posted by Amy on Apr 22

Today I went in to get the infusions I get every three weeks. As someone with stage IV cancer, I will be in treatment for the rest of my life, which is likely to be shorter than if I didn’t have terminal cancer. But I’m one of the lucky ones. For most of the five years since I was diagnosed my cancer has been “stable,” though it has been necessary to keep switching up my medicines. From mid-July until late December last year I was getting one of the chemo drugs that cause hair loss. Now I’m off that, and all I get are antibodies that help my own immune system control the cancer. My hair is growing back and I have eyebrows again.

While I sat there with the IV dripping into me a young woman came by to see if I might like to be matched with a peer support person. She said she’s with an organization that matches cancer “fighters” with “survivors.” I told her I’m neither. My cancer is “incurable but treatable.” I’ve had it for five years now. I said that, under the circumstances, I’d probably be more useful as a mentor than as a “fighter.” I was polite, though, and I took a brochure. I said I’d think about it.

I try to be generous about terminology. If “survivor” meant “not dead yet,” then I’d be all for it. But it usually doesn’t mean that. It’s usually part of a narrative about having one’s life temporarily upended by a cancer diagnosis, going through a year or so of hell, and returning to normal. I am not one of those people.

And I don’t like any combat images about what someone with cancer might do in response. It’s completely inappropriate to call it a battle. I have said this before, but as God is my witness if anyone is stupid enough to publish an obituary about me saying I “lost my long battle with cancer” I will find a way to wreak some sort of vengeance from the other side. Good grief. If someone gets run over by a truck you don’t say he “lost a battle with” the truck.

One of many issues with the “battle” metaphors is the way they subtly transfer the blame to the sick person when she dies. Jumping Jehoshaphat! There is nothing surprising, out of the ordinary, or blameworthy about succumbing to a fatal illness. Don’t act surprised, or imply that the deceased had any control over that. The “fighter” metaphor gives people who haven’t received a diagnosis like this a false sense of control and security. But it won’t work.

If you get a diagnosis like the one I got it doesn’t matter how hard you “fight” or how much you want to live or how many times you “think positive thoughts.” What happens after a diagnosis like this is highly individual and completely unpredictable. A woman I know who’s done oncology social work for decades once wrote that she’s seen people die who “should” have made it, and people go into remission whose odds of doing so were so small as to be functionally zero. You just never know.

It is not a fair fight. It’s not any kind of fight. Some of my cells jumped the shark. They changed in ways that make them not die when they’re supposed to, not stop multiplying when they’re supposed to. But they mean well. They want what we all want–glory, immortality. It’s a kind of biological hubris or original sin. But they are not an enemy. They are part of me.

While we’re on the subject, April 19 was the fifth anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. I was living in Boston at the time, and the news came a day later than it might have because of Patriots’ Day and the Marathon.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I can still do just about anything I want to do. I have lots of energy. I don’t have “chemobrain.” I have choices. I am loved. I am grateful for every opportunity to be with loved ones and talk with them about things that matter to me, or to them. I am alive, and grateful for that. But I’ll be 62 years old in about 10 days, older than either of my parents got to be, older than two of my siblings were when they died.

I haven’t come up with a word I like better than “survivor,” but nevertheless I don’t call myself that. Nothing can change the fact that life invariably and unavoidably ends for every one of us. As some wag somewhere put it, the interesting question is not whether there’s life after death; it’s who’s alive now, before their bodies cease to function. What I’m experiencing right now isn’t “survival.” It’s simply “living.” For now.

posted by Amy on Apr 15

I raised my sister’s only child, a daughter who is now 31 years old. My niece came to live with us permanently when she was 3½. We had her evaluated by a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her as having Reactive Attachment Disorder.

As my niece healed from attachment disorder (with the help of a lot of attachment therapy and the things we did at home), I did too. After all, attachment is relational and mutually reinforcing. Things either the parent or child does that contribute to warm, pleasurable, and safe interactions reinforce healthy attachment. Negative, distrustful, violent, rejecting behaviors disrupt attachment. A healthy parent can calmly and consistently provide nurture and structure to a child who is difficult to love. An unhealthy parent will be unable to do that. But with patience, insight, respect, love, and perseverance, two damaged people can help each other heal.

This shows how attachment problems become intergenerational. A child who’s insecurely attached grows up to be an adult who may have trouble bonding with his or her children (and partner). When my niece was an adolescent she got to be big, loud, and angry. That triggered feelings and memories of my own mother, and touched off my PTSD. It sometimes rendered me, as my niece once memorably pointed out, “a raving lunatic.” (To be honest, sometimes it still does.) That experience, and working to understand it and heal from it, gave me insight into the emotional dynamic in other close relationships I’ve had.

This process of understanding and, more importantly, healing, from my own attachment disorder helped me better understand and have more empathy for myself, my parents, and my siblings. I slowly began addressing parts of my own development that had been interrupted or distorted in my formative years.

