June 26, 2012

The Flute Carver In The Guest House: Being Real With Cancer. ~ Nancy Ellen Miller

Courtesy of Flickr/Bhumika.B

Dolly Parton says that storms make trees take deeper roots.

If that’s true, I’m growing some hard-earned roots these days.

Perhaps I’ve seen the worst of this battle with cancer but a journey of true healing never runs smooth; the lymph node biopsy results await to tell me if the cancer has spread—the future is uncertain as ever.

I have a whole toolkit to help me face this storm.

I’m doing mistletoe therapy, naturopathy, acupuncture, massage, the Rife machine, homeopathy, psychosynthesis, reiki, journaling, yoga and meditation. I’m beginning to explore ayurvedic approaches to cancer, body-talk therapy, emotional freedom technique and pancreatic enzyme therapy.

The more I read and learn about how I can sit with strength in the rage in this storm, the more I feel empowered.

But a degree of this journey surely lies outside of my own hands—I am aware that I am not in control of outcomes.

Feelings pass through me and at times pull me; the more I resist, the more pain emerges as a result of my resistance. There lies a delicate balance of surrender and command through this tempest in the weather of my life.

As I battle the whipping winds of disease, I make intentions to stay constructive in my outlook—submitting to a gloomy disposition in confrontation with cancer is not going to help. At the same time, denying expression to feelings that arise or glossing them over with a forced positivity can hardly create a kind of shield against the dark forces of disease.

My friends and family wish for my wellness, so when they say, “be positive” or “smile,” I feel gratitude for their intentions and I know that on some level, smiling helps in healing.

But I can’t help but sense there’s something missing in the cult of positivity.

On one level, smiling works in dealing with things: don’t sweat the small stuff can be a wise adage to follow for not missing the forest for the trees. Laughing is good medicine.

In the same way it’s unhealthy to suppress happiness, it’s also unhealthy to suppress other, less glorious feelings. If an emotional pain needs acknowledgement, it will persist, usually hovering in the emotional field until it turns into a physical symptom.

Affirmations have their value in overcoming chronically negative states of mind—certainly, there are some emotional states it’s simply unhealthy in which to sink and some pains can be effectively alchemized through the upturning of the corner of the lips. But there lies more to a life journey than smiling.

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) studies the interaction of the life of the mind and the immune system. What PNI has discovered is that it’s not exclusively positive emotions that most benefit the health of a human being but authentic free-flowing feelings that aid most beneficially the immune system. Many writers and prophets have commented on the necessity of suffering for human beings to appreciate and feel joy; Khalil Gibran writes his chapter “Joy and Sorrow” in The Prophet:

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain./Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?/And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”

Remember the movie The Truman Show?

At the beginning of the film, Truman lives in a literal and metaphoric bubble, enfolded in circle upon circle of contrived grins and shallow encounters, encapsulated in the repetition of, “Good morning, good afternoon and goodnight.”

The television show that created Truman wielded him into adopting a false personality. The bubble has him believing things he hasn’t truly chosen for himself. It seems the whole universe in which he lives has succumbed into a dizzying disease of artificiality until, one day, Truman wakes up and realizes he isn’t happy after all.

Don’t you think sometimes it takes a little discontent to realize there’s a life outside the bubble?

Or, even if we are not living in a televised bubble, metaphorical or literal, it takes a bit of sorrow to know how to rejoice—it takes pains to carve out the flute by which a joyful song can resound. Even babies arrive in this world in tears.

Some people favour joy over sorrow, others sorrow over joy, but Gibran says they are inseparable: “When you are sorrowful, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.” William Blake, in Auguries of Innocence, similarly says: “Man was made for joy and woe/Then when this we rightly know/Through the world we safely go./Joy and woe are woven fine/A clothing for the soul to bind.”

Two weeks ago, upon my return to England from a holiday in Canada, I visited the fertility clinic at the local hospital.

You see, if I undergo radiotherapy and chemotherapy, it will affect my fertility. Upon my diagnosis, the nurse immediately mentioned the possibility of freezing my eggs and I was told the process of freezing my eggs would be covered by national health insurance.

Perhaps the receptionist’s lack of warmth at the fertility clinic that day might have had something to do with my reluctance to embrace this truth of potentially losing the possibility of having children.

The woman looked me up and down, squinted her eyes, asked my name and then said, “Where’s your partner?”

“I am here because I have cancer.”

Her cold stare and abrupt manner remained unwavering. “Why is she staring at me like that?” I thought.

I’ve had cancer long enough to know that the word cancer falling upon some ears fails to evoke much sympathy.

Some seem reluctant to speak with me—a cold awkwardness sits like a gulf between myself and the other. But, as I stared back at this woman behind the desk, I thought, “Surely, other women of my age with a diagnosis of cancer had entered this clinic. She must know what I am talking about.”

“Chemo will kill my eggs,” I said, “And if I have chemo, I have to freeze them…I want to have children…” and then, I stopped trying to explain myself.

I sensed then why the woman may have been looking at me the way she was, why my presence in entering the clinic seemingly irked her as it so seemingly did.

“I’m single,” I said matter-of-factly, “I don’t have a partner.”

I felt judged for entering the fertility clinic without one. I had not expected that.

“You know, I wish I had someone with whom to share my life,” I thought, “someone to help me through this disease, someone to lie beside me at night in the moments I feel isolated, caught on the wrong side of the river, stationed on the bank of sickness when a rushing rapid of choice and uncertainty lies between myself and my health.”

