I am not a Pollyanna. In fact, I happen to have a standing invitation to a one-woman pity party at which I am the guest of honor. Although I’ve never been one to miss a party, I do work hard to avoid this one. Instead I focus on inspiration, live in the moment, and try very hard to cultivate hope.
I know how very fragile hope can be. I know that hope often balances precariously, held up by thin threads of human spirit, easily snapped by something as innocent as a few words or as daunting as the truth. I know that hope can easily come crashing down.
Yesterday I sat in a hospital bed at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, waiting for the results of multiple tests–blood work, chest X-ray, EKG, brain MRI, CT scan of my chest, abdomen and pelvis. My future, along with the opportunity to participate in a potentially cancer curing clinical trial, hung in limbo, dependent on the results of these many tests. There was a knock on the door and the medical team entered the room. Physicians, nurses, researchers surrounded my bed. The lead physician, a handsome and compassionate young man, already vested in my welfare, pulled up a chair next to the bed. Quietly he sat down and looked at me intently. And in that moment my hope was shattered.
There would be no clinical trial for me. It turns out the cancer has spread to my brain, forcing me to be dismissed from the trial. Due to the metastasis lurking in my gray matter, the risks of the trial treatment now outweigh the potential benefits. Instead I will go home, regroup, and begin radiation. And I will rally.
But not yet. For now I’m in shock by this unexpected and devastating news. My mind is in denial, preventing me from absorbing the whole truth with its many implications.
After the medical team left my room, some with tears on their cheeks, I let down my delicate veil of courage and dignity and I held my head in my hands and I wept. I wept for myself and the loss of my fragile hope. And I wept for my daughters, my mother and sister and the family and friends who love me so and who will now have their hope shattered, too.
My mother and step father, sitting beside my bed and having witnessed the grave delivery of news, also cried. But when we were done, after they had wrapped their arms around me and we had prayed, my step dad said, “do you still want to go out for crab and shrimp tonight?” And I looked at him and said “hell yes!”, which caused him to chuckle and mom and I to smile.
For a bit I would not indulge in the pity party. For a bit I would push it aside, opting instead to partake in my favorite east coast meal at a Maryland restaurant–a true treat for an Idaho gal. For a bit, and as often as possible, eventually and once again extending to most of the time, I will live in the moment. I will practice the art of mindfulness as best I can. And with that I will again find inspiration.
Four years ago when I was originally told that this cancer is incurable I grieved. And as I grieved my mind raced with uncontrollable thoughts and visions of an unknown future that did not include me. Most of the thoughts were about my three daughters and how their stories would unfold without me. And the grief that my death would cause them. My thoughts were also about how much I enjoy this world, this life, and how I wasn’t ready to give up the small stuff–the smell of fresh cut hay, the sight of sun glistening on water, the sound of my daughters’ laughter. These thoughts spiraled out of control, paralyzing me with fear and bathing me in overwhelming sadness.
It was at that time a psychiatrist specializing in cancer patients introduced me to the concept of mindfulness. She explained that by projecting myself into the future and allowing my thoughts to be out of control I wasn’t really present in the here and now. I was essentially robbing myself of being present in the current moment. This made sense to me, and desperate to regain control of my mind and to feel joy again, I latched onto the theory for dear life. After leaving her office that day I detoured to a bookstore to further immerse myself in the concept of mindfulness. I was especially interested in the writings of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an expert in mindfulness. A professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Dr. Kabat-Zinn has integrated mind/body science with meditation, relaxation, and self- healing techniques. I sensed that if I could consume and master this concept I could live more comfortably within the confines of incurable cancer and could once again find pleasure, even adventure, in each day.
It has taken practice and self-discipline to become good at mindfulness. And sometimes, such as today in the wake of devastating news, I battle with myself to rein in the frightening thoughts. But in doing so I am less stressed, less sad, and am more focused, more joyful. I am able to reconnect with my surroundings and the relationships that are so important to me. I am able to truly live in the moment and appreciate the small and beautiful things that life has to offer—a cup of tea on the front porch, a conversation with my daughters on the way to school, the familiar scent of my horse as I hug his neck. Mindfulness allows me many, many moments, extending into minutes, hours and even whole days, when I’m able to forget that I’m a cancer patient.
So, I’m going home and I will rally. I’ve already contacted my beloved medical team and a plan of attack is forming. They will take good care of me. Family and friends will surround me and hold me up. The prayer chains will continue. And although I will likely visit the pity party from time to time over the next few days, I won’t stay long. Instead I will ditch the party in favor of mindfulness, and will once again find pleasure, joy, and adventure in each day. In fact I’m already looking forward to watching my daughter play her trumpet in the marching band on Friday night. And I have a couple of quilts in mind, fabrics, colors and patterns are dancing in my head. I think I’ll go through my stash and get started this weekend.
Here’s to living in the moment ~Kelly~
Some recommended readings by Jon Kabat-Zinn:
Full Catastrophe Living:
Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
Mindfulness for Beginners:
Reclaiming the Present Moment – And Your Life
Letting Everything Become Your Teacher:
100 Lessons in Mindfulness
Arriving at Your Own Door:
108 Lessons in Mindfulness