I still have people in my life who I love—or toward whom I want to behave lovingly—who can’t love me back. I’ve learned to calibrate my expectations so I don’t (often) set myself up for disappointment and heartbreak. Love isn’t a transaction anyway. I don’t choose to be loving so I can get something in return. And love isn’t ever wasted, even when it’s unrequited. For that matter, it’s not my place to judge. I may think my love is unrequited, but I can’t possibly know or understand the other person’s inner truth. Although I still need to be with people who show me acceptance and affection, and who let me do that for them, I don’t have to get rid of anyone I love.

 

posted by Amy on Apr 11

I have finally realized that some important but less-than-fun relationships have played a significant role in my development. And I am truly grateful for what I learned from them. I’m going to try to speak in generalities about these relationships, because some of the people are still alive, or protective of the reputations of those who have died, and I don’t want their feelings about what I have to say to take away from my message. My sincere, honest intention is to express appreciation. And I want to encourage others to adopt a more gracious, grateful attitude towards anyone who drives them crazy. They are our best teachers. They create significant opportunities for healing, wholeness, and wisdom.

Most of the formative relationships in my life have involved trying to love people who can’t love me back. Deciding to write about this made me I realize there’s a strong correlation between how I feel about having an incurable illness and how I feel about those significant people. The basic instinct is to oppose and fight either a toxic person or a devastating diagnosis. “How dare they/it?” “I deserve better!” “You aren’t the boss of me!” “You have no right!!” But, as I wrote earlier, to oppose something is to maintain it. The injury or injustice becomes a defining feature of the relationship. It gets woven into a dance of anger that actually maintains the status quo.

Then there’s taking a victim position. “There’s nothing I can do.” “I know he doesn’t really mean it.” “She needs me.” “This cancer is going to kill me.” This is accommodation. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that I deserve to be mistreated–either by people or by my body. I’ve written about that too. At bottom is a damaged sense of self, and a learned helplessness.

Many of my difficult relationships were push-pull efforts to extract the desired behavior from the other person. Almost always, the defining feature of these relationships was an imbalance of functioning. One person over-functioned, robbing the other person of dignity, agency, and respect. The other under-functioned, making him or her constantly resentful, disempowered, guilty, and helpless.

This dynamic can be extremely stable, though it sucks the life out of both people in it. The overfunctioner gets really burned out, and never ends up getting what s/he wants anyway, which is to be seen, known, cherished and accepted as a real human being, and not as some kind of invulnerable superhero. The overfunctioiner wants to be rewarded for all the good deeds, all the backing down from fights, all the good intentions. But that’s never going to happen. The underfunctioner stays stuck in an immature, narcissistic role. He or she is actually scared to death of being abandoned, fully conscious of a fundamental inability to stand on his or her own two feet. This is masked by aggression, hostility, jealousy, and mistrust.

Once I figured out I was actually the common denominator in a certain type of relationship dynamic, I began to realize that the “difficult” people in my life were holding up a mirror for me. What they were telling me about how they they saw me and my behavior may have been overblown, or unnecessarily harsh, or even unfair, but it reflected something about their reality. And their reality was valid for them. Whenever, instead of writing them off as wrong or bad, I decided to be curious about what was going on and resolved to take responsibility for my part in it, I began to learn some things about myself and my own character defects and weaknesses. In most cases I wasn’t the root cause of the the other person’s fear or resentment. That came from family-of-origin stuff. But I was doing something to bring it out.

There were people who, I realized, didn’t see me as a real person, but only used me to work out their “stuff.” Well, I also did that to them. In fact, every time I thought or said “So-and-so always does such-and-such,” if I then added, “just like me,” two things happened. First, I developed more understanding of the other person, and more compassion. And secondly I did that for myself.

I used to expect to be betrayed. I never asked for what I wanted or needed in relationships, because I thought I already knew the answer would be no. Instead I always just did damage control. I’d back away from disagreements so I could “keep the peace.” I tried to get love from people who “loved” me but didn’t like me. They were fearful, insecure people too, and they managed their lives by trying to control and manipulate others, hiding their true selves. I did the same thing. I played the same game. Once I began to focus on my own fears and decided to heal myself, everything else changed.

I do not claim that this “fixed” my relationships with all the difficult people. In fact it never did. But it did help me understand myself better. It also helped me clarify my own values, figure out what I wanted and needed, and develop the courage to ask for those things. I had plenty of work to do on myself. I had neither the right nor the power to change other people, and I had no control over how they’d respond if I stood up for myself. But I could quit making myself suffer by harboring unrealistic expectations. I was able to deintensify my reactions, and look for ways to stay connected that didn’t involve harming myself.

I am much happier now. I feel balanced, calm, and OK far more often than I used to. I don’t blame other people, or myself, for being human, for screwing up, for making less-than-perfect choices. I don’t get mad at the wind for blowing. There’s no reason to repay anger or hostility or resentment with anger, hostility or resentment. People do the best they can with what they know. Judging them or fighting back is nothing more than a way to avoid taking responsibility for my own actions.

