Archives for posts with tag: Coping with cancer

In addition to the color pink as a emblem of breast cancer, another polarizing expression is the characterization of cancer as a “gift”. I don’t think of it as a gift but I do think that it in coping with it, I have learned some important life lessons. It has been an ultimate learning experience, a growth experience, if you will.

The recent posts on the topic reminded me of something. My clinical psychology Ph.D. program was quite demanding and the first year was steep learning curve for students. When I was an advanced grad student, I watched a new crop of students struggling toward the end of the first semester. One day they got an additional unexpected task. Some of the students were trying to reframe it in a positive light. Louis, who was really funny and had a way to getting to the heart of the matter said, “Oh great! Another fucking growth experience!”

I don’t think he’d see cancer as a “gift”, either.

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I recently came across a scrapbook my husband made for me to commemorate my 40th birthday. In it friends and family, old and new shared memories of their relationship with me. I came across an entry by a friend from graduate school, Beth. She and I were both married to men named “John” who were graduate students in the Computer Science Department. It was a funny coincidence. We socialized a little as married couples and I have always thought very highly of her as a gentle, thoughtful, and intelligent person. We exchange Christmas cards each year and an email every ten years. I had forgotten what she had written in my book or even that she’d taken the time to respond to John’s request. What she said was lovely that she sees me as a kindred spirit with whom she will always have a connection. She described me as “fun, smart, and safe.”

When I was a psychology intern, I trained at a medical center in which our services were integrated with the medical services. We worked with cancer patients, burn patients, spinal cord injury patients, organ transplant patients, etc. We also had a separate outpatient psychology clinic and provided testing services to the department of psychiatry.

In my work, I don’t typically work with people who are in imminent danger. I remember the trepidation I felt prior to this internship that I would have nothing to offer individuals with serious medical illnesses, especially those with terminal disease. And I really really really didn’t want to work with children with cancer and other serious life threatening illnesses. But I did.

I discovered that I had something to offer them. Even as children, they understood the danger of talking about their illness with their parents. They understood the burden. As an outsider, I could lift it. They could talk to me without fearing that they were hurting me in some way. If I empathized with the sadness, anger, and fear, I was just a supportive adult not a parent who is supposed to be the strongest person in a child’s life. And I could listen and avoid the unintentionally non-accepting messages that adults give children when they try to talk kids out of emotions because they are unable to regulate their own. Children, even children who are dying, like to play and laugh. I could do those things. I could be fun, smart, and safe.

I keenly appreciate the fun, smart, and safe people in my life right now. And many of them come from unexpected places. I left for vacation right as Diane from dglassme posted the very excellent Deep Dark Trenches of Virtual Space. Diane writes about her own link to the Internet, especially the cancer blogging community. The post is also accompanied by a photo of sharks. I identified with the post so strongly, especially the following:

When you start to look forward to seeing your doctors more than your friends, you know something has gone dreadfully wrong considering they have some pretty ridiculous personalities, or when you care more about what a complete stranger you met on the internet has to say than a close friend or loved one. Who are these people? They are mothers, psychologist, college students, diplomats, attorneys, historians, writers, nurses, surgeons, oncologist, etc.  – people from all walks of life, from all over the world – who have cancer or are working with people who have it.

During this technicolor stage of my life, especially the part of my cancer recovery during which many people in my life consider cancer to be in my permanent past, I find myself drawn to my cyber buddies. Most of them are cancer patients but others are not. But the thread that binds them is that due to personal circumstances and/or chosen professions, they are accustomed to life changing events. They deal with challenges with intelligence, kindness, and humor.

I have developed a few unique and close friendships with individuals whom I have never met in person or even spoken to on the phone. I have no frame of reference for these particular kinds of relationships. I had never blogged prior to my cancer diagnosis. My Facebook use in the past, basically boiled down to “Look at my kid!” “Look at my kid again!” (I still do plenty of proud mama posts. And by the way, “Look at my kid!”)

Sometimes I feel ill at ease with the uniqueness of the relationships. I feel at a loss as to how to explain to others how I learn so much from “strangers”. Fortunately, my husband gets it and never seems to feel left out or disappointed that I look outside of our marriage for support. Sometimes I have trouble navigating the waters of my cyber friendships, but by and large, I still feel safe. In this community, I feel that there is always someone who can sit beside me and hold my hand during the lowest points. And there will be someone who will laugh at my jokes even if they are dark. And there will be someone who communicates an understanding of what I am going through even if his/her experience is different. And since it is a community, there is always someone who can step in for support when someone else is not available. So the network is consistent and always there.

