I just returned from an unexpected trip to New Mexico to help a good friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer. When I lived in New Mexico, over 10 years ago, this friend was a sister to me, and her parents my family. So, when the news arrived of her diagnosis, and that she could use some assistance following abdominal surgery, I wanted to be there to help in her day-to-day care, to be a moral support, and to share with her the information I have learned over the last 3 years regarding diet and lifestyle for cancer care.
Much time was spent happily preparing organic, vegan meals for her and her boyfriend, while listening to jazz on Pandora, cleaning out her kitchen cupboards of expired or unhealthy foods, preparing her Chinese herbs, driving her to various medical appointments, taking advantage of a bit of energy she had to go shopping when she felt stir crazy, catching up with each other’s life events, watching comedies together (laughter is healing!) or educating the family on the merits of a whole food, organic, vegan diet, especially for bodies fighting cancer.
But, in the quiet moments, I did a lot of reflecting.
Simply being in New Mexico, a place that is dear to my heart, provokes introspection, as does being away from my everyday life for a week. These were compounded by this time of year – winter holidays – which always trigger reflection for me. And to further deepen this contemplation, of course, was my friend’s diagnosis.
I thought about her, our friendship, what she meant to me over the years that our lives were intertwined, and the years that have passed since then; the ways in which she helped me to grow and develop as a person; my ever expanding appreciation of the incredible person that she is; and the profoundly difficult journey she is now required to make.
I also found myself contemplating what it means to have a cancer diagnosis. How it instantly asks you to scrutinize your priorities; life looks wholly different when you must make your healing your number one daily priority. And when, at age 35, you realize all of your plans now must be put on hold, and may never be the same.
She is doing an amazing job of staying optimistic and positive, for which she has every reason, since her type of cancer usually responds very well to treatment. While I cannot speak for what my friend is finding during her own introspective moments, I can say that some questions are standing out for me:
What if I were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow? What would I change about my present life? And why? And, perhaps more importantly, why would I need to have cancer to re-evaluate my priorities and make changes? I think these are worthwhile questions for all of us to consider.
As a rule, my friend has always been a great teacher for me, simply by her own example. My pondering of these question found her life to be, yet again, a great teacher:
Friendships. I was struck by the number of visitors that my friend had during the week. She has cultivated so many beautiful friendships with people who brought meals, groceries, gift cards, flowers, hugs, smiles, laughs, babies, moral support and love. I was floored, pleased, and a bit envious of the community she has built around her. This was in stark contrast to my life: though I know many people, I only have a few close friends, and those I rarely see. My life is very busy, I work a lot, and I’m an introvert, which means I need alone time to recharge. So I don’t find much time for socializing, making new friendships, or deepening existing ones. If I had cancer, would this change?
Being in Nature. One reason for my love of New Mexico is the mountains and the desert. It is difficult to explain, but this landscape feeds my spirit in a way that no place else yet has. When I lived there, I could go to the mountains whenever I needed to reconnect – with my own center, with universal love, with God – to gain a higher perspective on my life. The mountains and their view over the valley “fill my cup” so to speak.
I’ve not yet found a place in Florida that does this for me as powerfully. But, I have now resolved to try. It must become a priority to find the natural places near home that feed my spirit. It is when my cup is full that I am the happiest, at my best, and the most effective in my contribution to others.
Having Fun. Again, my friend is a teacher for me. She and her boyfriend partake in many activities they find enjoyable, completely outside of their jobs: taking and teaching dance classes, renovating their house, running a booth at a consignment store of mid-century furniture and décor (and shopping for items with which to stock it), looking at houses for sale, traveling around the world, making and selling beaded jewelry, hosting parties and entertaining at their home. These things bring them obvious pleasure.
While I will probably never take on as many different activities as they have, I certainly feel an obvious lack of enjoyable activities in my life, for too much time and energy spent working. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy my work, I do. But one needs to create balance in life. It is time to reconnect with “play” and find those activities that bring me joy.
Focus on Health. Like most healthcare providers, I am not as good about taking care of my own health as I should be. While I eat a healthy diet, get regular acupuncture and massage, and take herbs, which keeps me feeling good, there are things that could be improved: I often eat sugar when I am stressed, I don’t always get enough sleep or drink enough water or exercise enough, and sometimes I rely too heavily on caffeine.
During my stay in New Mexico, my friend treated me to a massage from a deep-tissue therapist with whom she works. It was amazing and very intense. I knew I needed the deep work, so I let myself breathe, laugh, grimace, resist, release and sob through it. I felt completely emptied out afterward, like a wet washcloth that had been wrung dry.
The therapist encouraged me to continue to get deep tissue work, reminding me of the importance of releasing emotions that get trapped in body tissues (“cellular memories”). I was already familiar with this concept: it is not uncommon for patients to shed some tears or experience emotion during or after their acupuncture treatment.
But this reminder had me wonder about my friend and her cancer. Was there an emotional component to the development of her cancer? There exists research that says many cancers are diagnosed or develop shortly after an emotionally traumatic event in the person’s life. It is an important possibility to explore, and it underscores the need for routinely releasing emotions in a healthy way as another aspect of health care.
Being Present. A short time ago, I read a quote on Facebook that says something to the effect of: if you are depressed, you are living in the past; if you are anxious, you are living in the future; it is only in the present moment that you can experience true peace, contentment and joy. Since reading that, I’ve been “trying on” this bit of simple insight in my life.
Every time I feel melancholy or blue, I examine my thoughts, and they are, in fact, dwelling on times or events that have passed and in some way wishing for their return, in order to experience them again, or change something that happened. And when I feel nervous my thoughts are on something that hasn’t happened yet – something I must do, haven’t completed, or am fearful might happen. And, usually, when the actual event does occur (if it does), it was not worth all the worry and anxiety that I created around it.
But, when I get present – become aware of my surroundings, see what is around, listen to sounds around me, sniff for any aromas, feel the temperature of the air, notice the position of my body, and how it is feeling right now – it has an immediate calming effect.
I am beginning to realize that this moment is no less magical than any of those times in the past for which I am longing. And, it is in being present that I am able to enjoy myself. I notice that I have the most fun when I am completely present, and not giving in to the “hamster wheel” that my mind can spin ad nauseum. It certainly takes practice, but it seems that being in the present moment is giving myself permission to be happy.
Gratitude. As an extension of the previous point, I find that being present is the only place from which to notice all the wonderful people, situations and things in my life, that I could be grateful for. I think that gratitude is a powerful agent of healing on many levels and is important to make into a daily practice.
Love. Lastly, I notice that when a crisis is going on, like serious illness, that I appreciate people more. I become less self-conscious about telling my friends and family that I love them. When something makes me stop long enough to remember that we all have a finite amount of time here together, it becomes more important to let others know they are loved and appreciated. Why wait until something major is happening?
So, once again, I thank my friend for being a great teacher. Life is a canvas of many colors, textures, shadows, lights, connections, and puzzle pieces, and she always seems to help me gain a new perspective on it. She is an amazing person; I am very grateful for her, I love her deeply, and I wish for her a speedy recovery and profound healing.
May your 2013 be full of friends, fun, experiences that “fill your cup,” good health, happiness, gratitude and love.
Dawn Balusik, AP, DOM