A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Embracing Calm & Chaos

The call interrupted my dinner preparations, and my world immediately switched from a relaxing Sunday evening with my husband to a sleepless night of fear and agony.

My usually stoic younger brother was sobbing on the other end of the line, as he told me that my 14-year-old niece had fallen 21 feet off a ski lift. She was skiing in West Virginia with her mother for the first few days of spring break before coming to Atlanta to spend the remaining time with me. All that changed with one poor decision.

My brother was at home when he got the news. Consequently, he was receiving sporadic information from the hospital. He knew that my niece’s spleen and kidney had been lacerated, but it wasn’t confirmed whether she had suffered spinal cord or other critical injuries. I envisioned my precious niece in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, and it was unbearable.

My niece was conscious when I called ICU after I got off the phone with my brother. “Aunt Julie, I want you to come see me.” That’s all it took, and I was determined to go to her--whether her parents wanted me around or not.

Adding to the drama, my older brother (who is a pilot) flew both my younger brother and me the next morning through fog and rain to West Virginia--worrying my mother because her three children were traveling in the same small plane in inclement weather.

Fast forward to the end of the week, after spending my vacation sleeping in a recliner and eating hospital cafeteria food (is it me, or do I always seem to be spending my vacations in hospitals?) and my niece is back home. No spinal cord injury and the spleen and kidney are healing just fine. Her judgment is another matter…

I must say, this put a damper on my resolve to reduce anxiety in my life. I was so proud of myself for not panicking every time the phone rang, thinking it would bring bad news. Didn’t my niece realize this when she refused to put down the bar on her chairlift?! (According to 14-year-olds, it’s not cool to have the bar down.)

Life has a way of messing up our best laid plans.

So far this year, I’ve attended the funerals of my favorite aunt, one of my breast cancer mentors and a friend’s mother (who died of cancer). My brother has been experiencing chest pains, and my forever strong dad has suffered dizzy spells and exhaustion. I’ve also mourned a coworker with liver cancer who got the news she would not recover. I could go on, but I realize that everyone has sadness and tough situations to deal with.

While in the hospital, I read C.S. Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, “Surprised by Joy." He mentions a friend who believed in not running from pain, fear, loss and trouble, but rather, experiencing all of life to its fullest -- even the negative aspects.
When we avoid pain at all costs, we end up creating fake lives of distractions and shallowness and emptiness. He points out that even pain and rough times can offer a kind of richness…because it’s all part of the human experience.

He writes: "Jenkin seemed to be able to enjoy everything; even ugliness. I learned from him that we should attempt a total surrender to whatever atmosphere was offering itself at the moment..on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge...There was a serious determination to rub one's nose in the very quiddity of each thing--to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was."

Fear doesn't add anything to our experience because it's not real -- there's nothing tangible about it that transforms you (like grief and pain) or enlightens you (like coming to terms with your faults). All it does is cast you into an altered state.

Not that I’m welcoming bad news, but it struck me that maybe I need to celebrate the joys of everyday and also, live through the painful moments I try so hard to avoid. Maybe it’s better in the long run to experience it all.

All the Rage

I took a break from blogging over the past few weeks and, instead, spent time thinking about all the anxiety and frustration that cancer has introduced to my life.

I finally hit a wall after listening to umpteen “experts” providing dire cancer predictions if I did the least thing wrong. My oncologist wants me to avoid soy. My nutritionist said red meat and dairy are cancer-producers. I’m told that exercising 40 minutes every day reduces cancer’s recurrence—so, get moving! And in the news recently, there’s a study linking alcohol to breast cancer. And, on and on it goes. It seems like everything is off-limits, including rest.

All this has brought up anger about how much I've had to alter my lifestyle over the past decade regarding things that bring me pleasure, such as:

· Gardening: Dirt + Overwork= Lymphedema
· Wine: 1 glass of Pinot Noir = Breast cancer
· Gourmet cooking: No Meat + Dairy + Soy = Limited Menu Options.
· Eating: Processed/packaged Foods = Soy=Cancer; Sugar products = Cancer Risk.
Even CHOCOLATE contains soy!

This leaves me with nuts, grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Now, I’m all over these food choices – in fact, they’ve always been a mainstay of my diet. But to constantly hear that putting a spoonful of yogurt in my mouth, or buttering my French bread will cause my early demise…well, that puts me over the edge.

I've cut back on everything -- obeying everyone's "orders" and "rules" for my life. I eat mostly vegetarian meals and fish; organic produce. Drink gallons of water. Avoid desserts and never touch fast food or junk food. I take vitamins and exercise daily...I'm the ultimate "good girl."

While I enjoy a healthy lifestyle, I'd prefer that it be my choice rather than a requirement in order to live.

So, how does one attempt to live a calmer, less stressful life when she has all these hysterics coming after her!

My feeling is-- if I have to give up everything that brings me joy in order to stay alive, what's the point of living? (This is a rhetorical question -- I'm not contemplating dying).
This is a challenge for a lifelong Romantic, who tries to create rich experiences whenever and wherever possible.

My fantasy is to run an organic farm & vineyard along with a gourmet restaurant in the countryside. I'd be outdoors, working the land, cooking great food, connecting with people. But gardening, meat, cheese, wine—they’re all off limits! So, find another dream?

This begs the question: “What would JC do?!” (Julia Child, that is!) She’d eat a slab of meat, followed by a stiff drink. She ate (lots) and drank (lots) and was a breast cancer survivor and lived until 92. To that, I say, “Bon Appetite!”