Up until and even beyond my diagnosis with cancer, I believed I could ask just about anything of my body as a matter of course. Survive on junk food for days at a time while working long hours and going without adequate sleep or exercise for even longer? Sure, why not? It seemed to be the right set of choices at the time—and for quite a while they were the only choices I believed available to me. I was a single mother of two and an underemployed graduate student for most of a decade; when I finished my degree I felt lucky to have work as adjunct faculty regardless of the increased pressure it placed on me as a worker and as a parent. Short-sighted though I might have been then, I didn’t have the expansiveness of vision to consider what I might do instead. As I had grown accustomed to doing, I put my head down, my shoulder to the wheel, and determined to get through it, no matter what it took or how long it would take.
Then I got sick, terribly sick. And I’ve been fighting a new battle ever since—namely, to redefine my health and to regain it as best as I could.
I’ve had many, many allies in this battle, most of whom I’ve named and thanked more than once in these diaries. The major ones are my husband and family; my diverse medical team and their assorted remedies; my friends, virtual and otherwise. However, I have been remiss in not appreciating my own body for doing as well as it has in rebounding so far. I have been much more inclined instead to castigate my body for letting me down in such a spectacular way.
Cancer is a peculiar kind of illness, as we know, since (in an admittedly oversimplified explanation of the phenomenon) it involves the body’s own tissues running amok. [Side note: I’ll briefly observe here that the general understanding of the etiology of cancer may change, of course, if it is determined that infectious agents such as HPV are far more crucial to the disease process in most cancers than is now accepted. Certainly it is true that chemical agents, including hormones such as estrogen, are already understood to be an important trigger for some people in some circumstances, though why that might be the case for some and not others is still not resolved.]
Under the circumstances, how could I help but feel betrayed by my own self?
I realize this may not be familiar to everyone struggling with cancer, but instead of a “Why me?” reaction, I had a “No wonder” response. No wonder, that is, that when things seemed to be going well for me at last, my inadequate, vulnerable, needy human body would take that particular moment to screw things up royally.
I think I should make some things clear at this point. I am not attempting to justify my reaction of extreme self-criticism, even self-hatred, directed toward my physical self, only to describe it. I do know that there is a body of thought that says that there is a “personality type” that is more susceptible to developing cancer than other kinds of illnesses. For the most part, I reject that theory on pragmatic grounds as much as anything. It still is not predictive, as far as I know, to be able to consider someone’s life and health overall and assess one’s vulnerability to cancer on the basis of personality traits. And even the identified risk factors that appear to heighten the risk of particular cancers do not carry a guarantee among the individuals affected for developing them—or guarantee that those without such factors will not.
Can I really ever “know” what triggered the development of cancer in my uterus to such an extent that it has threatened my life? I think not, at least for my case. Too many variables, in truth, ranging from environmental factors such as excess estrogens in our food and water supply that potentially affect us all to idiosyncratic factors such as how I personally learned to handle (or more accurately disregard) the effects of stress. Most of these in truth were not easily within my individual capacity to change, certainly not long ago enough to have made a significant difference.
And yet—it does matter to me now to figure out, on an ongoing basis, what coping strategies seem to bring me into better alignment with health as I am coming to define it now, for as long as I have it to enjoy. Insofar as unpacking and examining my previous attitudes will help that process, I will take those steps. Please join me below for the start of that process.
If I haven’t made it obvious enough already, let me reiterate that I was not someone at all in the habit of listening to my body before getting sick. I took my body completely for granted. In my twenties, I was very fit, and so strong that I was at the top of the list of friends to ask to help with moving or any other big-muscle project. During that period of my life I was a dedicated martial artist, and the rigor of my workouts not only helped me gain that strength but helped me develop a sense of physical capacity in general that I had not known as a child or teen. Having been a rape survivor after the age of 15, I had an exaggeratedly poor understanding of my own physical strength, because there, too, my body appeared to have failed me when I needed it. (Again, I am not endorsing this attitude, just explaining its presence.)
Along the way to middle age, I did manage to learn enough self-care techniques so that I ceased to be plagued by the upper respiratory infections that used to knock me out for at least a month every winter, and I took better care of my lower back, often more than a little overtaxed by the demands I routinely put on it, believing myself stronger than I really was. But I didn’t actually enjoy what it meant to live in and through a body, if you know what I mean. The life that mattered to me most was the life of the mind, and maybe, a little, the life of the heart. What a body might do or want didn’t seem to count for much.
