Every Day is a Resurrection

The photo on the right was taken last October. I was almost done with radiation, and my hair, eyebrows, and lashes were starting to make a return appearance. I was very emaciated and the radiation had sucked a lot of energy out of me. But, I knew I was getting through it, and the end was in sight. I had a scan after chemo that showed the cancer was gone (which was miraculous) and I did the radiation as a preventative against any returns. I knew that the situation was temporary, and now 3 1/2 months after this picture was made, I am reveling in feeling normal and enjoying my new self, as you see in the photo on the left. One way to describe how I was feeling at the end of the chemo and radiation is to say that it felt like my physical self had been taken to bare minimum. I felt I had been handed (carefully…fragile) a ball of unformed clay and a voice said to me, “Okay. Let’s see how you make this work.” I am in the process of rebuilding my body, and my life. Every day I wake up and I am thankful to be alive. Every day I get a little better. One gift from this past year is that I have learned not to be hard on myself and to love myself just the way I am. Another gift is my remarkable hair.

My first thought when I heard the seriousness of my prognosis was, I AM GOING TO LIVE AND NOT DIE. I wasn’t sure how that was going to happen, but I was sure that it was going to happen. I had 4 weeks between surgery and starting chemo and I used that time to listen to my guidance and put together my team of alternative medicine specialists and my plan. In the midst of whatever chaos was going on, I found it empowering to take control of everything I could.
One extremely important thing I did was to radically change my diet. I researched and learned that there are some foods that encourage the growth of cancer cells, and if you eliminate these foods, you can literally starve the cancer cells to death. I consulted with a nutritional doctor and went on a very strict diet. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that I also believe that chemotherapy was the essential key to my recovery. I do also believe that the diet combined with the chemo really delivered a one-two punch. Since I haven’t eaten red meat since the 1960’s, eliminating that wasn’t a problem. The main changes I made were no sugar, no dairy, no gluten, no processed foods, no unhealthy fats, and no alcohol. When I say no sugar, I mean nothing that turns to sugar quickly. My fruits were limited to green apples and berries. I was rigidly strict with myself. You can learn all the details of this diet in Mike Herbert’s book, “Stay Healthy During Chemo,” which is available on Amazon. If you, or someone you love, is faced with this health crisis, please order this book.
In my mind, every single day, several times a day, I reminded myself that I was starving the cancer cells. That, and the powerful drugs of chemotherapy, were getting the job done. I finished chemotherapy cancer-free. My liver (which was in stage 4) was restored to health. I intend to stay on this diet for the rest of my life, with some slight modifications. I now eat whole grain, organic bread, and I have added pears, bananas, and papayas back to my diet, along with an occasional baked potato. Those are the only changes. In the beginning I also added fish to my diet, as I gave up soy, my protein go-to. I also eat organic eggs.
That is basically the diet that I have followed. While it seems strict, it is pretty doable. The other side of the diet issue is body image, and what happens when you lose about 30 pounds in 8 months, starting at what seemed to be a fairly normal weight.
When I was twelve years old I was super skinny. Over the top skinny. So skinny that I was harassed and insulted about it on a daily basis. One reason for this was that at that age I was living in the Ignorance Capitol of the South, and that’s pretty ignorant. The people, especially the ones between 12 and 20, were also rude enough to make nasty comments. North Alabama aesthetics had no place for a young girl who was Twiggy-sized, 15 years before Twiggy made it big. This was a time when the desired body type for a young female was short and curvy. I had grown to my full adult height by the time I was thirteen. I grew up, but not out. I had to spend the years when one forms her body image being assured on a daily basis that I just didn’t make the cut. The only class I took at that school where I actually learned something useful was typing. I find typing a right-brain activity. I can still really get into it. I learned how to type, and I could type really fast. I still can, thanks to my amazingly long fingers, and to my typing teacher, Catherine Blankenship. She was wonderful to me. The story was that Mrs. Blankenship (who had moved there “from up North”) had once been a model. She zeroed right in on me, and frequently made remarks that the whole class could hear. “Margaret, you could be a model. You are so tall and slim. You look so stylish.” Yes, I was tall and “slim.” I was also awkward and probably moved a little like a goose. But, that didn’t stop Mrs. Blankenship from boosting me and I will never forget her. Maybe it was her way of lifting up a kid she knew was suffering. Maybe it was her special way of battling the ignorance she had been somehow dropped into. (I never knew how she ended up in that God-forsaken town, and I hope she managed to get out of there.)
I gained some weight between the time I was fifteen and twenty-five, and spent my early adulthood as a normal, but slim, person. I think it is my natural state. I “porked up” a bit in my forties and fifties, mainly due to sloppy eating habits, too much business travel and the sugary food involved with that, alcohol, and only sporadic exercise. At my chubbiest I weighed 161 pounds and I was never happy about this. I hated shopping, which was unfortunate because I was constantly exposed to it. I became, as do many women in that weight category, a master at camouflage. I amassed a collection of Eileen Fisher that extended over the years. (Side note: Eileen Fisher is a brilliant designer. She had the only line where I could wear a medium instead of a large.) Seeing a photo of myself at this all-time high…in shorts, from the back…was shocking to me. I was appalled enough to do something about getting things under control. I eventually ( in my early sixties ) hit a sort of happy medium, but it required lots of regular exercise and changing to a vegan diet. I decided that if I could keep my weight under 140 I could live with that. When we left Nashville in October of 2015, I weighed 137.
When you go on a very strict diet, you generally lose weight, no matter what your motivation is. My motivation was simple and very compelling. I really wanted to stay alive and I was willing to do whatever was required to do that. The weight loss started happening pretty quickly, and by the time I finished radiation (which had its own dietary restrictions…no fats allowed!) I weighed 106 pounds. I looked very much like I had escaped from a concentration camp. Happy to say my various hairs have grown back, and I now weigh 114 pounds.
While I think that chemotherapy and radiation were essential to my being alive and well in this moment, I also credit this diet to playing a huge part in that success. And, yes, there are those times when I definitely remember and reconnect with that very skinny kid, and I look at voluptuous women with a bit of envy, just like I did as a teenager. But, this skinny time around I am determined to love my body, make the absolute most of being alive (which includes enjoying fashion), and be happy in my skinny skin. While I could handle a few more pounds, I really do feel better in general at a lower body weight. Shopping is also a motivator for me, and I have to say, it is more fun to shop for a chica than a grande. So, long story short, if life has once again dealt me the skinny card, this time I intend to play it like a royal flush. And once I hit 120, I intend to hold the fort right there. I believe that this diet is magic not only for health, but also for weight control. Giving up sugar, alcohol, and dairy is the ticket. And, of course, red meat, processed foods, and unhealthy fats.