Which brings me back to thoughts about cancer. I have no interest in allowing cancer to curtail my emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. I don’t have to let it define me. Furthermore, I do not see myself as being in a battle with an adversary. My cancer cells are part of me, not a foreign invader. To me, hating the cancer feels too much like self-hate. It also feels a lot like accepting uncritically someone else’s negative judgments about me. I know what my own intentions and motivations are. If I fall short, then I can try to do better next time, but I don’t have to jump from “I made a mistake” to “I am a mistake.” I am what I am. Facing reality, “warts and all,” is the only way to construct a way forward.

Just as relationships with “difficult people” can be a source of insight and wisdom, and ultimately, strength and healing, so can my relationship with cancer. I take it seriously, but not too seriously. I acknowledge its role in my life, but I don’t make it my central focus. It may ultimately win (though, by killing me, it also kills itself–like a suicide bomber) but if I allow it to paralyze me with fear or bitterness, it wins now instead of later.

I’m going to die. I’m not dead yet. In the meantime I choose to live, and learn, and grow. And love anyway. I haven’t had the kind of love from some other people that I was hoping to have. But I’m still here, unbroken, older, wiser, and there’s no need to assign blame or tell a story about failure. I can choose kindness. I can choose to say, “never mind.” As a matter of fact I feel more loved and supported and appreciated now than I ever did before. Just because particualr people didn’t live up to my expectations doesn’t mean I’m not lovable. It doesn’t even mean he or she “failed” me. It just is what it is.

So be it.

 

 

 

 

posted by Amy on Apr 10

This relates to the previous post.

On Good Friday (March 25) we had a care conference for my sister with the palliative care team at the hospital.  They told us that many people with MS end up dying of “aspiration pneumonia.” The MS causes weakness in the neck and throat that makes it impossible for the person to protect her airway. Whatever goes into her mouth ends up in her lungs. There’s no way to fix it.

Just that morning, my sister’s respiratory status had worsened. We were at a fork in the road, and had to choose whether to put her back on a respirator or put her in “comfort care.” Leaving her stuck between those two alternatives was the worst thing to do. She was suffering; not getting enough oxygen. Someone on comfort care can get morphine, which tricks the brain not to notice the respiratory distress, plus a medication to help dry up secretions. So we opted for comfort care.

After we concluded the meeting I went in to talk to my sister about the decision. She nodded vigorously to show her assent to the choice we had made. She wanted to live, but she understood that she had reached the end stage of her MS. I reminded her what she had said to me back when her husband was dying from MS–that I didn’t want to lose her, but hated to see her suffer. We called the chaplain, who asked her if she was afraid. She shook her head no. The hospice chaplain called a priest and, as it happened, her own priest from her home parish arrived and did absolution, communion, and anointing of the sick.

Once it was decided not to try to fix the pneumonia anymore, my sister was allowed to eat and drink. She enjoyed that immensely, participating in ordering food to eat, drinking water and other beverages, and having treats like Italian ice and cheesecake. Every time she swallowed anything she coughed (ineffectually). I pointed that out to her, but told her she was the boss. She could have anything she wanted.

She made me understand that she wanted me to pray with her. In the past we had had numerous conversations where she questioned whether I was a real Christian, since I’m not Catholic, so I found that extremely touching. She wanted me to pray. She wasn’t making any more judgments about doctrinal purity. I and other family members also sang to her. I brought in a hymnal, asked her if she wanted us to sing hymns, and she agreed. We read poetry and other readings. We hung out. On Easter, after church, I sang Easter hymns.

The hospital people weren’t at all sure my sister would live through the weekend, but she did. On the Monday after Easter she was transferred to a lovely in-patient hospice facility. That day was a hard one. It took until after eight o’clock that night to get her comfortable. But I spoke to her again about what was happening. I said nothing would be done to hasten her death, but neither would any measures be taken to try to forestall it. She would have a natural death, and I would stay with her. She nodded her assent. When they finally got enough morphine into her so she could relax and fall asleep I went home.

I didn’t get back until about 2 on Tuesday. I was told she had taken communion, and had eaten some pureed French toast and had water to drink. But when I got there she was nonresponsive. She opened her eyes briefly when our cousin Russ spoke to her later in the day. But after Tuesday that didn’t happen again.

I spent every night in her room from Wednesday through Sunday. I didn’t want her to be alone. Other family members came to be with her when I had to be away for other commitments. We played music cds. I watched “Frozen” with her on her in-room system. Since the speaker for her TV was in the all-purpose remote/call button, our heads were close together. I prayed to her and sang hymns. I reminisced.

She slowly sank down, breathing more shallowly and taking longer pauses between breaths. The last few nights, when I was about to go to sleep, I stood by her bed and said, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I think it’s awful to lay something like that on a child, but for an adult who actually might die overnight, it’s perfect.

