Ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties

Day of the Dead, 2013

Ghosts!…I almost think we are all of us ghosts…It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that “walks” in us.  It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth.  They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off.  Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.  There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea.  And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.  (Mrs. Alving, Act II, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, 1881)

 

Ghosts in our cells

As I understand the biomedical narrative, cancer occurs when our genetic material runs amok, causing cell mutation and disordered proliferation.  This is not my field of expertise, obviously, but my research has led me to the fascinating field of epigenetics, the study of epigenomes.  The clearest and most succinct explanation of epigenomes can be found at http://www.genome.gov/27532724:

A genome is the complete set of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in a cell. DNA carries the instructions for building all of the proteins that make each living creature unique.

Derived from the Greek, epigenome means “above” the genome. The epigenome consists of chemical compounds that modify, or mark, the genome in a way that tells it what to do, where to do it and when to do it. The marks, which are not part of the DNA itself, can be passed on from cell to cell as cells divide, and from one generation to the next…

The epigenome is made up of chemical compounds, some of which come from natural sources like food and others from man-made sources like medicines or pesticides. As it marks the genome with these chemical tags, the epigenome serves as the intersection between the genome and the environment.

An epigenome essentially programs its cell by allowing some genes to express and by muting the rest (i.e., by turning some genes “on” and some genes “off”).  Something sometimes prompts normal cells to mutate and divide like crazy, and my money would be on the epigenomic binary mediation between the genome and environmental stimuli–if I were a biomedicine practitioner.

Strong emotions can trigger chemical chain reactions in the body, and these chemicals probably affect our epigenomes just like known environmental carcinogens.  Experiments with rats and mice show that traumatic events inflicted on a pregnant rodent can cause post-traumatic stress disorder in her offspring, and even in their offspring.  (This reminds me of the Old Testament passage that says that the iniquities of the fathers will be visited upon their children and their children’s children, unto the third or fourth generation.)  Remember the much maligned Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who said that acquired characteristics could be passed on to future generations?  He may have been spot on.

Scott C. Johnson, a journalist who wrote a short book entitled “Ghost in the Cell,” reports on research into the possible epigenomic perpetuation of family violence and dysfunction in humans, even if children are removed early from their families of origin and placed in nurturing environments.  One young women, who managed to break her family’s cycle of violence in her life, for now, tells him:  “I can’t really shake some of this behaviour, it’s like a ghost.  The ghost, it’s in my being.  No matter what…that ghost is still there. It’s like it’s out to kill me.

You don’t have to grow up in a toxic home environment to suffer from emotional toxicity.  Watching the evening news or any 24/7 TV news network can certainly fill you up with enough fear, paranoia, anxiety, and anger to keep your sympathetic nervous system constantly on “red alert.”  The list of things to fear grows exponentially every day, overwhelming us with a sense of helplessness, defeat and doom.  Ibsen’s “Mrs. Alving” was right about that: “Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.”

As communications technology advances, so does our awareness of human violence and cataclysmic disasters in even far corners of the world.  Sometimes we witness these horrors in real time (thanks to cell phone cameras and the internet).  We are traumatized every time we turn on the TV or read a newspaper.  No wonder cancer is so prevalent, with such relentless assaults on our sense of peace and well-being.  It’s too soon to know if emotionally prompted epigenomic changes to our genomes cause cancer directly, but I believe these changes may explain why too much (or some types of) stress weakens our immune systems (wei qi), our primary protection from tumor development.

Maybe cancer research into epigenomes will someday discover ways to calm the ghosts in our wilding cells, those galloping headless horsemen who shatter our health.

In the meantime, I’ll do my own ghost-busting, relying mostly on classical Chinese medicine, which offers several strategies for treating the problem.

At one point in the history of Chinese medicine, it was considered immoral to use the Eight Extra Vessels to treat diseases, in the belief that tampering with the 8EV’s, as blueprints for our lives, alter a person’s destiny.  If you interpret “destiny” as “DNA,” as some contemporary Chinese medical theorists do, then it makes a great deal of sense to tap into the 8 EVs, especially the Dai Mai, to treat breast and prostate cancers.  Maybe Dai Mai treatments alter epigenomes to program healthy gene expression, thus exorcising the ghosts in our cells.

