◼︎MY PERSONAL JOURNEY
◼︎MIND, BODY & SOUL
My diagnosis came on September 1st: Stage 2 Prostate Cancer.
Before I go any further, let me assure friends and extended family hearing for the first time that I’m in no immediate danger. To the best of our knowledge the cancer is contained and has not spread. Doctors believe we’ve found it early enough that my prognosis is excellent and I’ll likely be around to brighten the world for many years to come.
All this is not a surprise, frankly. It’s been prophesied by a slow rise in my blood PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) level over recent years. I had an MRI in 2018 that came back clean. This year the doctor decided it was time to check again. A suspicious lesion was detected and a follow-up biopsy confirmed the cancer.
My husband David and I have been on a Cancer 101 crash course. We’ve met with doctors advocating different courses of treatment. We’ve also consulted the Gathering Place, a truly wonderful local organization here in the Cleveland area, the Prostate Cancer Research Institute, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. We’ve tried to stick with reputable sources that wouldn’t recommend bleach or Hydroxychloroquine.
The treatment course we’ve decided on is External Beam Radiation. There are downsides to everything and this is no exception, but External Beam seems the best option in my case with the lowest incidence of troubling long-term or permanent side effects. The cure rate pretty much equals the other primary options, radioactive seed implant and surgery. I’m now scheduled to start 9 weeks of daily (5 day) radiation treatments beginning December 13th with a number of appointments and procedures required in advance. So… some difficult, uncomfortable and exhausted days lie ahead.
Control & Perspective
Despite all the support and the optimistic prognosis, simply being told you have cancer is a gut-punch. It can bring you nose to nose with your mortality realizing there’s a ticking time bomb inside. The future is no longer entirely certain — not that it ever is for anyone, but this drives it home. Survival with my cancer runs over 90%. Those are damn-good odds, but I’ll need to be monitored forever against recurrence and there’s still that 5-to-8% lurking out there. The feeling of loss of control is palpable.
In this situation, like with everything, perspective is pivotal. I’ve known too many who have died of prostate and other cancers, but also these days millions survive as medicine continues to improve everyday. My father survived prostate cancer in the 1980s, and that was back when radiation treatment was like trimming your toenails with a machine gun. My nephew Scott is coming up on 15 years cancer-free after winning his battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Other family and friends have survived their cancers as well.
This is not my first time staring down cancer. I had a basal cell carcinoma in 2016 that was removed surgically. Earlier in 2012 we had a prostate cancer scare that literally had my life flashing before my eyes. I didn’t have my sea legs yet! This current situation hasn’t triggered nearly the same drama as then, and that’s even despite now actually having cancer.
The difference this time is perspective. I’ve learned a lot since 2012 about the power of being present in the moment, or “mindfulness” as it’s usually called. I’ve learned about meditation, acceptance, surrender and spirituality. I’m still very much a novice and imperfect practitioner in this area, but my limited skills have nonetheless proven sufficient to make this cancer episode far less stressful than 2012… so far.
It’s a work in progress. Some days are better than others. But my sincere hope is to take advantage of the life-changing opportunity this challenge offers me. That might sound strange. Opportunity? Advantage? I’ll explain.
The Power of Now
My first introduction to mindfulness was through Eckhart Tolle and his groundbreaking book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. I first came across information about Eckhart while on vacation at the ocean in 2014. I had no idea who this guy was but as I read I became more and more attracted to his teachings. I found myself on a new path.1I should say something about the words “spiritual” and “enlightenment.” As I use them, the word “spiritual” doesn’t imply or require religion, religious faith or mystical belief of any kind. An atheist can be spiritual. Instead, for me, the word refers to the “human spirit” both individually and collectively, and includes our connection or oneness with all that is (society, nature, the universe, etc.). “Enlightenment” is the state of rising above the noise of incessant thought, a compassionate awareness of the moment and the end of suffering that flows from this state of consciousness.
Eckhart has some mystical notions and political opinions I don’t share, but much of what he teaches is pretty down-to-earth common sense. In a way it’s so basic and simple it’s hard to understand why more of us don’t get it on our own. He draws heavily from Buddhist, Christian and other traditions that many will find familiar. The common threads through all of these are fascinating.
The core emphasis of Eckhart’s teaching is presence in the moment — being right here, right now. Sound familiar? Many others teach the same thing, each explaining it in their own way and style. Most of us have heard it, but few of us live it.
