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.

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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.

Another Hairy Situation

It wasn’t until almost a year and a half after my last chemo that I finally got a professional, high-caliber haircut. After an adult life filled with boring medium-to-long hair in a ponytail, this was an about-face: a short and very stylish ‘do.

I don’t think I would have ventured to try this if I hadn’t been pushed into it by chemo. Then again, cancer pushed all my boundaries further than I would have gone on my own. I’ve always played it safe, but with cancer, there was no “safe”.

When chemo took my hair, I had no say in it. As the hair grew back, it did so slowly and in a pattern that was not attractive. Nothing I could do about it but be patient.

Front shot of my awesome new pixie cut! The hair on top is full and feels thick. I love the look!
Back view. This was the part of my head that unnerved me in the middle of the night. It felt so bare and brought back all sorts of scary feelings.

But in 2019, I was in charge and could decide at what length I wanted to keep my hair. I’d been surprised by how much I liked the new “me” with a short style, so I thought I’d be adventurous and go even shorter. My hairstylist happily obliged and this past week I got a full-on pixie cut that was absolutely adorable. It felt great to be calling the shots and reclaiming myself and my look.

But something unexpected happened that night. I woke in the darkness, unsettled with a touch of panic. My head felt bare, like my hair had crossed the threshold between short and “omigodthatisTOOshort”. For a split second, everything felt out of control again.

It took a bit to calm myself down in the pre-dawn hours of the day. I had wanted to be brave and cut my hair shorter, but it elicited those old feelings of the unknown. Wait, I reminded myself, all of this was “known” now. I knew my hair would grow back again. Add to that, several days before, I’d had a mammogram that confirmed I was in remission. So there was no need for the fears.

Be that as it may, it wasn’t so simple to let the feelings go. My hair carried powerful associations that had been seared into my unconscious mind. Losing locks to chemo meant relinquishing a part of me. While I thought I already understood its importance — I’ve written about it in a number of posts — it wasn’t until that night that I realized how tightly my hair was wound up in all those memories and sensations.

You’d think that once the hair grew in, everything would return to normal and there’d be nothing more to say about it. Not so, I’m finding, as I get hit in the face by these unexpected reminders of exactly what having cancer meant to me. Sorting everything out seems to get more complicated the further away I get from treatment. Who knew survivorship could be such a head trip?

View from the Waiting Room

I am weirdly at ease.

Today is my 3-D mammogram, the one that will either confirm that I’m in breast cancer remission or that I’m going to have another rotten year (or more). Two years ago, around this time, I was completely racked with anxiety in preparation for the diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound that would detect my cancer.

I feel placid. Granted, I do self-exams on an almost-weekly basis (it’s a survivor thing) and was checked out by my oncologist early last month, so I know there’s nothing palpable there, although the 3-D mammogram could pick something smaller up. But I’ve also matured in my ability to let go of thoughts that drag my mind away to wild extremes, and instead accept what is happening in the moment.

I admit that I’m holding off on travel and hair expenses until after my mammogram, because if my cancer comes back, the money spent on them would be better put towards treatment. Neither a cross-country flight nor an edgy new haircut would be in the cards for me.

If I could have one superpower, it would be to remain calm in every situation.

Another reason for waiting on making plans? It’s because the agony associated with desperately clinging to the desire to be cancer-free and then having those hopes dashed is excruciating. So for the moment, hanging around in limbo with less emotion invested in an outcome provides more comfort.

I started meditating in an effort to free myself of expectations. Today I am able to make space within myself to hold the possibility of both remission and recurrence, and then to think about neither.

So I sit in a comfy robe as I wait for the radiologist’s assessment, feeling the warmth of the cup of tea in my hand. I am here now, focused on the present instead of potential outcomes. And this is the most peaceful place to be.

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Shortly after I wrote the above, the radiologist came in to confirm the good news. Another year, another clean bill of health.

Last year when I got the “all-clear” I was still finishing up treatments. And the news felt like a huge release.

This year, I felt much calmer. Not gonna lie — somewhere inside, try as I might to release all expectations, I still expected to be okay. But I was able to not focus on the outcome of the mammogram and instead go with the flow of the day. This is a first for me, so my ability to maintain that level of calm may be more significant than being cancer-free.

Oh, who am I kidding? Being cancer-free kicks ass!

Letting Go in 5…4…3…2…

Several nights ago I woke at 3am, my brain abuzz with images of what had taken place that day. In an effort to divert my attention and fall back to sleep I focused on my breath, but I was so groggy that I couldn’t concentrate effectively.

So instead I imagined a beautiful sunny field with chirping birds and various animals coming by to snuggle with me. It was the epitome of placidity and contentment. A darling fawn nuzzled me. Then a purring lion tenderly rubbed up against me. And attacked me.

Seriously??? This is my self-created fantasy and I can’t manage to keep it positive???

But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m a few days out from a 3-D mammogram that I’ve managed not to think about because I’ve had such a busy week at work. It will be the first mammogram since completing all my cancer treatments, so it’s kind of a big deal. Somewhere in the back of my mind fears and what-ifs are simmering. It’s scanxiety rearing its ugly head.

People tell me that everything is going to be okay. But how can they say that? This is cancer. There is never a guarantee that everything will be okay. For others to say that to someone who’s been through the full spate of treatments sounds like a brush off. Even when everything is “okay”, it may still not be okay! And sometimes it’s worse.

Sure, Mr. Expectations, you look so cute and peaceful, but if I get too close, you’ll take my head off.

I wrote a letter to myself the evening before my original diagnostic mammogram way back in early 2017, trying to calm myself down because I was an anxious mess. And in that letter I told myself that I’d be able to go back and re-read it after the mammogram and chuckle about how worried I’d been and how everything actually worked out. I tried to reason myself into calm, noting how unlikely it was that I had cancer. That tenuous serenity was blown the next morning by the radiologist who read my scan.

I remember that crushing feeling — it’s what colors my experience right now. I want to believe that everything will be okay, and yet the spectre of possibilities hovers over me ready to potentially ruin my day (and life!). I don’t think that the cancer is back, but I’ve put off making summer travel plan. Just in case.

Gah, is this what the rest of my life will be like? Being fearful of making plans? That’s not a good use of the time I have left on this planet.

Mindfulness as espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn (drawing heavily on the Buddhist wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh) speaks of non-attachment. Having expectations and being attached to their outcome causes suffering. I can attest to that.

Trying to reason through to an “answer” only increases agony. So I will take deep breaths and stop thinking.

“Random Acts of Kindness” Day

Throughout my cancer treatment, it was the smiles, gentle hugs, kind words and unexpected “going-out-of-their-way” little extras from those around me that made a huge difference and left a lasting impression on me.

Now, as I gradually wind my way through survivorship, memories of those acts smooth over the physical and emotional pain associated with cancer. Those soothing feelings are too powerful to keep to myself. Given the general vibe in the world today, the hyperpolarization of people’s opinions and the resistance to leaning over and trying to empathize with others, we need more kindness everywhere.

“But what if the person doesn’t deserve it?”

Then that is a person truly in need of it.

It won’t hurt a bit, I promise.

There is no limit on how many smiles you can dispense, doors you can open and kind deeds you can do. It doesn’t have to cost anything. And if there’s one thing that I’ve found, it’s that random acts of kindness have a two-fold benefit: for the person receiving the kindness and for the person giving it. It’s the ultimate win-win.

There are only so many hours left in this day of kindness. Take advantage of them. And then make every day a “Random Acts of Kindness” Day.

Scanxiety

Yes, “scanxiety” is a thing. And I’m already regretting writing about it because it’s bringing home the fact that in a week and a half I have a mammogram coming up. It’ll be the first one since completely finishing my treatment almost a year ago.

You can google the definition of scanxiety, but any cancer survivor can offer their version. Mine is the unease that increases as I get closer to THE scan, the one that will pronounce me cancer-free for another year. Mercifully, I will have an unusually busy week at work which will keep my mind equally busy, and the rest I will have to power through with mindfulness and focus.

The unsettling thing about this is that for a short while, it’s a Schroedinger’s cat kind of situation. Around scan time, I am simultaneously a cancer patient and a cancer survivor. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. It’s altogether unsatisfying.

This mammogram opens the door to the potential of letting cancer back into my life. And I am so.done.with.it. that having to consider what would happen if I had to go through treatment again evokes feelings of hopelessness and frustration. I don’t want to re-experience the steep let down that came with my initial diagnosis, after trying to reason myself into optimism.

Sometimes I play games with myself. Things like, “If I make it to the intersection before the light turns yellow, I don’t have cancer.” This is ridiculous, of course, but I can guarantee you that if I DON’T make it before the light turns, I’m going to be yelling, “Two out of three!”

Scanxiety differs from most life stressors, like a horrible job situation. I’ve had tough jobs with miserable bosses before. I also had the option of quitting. But I can’t say, “Screw this, I’m going to a different universe with better benefits.” I’m here and stuck living out some potentially nasty stuff, and possibly not making it through. That is simply reality and I have to be comfortable with it.

It’s all in how you look at it…

I struggle with the uncertainty that arrives hand-in-hand with scanxiety. Mindfulness teaches us to release expectations, and that is exactly what I’m trying to do. For me, the next week and a half will be a proving ground for how far I’ve come in my mindfulness practice. Perhaps looking at it as a challenge will put a neutral spin on the process of waiting.

No expectations means no anxiety, no let-downs, no shattered hopes and no “dying a thousand deaths” before I’ve even made it to the radiology department. I am not good at this, but I am light-years ahead of where I was two years ago, and I’m going to have to be content in that for the time being.

A Final Word On Risk Factors

Okay, maybe this post’s title is a lie, since I keep bringing this topic up. But I admit that I need to stop whining about getting breast cancer when I didn’t have risk factors, so I’m officially giving myself one last time to vent. And then it’s time to let it go.

First, what is a risk factor? The NIH National Cancer Institute dictionary defines a risk factor as “something that increases the chance of developing a disease”. However, that does not mean that it’s necessarily a cause of that disease. And that’s where the potential confusion (and in my case, irritation) arises.

While breast cancer has a number of risk factors, none of them are 100%-for-sure causal in nature. Even having the BRCA gene does not guarantee that you’ll get breast cancer, although your risk is quite high.

So why does this matter? Turn this around and look at someone with breast cancer. Based on risk factors, you’d expect them to be overweight, sedentary, a smoker, a drinker, an unhealthy eater…and you might be completely wrong. Ascribing unhealthy behaviors to an individual just because they are a cancer patient is potentially stigmatizing (it suggests that they are responsible for bringing on their disease) and ignores the fact that we still don’t know why cancer develops. And what of all those making poor health choices who do not get cancer?

Engaging in the opposite behaviors — being a lean, active, non-smoker, non-drinker with a plant-based diet — likewise is not guaranteed to protect you from breast cancer. And yet, that’s exactly the feeling you get from reading all the recommendations, which leads to a potentially dangerous false sense of security.

Risk factor, schmisk factor! Putting in the effort to live as healthfully as possible is well worth it, no matter what.

Certainly, no matter what disease you have, the more healthy behaviors you engage in, the better your outcome. However, even being a paragon of healthy living is not the “get out of cancer jail free” card that we are led to believe it is. So get yourself checked out and don’t take your health for granted!

What brought all of this up? At a recent gathering, I had an interesting conversation with another former cancer patient who also happens to be a medical psychologist. She felt as frustrated as I did about the way cancer risk factors are presented, so I felt a vindication of sorts. We both agreed that it is critical to highlight the difference between cancer risk factors and causes. And of course, no matter what your perceived cancer risk, to live as healthfully as possible.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I will do my best to shut up and move on.

1975-2019

Unbeknownst to me, the friend whom I wrote about in “Waiting To Say Goodbye” had already passed by the time I posted last Saturday. The end came very rapidly but peacefully Friday at sundown, allowing just enough time to enable her to be surrounded by everyone in her immediate family.

This is sudden and painful. She and I had spent a good chunk of 2017 sharing breast cancer treatment experiences. We knew that there were no guarantees with cancer, but we both had hope. Neither one of us imagined that this would be one of the outcomes.

After she knew her cancer had spread, she continued living as she always had, toughing through the hard parts. She didn’t want people asking her how she was feeling, she wanted to keep on going until she couldn’t go anymore, and that’s what she did. Her decline was so swift that she had felt well enough to do everything normally until the last few days before her passing. That was a beautiful gift that she genuinely deserved.

Understanding that nothing in this life is permanent doesn’t make her death any easier to accept, although it does underscore how things change no matter how desperately we cling to them. I strive to practice non-attachment, but who am I kidding? I am too attached to people and expectations. Yes, it does cause suffering, but right now suffering is just what I do.

Eventually I may transcend this. Eventually.

I end this post with a quote from Claire Wineland, the 21-year-old cystic fibrosis activist who passed away from complications from lung transplant surgery on September 2, 2018. She had spent most of her days knowing that her time on this Earth was short and urged people to live life to the fullest: “Go enjoy it, ’cause there are people fighting like hell for it.”

Waiting To Say Goodbye

One of the inevitable parts of being a cancer patient is that you get to know other patients. Equally inevitable, however, is the fact that not everyone has a positive outcome. This week, one of my friends with whom I went through my cancer journey entered into hospice.