She died at 11:30 am on Monday, April 4. I was with her, as was a hospice caseworker, who confirmed that her heart had finally stopped beating. It was peaceful. It was a good death.

The funeral was yesterday. At the graveside service, the officiant recited “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . .” I broke down crying.

Edited for clarity, April 11, 2016

 

posted by Amy on Mar 21

I’ve been my younger sister’s court-appointed guardian since June, 2007. She has multiple sclerosis, and she’s chronically mentally ill. She had her first psychotic break in 1981, when I was pregnant with my second child. She had her first and only child in 1984. I ended up raising that child. The guardianship arose from my sister deciding, in 2006, that she had been miraculously cured of all her ailments, including myopia. She threw away her glasses and quit taking all her medications. She ended up in a totally inappropriate short-term rehab facility, there being no long-term psychiatric treatment programs in Colorado. And the county brought a guardianship proceeding.

In all that time, I have never been consulted about medical decisions that were made about my sister. One time, when her psychosis flared, she ended up sedated so heavily that she had to be on a respirator to keep her alive. It took a long time for her to heal from the physical and psychological damage that caused. No one even asked me for history or for insight into her behavior. They just went ahead and “treated” with near-lethal sedation.

We’re still in the dark ages when it comes to people whose behavior doesn’t fall within socially-approved norms. A psychological “episode” which could be managed with the proverbial “rubber room” and some prudent monitoring turns into an  excuse to use chemical restraint that almost annihilates the patient. As an older white woman my sister was lucky. Mentally ill people of color, especially men, are routinely gunned down by police in other contexts.

I and other family members noticed a long time ago that steroids make my sister psychotic. Whatever good they may do for her physical condition is more than erased by the damage to her mental state and executive function. I have tried my level best to make sure people don’t give her steroids. I have never succeeded. I’m her guardian, but no one consults with me about her treatment. Early in 2015 she was put on IV steroids for an MS exacerbation. I was not consulted and did not consent. As always happens, that put her on a roller coaster of manic or hypo-manic states followed by depression. There were numerous unpleasant incidents in her nursing home, and a revolving door of hospitalizations. They would attribute her behavior to urinary tract infections, which no doubt played a role. But the main problem, as I kept pointing out, is steroids make her psychotic. Later in the year, she consulted an ear, nose and throat doctor about her TMJ. He prescribed prednisone. More bipolar psychosis ensued. She lost a great deal of ground in terms of cognitive competence and emotional regulation.

She ended up in a very, very depressed state early this year. She started saying she was going to die soon. She even said she was already dead. She said she wasn’t going to live to see her 60th birthday, on February 17. She wouldn’t get out of bed. Forget physical therapy. She wouldn’t do anything at all, not even use her phone. She wouldn’t eat. Sometimes she wouldn’t even talk.

About four months ago I got a call from one of the nurses at the nursing home where my sister lives. She said there had been an “episode,” possibly a seizure, but all the vital signs were fine. Then the nurse started pressuring me to convert my sister’s “full care” orders to “do not resuscitate.” I said I know my sister believes that anything short of “full care” is murder or suicide. It comes from a deeply-held religious conviction. The nurse said, “maybe she changed her mind. People do that.” I said that since my sister was not in her right mind at that time, there was no way to know if that had happened.

About 2 1/2 weeks ago I went to a care conference at the nursing home. My sister had pneumonia, and was too sick to attend the conference. Once again, the subject of DNR came up. This time they said if I revoked the “full care” orders and converted to “DNR” my sister could get hospice care, and Medicare would pay for it. They said the extra level of care and attention might actually help her “graduate” from hospice. I said, again, that as far as I know my sister didn’t want that. Despite feeling pressured to do so, I didn’t change her status. I may have the legal right, as her guardian, to do that, but I don’t think it’s morally right for me to override her wishes. I’m supposed to be her voice, not substitute my judgment for hers.

The night of the care conference my sister was sent to the hospital. They put her in intensive care, on life support (respirator, blood pressure support, nasal feeding tube, lots of monitors and IVs.) After about two weeks they got her weaned off the ventilator and moved to a regular hospital room. They put a feeding tube into her stomach, because she couldn’t really swallow anymore, and that created a risk of aspiration and further lung infection. After a couple of days they sent her back to the nursing home. After just 2 days at home, she was sent back to the hospital.

Her first full day home I got a call from the Nurse Practitioner assigned to her case by her Medicare Advantage health insurer. The call was ostensibly to update me on my sister’s care, but it was really about renewing the push for me to put her into hospice care. The woman didn’t even know enough about the case to realize I’m a relative and not “just” a guardian. It was exceptionally creepy.

Her second day home my sister took a turn for the worse, with symptoms the nursing home couldn’t manage. The nursing home called the Nurse Practitioner, who “refused” to allow them to send my sister back to the hospital. They called her attending physician, who authorized readmitting her, and she went back to the ICU.