I am thankful for the times that my technicolor emotional expressions are not only tolerated but accepted because there have been a few times that I am been taken aback by the intensity and intimacy of my outpourings. I boo-hoo-hoo’d with dysregulated empathy over one of my friend’s Facebook posts, when she was having a particularly difficult day. I was embarrassed afterwards and even thought about apologizing. But knowing that apologizing for these kind of behaviors can be a kind of unnecessary flailing dance that I do, I held back. In time, normalcy returned on its own.

I have dear friends and family who help me heal and grow stronger each day. They love me and want the very best for me just like the parents of the children with whom I worked at the hospital.

But as Diane pointed out, the people, even the dearest ones in our day to day lives, don’t constantly live with cancer or some other life changing experience. When I talk to them about my fears or my illness, I know that I may tip them off of their axes and send them spinning in other directions. I have been in their shoes before and I totally get it.

Thank you for being fun. Laughter helps me deal with the ridiculous aspects of my life, it distracts me from my worry, and it gets me breathing again.

Thank you for being smart. I feel understood and connected rather than lonely and weird.

Thank you for being safe. Thank you for sitting with me in my grief and trusting me to work through it. Thank you for forgiving the times I step on toes, don’t pay enough attention, or misplace my tact.

I hope that I provide the same things for you. Cancer is scary enough without scaring each other.

This post is from 1/31/13. Now that I’ve complained about my kin’s untidy habits, I’m putting up a repeat of post in which I complain about Hubby’s subclinical hypochrondria. Girly has it, too. Interestingly, it has improved for both of them over the last six months. Hmm…

Yesterday, my hubby complained of being hot and not feeling well. I thought that perhaps he had caught menopause from me and was having hot flashes. Given that I contracted menopause from a hypodermic needle (full of Lupron), it makes sense if you think about it. Today, he feels much better.

As a former university researcher, I conclude that menopause in males is a 24 hour condition. I think I will write a paper on this and submit it to the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. (See an example of one of their premier articles, Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality.)

This post is dated 11/4/12. I remember being really proud of the title for it. Kitty was pretty sick when I wrote this but was still acting relatively healthy. As many of you know, he died the following spring. I miss my weird handsome kitty.

 

Okay, I took a little tiny bit of creative license with the title of my post. My cat, Ollie, is actually male and he is neutered, not spayed. “Neutered” just doesn’t have the right sound. Fortunately, I am not planning to apply to veterinary school any time soon. Or any time for that matter. I’ve had enough advanced education in my life. I absolutely love my job. It’s a good thing I didn’t fully know what I was getting into with graduate school because if I’d known, I probably would have skipped getting a Ph.D.

But back to another infertile member of the family, Oliie the cat. Ollie has been seeking a LOT of attention from me lately. He climbs up on me to purr and sleep, several times a morning, and what I mean by the morning is any time followed by the letters “am.” Ollie is exacerbating my sleep problems by waking me up a lot. He is also warm, which compounds my hot flashes.

Since Ollie has treated John as his favorite for years, I have been perplexed by this change in his habits. At first, I thought it was because he is getting older and has a number of ailments. I thought that maybe he is just needing more attention from every body. This is true, to a certain extent as he has been asking for more attention from John as well. John thinks Ollie is actually feeling better from his liver medicine (he has a liver disease, pancreatitis, and hyperthyroidism) so he has been seeking more attention. The hyperthyroidism also makes him hungrier so he is bugging us for food more frequently. (And yes, there is a treatment for hyperthyroidism but we tried the cheap route, twice daily medication, and he was unable to tolerate it. The alternative treatment costs $1000. We just paid $1500 in diagnostic tests to find out about all of these ailments so we need a couple of weeks to recover.)

I have another hypothesis as to why I have become Ollie’s favorite. You know how cats love to be warm? How they lie in the sun in the summer and on the heater vents in the winter? I think the cat is seeking me out because of my hot flashes!

I do love my kitty but perhaps I will start sleeping with an ice pack on my chest to discourage him.

Another time I tried to turn Ollie into a girl. I put a tiara on him to try to submit a photo to the site, “Cute Overload.” Then I never sent it in because I was embarrassed about trying to take a funny cat picture.

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This post is from January 2013.

I’ve been struggling with water, the gift of life, aqua, good ol’ H2O.

There was leaky pipe in my office last Saturday, which would have created a deluge had my office mate not been there to see it so a plumber could be called to fix it.

Yesterday, as usual, I went for my three mile long walk. It was rainy, which is not unusual for this time of year. I donned my Gore-Tex armor, which has served me so well-Gore-Tex hat, Gore-Tex hiking boots, Gore-Tex parka, Gore-Tex boots, Gore-Tex pants.