We had received our breast cancer diagnoses within several months of each other and occasionally met for coffee as we discussed our treatments. It was a safe conversation, as we were sharing similar experiences with similar fears that only someone in the same situation would “get”. We both enjoyed these opportunities to compare notes and allay anxieties. I had been publicly open about my cancer, but she was more private and circumspect about whom she told, so I was one of the few people who knew her condition.

But as our treatments came to a close, our paths began to diverge. My cancer treatment had been more straightforward because the drugs I was given were well-targeted to my type of tumor. Hers was a more complex situation – a more aggressive tumor with no clear targets, complicated by an existing chronic health condition. While I was declared cancer-free, diagnostic scans found “spots” in other parts of her body, tiny ones that had caused suspicion early on but had been too small to biopsy.

These sports grew larger and a biopsy confirmed her fears. Her cancer had spread. Due to her other health issue, she had not been able to tolerate the most prescribed and effective chemotherapy given to patients with her type of cancer tumor. Therefore, her best option was not available. Immunotherapy was attempted but that failed to produce positive results.

At this point, I was hearing about her disease progression second-hand as she wasn’t open to having coffee. I respect her reluctance to meet with me, because if the tables were turned, I don’t think I would have wanted to be discussing my worsening situation with someone who had been in a more fortunate position. Consider this analogy: you’re on a highway. The cars all drive at similar speeds and travel is pleasant. But if you need to pull over — perhaps there is car trouble — you suddenly feel like the world is passing you by. Every whoosh of an automobile is a reminder that you are not moving. You feel frustratingly stuck and left behind, wondering whether you’ll be able to re-join everyone else on the road again.

Her decline has come abruptly. She’d been living on her own all along, but then came dizziness and aches and pains. It started at the beginning of this past week. By Wednesday, her parents were setting up hospice in their home and had ‘round-the-clock care secured. So fast, so fast. It feels like we need to catch our breaths. No one is prepared for this.

I was told yesterday that she had only days left. I am in shock. I had originally planned to bring over bright gerbera daisies this morning, but decided against it, as she is not able to take visitors.

It’s raining hard today and for the next several days. The weather is uncharacteristically gloomy and foreboding for this part of the country. When she passes, I pray that her transition is gentle and the sun is shining.

In Honor Of Thich Nhat Hanh

According to a recent Time article, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is considered the father of mindfulness, is close to death, never having fully recovered from the stroke he suffered in 2014.

Although that report has been disputed by Plum Village (the school of Buddhism coming out of the Plum Village Monastery, which Thich Nhat Hanh founded in France), at 92, the monk is certainly frail. He has returned to the temple where he was ordained decades ago, Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, to live out the remainder of his time on Earth.

Due to his condition, Thay (“teacher”, as he is affectionately called) is unable to speak, but he still manages to serve as an example of living in the “now” and appreciating every day. Thay is considered one of the greatest teachers of Buddhism and his influence has reaches countless millions.

Mindfulness has played a significant role in my life and emotional well-being since my breast cancer diagnosis in early 2017; however, my first exposure to Thich Nhat Hanh was in the early 2000s, during a program called Speaking Of Faith, hosted by Krista Tippett on NPR. I was transfixed as I listened to the story of his life, his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War and his interpretation of Buddhism. We purchased several of his books, specifically the ones he wrote for children: Each Breath A Smile and Under The Rose Apple Tree.

Thich Nhat Hanh at Hue City, Vietnam (2007) (in dark vestments). Photo: Lưu Ly

It wasn’t until my cancer experience that Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings resurfaced in my life. I am deeply indebted to mindfulness for taking me through cancer treatment into recovery and survivorship. And yet, even now, I understand mindfulness in only the most superficial way. Every day of my meditation practice brings me more deeply into it. It has been invaluable not only in dealing with anxiety, but also in cultivating compassion for myself, something that has not come easily.

Most recently, I’ve been utilizing mindfulness to help deal with chemo brain, which continues to plague me. When I feel stupid, can’t remember things or lose concentration, mindfulness provides the way to be more patient and understanding with myself. By staying present, I’m better able to focus. Am I good at it? No, not at all. But I do my best. It’s a process. And if I weren’t practicing mindfulness, I would be in a much worse place.

While I am Roman Catholic, I’ve found that Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism resonates with me, particularly as I watch Christianity struggle with hypocrisy. The practice of mindfulness was the most important gift that I received with my cancer diagnosis, and it allowed me to find even a sliver of peace in what was a dismal situation. I am coming to accept where I am now, not holding on too tightly, but appreciating what I have.