Negative emotions affect epigenomes in ways that cause us harm.  Fortunately, positive emotions produce the opposite effect.  A change of heart may literally change our genetic expression and reverse the disease process.  Chinese medicine describes this as the “Heart Vaporizes Phlegm”.  If we think of “Phlegm” as representing all the physical and emotional pollution that gums up our thinking, poisons our body and spirit, and scrambles healthy genetic expression in our cells, then we should throw all our effort into cultivating joy (real joy, not mere pleasure) to strengthen our Heart energy.  We can initiate this powerful transformation through meditation (such as the Buddhist “loving-kindness/Metta” meditation), by expressing gratitude for all our blessings (i.e., prayer), by using affirmations, or by taking whatever action works.  Each and every day, do something that gives you joy.

Sometimes, though, we are too harried by ghosts to even think about joy.

Metaphysical Ghosts

In Asheville last April I attended Jeffrey Yuen’s 4-day seminar on “Change and the Dynamics of Shen [Spirit] According to Sun Si-Miao.”  Sun Si-Miao (581-682 CE), “The Medicine King,” remains a major–if not the greatest–influence on classical Chinese medicine today.

This year’s classes continued Jeffrey’s April 2012’s lectures on Sun Si-Miao’s work, especially SS-M’s use of the “13 Ghost Points” (to treat possession/mental illness).  Together, these seminars summarized how to diagnose and treat disorders of the mind/spirit, particularly when certain events, habits of mind, or other obstacles arise (such as strokes, dementia and, yes, even spirit possession) to distract and possibly derail us from completing our life’s work.

“Ghosts” in Chinese medicine can mean anything from actual ghosts to worms and parasites, but the concept also provides a powerful metaphor for mental illness.  All that is neither here nor there for this blog, although I believe that Sun Si-Miao was a brilliant psychologist, too.  I want to focus on the idea of “ghosts” as being those non-tangible entities that haunt us–memories of trauma, missed opportunities, stupid decisions, unkind words that hang in the air–anything that makes us feel uneasy.

Tucked into the seminar’s discussion of diagnosing and treating ghost-related disorders was an aside about protecting oneself against “the 3 corpses and the 9 worms” (or, as the Scottish prayer has it, “ghoulies and ghosties.”)

Deep background information:  The first known doctors in China, in the Shang Dynasty  (ca. 1600-1046 BCE), were shamans or spirit mediums.  The oldest Chinese character for “acupuncture” depicts a spear being thrown into an empty space, to pierce a ghost or spirit.  Sun Si-Miao was clearly working within a tradition that had already been evolving for at least a thousand years.

I decided to try Sun Si-Miao’s protection program.  I ain’t afraid of no ghost, but cancer’s a kind of possession, isn’t it?

There are four parts to this regimen, each one to be done daily for 100 days (or 10 days on, 5 days off for 10 cycles):

1.  Practice visualization (recommended: Daoist qigong’s “Microcosmic Orbit”)

2.  Don’t eat grains (no rice, noodles, pasta, or breads/pastries)

3.  Do exercises that emphasize exhalation

4.  Take 10 herbal tea pills of song jie (lignum pini nodi), fu ling (poria) and several optional herbs once a day in a small amount of wine.

I had never made my own tea pills before, so I focused my efforts on the herbs.  (I love working with herbs–definitely a joyful activity for me!)  To make the tea pills, mix the finely powdered raw herbs in enough honey to make a stiff dough, then roll mung bean-size pills from the dough.  It was very satisfying when I finally got the right ratio for a dense, non-sticky tea pill.  In the meantime, I had misplaced my notes and forgot about the qigong and exhalation exercise parts (clearly my non-attention to the exercise parts of any program is a serious, ongoing character flaw).  I did refrain, almost 100%, from eating the forbidden foods, since they feed cancer cells and increase Damp.  I took the 100 days-in-a-row option.

As early as Day 3 of the program, even though I didn’t adhere to it perfectly, odd things began to happen.  Some really old and unpleasant thought patterns reemerged from the depths, my dreams dredged up mostly forgotten events (not disturbing, exactly, but clearly pointing out unfinished business), and people close to me were able to work buttons I thought I had deactivated long ago.  Somehow I recognized these events for what they were–opportunities to face my demons and neutralize their effects on me.  I tried to respond differently to old triggers and to reinterpret remembered events from the vantage point of age and experience.  Each time I succeeded in deflating (or forgiving) a ghost, I felt stronger and lighter.

Toward the end of the 100 days, while daydreaming on a train, a scene from my childhood flickered across my mind, and I heard the words:  “this is where your cancer began.”  Soon afterward–too soon to be coincidence–a bit of family-of-origin drama compelled me to express my anger (held inside for many decades) about what I had experienced as a child and how no one had protected me.  It felt great to defend myself at last.  It was a sign to me that my wei qi (immune system) had kicked in and was ready to kick butt.

