Friday, August 28, 2009

Cancer and Happiness

I received a message from CarePages today with an article titled “Instant happiness? Even for people with cancer?”

A friend recently said to me that I should write a book about how I’ve managed to remain positive since being diagnosed with advanced cancer. The truth is, I haven’t remained positive: I’ve definitely had my dark days, and even my down-and-dirty this-fucking-sucks days.

But I’ve also had absolutely joyful, unbelievably blissful, brilliant days. Thankfully, those days have been more plentiful than the dark days.

I guess I could write a book about it, but I have one problem: I’m not sure why or how I've managed to cope so well. No one is more surprised than me that I have continued to appreciate my life and am, overall, happier than I ever was when I was younger and healthier.

In the ‘Instant happiness?” article, the author references “7 steps to instant happiness”. I believe the steps are meant for people in general and not necessarily for those of dealing with a cancer diagnosis, so here are my more cancer-specific comments on each of the steps.

Be positive
I’ve written in previous posts that I’m not a fan of this step. “Be positive” is advice that is just too simplistic for me and it’s too easy to feel like a failure on the days when you need to grieve and lick your wounds. Embracing my ‘dark side’ has helped me to come to terms with the reality of my illness and move on to a more positive state.

Be brave
Yet another piece of advice that makes me want to gag. No disrespect to the author, but there’s nothing wrong with a good cry and even some whimpering and sniveling. Getting out of bed was about as much bravery as I could muster some days. That said, I have a great role model in Mary that showed me how to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward, even participating in physical activities during treatments. Mary doesn’t let the emotional idea of ‘being sick’ keep her from doing the things that she wants to do, while being respectful of her limits.

"Meditation helps us better manage our reactions to stress and recover more quickly from disturbing events.” This is a step that I think does apply to people with cancer. I don’t do it enough (why?) but I definitely experience the benefits when I make the time. During my meditation I mentally visit each one of my organs and express gratitude to them for getting me this far. I thank my lungs for remaining strong in the face of the cancer. I visit the cancer cells and ask them to rest and remain passive; to calmly find a way to exit my body. I force myself to smile during my meditation, even if I don’t feel like it. I imagine joy filling each one of my organs and moving through my limbs to my fingers and my toes. I have never done this exercise without feeling calm, and sometimes even joyful, by the time I’m finished the meditation.

Be kind to yourself
I have spent the last year being kinder to myself than I’ve ever been in my life. For me that means: protecting myself from stress, eating healthy, focusing on the beauty of the moment, spending time outdoors in nature, being with friends that are good for my soul, and getting regular exercise. Most importantly, self kindness includes forgiving myself on days when I did none of this.

Use your pessimism
I see it more as realism than pessimism, but I have spent time thinking about the worst case scenario. I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if/when the cancer progresses further and plan to stay in control of what I can, when I can. The rest is out of my hands and I’m learning to let it go. ‘Let it go’ is a mantra that I sometimes use while meditating, saying it over and over until I really feel it.

Find a calling
I don’t think it’s my ‘calling’, but writing my thoughts in this blog has given me a vehicle for working through my fears and expressing my thoughts. My real calling right now is self-care and doing exactly what I want to do every day, without guilt or obligation.

Act happy
This one doesn’t work for me. I wear my heart on my sleeve and people can see through the act when I’m not feeling happy. As an introvert, I personally find it best to spend time on my own when I’m feeling down, without the pressure of having to pretend and put on a face for others. Then I can let it go and feel good about the time that I spend with the people that I care about.

I’m adding a 8th step: Give love and receive love
I’m fortunate to have lots of people in my life that I love and who love me back. Having Katey the Wonder Dog come into my life has brought a component of unconditional love that has truly added to my happiness. She’s there when I wake up, wagging her tail and smiling (yes, she really does). When I come home, she’s at the door and more excited to see me than any human could ever be. She makes me smile and laugh every day and has truly been a blessing in my life. (And that’s big for someone who has never really been a ‘dog person’!)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Global Conversation on Cancer

Global Cancer Summit: CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta leads a panel of experts in discussing challenges facing the battle against cancer.

View the video 36:21

Friday, August 21, 2009

A gift to last: Joining Sue's Care Team lifts friend's sense of helplessness

Sue Hendler's latest column in the Whig Standard is written by her friend Karla McGrath. In the column Karla talks about Sue's care team and the gift Sue has given by letting her friends know what they can do to help.

