Between the Past and Future: A Cancer Survivor’s Perspective

I attended a workshop on cancer and stress given by the social workers at my cancer center. Since I like to take advantage of every opportunity to explore what’s going on inside my noggin I was looking forward to the presentation, but I didn’t realize that I would be offered a curious vantage point at the same time.

Sitting in the front row as I always do, I was joined by a woman who was awaiting the results of her second breast tumor biopsy; her first had confirmed cancer but another tumor was discovered shortly thereafter.

She told me about her racing thoughts, lack of appetite, inability to sleep — all those symptoms of intense stress that I also experienced as I awaited diagnosis. How odd it was to revisit this through her, now that I had a comfortable seat on the other side of that experience.

I commiserated with her, briefly offering up my own experience, and assured her that some of the anxiety would mellow once she had a definitive diagnosis and accompanying treatment plan. That’s the only thing I assured her of, knowing the nature of cancer, but I hope it gave her comfort seeing how far I’d already made it on the cancer journey.

And then, ironically, I realized that the woman sitting directly behind me was someone I had sat next to during one of my chemo infusions in 2017. I re-introduced myself, and while she didn’t remember me, she said she’d been through so many chemo sessions that it was hard to differentiate one from the other.

When I met her in 2017, she had hair and a good dose of energy. We talked about our kids (hers were grown) among other things. She was being treated for lung cancer but we didn’t dwell on the particulars. That’s not generally what you talk about during chemo. You gravitate towards non-cancer topics.

Things don’t always turn out the way we predict they will.

But now, she wore a ball cap to cover her bare head and walked with a cane. She seemed frail and was accompanied by a caregiver — several years of cancer treatment, not to mention the cancer itself, will do that to you. I’m not sure what her prognosis was, but given what I knew about her and the fact that she was still doing chemo, it probably wasn’t favorable.

There I sat, trying to stay present, next to my past and in front of my potential future. I had the good fortune of surviving the one and a decent chance of escaping the other.

There is no crystal ball with which we can gauge the future, deciding whether or not we like it, and if not, opting out. So here’s to making the best of the time that we have.

Unpacking the Monkey in the Courthouse; and, Mindful Justice

I wrote my last post about my not-so-mindful behavior in the jury lounge of the local Superior Court, waiting to see if I’d be called to serve as a juror on a case.

I wasn’t, but the situation ended up being stressful nonetheless, and it had nothing to do with my forgetting that I had a metal fork in my backpack and being called out by security for it. (Oops!)

No, what did it was the runaway narrative being played out in my head about potential frustration if I were selected, and whether I could manage all the facts of the case (chemo brain) and the sitting (neuropathy and back pain). While not completely inconsequential, neither chemo brain nor physical limitations were an issue for me as I was sitting in the jury lounge, waiting.

That evening, released from jury duty for another year, I came across an article by beading teacher and author Kristal Wick, who settled on beading as meditation to help her deal with her monkey mind, and in it she wrote about her realization that we are making stress up.

In stressful times, it’s not always easy to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not.

I would clarify that by noting that we don’t make up stressful events themselves, but the toll that anticipating what may happen takes on us depends in great part on our reaction to it. And whether or not we want to admit it, ultimately that’s under our control — although if we’ve established a behavior pattern of anxious reactivity (*cough, cough*), it will take practice to rein in those responses.

But the reminder that those “thousand deaths” that I was dying in advance of something that was not real or guaranteed…ahhhh, I needed that.

Next time a calmer, more realistic response, perhaps?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mindful media blogger Smilecalm wrote a beautifully thoughful account of his experience as a juror, and I found it so compelling that it became fodder for an evening of discussion with my husband and children.

Do we equally offer everyone the benefit of the doubt?

In his post, Smilecalm describes how mindfulness creates a situation where justice truly prevails. Whereas it would have been easy to make a snap judgment and convict someone who seemed, on the surface, to be guilty, pausing and carefully sorting through the facts provided a different picture.

When I think of the concept of “beginner’s mind”, I think of this kind of patience and open examination of what is before you, instead of moving down well-worn paths to conclusions based on circumstances.

