Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I Did Not Fight Cancer

Many people use fighting words when it comes to cancer. “I battled cancer.”  “My mother lost her fight with cancer.”  

For many, The Warrior Path is essential to their journey, and I honour that.  When I had cancer, I felt a strong aversion to using the language of war.  I chose a different path that I felt worked for me, and want to share another possible way of being fierce in the face of illness.

In 2012 a blood test to investigate pains in my lower back and unusual vaginal bleeding determined my kidneys were in distress and I was anemic to a level that required blood transfusion.   

I was hospitalized, and upon further investigation it was determined I had invasive cervical cancer. Flooded with shock, rage, and fear, I was tempted to fight it tooth and nail. But something in me said, "Breathe".

I went through a procedure in which a tube was placed into each kidney for drainage, since my ureters were dangerously narrowed by the cancer which riddled my pelvis.  After my kidneys were drained and stable, the tubes were replaced by stents in my ureters.  Those stents were hell.

I began six weeks of chemo along with daily radiation.  I received three treatments of Brachytherapy, a process involving radiation directly to the tumors.  I didn’t see these fierce medicines as weapons against my cancer, rather I chose to embrace them as friends that would help me reboot my system to be open to healthier patterns.  I blessed them with such gratitude for their availability at this point in time, as well as the magnificent doctors who had the skills to apply them.

Unmanageable pain was the worst part of the experience for me. There was no real life, as I was either out of my head on drugs or frightening my children with the sound of my moaning.

So did I want to fight cancer at times?  You bet I did.  I had moments of rage and panic, which breed the "fight or flight" impetus.  With cancer that advanced I was terrified of dying and leaving my husband and four children.  I believed I would never feel better, that my “good” days were entirely behind me, and that this existence was all that was left.

I was bitter that cancer was in my cervix.  I was a doula, a veritable cervix fairy, and here was mine obliterated by disease.  I would have taken cancer anywhere else in my body far less personally.  But as a wise friend said, "Of COURSE it's in your cervix!  This is how you will make meaning of this journey."

A few months after treatment, which had showed promising results, I was admitted to the hospital again in renal failure, vomiting my face off and feeling like there were bugs crawling all over my skin.  Three doctors stood at my bedside telling me that an MRI showed a mass near my lower spine, and that if this wasn't metastasized cancer, it would be a miracle.  

I checked myself out of the hospital with re-inserted kidney tubes. I schlepped them around attached to some not-so-sexy looking urine collection bags I wore strapped to my legs. As awful as this sounds, I was grateful for the tubes, as life feels much better with functioning kidneys.

The doctors wanted me to stay in the hospital to get an immediate PET scan to determine the extent of the cancer.  I told them I’d get the PET scan in six weeks as an out-patient, as I wanted to take some time to enjoy feeling stable.  Nobody argued, as there were no medical heroics to be had.

Clear headed and with nothing to lose, I wanted to go deeply within and explore how I was going to live my precious available moments.  I wanted to be with the friends who made me laugh.  I wanted to do things I didn't normally do for fear of being judged, like explore more esoteric healing practices.  I wanted to express overflowing love and blessings to all those who sent me thoughts and prayers for healing, and who supported me in doing the things that nourished my wellness.  I needed to come hurtling out my suffocating spiritual closet into a place of freedom for my soul's expression without caring if people didn't understand me.

I wanted to teach another doula training, but this time include the spiritual aspects of the work.  I had always shied away from teaching from that place of spiritual authenticity because I thought people wouldn't want to learn from me, judging me as being earthy/crunchy woo woo, which frankly is not great for a professional doula's reputation.  I scheduled a course and taught it in Toronto the way I wanted, including ceremony and deep soul nourishment for my beloved students. It remains one of the most powerful gatherings I've ever been part of.  

I drank Cosmos with friends and walked around my beloved city, eating whatever I wanted. I enjoyed my family fully. I focused on life, not the lurking mass. I participated in a Sweat Lodge with a spiritual community in New York state without apologizing to the non-crunchy folks in my life, and revelled in the joy of feeling fully myself.  

On that pivotal trip to Sweat Lodge, I learned from a friend about an amazing school in New York City called One Spirit Interfaith Seminary.  Its program focused not upon promoting any religious dogma, but upon serving as a presence of peace and healing in the world on people's own terms.  Despite my diagnosis, I applied to this two year seminary program in order to become an interspiritual minister, trusting the internal “YES” that guided me.  I chose to love life again, no matter what.

I noticed that relinquishing my bitterness about cancer and choosing to live fearlessly made me feel better physically and emotionally.  I did the things that were meaningful to me without caring what people thought. I kissed my fears of living my real dreams goodbye, realizing that the fears I carried were simply the awesome parts of me I had never claimed.

I discovered that a chapter in the story of my cancer was about a part of me that had grown wild.  I had gotten so caught up in being the mother/wife/doula I thought I SHOULD be, I denied the woman I truly was, and she was demanding to be witnessed in all her passion and ferocity.  Fighting cancer meant fighting myself, and that just didn’t make sense in my narrative.

I have never been religious, but I realized I was still struggling with my concept of "god". Through insights that came from working diligently to heal what I felt was a toxic, disempowering relationship with a disassociated higher power “out there”, I learned to trust what emerged from the higher power within.

I finally went for that PET scan.  When I saw my oncologist a week later he said, “It appears you have no evidence of disease.”  Do I think my approach provided a magical cure?  No.  I think I had a lot of good luck on my side.  But I do believe making peace with cancer left me feeling serene and with the ability to cope with whatever life threw at me.  Had I discovered cancer was still there and advancing, I would not have thought I "lost" any "fight".  I don't see cancer as some foe trying to conquer people. Illness and death are not failures.

Three years later, I remain cancer-free, living a life dedicated to helping people have awesome birth experiences, training doulas to have healthy, thriving practices, and providing spiritual support to folks as a minister.

Many people fight cancer and win.  Fantastic!  That is their story, and I deeply honour it. My intuition spoke to me of working differently with cancer, and learning the lessons it had to teach me.  I like to think it worked for me.  Everyone who sets their foot to the path of healing must decide their own approach, and infuse it with their own belief.

May your motherwit, that innate intuitive knowing, be a strong partner in your healing.  

Lesley