Read today's column

You can read other columns by Sue Hendler by clicking on her name below, after Labels.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My visit with Sue

I think I needed some time to process my thoughts about my visit with Sue in Kingston before writing about it. It’s hard to know how to feel about sharing time with someone who has little left to spare: Honored to be part of her care team. Sad because she is too young to die. Horrified because we share the same disease.

My day with Sue was pretty uneventful (except for the part where her keys somehow ended up in my bag and I had to courier them back overnight from Ottawa!). I tried to let Sue take the lead; spending time with her when she wanted company and giving her space when she needed to rest or wanted to be alone.

Sue is very matter-of-fact about her prognosis and at one point she asked me what I thought happens to us when we die. ‘Nothing’ would probably have been my answer 10 years ago. I’ve never been religious and don’t buy into the angels-with-wings-on-a-cloud-in-heaven thing.

But I now think that there has to be more than ‘nothing’. Everything is energy, including all of the cells in our bodies. That energy has to go somewhere. That ‘somewhere’ is probably so out of our realm of thinking that we can’t even imagine it. Maybe we’ll exist in a very different form; maybe we won’t even have a physical form.

In Life is Eternal, Carly Simon sings “How and where my spirit will go? Will it soar like jazz on a saxophone, or evaporate on a breeze? Won’t you tell me please?”

However and wherever our spirits will go, I think it will be a surprise. I’m hoping it will be a good one!

As for Sue, some people might say that she’s in the process of dying. But I don’t think she’s there yet. I believe she’s still in the process of living.

The pleasure of the feel of sunlight on her face; the comfort of her cat curled up against her in bed; the care of friends and family that love her; peace and moments of awareness that she’s still living her life, regardless of the limitations and the number of days ahead.

In addition to freedom from physical and emotional pain, these are the things that I wish for Sue.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lazy days of summer

I'm just back from a few days at Anne's cottage with Katey the Wonder Dog. As you can see, she enjoys paddleboating and is well dressed (and safe!) in her Outward Hound lifevest.
Judy's dog Otis came today and they got along great. Maybe Otis will come over sometime and we can all go to doggie play group: about a dozen small dogs and their humans that meet behind our pool each night at 7:00 to play and chase each other up and down the hill (the dogs, not the humans).

I promise not to turn this into a 'dog blog', but we're still in the honeymoon stage, so please forgive me for all the doggie pictures. Do feel free to oooh and awww though. :-)

In keeping with the intended theme of this blog, I should mention that there were seven women at the cottage this weekend, all 'breast cancer friends' (but definately not 'friends of breast cancer'!!!). As usual, there was tons of food and I ate too much. The lake water was wonderful and the company even better.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

CT Scan Results

I had my oncology appointment today and wasn’t surprised that the news from my last CT scan (June) was good. I figured that, if not, they would have called me by now. It’s likely that I will need radiation on the nodes in my chest wall at some point, but they are currently stable. For now at least, the treatment (Faslodex) seems to be keeping the cancer under control.

I once heard a speaker say that cancer is directly linked to stress and usually appears about 2 years after a traumatic event in your life. It made me retrace my steps and think about what was happening at that time. Two years before my original diagnosis, I went through a painful breakup with someone that I thought I would spend my life with. Two years before it returned, I was in an impossibly stressful situation in my work life.

Coincidence? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that the current stress-free life I'm living has been great for my health. Here is a picture that Anne (secretly) took of Katey & me in the “Om tent” beside the gentle rapids at her cottage a few days ago.
Peace above me
Peace below me
Peace at my left
Peace at my right
Peace onto me
Peace in my surroundings
Peace in the universe

Friday, August 7, 2009

Me and my doctor (2), by Sue Hendler

Me and my doctor (2): Living for now, preparing for then

In today's Whig Standard newspaper column, Sue Hendler resumes a conversation with her oncologist, Dr. Yolanda Madarnas, she began in her last column.

Read the article

Read other articles by Sue Hendler by clicking on her name after Labels below.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Today was my monthly Faslodex injection day. On the walk to the cancer clinic from the side street where I usually park, I came across a woman wearing a scarf on her head, leaning against a lamp post. I asked her if she was OK and she said her legs were shaky, so I offered to walk with her.

As we very slowly made our way to the clinic, she told me that she was going for blood work in preparation for her next chemo. When I told her about my cancer history she said I looked great and I think it gave her hope that I was doing so well.

We never exchanged names and I’ll probably never see her again, but she hugged me when I left her at the blood work room. I’ve had so many similar encounters: exchanging stories with someone in the waiting room; having the person next to me in the chemo room wish me well.

We are all strangers. We are all connected.