Inspiration from Cancer’s Journey

Mother’s Day has passed and I found myself so happy for each minute I could be with my daughter and husband, play with them and tell them how much I loved them. Everything we did seemed magical. Even the weather turning cold, whipping our hopeful spring dresses around our bare legs as we tried to walk on the pier over the beach seemed heightened and funny. The blasts of cold, Pacific ocean wind were a new challenge to forge into, something that could be withstood, a force to overcome…we ran back to get warm, shivering and laughing.

I couldn’t imagine a day like that when I heard my diagnosis for the first time: stage 4 lung cancer. Thoughts of me quietly, slowly and painfully disappearing from my own life were in the forefront of my mind. I didn’t know what to expect, certainly not that seven months later I would be almost “cancer free” and living my life again. Yesterday I spoke with a friend, a cancer buddy. She’s my age, a mom, a person I got to know because she has cancer, too. We talked about her good scan results, when she will go back to work, new chances she is taking, her hug and chat with Steve Tyler after she sneaked past a guard at a filming of American Idol. In other words, living life again.

We are fitting back into our previous lives, but we are not the same. We have fought, cried, shared, trusted and became vulnerable and helpless in the face of the disease. We have also found more strength then we knew we had, met incredible people we wouldn’t have and forged a new worldview that links us closer to what is truly essential. We have battled, we have changed, we have learned.

Judy who blogs at motherswithcancer has posted a list of things she’s learned from cancer. This is a list that has been in my head but has not made it into words. I am grateful Judy has done the work of putting it down for us all. If you are newly diagnosed and scared; or have been fighting, surviving and thriving for a while with cancer, these words are true, hopeful and helpful. Here is her list:

  1. You’re stronger than you know or ever imagined. People ask me how I get through this, and the answer really is: I have no other choice. I can either crumble (and I do sometimes, but I’ve always been able to go forward again) or I can accept this as a part of my life and find happiness wherever I can.
  2.  Faith is a beautiful thing. The times when I’ve felt closest to God are the times when I’ve had the easiest time with all of this. God really is with me all the time; it’s just that I don’t always accept or acknowledge it, or my anger against God is so fierce that I harden my heart against Him. He always finds a way through, though — sometimes through the grace of other people — and when that happens, miracles happen, even if they’re small miracles. I thank God for being with me through all of my troubles.
  3. Despite everything, life is beautiful. The sun is shining today, I have a wonderful family, I have amazing friends and a tremendous church family. I have many blessings in my life, even though I do have a sucky disease. The blessings in my life are part of what gives me strength.
  4. People can and will surprise you, both in good and bad ways. I try not to judge them for that anymore because, as some smart people have told me, “Wounded people wound people.” I am finding that I have more and more compassion for those you would think I would be railing at.
  5. Lean on friends, family members, church family. Lean on people. Let them know when you’re hurting. Many times, even just telling others your problems releases burdens that you may have.
  6. Related to number 2: God is great and can get you through anything. Also, miracles can happen. Never forget that.
  7. If you’re not feeling well physically, it’s difficult to feel well emotionally. I often forget that when I’m not feeling well physically. If I would remember that, I think things would be easier for me at those times.
  8. A prognosis is simply a history of what has happened to people before you who have gone through the same or a similar diagnosis. Prognoses are not set in stone. You may be the small percentage that lives way beyond a prognosis. My way of dealing with the prognoses that I got the first time I went through this? — honestly, I try to ignore them.
  9. Keep the faith, and keep your hope. They are both beautiful things and will help you in the difficult days of your illness or whatever burden you are carrying.
After the devastating words, “You have cancer” go off like an atom bomb in our life, there is hope. But more than hope, many good things can happen because of the cancer experience. As Maya Anjelou says in the title of one of my favorite books: “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.” Its true. I wouldn’t take nothing for my cancer journey. I’ve learned so much. 
Posted in Inspiration | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing and Healing

When I was first diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, I knew nothing about what treatment I was to have, what to expect or what would happen next. I knew I had cancer in an advanced stage with metastasis to my bones, lymph nodes and brain. I had to make a number of decisions about treatments as well as hassle with the insurance company and organize life for my preschool daughter.