I’ve now seen, identified and exorcized the proto-ghost, thanks to the revelation on the train.  “The Ghost”, my lobular tumor (which comes from, according to Jeffrey Yuen, Damp and Phlegm!) has, thus far, not shown any significant change in size or shape.  I’m curious to see if that’s still true when I have the next ultrasound exam (November 11).

At any rate, I’m done with ghosts for the moment.  Someday I might repeat Sun Si-Miao’s 100-day exorcism treatment and include all 4 parts this time (memo to the file:  “exercise exorcises”).

The next phase of this healing journey, strengthening my Heart Qi, begins tomorrow.  Strength training calls for a great motivating soundtrack.  Rocky’s theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” might work, but I think I’ll go with the inspirational anthem of Three Dog Night:

Joy to the world
All the boys and girls, now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me!

Letting Go

After my woodland retreat in early May 2012, the plan was to change my life in all ways that mattered.  It’s always good to have a plan.

Plans and intentions are fragile boats on a changing sea, though.  In spite of my determination to keep an upbeat attitude toward this cancer and my treatment choices, the fact remains that the diagnosis daunts.  Even now, I can almost never forget that I have cancer.  Most of the time this consciousness remains a muted presence at the edge of my awareness, rarely interfering with what I do or think.  But sometimes I sink a bit.

I tried to keep up my Chinese medical practice, but it wasn’t fair to my patients.  Chinese medicine is an energy medicine.  During acupuncture sessions, the practitioner needs to be fully present with the patient to be sensitive to subtle changes in the patient’s energy.  To be honest, I know I’ve given acupuncture treatments from time to time while my mind and energy wandered off, but I always strove to cultivate a consistent “presence” in the treatment room.

In the months following the cancer diagnosis, I needed time to focus on my health and to regain emotional equilibrium.  Therefore, in late May I told my patients I was taking a leave of absence for the summer.  My daughter’s upcoming August wedding provided a great “cover” for this leave, since sharing personal problems with patients violates their boundaries and is unethical.  For the few who didn’t buy that excuse I admitted there was an illness in the family–as well as the wedding–that needed my attention.  (For the record, Diana and her fiance did all the work for the wedding.  My job was to show up in a nice dress and shoes.  All went well.)

At the end of August, I decided to close my practice permanently because it was unclear when or if I could ever be wholly or consistently present for my patients again.

When I returned to practice in September I announced I would retire in mid-November to current patients and closed the practice to new patients.  Most people would finish their course of treatments before R-Day, and those with chronic conditions would have time to find other suitable Chinese medicine clinics.  Turning 64 and my growing family (another grandchild on the way!) provided plausible reasons for this decision.

For many years I’ve shared my office with a muscular therapy practitioner and friend, Kevin, who agreed to take over the lease.

Earlier in the year, an acupuncturist new to the area asked to use my treatment room on evenings and weekends.  After I retired, she took over the space.  I didn’t sell my practice to Marni or give her my patient charts (unless the patient asked), but it was a relief to know my patients would have at least the continuity of the location if they wanted it.

Now, almost a year later, I can report that the decision to retire was the right one.  I did, and still sometimes still do, though, miss this work that I loved for decades.

Kevin’s keeping the office has allowed me the luxury of just walking away.  I don’t have to deal with disposing of the office furnishings, just yet, and Kevin doesn’t mind all the herbs still on the pharmacy shelves (they smell wonderful).  I’ve given all my powered herb concentrates to Brendan.  Eventually I’ll either pass along the healing roots, berries, leaves, shells, cicada husks, barks, flowers, etc. to someone who’s trained to use them, or I’ll compost them for my meditation garden.  I’m keeping the prepared herbs (tea pills and tinctures) because they remain viable for a long time, and might prove useful to me, family and friends in the future.

This beautifully laid out office became, to me, and possibly to Kevin (I’ve never asked), a sacred space for healing.  I frequently see Kevin for massage, and it’s taken a while to enter the office as “just” a client without a wistful pang.  But heck, my art collection is still on the walls that I patched and painted when I set the office up years ago, and Kevin keeps “my” potted plants in excellent health.  As I deeply inhale the earthy fragrance of the pharmacy that wafts into the waiting room, my mind and body relax to the green beings’ message that “healing is here.”