I and others who have been in contact with my sister think she now wants to fight. She tried “checking out,” and almost succeeded. She can’t talk, because of the damage caused by the ventilator, but she is much more alert, interactive, and responsive than she was before she got sick. She tries to talk. She makes eye contact. She gestures. She changes her facial expression. She mouths, “I love you.”

If I had agreed to change her care instructions on the day of the care conference my sister might be dead by now. She might die anyway, and that might actually be a blessing. It really sucks to be her. She’s in constant pain. Her body is almost useless. She must be bored and frustrated. Her mind runs amok, and things get even worse when she has an infection. I wouldn’t blame her at all for wanting out. But I’m hoping she’ll get well enough to talk to me about what her wishes are, so I can advocate for her.

After over 8 years of being ignored and circumvented as Guardian, suddenly I’m getting a lot of attention. People at the nursing home who know my sister and care about her think maybe hospice is the best way to go right now. I believe they truly have her best interests at heart. The catch is she can’t have hospice care unless she or I revoke her “full care” orders. Then there are the bean counters who seem to be saying she should go ahead and die and reduce the surplus population. They are so patently thinking about the bottom line, and nothing else, that it turns my stomach. They don’t know me or my sister or our family. They don’t really want to know. Suddenly they are experts in my sister’s life, and mine. That woman who was pressuring me to put an end to attempts to save my sister’s life did nothing whatever to earn the right to take that position with me. It’s the closest thing to a “death panel” I’ve ever seen.

I know intensive care takes a toll. I know my sister was already depleted, confused, and weak when she first went into the ICU. Her resources for clawing back from this latest development are even more depleted. I am pretty despondent about her prospects, but if she wants to fight then I support that. Until I see evidence that she doesn’t want to live, or that it would be utterly hopeless, I’m going to stand firm.

Edited 4/22/16 to correct a misstatement and for clarity.

 

posted by Amy on Mar 20

She said to me, with a look of genuine concern on her face, “I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in ‘Cancerland.’” She was referring to one of a suite of essays I wrote in connection with a professional evaluation. In it I included quotes from one or more blog posts using that term. Since I often blog about what it’s like to live in Cancerland, I figure either she hasn’t read my blog, or I have not explained it well. As my fifth “cancerversary” approaches, I’ll try again.

At first it was like being yanked into an alternate reality that didn’t make any sense. How could I have cancer? I had done all the things they say you need to do to avoid it. I was (relatively) young. I was strong, healthy, vital. I hardly ever even got a headache. I didn’t even have a pharmacy. There must be some mistake.

Then I became frightened. How would this affect my plans for the future? Did I have a future? What if I died in Boston, thousands of miles from the city I considered home? What should I tell my kids? What should I do? People stepped forward to help me through that first phase. A dearly loved friend with whom I don’t talk much shared her experiences and knowledge. She recommended that I do guided imagery, and I followed her advice. My seminary held a healing service for me. A new friend who had had breast cancer twice said, “Don’t worry about anything until you have to.” And life went on. I stayed in school. I decided to go ahead with plans to apply to PhD programs. I started treatment.

I learned more about breast cancer, not just survival rates and treatment modalities and recommendations for what to do next, but the politics of the pink ribbon. I learned that in some 30% of breast cancers that are diagnosed and treated at an early stage the cancer comes back eventually at stage IV, the incurable stage, and that some 6% to 10% are stage IV from the get-go, as I was. Since some of these recurrences can be up to 20 years out, five-year survival rates are meaningless. I will be a “five year survivor,” but I still have stage IV breast cancer and will most likely die from it one day. That’s not exactly a pretty pink success story for screening mammography. I learned that somewhere around 20% of breast cancers overexpress a certain protein. It’s the kind I have. It’s usually very aggressive, and used to be the “bad kind,” where they’d tell the patient to go home and get her affairs in order. Now, with newer targeted treatments, outcomes are improving for most of us. I’m a beneficiary of that. It’s just the luck of the draw–nothing to do with me.

Over time, what I came to think of as Cancerland became populated with people I never would have met if I didn’t have cancer: The wise healer who runs the free support group in Boston for women with advanced cancer that I attended every week, bloggers and authors, my wonderfully loving and supportive care team, women who would have been good friends if we had met in some other way, people working to make life better for people like me, and people who died from their cancer. There are also the crusaders, most of them presumably sincere, who think cancer would be easy to cure if only a vast medical establishment were not acting to protect its profit margins, or who think “natural” methods of dealing with it are more likely to work than evidence-based medicine. So many new people, new ideas, new ways to see the world.

I refuse to say that having cancer has been good for me. But I have to admit I have grown. I am much more focused on being rather than doing. I am both more open and vulnerable, and more resilient. I am constantly asking myself, “Is this a good use of my time?,” and I change what I do, or how I think about what I’m doing, based on the answer to that question. I still have goals that I’m working toward, but I am spending much more time savoring the journey, with less anxiety about the destination.