I know there are lots of folks that battle with their weight and body image. Whether you are dealing with a disease or not, having a negative attitude about your physical self is no fun, and is dangerous to your mental and emotional health. Only you know whether you are happy being where you are. I never was happy with being overweight, but for years I lacked the discipline to really change it. I was also unhappy when I was an underweight teenager. I suspect most women have these issues even if they are perfect. At  my heaviest weight I faked myself out by saying that I wasn’t “that overweight” and I knew how to dress to camouflage. I knew how to get that 45-degree angle in a photo. Regardless of all the Photoshop in the world, no one can really change you but you! I know that even if someone is battling a disease it can be hard to muster the discipline to eat healthy and exercise in the midst of it. However, I had little problem with the discipline issue. I was so highly motivated to stay alive that it was easy for me. Staying alive is perhaps the highest motivation.
I don’t know what it takes to motivate another person. It is totally an individual thing. Looking better, feeling better, enjoying life more…these are definitely pay-offs for clean-eating and exercise. Defeating cancer and staying alive were huge motivators for me. Being free and staying free of cancer is a wonderful payoff. Perhaps each of us has to ask ourselves if we are happy with the shape we are in. If the answer is no, then today is a great time to make the changes that need to be made, and do whatever it takes…with no excuses…to make ourselves into our very best. The most important part of that formula is to begin by loving yourself enough to get started, right now, right where you are.

This is Really NOT Helpful

(This is the sixth in a new series of blog posts, the focus of which is keeping yourself sane and healthy in the face of Real Trouble. The photos for this series may, or may not, have anything to do with the subject matter. Just some nice photos from Mexico taken during this time. This is a picture I took of an angry bird…sort of a picture of me when I find myself around negative people.)

I don’t want this post to feel like I am scolding you, but I think this needs to be said. Also, keep in mind that I am only speaking for myself, and my own experience. This is certainly true for how I personally feel, and, as far as I know, has never been said. At least, it hasn’t been said enough.

The hardest thing about the cancer diagnosis is the immediate fear that grips your heart. To me, cancer has always been the very scariest of diseases. The reason for this fear is that all I have ever heard about it has been how completely awful it is. In many cases, I have thought that it meant a series of extremely destructive treatments, and then you die. If I had not had all those thoughts preprogrammed into my mind, I think it would have been much easier for me to have faced my own diagnosis.