This has been a soft exit for me.  I can still imagine that, when the tumors dissolve, I can take up my career again without even having to set up a new office (providing Marni would be willing to share the treatment room).  The possibility of return made the transition less wrenching last year, and each passing month finds me more peaceful about letting go.

“Letting go,” actually, is a major theme in cancer treatment, especially in breast and prostate cancers that occur in late middle and old age.  It’s a “Dai Mai” thing.

When we were tiny blastocysts, our energetic matrix was comprised of the Eight Extra Vessels (8EVs), which roughly form an octahedron-shaped energy scaffolding within the body.  The 8EVs pretty much governed our development for our first few years, then receded deeper into our bodies when the Primary Meridians and other secondary vessels reached maturation and took over.

What’s germane to this post is the 8EVs’ influence that continues after that.  Each of the eight “mai” (“vessel” or “meridian”) controls an aspect of our life’s “curriculum” from birth to death, in a specific chronological order, following our life cycles of 7/8 years (7 for women, 8 for men).  The last stage, the final 8EV cycle, is that of the Dai Mai.

The Dai Mai is the only EV that runs horizontally across the body.  Sometimes called the “Belt/Girdle Channel,” it roughly circles the waist area.  Its job is to absorb any unresolved issues from our post-natal environment, to be a holding receptacle for all the wrongs, traumas, betrayals, and other deeply held emotions that we couldn’t deal with when they occurred.  By the time our 8th life cycle comes around, most of us have accumulated quite a lot of stuff there.  “Middle age spread” is a visual analog of these emotional accretions.

Physical symptoms of Dai Mai pathology include bloating, low back pain, a sensation of sitting in cold water, stiffness in the hips, watery ears, cataracts, glaucoma, tremors, spasms…

Emotional symptoms usually include obsessive thinking, dwelling in the past, holding on to bad habits or ineffective coping strategies, resisting change…

When we cling to whatever doesn’t serve us anymore–old griefs, old grudges, old fears, old beliefs, old failures, even old triumphs–these useless artifacts collected during our lives can congeal into physical lumps and tumors.  Uterine fibroids, prostate and breast cancers, and omental fat (from accrued unresolved stress) are all Dai Mai issues.

The Dai Mai represents the final cycle of life.  This is the time to release all that stored detritus (through diet, exercise, body work, meditation, therapy, journaling, or whatever does the trick for you).  If you jettison the junk and take down all the barriers that block your will, you’ll unfetter your energy, heal your body and create a more satisfying life. Freeing yourself from the past encourages forward movement.  Dai Mai treatment is the closest thing we have to a “reset” protocol, with the added bonus that “reset” doesn’t mean “erase.”  We get to keep our life’s experiences–all of them–but without the emotional weight that drags us down and makes us sluggish and, turns us, frankly, into boring old geezers.

“Letting go” is the plan.  Dai Mai issues, though, by their very nature and duration in our lives, can be quite stubborn!  Letting go, and I mean really letting go of past stuff, takes time, effort, and patience, but, most of all, courage.  It means examining all those painful traumas, regrets, cringe-worthy deeds, and sins of omissions, and then stripping them of their power by forgiving ourselves and others.  I’ve mentioned earlier the acupoint Zulinqi/Gall Bladder 41/”Receptacle of Tears that Should Be Overflowing.”  This point, so important for treating breast cancer, turns out also to be the Dai Mai’s “master point” (even though it’s on the foot!).  Not surprisingly, in Chinese medicine, the Gall Bladder’s energetic system is the one that gives us courage to make decisions, to act, and to make changes.

Letting go of my medical practice was the logical first step in this process, because I now have time to wade through the swampland of my considerable Dai Mai accumulations.  The last time Brendan needled Zulinqi on me, a few weeks ago, I spent the rest of the day sobbing.  It took me a long time to get to that point (pun may be intended), but letting go of those stored up tears is a great second step.  First you cry, then you decide to act and make changes.

My Kitchen

Following my retreat in May 2012, I purged our pantry and freezer of all flours, pastas, whole grains (including oats and rice) and sugars, and I cleared off shelves to make room for seaweeds, dried mung beans, Job’s tears, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and other staples.  I didn’t renew our share in a local meat CSA, because the only meats allowed on my new diet are duck and pork.  We donated most of the meat in our freezer (lamb, beef, chicken) to a food pantry.  Almost all of our spices and herbs moved to a high shelf, out of my reach.