So here, after spending almost all of my life ignoring if not exploiting the good will and resources of my body, I find myself at last needing to reconsider many of my most unexamined habits and premises. No, it really isn’t good to deprive myself of sleep just because I’m reading something interesting. No, it isn’t sensible in the long term (or in the short) to eat on the run because I think there’s something more pressing to address than eating regularly or well. No, it’s not helpful at this point to avoid physical exertion in moderation, when that’s one reliable way to rebuild stamina, even if it’s not gratifying at the moment.
Some of the activities I do regularly to attempt to become more attuned with my body are probably obvious, such as yoga and deep breathing. Some of the other activities I pursue that are also good for creating a stronger rapport between my body and mind may not be as obvious, such as meditation, walking outside, and singing. But these, too, are part of my regime of healing now, largely because they are helping me make friends with my poor, underappreciated and neglected body at long last. (I know, the language is awkward—if I am not my body, then who am I? But we are stuck as far as I know with this Cartesian dualism in English, though I’d be happy to learn otherwise.)
I’d like to share what I find to be the most positive effects of each of these practices in the hopes of eliciting more of the same from you, about activities that help you make peace with your own body.
I have had the great good fortune of being able to participate in yoga classes for free at my local Cancer Support Community (CSC) since shortly after my surgery. I remember lying on a yoga mat during one of my first classes there, almost two years ago, and weeping from frustration and loss since I had virtually no abdominal strength to utilize at all. Fortunately, the instructor and my sister students were all quite compassionate, and I did not carry any embarrassment forward, only gratitude that in some way my body’s weakness was honored.
I have no familiarity with the various schools of yoga. What the practitioners at my local CSC do, in any case, is focused on what is generally termed “restorative” yoga, which I understand incorporates lots of resting postures; lots of support, either by doing seated poses or with equipment like blocks or blankets; modifications of postures whenever necessary; no hurry and no pressure to perform.
When I was a martial artist, I was always terribly self-critical, as one might surmise—always wanting to press to do better, always in competition with my other students. In these yoga classes, I have none of the negative self-talk I had perfected back then. It is simply a pleasure to do nothing more than breathe and stretch and feel alive. I don’t pay much attention to whether I get “better” week after week. Every once in a while I find that a particular pose isn’t good for me, and either I adapt it or do something else altogether. It is incredibly liberating to me to have these little oases of time to enjoy what I can do and not worry about what I can’t.
I am a comparative novice with this technique, too, and I won’t attempt to describe my practice in any detail. There are many, many particular breathing exercises with different purposes, in any case, and I would just as soon you look around to see what makes the best sense for you. My Ayurvedist has been on me for several months to incorporate a couple of them into my daily routine, and finally I think I can appreciate why.
How often do you really breathe as deeply and as fully as you can? From the tippy tops of your lungs, right under your collarbone, all the way to the diaphragm? When I do, it feels comparatively unfamiliar, and it also feels great. I am sure it is in part extra oxygenation, but it’s also the mere fact of paying attention to the expansiveness of my breath.
The scariest part of dealing with cancer for me so far has been having to cope with apparently cancerous nodules in my lungs. They did not remain stable between my first and second CT scans, so even without biopsying them it was fairly clear they were not benign. In those early months, the deep breathing I did helped me reduce my fear. It reminded me that my lungs still worked well, despite those terrifying little spots, and for a while I associated my visualization sessions with my breathing exercises. Breathing, like meditation, keeps me anchored in my body and grounded in the moment, not flying off into flights of speculative fancy (which usually do not follow a promising direction).
Here, too, I feel like a complete novice. I do not have a regular sitting practice; I do not have a regular teacher. But over the past 18 months, I have had the privilege (again, through my local CSC) to take part in weekly meditation sessions. I suspect that at the very basic level of our practice, we are learning only the most fundamental of benefits.
One of the most crucial benefits I've gained from meditation is learning about the concept of metta, or lovingkindness, and that it is possible (necessary!) to apply that concept to myself. Given how terribly critical I have been toward myself during so much of my life, body and everything else, this alone has been an enormously important tool for healing that long-standing breach.
I also recently realized that while I thought I was doing my mind a favor by meditating, it is actually my body that relishes the experience more.
What I have been finding is that my body is simply delighted just to be for however long I am sitting. Not to be nudged and nagged, prodded and provoked by my restless mind that is always thinking about some project or other for “us” to do. Just, to be. That isn’t a common experience for me, and the more I do it the more I realize it’s potentially a very good way to open a more effective channel of communication between my corporeal self and my mind.
Perhaps someone with more experience can explain it to me. Or perhaps I’ll continue to learn from the experience itself.