I worry a whole lot less. This is my one, irreplaceable life. And no matter how hard I try to control the outcome I’m going to die, most likely sooner rather than later. So I’m accepting the things I can’t change as well as making changes that will help me find healing and wholeness. My wholeness does not depend on my physical condition. It comes, ultimately, from loving God and God’s Creation, especially the people in my life. It comes from loving what is.

Finally, I see myself as carrying on a kind of ministry to anyone who feels broken, or dead inside, or abandoned. I don’t hit anybody over the head with it. I’ve always thought the best kind of evangelism is a life well lived. When people find out I have stage IV cancer they often ask me how I “do it.” Then they might tell me what’s killing them, and I tell them what’s keeping me alive right now. Certainly the main thing is medicine. I go in every three weeks for infusions. I will be in treatment for the rest of my life. But the rest of it is choosing, as much as I can, in every moment of now, to be as fully alive and fully human as possible.

Edited 3/21/16.

posted by Amy on Feb 11

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. I had schedule conflicts during both of the times I had planned to go to a service, so I didn’t make it to a public celebration, but several times throughout the day I stopped and thought about “from dust were you made and to dust you will return.”

On Ash Wednesday I always hear Joni Mitchell’s voice in my head singing, “We are stardust, we are golden, we are million year old carbon, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” My wonderful Philadelphia church, Arch Street United Methodist, adds golden flecks to the ashes used to trace crosses on the hands or foreheads of the faithful who come in at noon. When God sent Adam and Eve away from the Garden of Eden, he told them they were made of dust and would return to it, but first he made them clothes to wear. Yes, we are mortal, fallible, imperfect, impermanent, but we are also God’s beloved creatures and we all participate, in some mysterious way, in the continuing act of creation. Yes, my mortal body will someday breathe its last. Since I have stage iv cancer, that day may not be far off. But the world will keep turning, and the sun will keep rising and setting, and the love I have experienced and shared will continue to send ripples out through the Universe, touching, influencing, molding reality as it unfolds.

Lent is for penance, prayer, contemplation, slowing down, simplifying, remembering. It’s so easy to get caught up in obligations and projects, in cares and concerns, in worries and fears. Lent reminds me to attend first to the important, then to the urgent. The one thing I know for sure is that from dust I was made and to dust I shall return. With that out of the way, I can seek a full, beautiful, meaningful mortal life. With that understanding, I can cultivate compassion for others, and for myself. We’re all going to die. And until we die we’re all going to keep experiencing loss, suffering, pain, illness, and misfortune. Ash Wednesday reminds me to cultivate love, friendship, creativity, beauty, and radical acceptance in the here and now, while I have the chance, while I yet have breath.

To be human is to be conscious of both what endures for all time and what does not. Ash Wednesday reminds us of that. My body is merely chemical and electrical processes driven by genes. The mostly-carbon composition of my body is unremarkable. I live on a planet teaming with carbon-based life forms who have been recycling and restructuring the basic building blocks of life for untold eons. But on a personal, human, temporal level I, as the Psalmist said, “am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I can think. I can sing. I can experience the thrill of indescribable beauty–in nature, in art, in music, in putting myself in motion. Four new human beings came to life inside of me and are alive because I, and my mother before me, and her mother before her, all the way back, lived, loved, and brought forth new life, which will, in its turn, die someday. It is utterly appropriate to put gold flecks in the ashes.

posted by Amy on Jan 10

I just finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. One of the characters talks about how both atheists and theists are focusing their attention on the same subject. God is their ultimate concern, whether as believers or deniers. “To oppose something is to maintain it.” That tension, that tug-of-war, will be perpetual. If opponents of any sort want something different to happen, they have to choose a new path.

There is a “religious” cult in the book that won’t say whether they believe in a god or not. The strength of their sect comes from learning which questions are unanswerable, and then not answering them. As for answerable questions, they will, for a price (set on a sliding scale depending on the wealth of the questioner). engage in a practice called Foretelling. But they explain that their purpose in doing so is to demonstrate the uselessness of having the answer to the wrong question.

This issue comes up a lot in Cancerland. People want to know their odds of recovery, and how long they are likely to live. It’s a natural impulse, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s the wrong question. I sometimes ask people what they would change about their lives if they knew how long they were going to live. The next question is, if it’s important to you, shouldn’t it be important in and of itself, without regard to how much time you have left?

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests we frequently stop and ask ourselves if what we’re doing at any given moment is what we’d be doing if we knew we were dying tomorrow. That doesn’t mean we should live every day as if it were our last, but it does provide a metric for checking in with whether our actions are congruent with our values. No matter what you think you care about most, the life you have is essentially the life you’ve designed for yourself. The things, ideas, and people to which you devote the most time and energy are actually what you really love. And hate is not the opposite of love. If you’re putting energy into it, then it’s your real purpose in life. “To oppose something is to maintain it.”

I don’t believe we give ourselves cancer. I don’t believe we can “beat” it with “positive thinking.” But I do think cancer can be understood as a messenger. My body had something to tell me.