(By early fall, rice and some other grains were back in the kitchen, mostly for John, but, I confess, sometimes I need a little rice–brown/black/wild–along with the usual beans or lentils to liven up my steamed vegetables and pork/duck/fish.)

I stored the coffee maker and grinder (to use when we have company) and got a single cup machine for John’s breakfast.

Next, I replaced all our plastic food containers with glass storage jars and dishes.  Even BPA free plastics can leach out chemicals, so why risk it?  Three years ago, before my diagnosis, we bought a Sodastream carbonator so we could make sparkling water in glass carafes, mostly to reduce environmental waste, but also because I think of water in plastic bottles as “hormone water.”

Twice a week I cook up large quantities of mung beans and Job’s tears and refrigerate them in glass containers.  I also store all our dried foods in either glass or ceramic jars or in stainless steel canisters.  Of course, most non-fresh foods are sold in plastic containers, so I’m sure there’s going to be some chemical contamination.  (By the way, those carbonless receipt copies that you get from ATMs, restaurants and cash registers are loaded with BPA–avoid prolonged contact with them and don’t recycle them.  See  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/plastic.)

I didn’t have to upgrade our cookware.  Herbalists just don’t use aluminum or non-stick pans for cooking, since those surfaces can react with herbs and food, altering taste and efficacy while adding toxins.  All my pots and pans are stainless steel, glass, or ceramic.

I am consciously trying to let food be my medicine, using my newly organized kitchen as a compounding pharmacy.

This whole dietary endeavor isn’t as cheerless as it sounds, though.  I often enjoy the alchemical challenge of transforming a narrow range of ingredients into a variety of dishes.  The condiments, herbs, and spices that support my treatment goals, though quite limited, add enough zest to stave off total boredom.

John gallantly offered to eat only what I eat–to show solidarity with this restricted diet–but I let him off the hook.  My diet targets specific and shifting internal conditions in my body.  John and I follow a plan that has worked for more than a year.  For most breakfasts we prepare our own very different foods (I have Job’s tears and asparagus), except for a shared bacon (local, nitrate free) and eggs breakfast two or three times a month (he gets toast and honey).  John has whatever he wants for lunch (at work), while I have mung beans, seaweed, and shiitake mushrooms.   Dinner at home together follows my diet but he augments his meal with bread, cheese and sometimes wine.

I’d like to report that I follow this diet all the time.  Not so!  When we travel or eat in restaurants with friends I try to stick as close to Daoist dietary principles as possible.  But, for all my braggadocio about kitchen alchemy and the intellectual challenge of whipping up enticing meals of steamed vegetables and legumes, I occasionally cheat–sometimes outrageously, but always joyously.  Food really is medicine, and sometimes sharing an apple galette with friends is just what the doctor ordered.

It Takes a Village

I really like the surgeon I put in charge of the biomedical part of my healing journey.  Kari Rosenkrantz is tall, gorgeous, unflappable, and funny, and she came highly recommended by people John and I respect.  My Pilates teacher, who had a lumpectomy and radiation a few years ago, shares my admiration.  Betsy thinks Kari is a rock star, and I agree, especially when she strides into the examination room wearing 4 inch high heels (I’m hoping never to know first hand if she operates wearing these shoes).

Kari has been supportive from the very first, expressing her respect for Chinese medicine even while freely admitting she has no knowledge of anyone using it as the primary treatment for breast cancer.  Her open mind seems to be a rarity in cancer care world.

I’m sure Kari knows that my complete recovery from cancer in the coming months will not end her career.  Although I am not the first person to take the Chinese medicine route to treat cancer, there are precious few of us compared to all the others who opt for surgery, radiation treatment, and/or chemotherapy.

Why is this?  Mostly because biomedical treatment of cancer seems to be the only option that doesn’t look like quackery–thanks in part, no doubt, to biomedicine’s focused campaign to discredit any practice that isn’t within its sphere of influence.  Maybe there is a conspiracy to squash the competition so that the cancer centers (and Big Pharma) can rake in the big bucks, but, if there is, it’s taking place at a very high level.  I’ve only experienced genuine concern and caring from the people I’ve dealt with at the cancer center.  They sincerely believe they offer the best and only hope for their cancer patients.  Still, I’m just one person opting out of the cancer center’s full array of services, so I pose no threat to anyone’s assumptions or jobs.

