I remember how the hospital sheets felt as my hands reached for their folds. I remember the sound of that rolling bed's one wonky wheel, how it ticked and rattled as I was flown down the brightly lit hall after that first surgery. I remember how the surgeon held my arm with both hands as he told me what he had found was cancer. I was twenty nine when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare blood cancer. I did six months of chemotherapy and tumbled out the other side into remission.
But that's not the story.
My story is of finding raw truth in the rubble of sickness. It is a story about learning to embrace yourself in all of your forms. It is a story about relinquishing control and allowing life to happen.
It is a story of learning how to listen to a body, and as a result, deciding to overhaul all the plans that I had made for myself and self renovate.
While I was sick, I became fascinated with all of the many ways to take care of myself. Chemo drip after chemo drip, I felt my body fighting. I felt responsible. And I felt scared that I wasn't strong enough to get through all that lay ahead. I wanted to do everything I could to help myself. So I stopped at nothing to support myself through the fight.
And a world opened up to me. It was a world that redefined my understanding of health, and reshaped my relationship with myself and my body.
Let's first set the stage here, and ground ourselves in what chemotherapy is and how it affects you. Originally derived from the components if mustard gas, the curative combination chemotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma was developed in the early 1960's and is designed to stop cell turnover in the body, hence stopping cancerous cells from multiplying. The chemo that I was on was called ABVD, which has been around since the 1970's. That's four letters for each of the four liter-sized bags. Generally, each bag takes one hour to empty, so that's four hours for me in the chemo chair, longer if I experience any difficulty other than discomfort. Medically, ABVD is about as close to a "cancer cure" as you can get, with remission rates in the upper 80% range. Phew. Hook me up to a couple drips, and I'm basically cured, right? Bing bam boom, cancer over. But just a short, minor blip on the radar of my life, right?
No. That wasn't how this went.
Physically and emotionally, the experience was a little bit different than how the medical community described it. Chemotherapy made me stop to catch my breath on the sink after brushing my teeth. It wouldn't let me sleep at night. It shut down my ovaries. More than just making my hair fall out, it took away my memories, the ability to dream, and be excited about the future. It replaced it with pulsing, heated anxiety that made me pace around the dark living room at night. It put my nerves on edge and I felt every needle, every pinch. While it blasted through my veins killing every cancer cell in its path, it seemed like it was taking me down with it. The last thing it took was my words, and that's when I came back at it swinging. Not my words.
Most, if not all, of the side effects brought on by chemo fell by the wayside in the doctors office during my routine checkups during chemo. This seemed to be the nature of the hospital.
They weren't focused on the loss of my word recall. They were focused on loss of life.
This was good. I want them focused on that. Their job was to administer the medicine to kill the cancer. As long as the needle pierced my chest into the port that was lodged there, they weren't concerned with how much it hurt, or that I could feel the serum burn for those four hours as I was hooked up to the drip. A small price to pay, right?
As I watched the hospital's ice cream truck volunteer wheel past me in the chemo infusion center during yet another Tuesday infusion, I looked at the cart and thought about that giant vat of synthetic sugar and the milky chocolate syrup that was snuggled up next to it. Soft drinks and ginger ales were stacked in the mini fridges in the kitchenette areas. There were brand name cookies screaming "Ahoy!" and saltine crackers at every turn in the infusion center. Lots of 'food,' but no substance. No real fuel. This is common practice in most of the leading cancer centers in the country.
But why? Why is all the focus on the medicine and none on the body?
Now, I came from the world of pharmaceuticals and I love and respect the power of the pill, but to me, there was something missing in how we have learned to take care of ourselves. There is something missing in how we understand health, from preventative care to chronic disease.
And I thought that there has to be a better way.
There has to be a way to do both, to understand both the medicine and the body itself. There has to be a better way to support myself through this cancer experience, rather than eating ice-cream in the chemo chair. I knew I needed the medicine to rid my body of the cancer, but I knew that I needed to help myself get through not just the cancer, but the chemo too.
And I wasn't taking no for an answer.
So I started an adventure of my own, through the salt rock crystal lit offices of everything alternative, holistic, and green. I stopped at nothing. I tried everything.
And I learned that there is a world of ancient, proven, clinically supported resources, tools, tactics, and strategies out there.
There is not just one way to weather sickness, and I learned that I didn't have to sink deep into the chemo chair, put my head down, close my eyes, and just count the sessions. Instead, I opened myself to new and different methods of self care, wellness, healing, and coping. I integrated nutrition, counseling, herbal remedies, and supplements into my cancer care. I connected my oncologist team with my naturopath to ensure my care was integrated. I created my own care team.
But beyond just support and care, I made a promise to myself.
I promised myself that I would find, and feel, joy wherever I could. That I would dedicate the year that cancer happened, to me. I promised myself that I would listen to, and trust, this body and that I would ensure that I gave it everything it needed. I wasn't going to let this break me, and if it did, I promised myself that I would be okay, and that I would learn how to rebuild. The effects of this approach were undeniable, especially when I looked around that infusion center's waiting room. I carry practices and methods with me to this day. Here is a basic highlight of this referendum:
Drink water. A lot of it. Duh. But seriously.
Eat real food. Like, from the ground, or from a tree. Doesn't have to be all the time and you can still eat what you want, but next time you are in the grocery store, see how long you spend in the produce aisle versus all the packaged goods aisles. It was eye-opening for me.
Meditate. Allow yourself moments of silence. Learn how to be with yourself. Like right now, as you read this, take a moment and feel your feet on the floor, or, your butt in your bed. Or whichever is more relevant...
Listen to your body. And be kind. I got really upset with myself if I was tired, or sad, or just melancholy. I believed I had to be happy. Positive. All the time. Well, we don't. We are human, and we are not just allowed, but supposed, to feel. It is what our body does, it is how it communicates. So listen and be kind to yourself.
Be excited every morning. Find something to be excited about and get up to experience it. When we feel joy, there are cellular changes in your biology that boost your immune system and reboot critical neurotransmission.*
Be thankful every night. Think of all of the good things around you, and say thank you. For me, it started with my feet for some strange reason. I would think "Thank you, feet, for today" as I put cream on them and tucked them in to bed. Not sure why it started with my feet, but it did. Strange, I know. Again, the simple act of gratitude has proven cellular changes mentally and biologically, making you more resistant to disease, lowering stress and anxiety, and even slowing the aging process.*
From opening myself up to all of the possibilities of integrative medicine, I learned that I had misunderstood what it meant to take care of myself. I had somehow missed the critical life skill of listening to my body, of orienting the balance of my life according those needs. I had been so busy in my own head, aiming for that next promotion, focused on that next presentation, rushing to get to that workout class, always ahead of myself preparing for the next day, the next month, the next year. Cancer opened a world up to me that made me stop and take notice.
Health is so much more than a pill, or a drip, a juice, or a workout class. It is a holistic awareness and understanding of the self. And we can do this better.
DFARHUD, Dariush, Maryam MALMIR, and Mohammad KHANAHMADI. “Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article.” Iranian Journal of Public Health 43.11 (2014): 1468–1477. Print.
EASTERLIN, Richard A. "Explaining Happiness." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sep 2003, 100 (19) 11176-11183; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1633144100
FREDRICKSON, Barbara. "Are You Getting Enough Positivity in Your Diet?" Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. June 2011.
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