Last year I noticed I hadn’t died from cancer yet, and I felt stuck. It’s not that I was sitting around waiting to die, but I also didn’t have much intensity of feeling about where to go from there. I realized I didn’t know what I really wanted or needed. I was procrastinating, spinning my wheels. I entered counseling intending to address some very old, very painful truths about my past. I don’t know why it’s healing to say out loud (or write about and then discuss) things that I had never before told anyone, but, with the right therapist, it is. She gave me understanding, encouragement, and acceptance. She helped me see my past more stereoscopically and holistically. She encouraged me to ask for what I want and need. She supported me in my efforts to understand and forgive–myself and others.

One of my most significant insights was that cancer was offering me a way out. If I was simply too tired or discouraged or fearful to go on, then I didn’t have to. But, at least for me, this “way out” was not a new gift, but was instead a manifestation of the fear, rage, and anger in my family of origin. It was a time bomb that had been ticking inside me all my life. To be sure, I had been working for much of my life to defuse it–learning healthier habits, making healthier choices, actively seeking wholeness and healing, but I hadn’t cleared it all out yet.

Erich Fromm says some people are motivated by “necrophilia,” not in the sense of being sexually aroused by dead bodies, but in the sense of loving death. The opposite of necrophilia is biophilia. Biophilic people are trusting, courageous, openhearted, generous, and gracious. They welcome spontaneity, laughter, playfulness, and surprise. Necrophilic people are suspicious, mistrustful, stingy, controlling, narcissistic, destructive, and angry. They are fundamentally insecure, and they feel threatened and terrified by anything they can’t control. Although there was some beauty, laughter, spontaneity, and warmth in my family of origin, the primary orientation was necrophilic.

Until I did that work with a wise and loving therapist, I had not allowed myself to want to be well. Most of my life I settled for less than what I really wanted and needed. Most of the time I didn’t even know what I wanted. I had not had much practice in taking care of myself or advocating for myself. I was raised on betrayal, so having my body betray me was really just more of the same. I used to encourage my children to ask for what they wanted, and not deprive themselves of the chance to get it. I preached that, but I didn’t practice it. Now I know. I want the cancer to go away and not come back. I want to have a strong, healthy, body that is free and clear of disease.

I want to live fully and intensely, with as few regrets as possible. I want to be open to new ideas, new knowledge, new possibilities. I want to be a light to other people as they seek their own mission, their own bliss. To the best of my ability, I’ve already done that. But I want more.

 

 

 

 

posted by Amy on Jan 3

A woman I know died of cancer recently. I missed her memorial service because I had chemo the day before and just didn’t have the energy to leave the house. I know she’d have understood. Her illness and treatment side effects made it impossible for her do do much of anything. She lived 20 months after being diagnosed with a neuro-endocrine tumor in her mediastinum (chest) that had metastasized to her spine. The way she found out she had cancer was from injuring her back dancing vigorously. She had a Caring Bridge site where she, her husband, and her children posted often. I enjoyed reading their posts. It’s a close-knit family of amazing writers. They seemed to be coping well, under the circumstances. Their lives had changed dramatically, and they focused on loving and supporting one another. Whenever I commented I tried to balance other people’s exhortations to “be strong” and “fight.” Having metastatic cancer not a matter of “winning” a “fight.” Rather, it’s a matter of choosing how to live, as well and as honorably as one can. For nearly everyone with metastatic cancer, the outcome is never in doubt. Only the exact contours are unknown, which I consider a blessing.

At about the same time, a long-time member of one of my online groups died from the same type of breast cancer I have. She was a very knowledgeable and supportive group member. She posted frequently with encouraging words and suggestions. She didn’t complain about her situation. She kept up on new discoveries, and never quit looking for ways to live with her cancer rather than die from it. She will be sorely missed.

Both women played the hands they were dealt with grace, grit, gratitude, intelligence, and style. Being diagnosed with an incurable, terminal illness does have a way of focusing the mind. And people all make their own choices about how to use the time they have left. I try very hard not to judge. It’s none of my business. And yet. . . . .

I think cancer cause activism is misdirected. Raising “awareness” and trying to raise funds for research to benefit a specific type of cancer is based on a false premise. It comes from a laudable desire to help, but it misses the point. Our market-based, hyper-individualist culture blinds us and distracts us. A public health issue as enormous as this should be addressed at a macro level. The purpose of government is to take care of things that can’t be effectively addressed at a more local or individual level, especially things that are not solvable with private enterprise. The budget for the National Cancer Institute has not been increased in over ten years. That’s incomprehensible to me.