If I lived a considerable distance south of these parts, I might even call myself a Gore-Texan. (Cue music.) The rain at night, lasts a fortnight (clap, clap, clap, clap). Deep in the heart of Gore-Tex!

I came home from my walk, my boots squeaky, my socks soggy, and soaked through my coat, insulated long-underwear shirt, t-shirt, and bra! Only my Gore-Tex pants managed to maintain my faith in the magical rain shedding powers of Gore-Tex.

I took my smartphone out of my ZIPPPED Gore-Tex parka pocket. Uh-oh. It was covered in water. The screen was flickering! I quickly turned it off and opened it up. It was wet on the inside! I dried it off but being fool hardy, I tried to turn it back on even though my brain was telling me, “Leave it off and call AT&T.” It turned on but was frozen on the “Samsung” boot up screen. So I turned it off and broke it down again.

“My precious! My precious phone! My extremely complicated work, medical, family, personal life calendar is on there! The names of all of the new patients I will see between now and March 5th are on there!”

“Golem, I feel your pain,” I thought to myself. “I am a psychologist. I am not addicted to technology. I am an excellent problem-solver. Get a hold of yourself, woman!” I took a deep breath and called AT&T.

A very sweet technical support rep named Shannon answered. “Oh, I just did that. I was so worried. I keep EVERYTHING on my phone. Surround your phone with rice to get it to dry out. Leave it for at least a day. I’ll call you tomorrow and see how you are.”

Shannon has felt Golem’s pain as well. I confirmed with her that if the phone didn’t dry out, it was curtains for the information on my phone. (And yes, Google is supposed to automatically back up my calendar but that stopped working and I’ve been procrastinating about figuring out a fix for that problem.)

“My precious! My precious! God, you can take my breast but not my SMARTPHONE!” I was again, I’m afraid, losing some perspective. So I then imagined the Albert Ellis section of classic 1960’s psychologist training film, “Three Approaches to Psychotherapy“, also known as “The Gloria Films”. Gloria, a real person with real life problems, agrees to be taped seeing three super famous clinical psychologists (Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, and Albert Ellis), one at a time. Pioneers in fields can be kind of extreme. The Gloria films illustrate this quite nicely. By the time I saw the film in the 90’s, it was for historical purposes. The film served up unintentional hilarity with a side of guilt since Gloria was a real person with real problems. They were not getting addressed.

So what does this have to do with my meltdown about “My precious”, you may ask? Albert Ellis was a brilliant psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), which is the foundation of modern cognitive therapy. The goal of RET is to use reason to reduce psychopathology. However, Ellis did this in the absence of stuff like, you know, demonstrating empathy and establishing rapport. He also had a rather distinctive nasal northeast accent. Combined with his lawyerly therapy style, it was pretty funny. “I can see that your situation in inconvenient, but it is not terrible and awful.” Or my favorite when Gloria puts her self down and he responds by telling her that if she makes a mistake it does not make her a “no good-nik”. The sight and sound of Dr. Ellis trying to use 60’s-era hip slang was double hilarious. Check it out for yourself here.

“Elizabeth, your anecdotes require too much exposition! What does this have to do with your phone?”

Thank you, patient readers. Basically, I tried to reason with myself as I often do, but this time I remembered Albert Ellis, and it made me laugh.

That pulled me out of my tizzy and I went about recreating my schedule, piecing it together from memory, emails, and other non smartphone dependent methods.

Today, I took my phone out of it’s rice bed and it awoke!

Thank you, Albert Ellis. Yesterday was inconvenient and more than a little stressful but it wasn’t “terrible and awful.” I hope you forgive me for laughing at you and for being able to do a dead-on impersonation of you. You were definitely not a “no good-nik.”

 

Much to my surprise, orange has become a theme in my breast cancer experience. I have written FIVE posts on the topic of orange. Here are two of those posts, the first written in August 2012, right before my mastectomy and the second in September 2012, right after my expander placement.

8/1/13: Future Job in the Chorus of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

You remember who was in the chorus of the Gene Wilder musical classic? Yes, the Oompa Loompas. And what color were the Oompa Loompas? Yes, they were orange. And what color were my roots after using an unfortunate shade of Clairol Natural Instincts? Yes, they were a very deep shade of overripe cantalope. “Natural” Instincts, my ass!