What to do? I started energetically writing. I just wrote. I wrote prayers. I wrote curses. I wrote anger. I wrote thanks. I wrote fears. I wrote defiance. I wrote to my daughter, my husband, my family, my friends. In my shock, severe stress and sleepless nights I wrote about what was keeping me awake. I wrote on a computer. I wrote on a caring site.  I wrote in the “notes” section of my phone. I wrote on scraps of paper.

I needed to write reality now that I didn’t understand reality any more. I was making it up and re-forming it.  I was leaving something behind in case I wasn’t here anymore.

What I was doing, I came to find out later, was healing. By pouring the words out I was getting them out of my head and onto the paper. I was, in a frantic and latent way, recreating myself. As I see it now, I was also defying death and oblivion by writing and putting my essence down for posterity. “I count,” I was saying to cancer, “You can’t take me from me.”

Others have found this path, in fact it is well-trodden. Healing through the arts is well established and many integrative oncology practices have art, drama and writing therapies as complementary healing practices.

Sharon Bray, Ed.D is an author and educator who has led many years of classes helping people to write through the cancer experience. She has a blog with weekly prompts that can start anyone writing called Writing Through Cancer. She has also written two books to help with the writing process A Healing Journey:  Writing through Breast Cancer (2004) and When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer (2006). Sharon shared the following with me:

JM: What are the benefits of writing when one has cancer?

SB: Writing can be therapeutic for anyone, but during cancer, it offers a way to make sense out of the chaos of emotions a cancer diagnosis creates.  A journal or notebook is a little refuge, a sanctuary, a place to spill out all we feel, and then, as we re-read, to begin to make sense of it.  In a writing group, such as those I lead, the raw, emotional writing quickly becomes stories or poems, and as the group members share their writing aloud, an extraordinary community is forged.  We are joined by cancer–and we realize, as we hear the words of our colleagues, that we are not alone in what we feel.

JM: In your last blog post you chose fear as a theme to write about. Most of us live and deal with that emotion daily. Are there other common themes that writers seem to share, when writing the cancer experience? How does this help to write about a theme?

SB: Shock, fear, anger, remorse, regret–all of these surface at one time or another during the cancer experience.  Writing helps release those emotions, getting them “outside” the mind and body and onto the page.  Keeping negative emotions locked inside is unhealthy–writing gives voice to all we feel, and as we write, we discover that there are insights, other emotions, like hope, love, concern for others that also will be expressed.

JM: If someone wants to write, but thinks “I don’t have anything to say,” what advice do you give to help them start writing? 

SB: I offer prompts–writing suggestions–from just about every corner of life and the cancer experience.  I also say that if a prompt doesn’t “do anything” for you, then just write about anything.  Keep the pen (or your fingers on the keyboard) moving.  Don’t stop to edit or read it over.  Even if you begin with “I don’t have anything to say…” and keep writing that line over and over, something WILL open up–and you’ll have a “door in” to something that wants to be expressed.

JM: Some people may hesitate to start writing because they think they don’t write well, that they are not good at writing. Do you need perfect grammar to write through cancer? 

SB: Oh my goodness, no!  In my groups, I never see what is written–there’s no red ink, no corrections.  What is written is the writer’s — maybe it gets refined and polished sometime later, far down the road, into a poem or story that needs an editor’s eye, but never in the healing process.  Just write.  Push that internal critic aside.

JM: Is there a writing experience that got you through a particularly difficult time? How did it help you?

SB: I’ve always written, even as a child–but there was a particularly difficult period of my life when my husband drowned in an accident, and I became a single mother and a widow overnight.  I filled dozens of notebooks with my questions and the roller coaster of emotions.  It helped–in those dark, lonely nights, I found solace by writing all I was feeling.  Gradually those emotional entries began to change–and I found poetry among my feelings and words.  It was tremendously important time — and it also influenced the writing groups I lead today. 