If a neighbor’s barn burns down it’s effective and appropriate for everyone in the neighborhood to get together and have a barn raising. But if, as I think, every one of the 330 million people in the U.S. has been affected by cancer, then the only sane response is to do more high-quality basic research, unconstrained by market competition or the need to produce quick results. (One of my favorite sayings, from when I was married to a research scientist, is “If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be research.”) That’s how the cancer drug that’s doing a bang-up job on my cancer right now was discovered. We, the people, paid for the NCI to go out looking for new medicines, and a great cancer drug called Taxol was extracted from the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree. The way for scientists to benefit from each other’s findings is to eliminate the profit motive. Publicly funded pure research is the only way we’ll make significant progress on a problem of this magnitude.

I am not happy about the fact that approximately 39,000 people die each year from metastatic breast cancer in the U.S. Of course not. But, worldwide, 30,000 people, many of them children, are still dying every day from simple, easily preventable causes like dysentery. We could be saving millions of people with relatively trivial investments in water, sanitation, vaccinations, and hydration therapies. Worldwide, most people get no cancer treatment at all. They don’t even get pain relief when they’re dying. They also die from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other infectious diseases that we have the technology to treat or prevent. Compared to what the U.S. spends to incarcerate its own citizens and wage war on a goodly percentage of the rest of the world, the cost is minuscule. If we really believed in human rights, and that all lives matter, we’d be behaving in radically different ways. That bothers me far more.

I live in the U.S. and I have great health insurance. It costs a fortune to keep me alive. Sometimes I even wonder if I’m worth it. I certainly don’t feel like a victim.

Edited 1-4-16

posted by Amy on Dec 27

The lectionary text from the Gospel for today is the story in Luke about Jesus and his parents going to the Temple in Jerusalem, as they did every year. On the way back, Mary and Joseph notice Jesus is not with the group. They go back to look for him, and find him in the Temple, talking to the scholars and holy people. When Mary and Joseph ask what’s up, Jesus says he’s going about his father’s business.

First, why did it take them so long to notice he wasn’t with them on the return trip? That’s easy. The men and women would have walked in sex-segregated groups. The children would be with the women. Jesus was 12–about the age a Jewish boy is considered an adult, so he had the option of walking with the men. Most likely Mom thought he was with Dad, and Dad either wasn’t used to keeping track of him, or assumed he was with his mother.

I heard a children’s sermon on this text today. It started out fine. The man said we don’t know what kind of childhood Jesus had, because the Bible doesn’t say. That’s true, but I think we can guess how it was. Both Mary and Joseph were visited by angels before Jesus was born, and they were each told the child would be the special, chosen son of God. Magi from the East came to visit Jesus when he was two years old. They brought extravagant gifts and worshiped him. So I’m pretty sure Mary and Joseph respected, protected, and adored Jesus. They treated him as God’s precious son. They showered him with love. They gently taught and led him. You would not humiliate, frighten, or beat a child you knew to be holy and anointed. You’d take very seriously your role as a steward of the Savior of the world.

Then the man giving the children’s message said he thought the point of the story was that Jesus obeyed his parents and returned home with them when they found him in the Temple and asked him to leave. The speaker went on to observe that the commandment to “honor your father and mother” comes with a promise: “so your days may be long upon the earth.” That’s all well and good for honorable, mature, loving parents who treat their kids kindly and take responsibility for the precious child that God has put in their care. Unfortunately, the vast majority of children in the world are treated harshly and cruelly. Their humanity is denied. Their feelings are discounted or dismissed. They are beaten, sometimes starting in infancy, to make them obedient. The man said the children should respect, honor, and obey their parents. He said where he comes from, the teachers carry sticks that they use to beat the children, to make them obey.

The flip side of “so your days may be long upon the earth” is, “or your parents might have to take drastic measures.” The Old Testament provides for putting disobedient children to death by stoning.

Furthermore, the promise of long life is fraudulent. Being required to honor and defend dishonorable parents, having to forget the terror, rage, confusion, and suffering they caused you when you were small and defenseless, struggling to make sense of the violence and hatred, being told it is “for your own good,” cause an untold amount of suffering throughout life, and lead to premature death. Psychologists and psychiatrists are just beginning to recognize something they call “complex developmental trauma” that results from habitual child abuse. Addiction, risky behavior, depression, domestic violence, and all sorts of life-threatening illnesses, especially autoimmune diseases, pulmonary diseases, and cancer, disproportionately affect people who were maltreated as children.

Every human being is a precious child of God. Every person deserves love, attention, respect, kindness, and gentle, warm, safe contact with his or her caregivers. Every parent is, or should be, a steward of God’s precious gift of life. Children raised compassionately and nonviolently love their parents naturally and unconditionally. They don’t have to be commanded to honor them. They merely reciprocate the honor they’ve been shown. They obey because they trust and respect their parents. They trust and respect their parents because their parents are respectable and trustworthy.

It’s never too late to reparent yourself, and give yourself the love, kindness, compassion, and respect that you deserve. It’s also never too late to begin treating your children as precious children of God. You probably can’t do it alone, but there are good, effective therapies for repairing the weak spots caused by uneven parenting. If you can’t afford therapy, join a Twelve Step group and get a good sponsor.

Edited for clarity January 3, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

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