I’ve never messed up a hair color before but I haven’t done it myself for several years and apparently, Clairol Natural Instincts uses a totally different formula than they did when I last used their products. And they are on a melon kick! Not to be seen in public (other than going to Target to get a fix for this), I used a non-permanent, normal looking reddish brown dye today. Ah, much better. Most of the melon is gone.

The Oompa Loompas would say that my parents are to blame for this mishap (“…the mother and the fa-ather”). However, the same thing happened to my mom and she warned me about it. When did I remember this? After I rinsed the color out of my hair! So, I’ve decided to blame Roald Dahl.

It will be so nice to be able to go back to the salon. It will happen.

P.S. The color was just like this except MORE orange. No lie.

The Oompa Loompas after disobeying their lax parents in the Clairol Factory and falling into a vat of Natural Instincts “Dark Auburn.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9/29/12: Wonky Wonka Boob

I forgot to mention the lovely fact that my breast looks like it is jaundiced or has carotene poisoning or something. This is because during surgery, Dr. Welk used betadine as an antiseptic, which contains iodine. Dr. Beatty, my breast cancer surgeon, never did that so I wasn’t expecting to be re-traumatized once again by having a part of my body turned Oompa Loompa color. It is a pretty wonky boob at this stage of the game and wonky is close to “Wonka” so hey, life is just having a little word play on me because it knows I’m always on the look out for good blog material. Maybe they’ve been reading my blog over at the Polyclinic and they actually used Clairol Basic Instincts, “Dark Auburn,” instead of betadine. (I’m totally kidding, wonderful people at the Polyclinic. I know you would never ever do something like that. I’m just getting my daily dose of humor about my breast cancer. Tee hee hee! Ho ho ho!!!)

I read online that hydrogen peroxide would take it off. It took off a little so now it’s slightly more yellow than orange. My skin is really sensitive so I should probably just leave it along for a few more days. But again, I blame Roald Dahl.

 

 

As a child/adolescent psychologist, I work with a lot of moms. They often express feelings of guilt for their children’s challenges. I often respond by saying, “You have the rest of your life to feel guilty as a mother. Save some for later.”  This statement usually gets a laugh and often the guilt although not gone, is small enough for us to move forward in our conversation. It is often, however, not so easy. People get stuck. Even psychologically solid, reasonable parents can get stuck on guilt. Several years ago, I worked with a wonderful mom of a very young child who was showing signs of significant developmental challenges in multiple areas. She had professional experience working with children and was acutely aware that her son may have handicaps that would greatly change the future possibilities in his life.

Although there was no evidence that she had done anything to contribute to her son’s difficulties and further, it was yet unclear as to whether his difficulties would be short-lived or chronic, she felt guilty. She felt guilty and stuck. During one session I asked, “What do you think you are getting out of this guilt?” She looked at me understandably with a confused expression. I went on, “It may sound backward but sometimes people hang onto guilt because it gives them a sense of control in situations in which they feel totally out of control. We cannot have guilt without a sense of power, even if the power we feel is to harm.”

She was dubious but I had planted a seed. She came back a week or two later and basically told me that she had thought what I had said made no sense but upon careful reflection, it actually made sense. It was a turning point in her grief process.

Guilt is blame turned inward. It can also be turned outward. In Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter, a town grieves for the loss of a busload of school children in an accident. Ian Holm plays an attorney who travels to the small town to file a class action law suit against the bus company. He has his own grief back story, which is his adult daughter’s drug addiction. Holm’s character tirelessly pursues blame. Someone must be responsible for the tragedy. That someone must pay. Things don’t just happen. They happen for a reason. He was going to find the reason at all costs. I won’t spoil the ending for you but let’s just say that letting go of blame and accepting the loss of control is a major theme of this film.

As for myself, I have had issues with letting go of anger. There is a release that comes with losing my temper and in the moment, it feels good. But because I am at heart a peacemaker and an empathetic person, I feel regret at having hurt other people, especially my husband. My anger is usually rooted in anxiety, anxiety that a problem can’t be controlled or solved. Anxiety that my house will never be an environment that I can control and make a sanctuary. Fears that my cancer will return. Fears for my family, especially my teenaged daughter. I have fears of not being a good enough psychologist when my patients are having particularly treatment-resistant struggles.