One thing that people do that is extremely not helpful is that “copy and post if you hate cancer” thing. People who have never had cancer really have no idea what it feels like to hear the diagnosis. Yet they copy and share these kinds of posts like they are the very gospel. “Cancer sucks, cancer is hell, I hate cancer, this is awful,” etc. In fact, some of these kinds of posts go on to list all the horrible things that cancer patients must endure…in graphic detail. Stop, just stop with all this. Maybe you do hate cancer. I mean, really…who loves it? Who loves any disease? But, lighten up. This is just not helpful to a person who is actually dealing with it, or facing the journey of treatment. It only adds to the fears, and it only makes the person feel more separate from the healthy humans who are so actively appearing to be their advocates, but who are, in fact, scaring the shit out of them with all these gory details.

Another one is all the posts that find the worst possible pictures they can find of suffering people, and then go on the tirades about how horrible cancer is. Yes, it is a pretty horrible disease, and people do die from it, but this is not helpful to a person who is trying to go through it with as little drama as possible. The last thing I needed to do was to identify with these pictures. Just stop doing this. It is not helpful.

Then there are the people who have gone through it and continue to see themselves as victims. They can talk for hours about how bad their experience was and about how their life will never be good again. This is not helpful either. My god. You got through it. You have survived. Focus on that. Stop with the lists of all the bad things it has done to your life. I am not making light of your experience. I know that cancer does, in fact, suck. But, this playing the victim thing is very much not helpful…especially to you. Stop it now. If you think that hearing all this is helpful to someone who is in the middle of treatment, you are very mistaken.

Stop with the statistics. And, if you are faced with this diagnosis, don’t get online and look for statistics. I was diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer. My surgeon didn’t give me much hope. The last thing I needed to do was see what my “statistical chances” were. I knew they weren’t good. But no one is a statistic. Everyone is an individual. Another thing I didn’t need to focus on was my age when all this happened, and how much harder that was going to make my survival. The only information that was important to me was that I was not ready to go, and that I was going to do everything I could to live. That was what I needed to know, and that was all I needed to know.

Then there are those people, some of them are in the alternative medicine fields, who want to discourage people from traditional treatments. I know without a doubt that if I hadn’t done chemo I would most likely not be around to write this post. Anyone who tried to discourage me from doing what I needed to do was taking a very risky route with me. Every alternative person I dealt with was asked how they felt about chemo and radiation. If I got a negative answer, I did not work with that person. I had one person, early on, who billed herself as a “healer.” After she found I was was going to do chemo, she really freaked out on me, and told me some of the scariest things I have heard. I never saw her again. She was not helpful at all.

I am a very progressive, whole food, kind of person. I believe that there are many very good alternative treatments and I used several of them. But, while I believe they were extremely important to my overall well-being, I don’t believe that doing these approaches without the chemo would have saved my life. So, save your extreme ideas for when you need them yourself. If you want to play around with someone’s survival, let it only be with your own. Just stop all the negative things about chemo and radiation. If someone needs it, they are not helped at all by your opinions about it. If you are responsible for talking someone out of it, be ready to feel responsible for whatever happens to them. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who have been cured by alternative means. I’m just saying that I know that I needed to do exactly what I did. In the abstract, I believe in faith healing. But, you had better be completely sure that you have the kind of faith to receive it. Sometimes you might just have the faith to believe that your treatments will work. Faith played an important role in my own process. The thing I had to do was locate my own faith, and then be comfortable in that place.

I have gone through both chemo and radiation. It was not a walk in the park. There were some days that I didn’t feel good. There were some days that I looked like shit. But, it really wasn’t nearly as horrible as it is cracked up to be, at least for me. What I am sure of is that all the alternative things I did to support my healthy cells really did help me get through it as easily as possible.The whole thing would have been so much easier if I had not been programmed to think it was going to be really, really terrible. In the fight for my life, the biggest battle was with the dark thoughts and scary words that I had to get out of my head.

I have believed for a very long time that we create our reality by our thoughts and our words. People sometimes act like they believe this, and give lip-service to this concept, then they sabotage themselves by turning around and thinking negative thoughts and speaking negative words. This also applies to the thoughts, vibrations, and words of the people around us. I am fortunate to be in a situation now in my life where I can choose the people I am going to be around. I have done my best to eliminate people who project to me, either by their energy or their words, that I am pretty much screwed. I got a comment recently from someone who said, “I know you have been through hell.” The fact is, no one but me knows what I have been through. If you think you do, you are only projecting your own fears and negativity on to me. In fact, in the midst of this crazy year I have come to realize that it has been a pretty amazing time. I have learned a lot about myself, and I have learned a lot about life in general. I have been set free of so many things that have always bound me. I won’t go so far as to say that cancer is a gift, but I will say that sometimes what has been meant for evil can be used for good. (More about this concept in a future post.) I choose to be around people who see me as I see myself…healthy and whole. And, yes, you can see yourself that way even in the midst of cancer…It just takes a lot of discipline and determination. And it is not helpful to receive any information to the contrary.