A special thank you to Sharon for sharing her wisdom and for doing this project that we can all benefit from. I have been using Sharon’s prompts from her site and I find them extremely useful to prompt me to heal in places I may tend to avoid on my own. Have  you had a healing experience through writing? Please share with us!

Posted in Healing | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Gratefulness Begins with Us

More on gratefulness. Since I started a daily practice of being grateful, I have been overwhelmed by how much beauty and good things are around me. This morning on my daily walk, I started out thankful that I could walk and that it was a clear, sunny day. Then I was grateful for the wildflowers that were popping up in any piece of dirt available. I was grateful for the rains that nourished them all winter. I was grateful for their life-force, that they could lie dormant season after season, year after year before unfurling in

blackberries ripening

colorful beauty. I was grateful for my red, feathery dog padding softly by my side. I saw the blackberry brambles by the side of the road and was grateful for the ripening fruit that is free to eat for anyone who walks by. At this point I was filled with a sense of contentment, awe and wonder. I felt supremely happy and completely without want.

Being Blissfully Present

Being present in my own life has been a gift of the cancer process. I am grateful for this gift. I find that I can now truly be present in each moment. Being grateful about specific little things helps anchor me there, helps me savor. Before cancer I would have rushed by, caught up in what I had to do or fretting about the future. When I am noticing all that I like and appreciate around me, my mind has no room for the “scary questions” that have been agressively trying to take over my daily life. Will the cancer come back? Do I have months or years to live? What will my daughter do without her mother? What will be my quality of life? When I am in these moments of recognizing all the good around me, those thoughts have no room. I am free of them. I experience a refreshing of my mind and heart. I feel free, happy and blissful.

Giving the Gift

How do I give my daughter this gift? How can I teach her to live in each moment, appreciating its beauty, being grateful for what is there? It seems the best thing a parent can do is to model being grateful. When we speak of the things we are grateful for daily with our children, we are helping them cultivate a positive mind. Being grateful also keeps children from, the often pervasive feeling, of being entitled to have things. For good tips about creating an entitlement-free child, click here.  All we have, even our daily life is a gift and a miracle. This is something I have learned, and is another reason I am grateful, from my cancer experience.

Gratefulness Activities with Kids

Besides talking, there are activities you can do with kids to get them thinking about gratitude and to get their creative juices flowing. Kids can write, draw or photograph what they are grateful for. Some activity ideas include:

  • A Gratitude Bank: On thin slips of paper write what child is thankful for, then “deposit” each slip in a glass or clear container. They will be delighted as this bank fills up showing all they have to be thankful for. Using colored paper would add pizazz!
  • A Gratitude Poster: As a family or individual draw, color, paint or paste on images of what each is thankful for. Hang in a prominent place.
  • A Gratitude Tree: Cut different colored ribbon about eight inches long. Go outside and find a stick, one with many twigs sprouting is good. Fill a jar halfway with sandGratitude Tree or rocks. On each ribbon write on one end what child is grateful for. Tie the ribbons along the length of the stick, letting the words flutter down.
For more activities with kids, go to Kidlutions blog. I liked these. 356 Grateful , who I mentioned in the previous blog entry, also has a free ebook with ideas if you sign up on their email list. I really like them and what they are doing. I am grateful for these positive ideas, grateful that we can enjoy them as a community. Do you have more gratefulness activity ideas? Please share in the comments, I’d love to learn more and spread the wisdom.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Be Grateful?! You can’t be Serious.

I was half-asleep listening to the radio as my husband drove my daughter and I home from a fun-filled holiday weekend. TheSanta Monica Pier, April 23, 2011 broadcast was about living with gratitude. As I listened to the broadcast I remembered the disturbing thought I had the day before. We had just visited my amazing oncologist and was told that things were looking good, blood levels were down and my primary tumor was “barely visible.” I had also been interviewed in a film about living with lung cancer and was feeling inspired and renewed.