Being present means being alert and aware of ourselves and our surroundings, undistracted and unburdened by past and future. While we’ve each had a lifetime of experiences that we remember, these memories now are just thoughts in our heads. The past, as such, no longer exists. Unless we’re actively learning something by analyzing past events, it’s wasted rumination. The future doesn’t exist either. Any plans, predictions, worries or forebodings we have about the future are also just thoughts in our head. They have no more substance than a dream at night. Indeed there can never be a future! When the future we anticipate finally arrives, it won’t be the future anymore. We will experience it as the present moment.
The only place that life actually exists is in the present moment.
Why We Suffer
When we brood about the past or worry about the future, we disempower ourselves and we suffer. Recalling pleasant events of the past is fine, but people mostly dwell on thoughts of regret, resentment, loss and other negative feelings. The past can’t be undone. It can’t be changed. Dwelling on it accomplishes nothing except to make us unhappy.
Idly fretting about the future is pointless too. The course of future events can only be shaped, if at all, by taking some kind of action now — in the present moment. So even if the future concerns us, it’s only the present moment that matters. It’s only in the present moment that we can try to do something about the future.
There’s another important aspect to being present in the here and now: Whatever the present moment contains, whether good or bad, we can always handle it. In a sudden severe crisis, people often act in that moment without thought to how or why, or even their own safety. They don’t think, they just do. Maybe afterward they cry, shake or break down, but in the moment they simply act. They are totally present, utterly unburdened for that moment by unnecessary baggage in their head.
We can all do the same in non-crisis situations. If you’re reading this sentence now, you’ve already handled and survived every moment of your life to this day — and I’m certain this includes at least a few pretty terrible, scary or painful moments. Yet here we are, still alive. OK, maybe with a dent or two, but we handled it and we lived. If we can free ourselves from obsessive thoughts, regrets and worries about past and future, we can face each moment with the same clarity and power as that person responding to a crisis. And we can live far more peaceful, less stressful and happier lives.
With respect to my cancer, I can burden myself with all kinds of worry and anticipation about the future and all the conceivable what-if’s, or I can take each moment in its time. Just that moment. Even if I find myself in pain at some point, I can handle that split-second sliver of time. It’s only when I pile on anticipation of the next 5 minutes, the next day, or the next week that it becomes overwhelming.
The End of Suffering
Eckhart defines “suffering” as our mental interpretation of an experience, or the story we tell ourselves about the experience. Physical pain isn’t “suffering” unless we overlay a story about it — how unfair it is, how scary it is, how bad things always happen to us, how it will never end, etc. Dropping all that and simply being present in this moment is the end of suffering.
I tried putting this principle to practice when I had my biopsy. As David and I sat in the hospital waiting room I felt occasional waves of anxiety. These came as a strong physical sensation in my chest. I didn’t deny the anxiety or tell myself not to feel it — resistance only makes it stronger. Instead each time I made a conscious decision to accept that I was in the situation and felt anxiety, but not to dwell on it. Instead I redirected my attention to become present in the moment, not conjuring up imaginary pictures in my head of what might happen when called into pre-op.
I first brought my attention to my breathing, in and out. Then I looked around the room. I studied the other people waiting for their surgeries. I watched the woman at the front desk who was greeting people and signing them in. I studied the furniture; observed the ceiling with its lights, vents and cameras; listened to the hum of the air conditioning and the occasional PA announcements; watched people walk by who appeared to be visiting patients; studied signs outside the pharmacy across the hall; looked at the gift shop display; paid attention to my breathing and felt my body sitting in the chair… I was just present, simply observing, without judgement.
Each time I did this the anxiety faded away. When it returned a while later — we had a long wait — I repeated the process. Finally I was taken into pre-op. I had to strip, get into a gown, and lay on a stretcher. People were busily scurrying about. Machines were beeping.
Again I focused on my breathing to become present. I looked at the ceiling above, listened to the chatter and activity, and read a few signs posted within view. I studied a machine that was sitting beside my stretcher, watching it blink and beep. I was just observing, not really thinking or telling myself anything about any of it. After a few minutes a nurse arrived to insert an IV, ask my name and birthdate for the zillionth time, and take my vitals. I was stunned! My blood pressure was totally normal, not elevated even a little bit from stress, and my pulse was 61!
“Hot damn! This process works!” I thought to myself. My body was confirming that by staying in the Now, by staying present, I was successfully keeping myself calm. I was truly not worried in that moment.