I am sure that the defendant in Smilecalm’s case was grateful for the care with which the jurors considered his testimony. I, for one, am grateful to Smilecalm for bringing to light not only the importance of serving on a jury, but doing so with care and compassion.

Who Let That Monkey into the Courthouse?

My right heel has been hurting — for the past week I contemplated
claiming plantar fasciitis to get out of jury duty.

Okay, I knew that excuse wouldn’t fly, but I was stressed about getting pulled out of everyday life, with an already overfull plate, to do my civic duty. The more I thought about it, the more I worked myself up into a lather.

Mindfulness couldn’t cut through the noise in my sleep-deprived head. This agony of anticipation made several things crystal clear:

My nemesis. This monkey will pull your lungs out through your nose.
  1. I ruminate enough to rival a massive herd of cows. Hello, monkey mind! I’d been thrashing through all the unknowns, unfettered irritation and unfounded fears in my head. This was the monkey-on-my-back, screeching madly.
  2. My physiological reaction to even the anticipation of potential stress is out of control. Granted, this reaction was lubricated by a hefty pint of caffeinated coffee from the courthouse cafe. But when the voice over the loudspeaker called out names in alphabetical order, my heart pounded as the list approached where my name would be. I knew what was happening and that it was ridiculous, but simply couldn’t stop.
  3. Instead of patiently waiting to see what happens, I really really really want things to be a certain way. I punished myself by clinging too tightly to expectations. I mean, tight enough to turn my knuckles white (knucklehead that I am).

All of this opened the door to a boatload of suffering. Great. So much for being mindful. My morning as a prospective juror was fraught with anxiety.

Even after several years of daily meditation and mindfulness bells and “take 5” reminders, even after trying to be all zen about it, I was still a mess. Disappointing, by my judging eyes. But also, very human.

Things didn’t improve until I started pacing at the back of the jury lounge briskly enough to feel conspicuous. The motion soothed me, like rocking a baby. It was self care, which is the first casualty of my anxiety.

It was the only mindful thing that I could manage, but it kept the monkey busy as we zigged and zagged around other people to avoid a collision.

Once I racked up a good 3000 steps and a bunch of odd stares (don’t care, don’t care, don’t care), the pressure released a bit. Okay, that and the fact that I’d made it through the first two rounds of juror calls without hearing my name and it was already time for lunch. That combo was like the “pffft” from a fizzy bottle of kombucha. I was feeling better.

I returned from a long lunch break with my reasoning mind in charge, calculating probabilities. Three sections of seats, fifteen rows each, a minimum of three people per row…not counting the folks at random round tables and working on laptops along the walls…hey, that’s a LOT! Safety in numbers! The odds were in my favor, otherwise known as, “if your group is being chased by a hungry leopard, don’t worry about outrunning the cat, just outrun your friends.”

You mean, NONE of this stuff is real???

So the reasoning mind wrestled the crazy monkey mind into a half nelson. But alas, the reasoning mind was still a slave to expectation, with its own monkey-on-the-back. It was a tenuous peace, unstable and easily shattered by the voice over the loudspeaker, but it enabled me to approach the situation with less reactivity even if temporarily.

Guess how this messy day ended: a thousand deaths later (around 2pm, to be exact) the voice from the loudspeaker released us from service, giving me a year’s reprieve and kicking the monkey to the curb. And it was at that moment that I realized how tightly worry had gripped me, and it wasn’t even real. Everything had taken place in the space between my ears.

I thought about how my agony had been self-generated. And that’s a topic for another post.

Mindfulness and the College Admissions Scandal

As an alumna of one of the universities involved in the recent U.S. college admissions scandal, I’ve been following the details of this story with great interest. My eldest will be completing college applications this autumn. She is a remarkable student; however, unlike many of my fellow alumni, I have not had the means to put her into every imaginable extracurricular activity.

Yet, I had impressed upon her the importance of always doing her best and getting into a “good” university to improve her choices for the future, particularly since there will not be a windfall waiting for her when I die.

But the recent events have left a sour taste in my mouth. Particularly since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve been rethinking the stressors that are placed on students in the hopes of getting them into the “best” schools.

So much anxiety and lost sleep. Pressures to compete. I can no longer say that it’s worth it. The recent admissions scandal broke open the “secret” that many of us already knew. There is great iniquity in our society and college admissions reflect that.

I do believe that education is very important. That has not changed. But the artificial ways that we twist ourselves to fit a mold, to be granted confirmation of our worthiness of being one of the chosen few, is unhealthy.

I have served as an alumna interviewer for prospective students and become increasingly frustrated by the opportunities that wealthier applicants are given, when in fact they may work no harder than their less fortunate counterparts. If anything, I’ve seen relatively poor students do so much with what they have, sometimes as they deal with complicated home situations and an inordinate amount of responsibility.

But one thing seems to hold true for all students, regardless of income: competition for college acceptance teaches them that they’re never “good enough”. Having good grades and high scores is insufficient — they must do more: sports, clubs, musical instruments, volunteer activities, other distinctions, all at nosebleed-high levels of accomplishment. Nothing less than perfection is expected.

And always planning, planning, planning. There is little time to appreciate what is taking place now.

I don’t want the exquisite beauty of now to be sacrificed for some plastic promise of tomorrow.

I have bright children, but my wish for them is not necessarily to attend my alma mater. That is not what is important. I want them to be good people. Compassionate, empathetic and not so much in a hurry to get ahead, particularly not if it means treading on others. We have the ability to define our own success and we can do so mindfully and with grace.

This is not something that money can buy, nor that a particular diploma can offer. This is something that comes from within. The greatest gift that I can give my children is to teach them mindfulness, to show them how to still their thoughts and calm their worries. That lesson will serve them for the rest of their lives.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What I would like all those students who tried so hard and still weren’t
“accepted” to know:

You are enough. You don’t need an acceptance letter to prove your worth.

You are bright and resourceful, inquisitive and engaged. And no matter where you go to school, you will do well. I see the sparkling light in your eyes — don’t let the heaviness of worldly expectations douse it. You, not some musty ancient institution, are who defines yourself.

Strive for what you feel is important, but do so mindfully and with kindness. That is what will make this world a better place for all.

Passing Days One Pill at a Time

I have beside my bed a 7-day pillbox. Since I avoid taking pills whenever possible, opting for alternatives to medication, there is only one lonely but mandatory pill in each little box corresponding to the day of the week.

That’s tamoxifen, a final remnant of breast cancer treatment that I’ll be taking for years to come.

I observe the passage of time by the disappearance of the daily pills. They mark the days that I work and the days that I don’t (weekends and Wednesdays). Sunday mornings the pillbox is full. The work week looms before us bringing early mornings and sleepy heads. Wednesday provides a brief respite with an extra hour of sleep and a day crammed with personal errands at home rather than office work. When Thursday rolls around and I return to my job, only the Friday and Saturday pills are left until it’s time to refill the box again.

Days melt into weeks, weeks into months. Make them count.

The weeks seem to go by more quickly as I get older. Time feels slippery and days fuzz into the background. Weeks pass into months as pills are consumed. I’m unsettled by the possibility that when my decade of tamoxifen ends, I’ll realize that I spent ten years waiting the pills to finish and missing what was going on in the moment. It frightens me into wanting to distinguish this week’s row of pills from the next, to make next week different from the last.

I pause as I plop a fresh row of pills into their designated boxes. Could I be kinder to those around me? React more calmly? Sleep better? Support the needs of others more? View my shortfalls with compassion?

Every morning I am able to get out of bed and place my feet flat on the Earth. That is something to be very grateful for, no matter how difficult my week. I represent the fortunate ones who have been given the opportunity to remain alive and present in “now” and appreciate every precious day more than the one before.

Catching Lost Thoughts

The glorious part of meditation is the opportunity to still my swirling thoughts and focus on breathing. At those times when my mind is still and the brain noise settles, my creative voice speaks most clearly.

This would be wonderful if not for the fact that, whether due to chemotherapy or my daily tamoxifen, my memory has been affected, rendering fleeting thoughts truly ephemeral. I can have a brilliant inspiration…and then *poof* it disappears. There is no guarantee that it will circle back around, and if it does, it may take a long while.

I try not to focus on these thoughts while meditating, but unlike other people who may easily remember their ideas once the session is over, I will not. This is problematic, as there are things that I must recall (like relaying important information or completing a task that I’d forgotten).

I can still seeeee yoooooou, little fly…

This can be distressing. In an unconscious effort to not forget, I find myself gently rolling the thought around in the back of my head during the session. I become like a spider, with the thought being a fly that I’ve caught. As I sit, I spin silk around my prize, gently holding it with spindly legs, trying to keep the thought away and yet not forget about it. Breathing is my focus, but that little fly is in my periphery and I keep glancing at it.

Obviously, this still interferes with my meditation. I don’t want to let my morsel go, and yet keeping it in sight is disruptive. I hold on too tightly.

So I have decided that given my current situation, I will make the best of it. If a critically important thought comes up, I will honor it and stop the meditation briefly…and write it down. This way it is secure and I can release the stress of possibly forgetting what it is and go back to meditating fully. In the event that my “great ideas” keep coming, perhaps that’s an indication that completely releasing focus on my thoughts is not the best idea at that time. And I honor that, too. This way, my meditation sessions remain about being in the present rather than losing parts of my future.

I’ve accepted that flexibility is necessary to respect both my individual needs and my meditation practice.

Transitioning from “Frantic” to “Shanti”

I’ve been juggling two parts of myself.

The original “me” is the Frantic part. This was the side that fed on anxiety and didn’t learn to rein in my runaway emotions. While Frantic didn’t interfere with academic success as I was growing up, it did stifle my future prospects as I let fear drive career decisions.

Frantic is the “me” that struggles with where I am and how I got here. It’s the competitive “me”, the perfectionist “me”, the self-critical “me”. It’s the one that’s never satisfied and always trying to improve. It’s frightened and frustrated. And it’s still angry about getting cancer.

Frantic hobbled me during the times I should have run free. It followed me home from work, woke me up in the night, poked at me on the weekends. And as long a shadow as it cast on me, I was oblivious to its effects.

But there is another side. The evolving “me” is the Shanti part. It holds the world in a single breath…and then easily lets it go. It stays present and grounded. There is a sense of calm about it, and ample space to hold emotions and observe them without being overtaken by them.

When I make a mistake, it asks gently, “Might it be okay that you did what you did based on the information you had?”

It reminds me to be compassionate, that everyone is worthy of love, including me. When things feel bleak, it holds me until the darkness passes.

When these two “me”s appear, Frantic has often been first, rushing in breathless and disheveled. Shanti arrives after and gently takes over. But on those occasions when Shanti is first, Frantic stays away and things feel a little more peaceful.

I’ve been “Frantic” and I’ve been “Shanti”. The latter is a more pleasant houseguest.

Lately, Shanti has been present more often. I’ve been able to scoot Frantic into a corner where it passes time aimlessly twisting itself in knots, allowing Shanti to spread out inside my head.

Frantic is still welcome, as long as it behaves, which isn’t often. It does keep me moving forward, never resting on laurels. But Shanti tempers its blustering when it threatens to get out of control.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nervous energy, even anxiety, has been a driving force for most of my life. It kept me productive and lean. But as much as it propelled me forward, ultimately it held me back. It wasn’t until my cancer diagnosis that I realized how detrimental it had been. I was spent. It was time to stop.

Peace arrived with my meditation practice. Cancer forced me to slow down and be mindful of the present, to sit with uncertainty. It is a beautiful change that has brought a new dimension into my life. I only wish I’d discovered it sooner, or that it were stronger, but that will come with time.

I have not completely shaken that Frantic side of me, but Shanti has brought emotional space and a sense of gentle control. Getting that balance to shift has taken work. It is, however, the most fruitful work imaginable.