The strange thought that came to me was a strong sense of gratitude for my life since my cancer diagnosis. What?! How could I feel grateful for something so scary, so big, so totally life-changing? How could I be grateful for something that, upon hearing my diagnosis, drains the color from people’s faces? Was I losing my mind? Was I in major denial?

It turns out that, contrary to losing our minds, we are finding our way when we have, an “attitude of gratitude.” Science is starting to quantify that gratitude helps heal us. Dr. Robert Emmons at UC Davis runs a study looking at gratitude and well-being. Findings from the study show that those who practice gratitude reported less physical symptoms, more positive moods and better sleep, as well as a more positive outlook on the future. Those who practiced gratitude were also more likely to have success at achieving their goals.

Practice, Practice, Practice

How do we be grateful? There are days many of us may think it is impossible to be grateful given how sick we feel, how weak we are, how worried about our kids. Reports from successful practitioners say that creating a “Gratitude Journal” or a list, where each day one lists what one is grateful for, is a good way to cultivate a daily practice. Some say list one thing, some say three to five. The point is to be conscious of the many good things in our everyday, even if our overall lives seem cataclysmic. List items may include grand scheme things: Divine Love, living in a democracy, the internet. Or the extraordinarily ordinary: steamed milk, soft dog fur, a warm quilt. In fact, electricity, running water and working plumbing are all things I am very grateful for, although I hardly ever think of them.

I think cultivating our creativity is so important as we journey through cancer so I was especially excited to see one mom’s creative adaptation to the daily gratitude challenge. Feeling frustrated and stagnant, 365 gratefulHailey Bartholomew took a photograph of what she was grateful for everyday for a year and posted it to a website. She is now making a movie and following her passion. Many have followed her example and have inspirational stories of revitalizing their lives as they face grief, loss and ordinary days. For her evolving story and how you can do this, click here.

Gratitude practiced daily, it seems, can bolster us to go through the hard times. Its not that our problems will go away, most of them will still confront us. We will CHOOSE not to let negativity rule our lives as we look daily for the things that we are grateful for. We will be better equipped to deal with the really big things with a less encumbered mind. We will also provide a model for our children.

So, I’m starting today and will write down everyday at least one thing I am grateful for each day. OK, here goes today’s entry (deep breath):

#1. I am grateful to have had the experience of cancer.

There, I said it. Sound crazy?

Posted in Gratitude | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Don’t Just Do Something, Be There!

When we hear that our friend, sister, daughter, son, cousin, uncle or even a friend’s friend has cancer, we are shocked. We often don’t know what to do so avoidance many come naturally. It did for me. I never knew before what someone really needed when they were seriously ill or even facing a life-changing situation. I hate to relate here the many times I glossed over someone’s bad news, “Well, it will all be alright..right?” When I’d see the person in public I never knew should I mention her disease? Should I ask how its going? Maybe he wants to forget his disease right now and here I am reminding him about it. Do they want to be alone? With someone?

When I was waiting to hear the bombshell that I had lung cancer, and stage 4 at that, I didn’t want to be alone. I had my three year old daughter with me and my husband away at a conference. A friend came over the night before my biopsy, with her daughter to play with mine. We ordered take-out Thai food and she asked, “Are you sure you want company?” “I don’t want to be alone,” I answered without hesitation. That was all we said about it. My brain was a swirl of emotions, but that was all I needed. My friend to be there, to be present.

Upon full diagnosis, less than a week later, my husband and I were caught up into the cancer vortex of doctors, blood tests, scans, second opinion, third opinion, laser brain surgery (true!), research, fights with the insurance company and juggling life with our very active preschooler, the Little Pink Monkey. Our lives were not our own. During this time our needs were much different than they are today, six months later. Here are some of the things that helped during the initial diagnosis and early treatment period.

