My Very Own Cancer Journey
The last three weeks have been one of the most distressing experiences of my life. The fear that a possible cancer diagnosis brings stops you in your tracks. My dear friend Andy Peri talks about how life can change in an instant with a fateful phone call and this is indeed my truth.
On September 22, 2016, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. My life has become all about this diagnosis. Suddenly my schedule is full with countless phone calls, an endless array of appointments with oncologists, radiologists, surgeons and alternative doctors.
I am well aware of the impact this news will have on my friends and family. The number of friends in the community who have been diagnosed with cancer at my age in the past few years has been staggering and now I am on that list. In my own experience, it has been inexplicably surreal how many are affected at the age of 46. My dear friend Deb Hubsmith died from Leukemia last year (see Tribute to Deb), David Walker; Love Devine's beloved passed in June, my beloved friend Rowen Holland has been journeying with colon cancer and now I am given the opportunity to learn from cancer, all at the age of 46. There have been other losses and cancer diagnosis from friends in the tribe that have brought us to our knees in dismay. Morgan Fieri, beloved Fairfax momma of an 11-year-old died five years ago at the age of 39. It seems like cancer is becoming more of a reality for the young, the seemingly invincible that remind us that we are all too mortal. Many of these people diagnosed are shining examples of health and give/gave generously to the community. Deb was a vegan/vegetarian for 20 years and lived an avidly healthy lifestyle; Morgan was a remarkable healer; Rowen is a midwife who has touched thousands of lives with her skills and all are bright, inspirational souls.
I love my blessed life. I have an amazing family, a circle of friends, a ranch that is beautiful beyond compare, four gorgeous horses, two kitties, and a sweet and loving puppy. The work I do with horses, helping people transform their lives through the workshops I lead and the ‘Grief Rituals with Horses' is deeply fulfilling and yet, I have a huge hole in my heart. One year ago when the reality of losing my closest friend of 19 years, facing the betrayal of someone I deeply cared for and my canine companion died all within a month's time, my heart broke. It is no coincidence that one year later I discover a cancerous tumor over my heart. I have done my best to transform the incredible pain of the triple blow and I even fooled myself: I thought I was for the most part through it but it seems there is more to contend with. Life never seems to stop giving us opportunities to grow and here it is again. Thank you, life!
Since my diagnosis, my state of mind has ping-ponged from one extreme to another; at times I feel positive and accepting of my unknown fate. At other times I feel hopeless, overwhelmed, utterly alone and stunned to have to climb another mountain with the subject title revolving around cancer. The mind is a powerful tool and we can wield it however we choose; however, challenges that knock us off our feet invite us to find the strength to find beauty in the adversity. Here I am, on the ground, looking for the inspiration to keep finding my way through the medical quagmire I am stepping into with immense trepidation.
I find myself experiencing a ‘double grief' as it were: the shock of my own diagnosis comes merely a year after Deb's death. The twenty-two months of being with Deb for endless hours at the hospital, driving her for blood tests, the see-saw of having your hopes raised then dashed to the ground from each prognosis from the doctors, and being entrenched in the medical system is all too real for me. My heart is still raw from the trauma of her death and now my diagnosis sits right on top of the painful memory of Deb's loss. This makes it doubly challenging, which indicates I still have a lot of healing to do.
I was recently given an Amazon gift certificate and excitedly purchased many grief & death books to add to my library (see booklist). My boyfriend laughed and called me “a bit strange" which was not the first time I have been called that. Ironically I published the page demystifying death & grief on my website nine months ago and made it my goal to bravely look death in its face. I am a part of ‘Full Circle Living and Dying Collective' in the Nevada City/Grass Valley area which promotes awareness about death and presents events about this topic to the community. In July I attended death midwife training and for almost a year I’ve been helping people through their grief process by leading grief rituals with my horses. Nine months ago I got a large raven and Celtic knot tattoo on my left arm to symbolize the journey of being with Deb through her death and my dedication to this path of demystifying death. (The irony doesn't escape me that nine months later I am facing my own personal death experience.)