Most people would consider me to be a very disciplined person. One exception to this has been my life long struggle to eat healthfully and to exercise regularly. I love food. I am an excellent home cook and I love good restaurants. I love to eat a large amount of food. The act of eating is an amazing, highly enjoyable, sensory experience. It is also a wonderful social experience. And I know when I am overdoing it and often in my life, I just keep eating. And at these times, it seems too hard to put the time into preparing healthy meals. Quick and easy is convenient but not nutritious.  The rest of my health suffers and I just don’t feel as good during the non meal parts of the day. It also feels good sometimes, not to exercise. “Ah, I can just sit here and rest.” This is particularly true when I let my work and family life burden me. I work too many hours at work and at home, doing things and worrying about people. I am tired and I feel that I deserve to rest even though I know that I deserve the kind of treatment that promotes good health. But like many caretakers, I put my self-care low on the priority list even though I have counseled countless moms to avoid this. But putting my health at lower priority made my daily to-do list shorter. It made it seem like I was juggling fewer balls in the air. It was a false illusion.

In my 20’s, I gained and lost the same 20 pounds over and over. By my 30’s and 40’s, I have gained and lost the same 40 pounds twice. Right now, I have given up the convenience and the joy of eating to the point of indulgence for healthier foods. Yes, it is work to plan my meals, to make entrees ahead and freeze them in reasonably-sized portions. I take the time to make sure that I always have healthy vegetables on hand. I love vegetables and you know what, eating a large volume of vegetables is actually good for me. And I’ve gotten so that I look forward to my daily 3 mile walks. The key for me was realizing that I was self-employed and could therefore set my own hours! I am better at exercising in the morning and had been trying to add it to the end of long clinic days, which didn’t work at all. So, I just started seeing my first patients at 9:30 am instead of 8:30 am. What a rut I was in to not think of that solution years ago!

Letting go of these things has required patience, which does not come naturally. But I have grown and changed over the years. I have learned to manage my anxiety pretty well and with my mindfulness practice, I am learning to practice acceptance and further, that acceptance is not the same as doing nothing. It is not accepting that can spin me in circles, feeling like I am doing something but getting no where. Endless anxiety and anger can be a trap where you expend so much energy that it feels like you are doing something productive and your are not. And as a person who has been clinically depressed twice in my life, I can tell you that the helplessness and hopelessness of that passive state is one of the loneliest places in the world. I can’t tell you how thankful I am that I have not been near that place for over 10 years.

It can be hard to let go of anger, of grief, of impatience, or anxiety, of sadness, of guilt, at the point when I need to move on. Emotions are vital to our lives, even the “bad” ones. They motivate, protect, and educate us. But they do not always work in a healthy way with our thoughts and behaviors. I know that I will be working and reworking this balance for the rest of my life. I try not to think about how things “should” be in respect to things over which I have little control. I got breast cancer when other people with similar lifestyle and risk factors did not. I got it when people with more risk factors did not. Disease is part of the natural world and it doesn’t make sense to me to be mad at the universe. That just doesn’t work for me and the cost is too high.

We all have to make our own paths in life. In my life, I feel pretty unstuck right now but know that the cost of each day is a different set of gains and losses. Yes, I have lost the illusion of control but I have gained so much. I write this to reflect. I write this to remember the peace I have in my life at this moment.

I let go to gain freedom. I let go to go on.

Today is the summer solstice. Hooray! This summer is met with particular eager anticipation because last summer with the Summer of Surgeries. This summer, I will have no surgeries, knock on wood. Now fall of 2013, will likely be a different story but whatever “work” is done will be minor. No more major surgeries on the known horizon.

So, in honor of this occasion as well as it’s personal meaning to me in 2013, I would like to post a few photos that show resilience. Let’s call them my Timex photos. All of you resilient readers and bloggers out there, we take a licking but we keep on ticking.

This is a photo taken after the weeding party, during which the evil plant-engulfing wireweed was removed. See the small shrub that was uncovered? Yeah, well I can barely see it. It looks like a bouquet of brown twigs.

This is a photo taken after the weeding party, during which the evil plant-engulfing wireweed was removed. See the small shrub that was uncovered? Yeah, well I can barely see it. It looks like a bouquet of brown twigs.

Here's what the bundle of sticks looks like today. It's alive, it's alive! Like a phoenix that has arisen from the ashes!

Here’s what the bundle of sticks looks like today. It’s alive, it’s alive! Like a phoenix that has arisen from the ashes!

Speaking of a phoenix, here is the phoenix I bought John for Fathers' Day made by Cedar Moon Studio (available from Etsy.) This Phoenix rose from the ashes of an old plastic pink flamingo yard bird, that was re-purposed into this magnificent creature.

Speaking of a phoenix, here is the phoenix I bought John for Fathers’ Day made by Cedar Moon Studio (available from Etsy.) This Phoenix rose from the ashes of an old plastic pink flamingo yard bird, that was re-purposed into this magnificent creature.

 

Click here to see more transformed pink flamingos.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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