  1. Take their child(ren) for a fun day out of the house, keep them until dinner or even overnight if applicable.
  2. Bring healthy, nutritious meals over, coordinate and plan a meal a day for a few weeks with other families. Be sensitive to dietary considerations.
  3. Pick up/drop off children for various activities. It is very important for kids to have normal routines, even if mom and dad’s routines are not normal.
  4. Find out what the family needs and just do it! Asking, “what do you need” will often get vague answers, most likely from chemo brain or just being overwhelmed. See what needs to be done or ask the primary caregiver and do it. The same friend who sat with me over Thai food recently bustled into our yard and replanted our vegetable garden! What a gift.
  5. Keep in lots of touch. Text, call, email, mail cards – whatever your person prefers. Letting them know you are thinking of, praying for and loving them daily is a huge help through stressful patches. One friend texted, and still texts, me every night with pictures or video of what she and her kids did that day. Another friend called me every evening to see how my day went. Two friends living across the globe emailed me everyday and we had three-way “heart” conversations that I know saved my life. All of these little communications kept me from despair during darkest hours.
  6. Little gifts can brighten a day. I loved getting pampering bath items, an eyemask (very thoughtful), handmade napkins, candles, and little plants with cards left on my doorstep.
  7. Be a voice of communication. If you are part of the person’s network of  say, college friends or work friends, offer to communicate latest news to that group. Also, hugely helpful is to set up a webpage for them at a free site including caringbridge and help disseminate the web link.
  8. Be patient, be present. Your friend or loved one may react uncharacteristically or seem not themselves. Be patient and realize they are going through a major upheaval in their life and in their sense of self. Most often they may just need your presence, just sitting with them, doing “nothing.”

These are just a few things, there are many more. Here are eight more tips that I like also. Starting an exercise program when the person is ready is also important, but that may be a topic for further discussion. If you are battling cancer, what has someone done that’s been most helpful for you? Please share your ideas with what worked for you.

Posted in Helping | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Place to Rest

I am 41. I have great husband and a beautiful preschool-aged daughter. I exercise. I eat right. I live clean and green. I have Stage IV Lung Cancer. I am not supposed to have this.

I was diagnosed last year in October of 2010. It was a great shock to find out, I had no real symptoms leading up to diagnosis.  I immediately thought of my husband and my daughter. How were they going to get through this? I’ll muddle through, but what about them?

I know for many of us our first thoughts turn towards our loved ones as scenarios form in our minds of life without us, or life where we are barely there. If we are a parent who gets cancer, we need help. One of the first questions I asked my oncologist, once the reality of the diagnosis set in was, where can we go to get support? He gave me the name of the local cancer resource center in our area.

The center is great and I diligently attended many of the acitivities that were set up – support groups, tai chi, yoga, journaling, they even had a knitting group. Yet, as I looked around I could not find anyone my own age or anyone taking care of kids at home. When I asked around I found that there were very few organized groups for parents that have cancer. None in our area.

Many oncolgists say when a person gets cancer the family gets cancer. As moms with cancer we know that to be especially true. Kids of all ages will be extremely affected by the disease, whatever the outcomes. Yet more and more younger people are getting cancer. Many of these have children living with them. Estimates say over 1.5 million cancer survivors are caring for children. Up to 18 percent of new diagnosis are moms and dads of under age 18 kids.

By launching this blog I wanted to start growing awareness of the need for services for moms and dads with cancer. Online there are a number of good sources which I would like to highlight and provide here. There is also a need for face-t0-face support groups in our neighborhoods and communities. When a cancer diagnosis is given, every aspect of a person’s life is affected. Can we create little spaces in our communities to alleviate some pressure, to give some hope?

If you are a mom or dad fighting cancer, I hope you will find this a place to rest and rejuvenate, give input, find a voice. Perhaps some of you will be inspired to start small groups in your communities. If you are a supporter, welcome. All positive input is welcome here. I think, together, we can create more shelter and give hope for families facing the challenges of cancer.

Love and light.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment