The late day sun slanted in through my window. Working at my desk, I’d watched the day progress across my yard. I’d just hung up the phone. The sun was shining directly in my eyes, making them water. I got up to close the blinds. I’d been so angry just fifteen minutes before, arguing with my computer and fighting with the curtains which had gotten caught in the filing cabinet. That was over now. Perhaps everything was over. The phone call had miraculously erased every single irritation I’d ever known. All my thoughts had stopped. I took a deep breath. My physician had just told me over the phone that I had late stage peritoneal mesothelioma and perhaps a six month prognosis. He’d said surgery would help; chemo and radiation therapy might not. He’d asked me to come into his office so he could deliver the news personally.
“Phones are for disseminating information,” I said. “Whaddya got?”
“Ms. Christiansen, the problem is what you’ve got,” my doctor said.
That was one year ago. I’ve since come out of shock and re-entered everyday life with increased awareness of each moment’s value. This year’s been blessed. I feel better than I’ve ever felt, physically, psychologically and spiritually. X-rays show a decrease in tumor quantities and sizes throughout my body.
I’d gotten the doctor-recommended surgery ASAP to remove the tumor obstructing my bowels; that helped immediately. I opted to forgo chemo and radiation because I’d seen how they exhausted people and sometimes ruined the last quality months of their lives.
It was time to look for nonconventional hope. I began researching treatments from two angles. As a long term Buddhist practitioner and meditator, I see my state of mind and heart as the most important aspects of my existence. As a cancer patient, my main research occurs internally- within myself- on a daily, even moment-to-moment basis. My primary research included daily meditation , quieting my mind- listening for intuition. My secondary research was for external information and medical solutions. There was much crossover. I didn’t extensively research causes, but dealt with contributing factors as awareness of them arose. I found that being present in each moment would bring causes to light just as I was able to address them; this took faith in life itself.
Hospice was a natural jumping off point for my research. I’d worked for hospice as a caregiver and seen a lot of cancer deaths. I’d seen miracles too. Those who survived stage IV cancers were always our maverick patients, patients who thought for themselves. They accepted our care, but eschewed any medical or philosophical assumptions we might put forth. It seemed that a self-trusting and positive state of mind was the common factor in survivors.
While strict hospice care does not offer curative measures, many hospice organizations have branched into palliative care. Within a palliative program, a patient gets the comforts of hospice care, while being able to seek life prolonging medical measures. Although my six month prognosis made me eligible, hospice wasn’t my path. I signed on with the palliative care program, which gave me my own knowledgeable team consisting of a doctor, nurse, social worker and chaplain. Fortunately, they trusted that I had my own best interests in mind and didn’t try to foist any particular point of view on me, but simply offered information and care pertinent to my situation.
Friends and family often insisted that I look into this or that treatment. Sometimes they offered good information, but I wouldn’t get swallowed up in desperate research. I separated my allies from the controlling do-gooders by telling them that I was excited by life, but that I didn’t fear death- that my primary research was internal and spiritual- making myself right within all creation. I vowed that I’d paint, write, garden, and walk with friends. I’d live a full life however long it lasted. During times when my state of mind hung in a delicate balance, I was particularly vigilant about avoiding well meaning worry-warts.
My external research usually began on the internet, often leading to phone calls and library visits. One very helpful site was www.survivingmesothelioma.com which features excerpts from Rhio O’Connor’s book, They Said Months, I Chose Years! Rhio outlived his mesothelioma prognosis by many years through taking medical choices into his own hands and focusing on what could be done. I liked his optimism and the straight-forward way he told his story. The site is a resource for mesothelioma specialists and for research on varying treatments. I’d hired a doctor I’d found on the site as a consultant to work in conjunction with my palliative team. Rhio’s writings gave me important information on various alternative and conventional medical treatments and encouraged me in my pursuance of unconventional treatments. I revisit his writings often.
I reconnected with methods that had helped me with past physical issues. I visited my former acupuncturist who I hadn’t seen in years. He put me on a cleansing diet and an herbal regimen. I began seeing a homeopathic doctor who worked with him. I did MAP sessions: meditative sessions in which I opened to healing spiritual and nature energies. I used flower essences in conjunction with these sessions. Usually, I found that the more holistic a treatment- the more it addressed my emotional and spiritual aspects along with the physical- the more it healed my physical condition.
Once I had my people and my routine set up, I took a week of solitary retreat in which I conducted intensive internal/spiritual research. Although medical interventions save many lives, my main concern was my state of mind; if I’m not happy and appreciative of my life, what is life worth? I honored that priority.
In my years of coming to know my own mind through meditation, I see the pattern of how my current thoughts become my future reality. In order to live and enjoy life, I strive to move toward what I love about life with each action and every thought.
I find that maintaining a clear mind directed toward what I can do affords me the highest functioning existence. I feel I’m healing so well because I don’t live in panic. My Buddhist training has proved invaluable in this situation. A terrified mind overrun by its own fearful thoughts is unable to look at cancer from a practical point of view. Having a way of calming the mind helps one address cancer as an existing reality that can be approached. It’s like a math problem; there it is- no reason to deny it- and your teacher (life, in this case) would like you to solve it, so that you can make practical use of your new skill (have a longer and/or a better life).
I look after my mind more vigilantly than I ever have in three decades of meditation. I’ve divided my internal research/meditation into four aspects: practicing presence, positive thinking, creativity and releasing.
Practicing presence is being available to each moment and the realities inherent therein. Positive thinking for me is accepting what is- without building it up, running away, or grasping, enjoying nature and humanity and the interface of all the marvelous pieces of life, and opening to possibilities. I actively practice positive thinking by either accepting what is, or by reconfiguring or creating something new from what exists. Seeing my own power for action and effect is like magic. I also watch inspiring movies and read inspiring stories and autobiographies. A favorite book, Molecules of Emotion, by Dr. Candace Pert inspires me to see that I have power over my very molecules. She shows that positive thinking and emotions make the very cells and molecules of our bodies behave better.
The other part of thinking positively is humor. As much as possible, I spend time with humorous people- and I watch a lot of comedies.
Sometimes positive thinking swirls down the drain, and I lose all ability to be present to the moment. When the mean, depressed, and scary uglies make their bids for space in my mind, I look at them squarely and say, “Hey there.” Sometimes just allowing them space while shining the clear light of presence of mind on them shrinks and tames the beasties. Sometimes it’s helpful to converse with them; sometimes they turn out to be useful metaphors. When these techniques don’t make me functional again, I release the unuseful thoughts and feelings that come into my awareness. I’ve found the “Sedona Method” and “EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)” to be invaluable in releasing practice.
My path isn’t for everyone, but I encourage other cancer patients to be deeply present, look into the avenues that spark interest in life, and make the particular choices that bring peace of mind to them. A great deal of healing power comes from a peaceful and energized mind.
There will be a last moment for this life and that’s fine. It’s just not this moment.