Tag Archives: cancer

mindfulness-cancer-faith

Wisdom from my dad

I grew up in a bacon-loving family. When I was seventeen, some scientist discovered a connection between bacon and cancer. I immediately announced I would no longer eat bacon. My dad replied, “You think you are not going to die because you stop eating bacon? No one gets out of this life alive. Eat the bacon.”

Less than a year after that conversation, a friend was killed in Vietnam. At Lonnie’s funeral, I recalled my dad’s words and understood that not only do we not get out of this life alive, but some die very young.

I decided to eat bacon—in moderation.

My dad’s pragmatism and Lonnie’s death helped me develop a realistic view toward life and death.  mindfulness-cancer-faithThe cancer caregivers workshop I attended last month reminded me of my Dad’s admonition that “no one gets out of this life alive.” It also reminded me of the oncologist who treated Jim.

Jim’s oncologist was focused on what was best for Jim’s body—new treatments, a stay in the hospital, etc. Keeping Jim’s body alive was his priority, and he was frustrated when we would not do what he wanted. More than once, he warned that he would not continue to treat Jim if we did not go along with his directives.

He taught me the lesson that doctors treat.

Jim and I were more focused on Jim’s spirit. We knew Jim’s body was going to die—but that his spirit would live on. Our stance was that we are spirits inhabiting bodies rather than bodies that have spirits. We were more concerned that Jim’s spirit be at peace than keeping his body alive longer.

It was as if we were speaking two different languages. His oncologist could not understand why we would not try every possible treatment to keep Jim’s body alive—as if he did not know that Jim’s death was imminent.

The cancer caregivers workshop consisted of presentations followed by small group sessions. The presentations were given by doctors and other medical professionals who introduced a variety of mindfulness practices—breathing, movement, guided imagery, etc.—all within a medical context.

After working in adult education for ten years, I understand that adults learn best when instruction is contextualized. So, for medical people to understand new material, it is best to present it within a medical framework.mindfulness-cancer-faithI had lunch one day with a young doctor. He asked about my work and what I had learned from people facing cancer. I told him that I repeatedly hear that people don’t want to be told what they should, ought to or need to do. “I do that all the time,” he said. “And your patients probably don’t like it,” I replied. He looked stunned.

Perhaps it is time to reform medical training so that doctors and patients can speak the same language and be partners in care. Working together we can help people live healthier, fuller lives—while still understanding that no one gets out of this life alive.

 

 

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meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability

Embrace Wisdom

After about a month of weekly visits to a woman in a mental institution, I realized how rare it is to spend that kind of quality time with someone. In the institution’s visiting room, there were no distractions—television or music or chores—as there might be anywhere else. It was just two people, talking for two hours once a week. We got to know one another very well in a short period of time.

I was reminded of that experience during the recent cancer caregiver training I attended. The four-day workshop consisted of three presentations each day—on topics like mindfulness, guided imagery, movement and breathing. We practiced what we were learning in the large group (about 100 people) and also met in small groups.

My small group was made up of eleven women of varying backgrounds and ages. It is unlikely we would have come together under any other circumstances, but there we were, meeting twice a day for two hours each time. That’s a lot of face time.

These “mind-body skills groups” were opportunities to practice the skills we had been taught during the presentations. We were led through breathing exercises, guided meditation and other mindfulness practices, all meant to cultivate greater awareness. We wrote, drew pictures and shared our insights.

One exercise was a guided imagery exercise to find our “wise guide.” Eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the floor, our group facilitator invited us to visit a place where we felt safe. I allowed images to float into my consciousness—the New Jersey shore, a friend’s cottage and my friend Ted (who died from esophageal cancer two years ago).

meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability
New Jersey Shore

Images of being with Ted at my home in Pennsylvania, his home in Oregon and travelling around the world reminded me of how safe I always felt with him. Gratitude filled me—how blessed I was to have been so deeply known and loved. But Ted is no longer with me and so I began to allow other images to surface.

I saw myself on the Irish Sea coast, in a place I had gone for a week’s silent retreat a few months after my Jim died. Ireland is one of those places where I feel incredibly safe.

I imagined walking along the shore of the Irish Sea, and looking at the sun on the horizon.

meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability
Irish Sea

The facilitator’s words brought focus to the question, “who will be my wise guide?”

As I looked across the Sea, the image of a white light emerged at the horizon. It was different from the yellow sun—not as defined and bright white. This light moved across the water and came near to me, and I saw that it was Wisdom. As Wisdom approached me, I became aware of my heart beating. Wisdom wanted to enter my heart, and I embraced her.

It is no mystery to me that I left this four-day training feeling like my heart had expanded and I was more open than I ever remember feeling.meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability

 

hope-cancer-God

Hope transformed

Spirituality was the topic of one of the presentations at the recent cancer caregivers workshop I attended. About two-thirds of the way through her talk, the speaker told the story of a family member who had been in treatment for cancer. When the doctor told them there were no more treatment options, the presenter said, “We gave up hope.”

Gave up hope? How could they give up hope? Without hope, we despair.hope-cancer-GodHer words were so jarring to me that I had difficulty listening to the rest of her talk. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Go back to that part about giving up hope.” But I didn’t.

Instead, after the talk, I composed my thoughts and shared with her how upsetting her words had been to me.

I suggested that hope is not restricted to life versus death, that it is not a one and done kind of thing. Hope can be transformed; it is malleable, adaptable.

I told her that when my friend Jim was diagnosed with a very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer, I had no hope he would survive it and accepted that he was going to die. His neurosurgeon was quite clear and definitive—short of a miracle, there was no way that Jim would survive Glioblastoma.

Some people grabbed onto that hope of a miracle and were convinced Jim would be miraculously cured.

I chose to accept the neurosurgeon’s prognosis; I am actually better when I accept the reality of a situation. Ambiguity and abstraction can make me anxious; facts steady me.

If a miracle had happened, I would have been absolutely ok with that; but, in the face of scientific fact, my hope went in a different direction.

I hoped Jim would survive surgery and live long enough to understand what was happening to him. I hoped he would have the strength and grace to accept his condition and to make peace with himself and God. I hoped he would be able to look back on his life with gratitude. I hoped that he would die peacefully.

I also hoped that I would be able to step up to the challenge of caring for him and helping him to live out the rest of his life as fully as possible. I hoped I would see God’s invitation to me and be able to respond.

I believe that in the cancer journey, hope must be transformed—again and again—to meet the challenges of the roller coaster ride of cancer. Giving up hope means giving in to despair.

Correlating hope with cure can put so much focus on the future that the present is overlooked. All of the goodness and blessings that are happening right now can go unnoticed.

For me, accepting the reality of Jim’s situation helped me to focus on the present and live in the moment. I knew every day might have been his last, and so I tried to make every day our best.

Death is inevitable; hope brings life.hope-cancer-God

 

 

anxiety-God-emotions

Aware of emotions

One of the sessions I attended at the Center for Mind Body Medicine’s Cancer Caregivers training was called Mobilizing, Transforming and Celebrating Emotions. The presenter talked about the need to be aware of our emotions and to express them through movement, drawing, writing, etc. He talked about catharsis and coming into balance.

The presentation was followed by a small-group session where we were led through a guided reflection to help us become more aware of an emotion that was affecting us. We then expressed our awareness through a seven-minute writing exercise—a dialog with that emotion.

Anxiety was the emotion that presented itself to me both during the presentation and again during the guided reflection. The group leader suggested some questions to bring greater awareness of situations we experienced the emotion and ways it was impacting our lives.anxiety-God-emotionsMy dialog with anxiety went like this:

Me: Where do you come from? What do you want? What can I do to lessen your impact on me?

Anxiety: Lessen my impact? Who said you need to lessen my impact or that I want to move out of your life?

Me: I want you gone—or at least I want you to be less powerful and have less control in my life. I want to be at peace, not to have my stomach clench when I am asked a question or when an emotion arises. I want to be able to live in joy and not guilt, to be confident and not second-guess myself, to trust my experiences of affirmation. I want to be proud of my accomplishments and to believe in my capabilities.

I think—I believe—that I can only be free to what “new” God is doing in my life, to actually trust it and embrace it if my anxiety lessens.

Coming to this workshop, I can see how much my anxiety has lessened by what I share—and I can see how much anxiety I still have.anxiety-God-emotionsAnxiety: Perhaps that is the secret—trust and celebrate every, single time you push against me; every time you move against your resistance and fear. Take it in, Jim used to tell you. So, I say it, too. Take it in. I am part of your ancient history. You are not that little girl any more. You can protect yourself. You know what you need to be safe and free. Do that.anxiety-God-emotions

 

God-caregiving-cancer

Lessons from caregiving

During my friend Jim’s illness, we received many cards expressing care and concern; and then after his death, condolences. I recently came across one of the condolence cards. The message read:

I know Jim was/is a good man…a good friend and is sorely missed. But for you a great source of comfort must be what a friend you were to him.

 “What you do for the least of my brethren that you do unto me” really resonates—not that Jim could ever be considered the least but he was/is a beloved friend who needed help and you certainly gave it.

 You also deserve and I’m sure will have a high place in heaven when you meet again. Thank you for a wonderful lesson.

I had read this note six years ago, but reading it now, the last line caught my attention and I felt invited to a deeper understanding of my taking care of Jim.

For me, being a caregiver meant thinking of Jim first. When asked about anything else, I would say, “Right now, my focus is on Jim,” while gesturing with my hands to show my tunnel vision.God-caregiving-cancerI was committed to giving Jim as much independence as possible and letting him make as many decisions as possible.

I had learned this lesson from my mother. When I was a child, my Uncle Steve came to live with us when he got cancer; my mother cared for him until he died. The sacrifices she made for him, her brother-in-law, showed me what caregiving was all about.

Similarly, when my dad had a major stroke, my mother honored his wishes not to go to the hospital. We called in hospice, and my dad spent his last three months of life at home.God-caregiving-cancerSo, what I did for Jim was what my mother modeled for me. I was certainly not thinking of any lesson; I just did what I could for him. Only recently have I started to consider the magnitude of my caring for him.

The cancer in Jim’s brain weakened the right side of his body. Early on, he said, “I guess I have to become a lefty.” For most of the time he was sick, I was his right hand—bathing, dressing, shaving and feeding him. We walked up the stairs in tandem—his right foot resting on my left.

Jim was both very private and very proud. He did not want anyone else to help him. When he started to fall (one of the signs of end-stage brain cancer), it could take me up to forty-five minutes to get him up because he had so little strength to help. Once he was up, I would flex my biceps and joke that I was going to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger to an arm-wrestling match.

Taking care of Jim was physically demanding; knowing that he was going to die soon was emotionally taxing; and putting his needs ahead of mine was spiritually enriching. So many lessons in one experience.God-caregiving-cancer

hope-grief-cancer

Giving voice to grief

Upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan had died, David lamented:

Alas, the glory of Israel, Saul, slain upon your heights; how can the warriors have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished….how can the warriors have fallen…I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother…. (2 Samuel 1:19-27)

Reading David’s words, hearing the grief pouring out of him, reminds me of the importance of giving voice to our sorrows.

But after my friend Jim died, I could hardly put two words together, let alone compose a lament as David had done. Then, one day a few months after Jim’s death, a voice on my car radio sang the words that released the floodgates of my grief:

Oh I swear to you

I’ll be there for you

This is not a drive by

(Train, “Oh I swear to you”)

A drive by—that is what it felt like. Where I had thought Jim would be around forever (or, at least another twenty years), that was not to be. He was gone—no longer there for me—and all the swearing in the world would not change that. It did not matter what either of us might have wanted, I was left to deal with the reality that he was no longer with me.

I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed.

Those three little lines tapped into my grief and expressed a sense of betrayal I did not even know I was feeling.hope-grief-cancerEvery time I hear this song, I still sing along on the refrain, my voice loud and full of emotion. It still feels like a drive by and this refrain helps me to give voice to my grief.

In 1984, my friend Gerry was diagnosed with leukemia; without a bone marrow transplant, he knew his death was imminent. He chose two songs to be played at his funeral, and although thirty-one years have passed since his death, I still think of him whenever I hear these songs:

 Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on….

(Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”)

and

What did you think I would do at this moment
when you’re standing before me with tears in your eyes
….
I’d fall down on my knees
Kiss the ground that you walk on
If I could just hold you again….

(Billy Vera & The Beaters, “At This Moment”)hope-grief-cancerDavid’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan seems raw and immediate, but perhaps he took some time to process his grief before he wrote.

Giving expression to our sorrows can open us to a different perspective; sadness can sit side-by-side with gratitude and hope.hope-grief-cancer

 

 

 

 

God-friends-cancer

I love you more than…

I love you more than you will ever know.

Those were among the final words my friend Ted spoke to me when we were together just before he died from esophageal cancer two years ago.

I told him that I knew how much he loved me, and I believed I had a pretty good idea; we had been good friends for more than thirty years. During his illness, we spoke every day, sometimes two or three times. I knew he loved me.God-friends-cancerMy friend Lisa recently told me of the death of one of her guy friends. She was devastated by this loss and inconsolable in her grief.

Good guy friends are great gifts. They are also not all that common—which makes them even more precious.

My friend Jim used to tell me that he believed I had good friendships with men because I grew up with brothers (one older and one younger). He believed that growing up with brothers taught me to accept both the gangster and the vulnerable sides of a guy.God-friends-cancerI would agree and add, “My brothers taught me to have realistic expectations of men.”

One of the relationships I kept up after I left the FBI was with an agent named Bob Hickey—formally known as Robert J. Hickey, Jr. For ten years after I left the Bureau, Bob and I got together regularly, even though he lived in Washington, D.C., and I was in Philadelphia. Our friendship was important to both of us, and we dedicated time and energy to keeping it alive.

Bob encouraged me in my running, and we often ran the Mall in D.C.  I remember a run on one of his visits to Philadelphia; I wanted to quit, and he kept urging me to go on. The run ended at a bridge over a railroad track, and running up that hill seemed impossible. “It’ll build character,” Bob prodded, which was just the dare I needed to dig deep for the last burst of energy. It is also a line that has inspired me when I have faced other challenges.God-friends-cancerThen I moved to Canada, and Bob married a woman who seemed a tad bit jealous of our friendship. I tried to reassure her that while I loved Bob dearly, I did not want to marry him, and that I was happy for them. But, things were different after he got married.

Bob loved all things Irish—music, dance, literature—and he loved to visit his relatives in Ireland. The last time we spoke, I was planning my trip to Ireland in August. He was happy for me.

Bob died last summer. Since learning of his death, I have been recalling wonderful memories of our friendship, and I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. Just thinking of him makes me smile. Like Ted, Jim and the other men who have blessed my life, his friendship brought me great joy.

I love you more than you will ever know.God-friends-cancer