Now I am given a greater opportunity to face death on my own. Silly me, I thought I had faced the subject sufficiently through watching my best friend transform from her beautiful, vibrant 110-pound self to dying as a 65 shell of her former self. I thought I was so brave and even had written how I was not afraid of my own death one year ago, now I see I was full of shit. Of course, part of me is petrified. No one knows what it is like to walk with cancer until you have it. I thought I had understood before but I was gravely mistaken. Even if you are a 24-hour caretaker to someone with a life-threatening illness, you don't know what it's like till you have been given the dreadful diagnosis.
In the big picture, I know I will be okay, as long as if I can find my own inner stamina to weather the next storm. My reality is that I am currently inundated with endless appointments as mentioned above, getting a second opinion and gathering information about alternative medicine. I don't know if my insurance will cover this hefty medical cost. It is a lot to sort out and I am overwhelmed and simultaneously frozen in this reality. In time I will adjust but right now I'm a deer in the headlights.
I know when announcing this that there will be a deluge of well-meaning people offering their opinion of what they believe the cure is. I thank you in advance for wanting to help but please also know that I am avidly researching breast cancer and the dizzying amounts of choices and plan to make the best well-informed decision that resonates with my highest truth. Please know I am already extremely overwhelmed and while your advice comes from a loving place, it is one more thing for me to sort through. You can help by envisioning me healed, my body radiantly alive and healthy. Thank you for caring and for your help.
I am aware I will be flooded with messages by announcing this. Please know that I will read each one of your messages and they are greatly appreciated. I will not be able to respond to everyone as I am already overwhelmed by the very full plate I hold. Again, thank you for your love.
Now for the mortality piece: The news of my diagnosis will trigger some of you. I experienced being Deb's caretaker and spokesperson through her illness that experienced how the news of cancer mirrors our own mortality. I saw the fear that struck the heart of many when they heard of Deb's journey and now I am stepping into that realm. I learned whom I could tell the truth to about Deb's stage of her illness and who could not hear it. I ultimately chose not to share the truth with everyone as I would end up having to care for them and my main focus was to care for Deb.
I ask you on behalf of anyone facing cancer, illness, death, and a de-habilitating situation to try to stay real, please don't run away from your pain. We all will face death at some point and for those of us in this reality, please stay present with us. We need you to be as authentic as you can. If it petrifies you, please say so. A simple, "I'm so sorry you are experiencing this and I'm honestly not sure what to say," goes far beyond ignoring the topic or trivializing it. Please don't cover it up with niceties, because facing surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, endless percentages of recovery, insurance billings, possible hair and breast loss and endless health choices is horrendous. As I've written in ‘Six ways to be with someone in grief' a hug and the words, "I'm sorry," go way beyond words that might be well meaning but ultimately cause more pain.
I inherently trust that everything that happens is for my highest growth. The last couple of years have been rough but it has taught me that the greatest tragedies bring the most transformational gifts. I signed up for the fast track of growth in this lifetime and here is another opportunity to polish the diamond of my soul through this cancer journey. In the big picture I am grateful but my mortal side curses another challenge as frankly, it would be nice to cruise for a little bit. And so it is. Others remind me that we are not given more than we can handle and I place my faith in this.
Ironically after setting up and running two fundraisers for friends with cancer, I am now starting my own fundraiser. My reality is high medical bills, taking time off of work and needing to focus on my healing. Asking for financial help is challenging, as I have been the one to care for others and be the rock for others in need. Maybe a lesson in this journey is to ask for help, to learn to receive and be vulnerable? If you feel called to give it would be greatly appreciated as every little bit helps. Thank you from the depths of my soul. Link: You Caring
Thank you for reading this, for bearing witness to the depths of my reality. I will continue to be as honest as I can with my journey and hopefully, this will inspire others to share their journey. Maybe this will shed light on what it is like to receive a cancer diagnosis. At any rate, I hope to be able to help others in some capacity with the raw voice that cries from my soul. May we all speak our truth with the knowledge we aren't alone in our struggles and be joined in that vulnerability rather than separated by it.
With immense love and gratitude,