsy* on the right breast, where “a cluster of micro-calcifications” had been found.  And 2) schedule me for the OR so that they can remove the nodule found in my left breast and then do a cannulization of the involved milk duct(s).*

It took me a few days to realize that I was pissed at him.   And even more time to figure out why I was angry and what I was going to do about it.

March 10, 2016

Now, almost five years later, I realize that these were reasonable  courses of action.  But I hated the way he presented this to me as if it was a done deal.  If he had said, “I propose we do” thus and so, I might have been more receptive.  But when he said, “This is what we’re going to do,” I got offended.  I’m an intelligent woman and I wanted to be more involved in the whole decision-making process.  And I wanted to understand more fully what was going on and whether or not there were other options.

I don’t think he fully understood that THIS WAS MY BODY we were talking about. This was all an extremely BIG DEAL!  I just wanted to feel more involved and respected.

June 23, 2011

It took me several days, plus breakfast with a friend, plus a therapy session with another friend, plus a day away “on retreat” before I got clear that I wasn’t ready to rush into these procedures and I certainly wasn’t ready to rush into them with him.

Okay, let me back up a bit to that first week of discovering that something was amiss.

I had been remarkably calm during the first visit with my primary doctor and for a large part of the following week.  But when I went for the first consultation with the breast doctor (what I foolishly thought would be a biopsy), I was suddenly freaked out.  I realized I had put all my emotions aside and focused on everything BUT the fact that I could have breast disease, could lose a breast, could need chemotherapy, etc., etc.  And all the sudden I realized, YIKES!  Perhaps I should have sat with this a bit longer.

I called a girlfriend who is a breast cancer survivor.  It was only 7:15 or so in the morning, but as she is a mother with a school-age child, I took the chance of calling.  She was perfect.  She said basically, “Most cancers are quite slow-growing, therefore there is no rush to decide anything.  It is appropriate to sit with your options and consider what is best for you.  A few days are not going to hurt you.”

This was extremely reassuring to me.  Everything had happened so fast.  From the first call to the doctor, I’d had an appointment with my primary, mammograms, an ultrasound, and two brief meetings with radiologist in five days.  And my guess is it would have been even faster except that the Memorial Day weekend fell between those appointments.

Fortunately, I had just begun (finally) to share my experience, my concerns and fears with a few friends.  On Monday, a friend highly recommended this woman who specialized in breast care.  She was noted for her willingness and ability to talk out all the options and concerns of women facing breast disease.  A couple friends recommended her very highly.  She was rather well-known.

It wasn’t until I got clear that I wanted to, at the very least, get a second opinion, that I looked her up online.  To my surprise and delight, she was a doctor!  In fact, she was a surgeon with an excellent reputation.  And here I had thought she was a counselor!  Not only that, but she was open to women pursuing any avenues which might lead to greater healing.  And she was a master Reiki practitioner as well as a doctor!  This was my kind of doctor!

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to work with Dr. DuPree and her colleagues.  This is the way healthcare should be provided.  It should be caring.  It should be clear.  It should be professional.  It should feel like a team.

I want these people on my team!!!

Welcome to the Breast Blog

14 Jul

The Breast Blog #1

By Cynthia Greb

June 29, 2011

In the summer of 2009, for some quirky unknown reason, I started taking photos of my breasts.  Actually, I suspect it had something to do with being bored, needing to rebel from the constraints of my life at that time, and needing badly to exercise some creative muscles but not having the energy for any big projects.  Whatever the reason, I took my digital camera, held it away from my body at various angles, and clicked the shutter.  Now, two years later, mammograms and ultrasounds show I have some “suspicious abnormalities” in my breasts.

Being human, when I got that news I very quickly went through the possibilities of what could happen.  Worst case scenario, of course, is I could have cancer and die.  Of course that’s a thought that enters my head; I’m human and we seem to be wired that way, don’t we?  It doesn’t matter how spiritual we are or how full of faith, there seems to be an innate fear of death in our culture and I guess at some point or another, most of us have to face that fear.  But truthfully, I don’t believe that’s my fate at this time.  I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more I’m supposed to do on the planet before I go.  So I rule that option out.  I may get cancer, but I’m not going to die for a while.  I choose to have some say in this matter and I choose to believe it’s not my time.

So the next most pressing thought is, ‘Will I lose my breasts?’  For some reason, this is a more sobering thought to me.  If I’m going to be alive, I would really like to keep my breasts.  I’m rather attached to them.  (No pun intended.)  I’m fond of them.  And I know a few other people who are as well.  (You know who you are!)

So I guess this is why I began the odd hobby of photographing my breasts.  Perhaps subconsciously I knew that I would want a record of how they used to look.

Today marks the 45th day since I first discovered a suspicious dark-colored discharge from my left nipple.  Well actually, if I’m honest, it’s probably more like the 52nd day, because after I first noticed it I promptly tucked the incident back into the corners of my subconscious.  I really did NOT want to deal with that piece of information at that time.

However, I eventually got on the stick.  I realized that no, it was not my imagination, and no, it was not a one-time only phenomenon.  I immediately called my primary doctor first thing  in the morning.  Then began a rapid succession of mammograms, ultrasounds, visits to a consulting surgeon, visits to a second surgeon for another opinion, etc.  But as of yet, no biopsy.  Sadly, it seems to have to do with finances and insurance (or rather, the lack thereof.)

Here is one thing I can’t seem to forget.  How many millions of women in this country have mammograms that suggest a possible “abnormality?”  How many millions of women have to go through this maelstrom of emotions – the fear, the uncertainty, the worry, the “what ifs?”  I ask myself:  is there anything that I can do to share information, offer suggestions and insights based upon my experience, and, most of all perhaps, educate about breast cancer prevention?

The answer is yes.  I can write this blog.

And there you have it. This is the first in a series of “conversations” about the experiences, the emotions, and the many and varied things I am learning – about the medical world, about preventive healthcare, about the ebb and flow of emotions, about emotional support, and about the spiritual lessons that can come with this experience if we’re open to them.

And to those of you out there who may be worried about your own breasts, or the breasts of someone you love, or me, may I say:  Read on, folks.  There is much to learn.

For now, I am trusting that everything is happening for a reason.  I am trying to allow my feelings to surface, while not getting overly bogged down with the nonproductive ones.  I truly do know that ultimately everything will be fine, no matter what the diagnosis turns out to be.

All is well.  (And I may freak out a bit from time to time.)

Peace to you.