The late fall/early winter weather isn’t exactly conducive to pleasant walking in my region, but as long as I am dressed warmly I do enjoy it (once I force myself to get outside, that is). The air is fresh and crisp; there’s always something interesting to see or hear; I have the chance to use all of my senses and not predominantly my sight. For a while I was visiting the local Botanical Gardens on a weekly basis and very much enjoying the chance to notice subtle changes over time. Unfortunately, I’ve fallen out of the habit, but it is still there for me to visit whenever I choose.
Being outside, of course, also reminds me (usually in an affirmative way) that the universe really is much greater and more mysterious than I can ever grasp. Oddly enough, even when I was feeling very ill and discouraged, I found that comforting. I still do.
There was a time—oh, about 20 years ago now—when I felt that singing in a choir literally saved my life. Maybe it was the music itself; maybe it was the process of singing (deep breathing and all that); maybe it was being part of a fairly welcoming group. Doesn’t matter, it was healing then in ways I still cherish.
Singing has become part of my regular life now with much more richness and complexity than before I became ill. That’s not only because my husband is a classical musician specializing in the voice and in choral music, though I cannot underestimate his influence, either. It’s because it gives me a method to make connections again between body and mind, and spirit. These are all related concepts and applications, after all: “inspiration” as a word incorporates the process of breathing and the opportunity to be uplifted.
This spring and fall I was able to sing with my husband’s chamber choir. For the most part, it was a gratifying experience for me; it’s one of the finer vocal ensembles I’ve sung with, and it’s a delight to sing for my husband (who is, all wifely pride apart, tremendously talented and effective at what he does).
We had a relatively familiar program of songs for this concert season, and I had the bright idea of putting myself forward for a small solo in one of the more standard pieces. My husband thought I’d be a good fit vocally, and we started to work together privately to prepare me for the performances.
The first of those performances took place early this month. I did not do well. Because of constraints in the venue, the program order meant that my song came in the second half of the concert, and by that time I was exceedingly fatigued. I might not have been the worst part of the program, but I certainly felt that way. And—again—all my old demons came screaming back to life: “You can’t expect your body to come through for you any more. You are not capable of performing well. You are sick and won’t get better.” Pretty comprehensive, no? And obviously pretty toxic, too.
Per my Ayurvedist, this episode was another excellent chance for me to learn how to listen to my body to find out what it needs in order to accomplish what I have in mind for “us” to do. I wasn’t too sure at first. But, fortunately, I was eventually able to communicate my fear, disappointment, and dismay, and fortunately, my husband had the pedagogical chops to help me get over my poor first showing.
This past weekend we had two more performances, with the program order adjusted a little bit to help me out. More importantly, I had learned how to do the piece right so thoroughly that I had a new body memory, NOT the one of failure and disappointment. I nailed the solo, both times.
It might seem a little odd for a 54-year-old woman with some other significant life accomplishments to be so pleased by this one. But what it means for me, in terms of being able to trust my body precisely because I have attended to it more carefully this time, is huge.
I have no idea whatsoever whether this has any carry-over for dealing with my cancer. I do know that it makes me happier in the moment. In my own body. And that that is plenty.
I hope that this diary elicits some discussion among us about where we might be in relation to forgiving ourselves for getting so sick (if that is indeed an issue for you). Thanks for reading and participating, if you will.
I have this report to share with everyone about our dear DarkHawk98, with his permission.
From a Kosmail last week:
You are NEVER going to believe thisFrom a Kosmail today:
I am home no surgery yesterday. They could not successfully intubate me. They tried and tried and even broke their $50,000 Dollar camera on me but they were not successful intubating me. So no surgery yesterday… [it’s] reschedule for January and try again.
I received my quilt in the mail from Sara and in the next few days I will get some pictures taken and send some to both you and Sara. It is an amazing quilt. Wow. When my wife first saw it (right out of the box) she said "Steve it's you!" she was blown out of the water as was I.
Monday Night Cancer Club is a Daily Kos group focused on dealing with cancer, primarily for cancer survivors and caregivers, though clinicians, researchers, and others with a special interest are also welcome. Volunteer diarists post Monday evenings between 7-8 PM ET on topics related to living with cancer, which is very broadly defined to include physical, spiritual, emotional and cognitive aspects. Mindful of the controversies endemic to cancer prevention and treatment, we ask that both diarists and commenters keep an open mind regarding strategies for surviving cancer, whether based in traditional, Eastern, Western, allopathic or other medical practices. This is a club no one wants to join, in truth, and compassion will help us make it through the challenge together.