Adversity as a Gift
In 2013, British guitarist Wilko Johnson of the band Dr. Feelgood was diagnosed with terminal late stage pancreatic cancer. His doctor gave him nine or ten months to live. This news had a profound effect on Johnson, but not the way we might expect. He described it to the BBC.
“We walked out of [the doctor’s office] and I felt an elation of spirit. You’re walking along and suddenly you’re vividly alive. You’re looking at the trees and the sky and everything and it’s just ‘whoah.’ I am actually a miserable person. I’ve spent most of my life moping in depressions and things, but this has all lifted…
“The things that used to bring me down, or worry me, or annoy me, they don’t matter anymore — and that’s when you sit thinking ‘Wow, why didn’t I work this out before? Why didn’t I work out before that it’s just the moment you’re in that matters?’
“Worrying about the future or regretting the past is just a foolish waste of time. Of course we can’t all be threatened with imminent death, but it probably takes that to knock a bit of sense into our heads.”
The sudden horrible prospect of dying forced Johnson to awaken to life, for possibly his first time ever. It forced his head out of the past and out of the future, into the present moment where he suddenly felt immense peace and freedom. This is a priceless gift despite the circumstances. It’s not uncommon that people only awaken after a deep crisis. It would be so much better if we could all awaken without being forced or shocked into it.
Some readers might be asking, “What does it feel like to be present in the here and now? How is that different from how I feel everyday?”
Everyone has experienced brief tastes of presence or mindfulness. A good example is the few quiet moments spent enjoying a sunset. For those few moments we’re not thinking about the grocery list, the upcoming oil change, the mortgage payment, or that argument last week. We’re just quietly soaking in the beauty and majesty of the sunset: a moment of presence. Once we turn away, however, our minds usually flood again with a zillion thoughts. But we still had that quiet moment of peaceful presence.
With intent and practice, such moments are possible throughout the day: while waiting for the elevator or at a red light, while showering or folding the laundry, while walking the dog or feeding the cat, while doing the dishes… Through meditation and other means, we can learn to be present.
The final teaching I’ve gained from Eckhart and others that applies here is Acceptance. Acceptance, or Surrender, is critical to happiness. I touched on it above. Remember, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.”
This means accepting objective reality as it exists in this moment, no matter what it is, without mental rebellion. This doesn’t require that we approve of what is, like it or condone it — just that we accept the indisputable fact that, for this moment at least, the situation is as it is. By doing this we spare ourselves the suffering of being angry or upset or afraid. We can spare our heads from beating against the wall.
Then, if action is necessary to address or change the situation we can proceed with greater energy, a clearer head and better efficiency. I don’t think many of us would say we think most clearly and act most effectively when we’re emotionally upset. Scientists have reported they’ve had their greatest breakthroughs at times of mental quietude.2 The Power of Now, page 24.
My Cancer Journey
This is the philosophy that I aspire to follow while traveling along this new road I find myself on. I hope to use this as an opportunity to drop all the big and little things I’ve fussed about, worried about, and regretted for too many years. When you view the world from the mountaintop, all those formerly “big” problems below look like ants. Ultimately it’s a matter of perspective.
As I said above, this is a work in progress. The principles I’ve shared here are easy to talk about but not so easy to practice. They go against a lifetime of habit and conditioning. I’m working at it but I’m frequently feeling depression, anxiety, and a generalized unsettled agitation. Lately I’ve also been uncharacteristically befuddled and absentminded, to which my husband will surely attest! It’s time to dust off my old GTD skills.
I’ll be writing and sharing more here in the days and weeks ahead. I hope you will find my ramblings useful and maybe helpful in your own life and journey.
Closing Words from Eckhart Tolle
I find Eckhart Tolle immensely helpful. He was my first of several teachers in meditation and spirituality (lower case “s”). A few years ago I added a special section to my website — entitled Life 2.0 — dedicated to this topic. There are extensive videos available there by Eckhart and others.
Eckhart hosts retreats around the world at which he speaks and takes questions. In this video, Eckhart answers a question about cancer and other serious illnesses or conditions. He describes how these can be a gateway to presence. Facing death, Eckhart explains, can force to us come alive! People who have spent their entire lives in misery can suddenly emerge and become radiant.
I hope you’ll watch. Due to copyright restrictions, however, this video must be viewed directly on YouTube. Click the image to watch.
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