The receptionist couldn’t hear my thoughts. She pushed a form towards me. Peering over her reading glasses, she told me curtly to fill out the first section. “Since you don’t have a partner, leave the second section blank,” she said. Then she asked for my passport.

I sat down in one of the pleather chairs in the waiting room. The room was relatively empty, save an affectionate couple to my left, the man with his arm around his beaming lady, seemingly enamoured, devoted and delighted to have a child together.

Called in by the nurse, she pointed to the scale and I stepped on.

She measured my height.

49 kg and 173 cm.

“Have you always been underweight?” she asked.

“Not only am I cancerous and single,” I thought, “but I’m too skinny.”

Then, a small, Indian doctor opened her door and sat me down next to her. In great detail, she explained to the complex process of stimulating ovulation and storing my eggs, as well as the urgency of doing this before surgery and treatment began.

She barraged me with statistics and figures of probable outcomes before saying: “Please keep in mind because you are single, you will have to self-fund this process.”

“Pardon me?” I said.

“If you had a partner, the NHS would fund this, but because you’re single, you will have to pay for it,” she responded.

Listen. It’s difficult to have cancer—to face a life-threatening illness and see all the plans I had for my life freeze in their tracks.

I write this having already lost one breast to surgery and with that loss, images of myself—of mothering, sexuality and femininity—have entered into a dusty tailspin. Looking at my uneven chest, scared and bandaged, I fear losing my attractiveness to the opposite sex.

I fear on some dark nights that the cancer may have already spread and that if I go through chemotherapy, I’ll lose my hair and my fertility—or possibly despite my positive efforts, my life.

Even without cancer and its accompanying fears, it’s difficult to find myself in my mid-thirties, single and wanting children. To have entered (and left) relationship after relationship with those who seemed to be right, who seemed to have wanted the same things as I, only then to experience disappointment when those same people decided they wanted something else. I see all of this and experience all of this…and it is not easy.

So why now, with cancer, am I being discriminated against, simply because I have not found someone to share my life with?

The doctor pushed the consent forms across the desk. “Do you want to start this process right away?” she asked. I looked at my hands, shyly folded in my lap.

I wondered how I would manage the costs of all of it—the thousands and thousands of pounds, on top of the hundreds of pounds my family and I have been investing in alternative therapies, supplements, organic foods and all the effort it takes to win the battle against cancer.

But because I’m single, I’m being asked to pay for what would have been free, if I were to have a man beside me.

I took the forms, folded them, held them for a minute between my fingers, inserted them in my handbag and said: “I’ll think about it.”

The following Tuesday, I entered the hospital again. My date was not with the fertility doctor this time but with the radiologist followed by a meeting with my surgeon and breast clinic nurse.

I had delayed surgery by two weeks, having read about and spoken with women who had cured her cancer completely naturally, without any conventional therapies.

I had been doing reiki for three hours a day, had begun a new cancer-fighting diet and was exploring new therapies. I hadn’t had much time to work with any of these but I figured an imaging scan would assure both my oncologist and myself that whatever I had been doing, I could keep doing. If the tumour hadn’t grown or if by miracle it had shrunk, I knew I had more time to keep working on non-toxic and non-invasive therapies. With the right results from an ultrasound, I knew I’d have permission to delay surgery a little longer and possibly save myself from losing a breast.

The images of an ultrasound were inconclusive.

Hidden directly beneath my left nipple, the tumour remained a dark and mysterious crab-like beast, sticking its head in the sand just when we wanted to bring it to light.

The surgeon and radiologist could agree on one thing: since the last scan in early March, the tumour had grown about 6mm. It certainly hadn’t shrunk and it clearly hadn’t stayed the same.

They recommended an immediate mastectomy at the next available possibility. Panicked, I resigned.

Now, post-surgery, I’m carting around a bottle of bodily fluid attached by a tube to the fresh wound where my breast once was.

For the first time on this journey with cancer, I feel sick.

Today, I’m mourning the loss of my once beautiful body part. I feel wounded and I feel afraid. I fear becoming a burden. I fear I might not be able to have children. I feel lopsided.

My body and mind are sore and numb all at the same time.

So when a spontaneous smile comes, I let it come; when a laugh arises, it can have the power to jolt me out of my physical discomfort. Both smiling and laughing release endorphins throughout the body and trigger a chain of physical and emotional states that no doubt foster healing.

In no way am I leaving out those moments.

When I’m genuinely happy, I smile. But, when I’m genuinely sad, mourning, frustrated or angry, I know it is best to let be what is passing through me. I give myself permission to carve some space for the suffering that goes into making a flute that one day will sing with joy.

If I force myself to smile all the time, I risk pushing all those other feelings down, down, down. That act may even create a new cancer in some other area of my body. The more I bury, the more I risk that it will birth another tumor, filled with different, encapsulated crab-like feelings, cowering in the sand, reluctant to show its face to my immune system because the world—or my body—just wants to see a happy face.

Anyway, I’m not alone in having feelings. In the fourteenth century, Rumi had them too. So let me leave you with a poem called The Guesthouse, in honor of letting what is, be.

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.


Nancy is a writer, artist, yogini and teacher living in London, England.  She has taught and trained in yoga and meditation in Thailand, India, Nepal, Mexico and Canada. On March 16th, 2012, Nancy was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, or breast cancer. Through living with this disease, Nancy has been learning to trust the way her spirit dances though all things and reform what to her is yoga. (www.paperbirchyoga.com)

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Editor: Bryonie Wise

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