During the early weeks of this journey, as I underwent all kinds of diagnostic procedures, I also had a mandatory session with the cancer center’s social worker.  She laid out a menu of the center’s services, ranging from gasoline vouchers, wig fittings, lessons in tying up head scarves, make-up tips, art therapy, yoga/tai chi/meditation classes, financial assistance, psychological counseling…  Clearly, breast cancer patients at this center get excellent support at multiple levels.   Instead of feeling supported and cared for, though, I felt the hidden message was “girl, you’re in big trouble now.  We’re taking extra special care of you because your diagnosis is so very dire.”  A fear-mongering fist in a pink velvet glove.

When Jeffrey Yuen teaches about treating cancer with classical Chinese medicine, he warns his students that fear creates the greatest barriers to successful healing.

First come the practitioner’s fear:  Have I enough courage and confidence to keep the patient’s trust during all the phases of treatment, especially during the healing crisis?  Are my skills and training adequate?  What if I misinterpret the pulses and give the wrong treatment?  What if I miss something?  Will I harm this patient?  Will the family sue me?  Will the AMA or the American Cancer Society crush me?

The patient, too, has to overcome doubts and fears:  Is this the right choice?  Does this practitioner have the skills I need?  Can I sustain my confidence in my choices for as long as I need to?  How will I handle the final phase of treatment, when the tumors enlarge and possibly become painful, and the healing crisis may turn out to be prolonged and unpleasant?  Can I afford the time and money for weekly treatments and herbs, possibly for several years?

Even when the patient feels strongly that Chinese medicine is the best way to go, her friends and loved ones need to be convinced.   Few people have heard of successful cancer treatment using Chinese medicine, so there’s an understandable concern that the cancer patient is following an uncharted, unproven path.  It’s very difficult for patients to constantly defend their choices to spouses, parents, children and friends whose fears make them question the patients’ judgment.  Even casual acquaintances and total strangers feel free to tell cautionary tales of people dying of cancer for lack of “real” medical care.  Without very strong inner resources to resist the concerns of the people they care about, cancer patients often yield to their family and friends’ fears and switch to Western biomedical treatment.

In my case, no one can suggest that I am under the spell of a charismatic charlatan who has clouded my thinking or preyed on my ignorance.  I worked as a staff acupuncturist and herbalist for six years in a Boston AIDS clinic in the mid 1990’s, long before the so-called “cocktails” were around, and I know how effective this medicine was for our patients there.  My knowledge and experience tell me I’ve chosen what’s best for me.

When deciding where to get classical Chinese medical treatment, I picked the clinicians at Jade Mountain Wellness in Burlington over other qualified practitioners because I liked the idea of a team.  Brendan Kelly and his wife Liz Geran both took the same classes on cancer treatment that I had attended, and both were still studying Chinese herbalism, on a monthly basis, with Jeffrey Yuen.  Brendan happened to answer the phone the day I called for the first appointment–I would have been fine seeing Liz instead.  Because of the dearth of nearby colleagues trained in classical Chinese medicine to offer clinical supervision, I assumed that Brendan would consult with Jeffrey if need be.  At the very least, Brendan has Liz to help him with any private fears and doubts he might feel from time to time, and I imagine they share ideas and experiences (and class notes?).

My family and friends support me now.  In the early months I had to defend my choices to a few relatives and friends; I chose to stress Chinese medicine’s millenia of experience in treating “accumulations” and “fire toxins,” rather than make any case against biomedicine.  John and Judi have supported me completely from the beginning.  Whatever fears they may have they’ve kept to themselves.

John is a rock.  When last June’s MRI showed that one of my tumors had grown significantly, he didn’t hesitate a second before saying,”That’s great news!”  I have overheard John tell a couple of relatives that I wouldn’t be true to myself if I were to take any other path and that he respects that. John’s also an effective gatekeeper against those who feel compelled to share why they think I’m making a huge mistake.  I know this isn’t easy for him.  Even after 39 years of marriage, he still wants me around!  We have made plans to travel to far-flung places after he retires, and he’s optimistic about that, except occasionally during the wee hours of the night. His health, which has always been the exemplary health of an athlete, has started to suffer in response to his stress and worry.  Fortunately, he is able to reach out to others for sympathy and support when he needs it.  A few “breast cancer husbands” have taken him under their wings (those dear angelic guys!).  My children developed their own support networks.  It does take a village, if not a small city, to manage this disease!

Any kind of cancer treatment is hard.  Choosing the road less taken has special challenges.  In many ways, it would be easier to step back on the cancer center’s conveyor belt and let the biomedical experts take charge.  But surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy cannot alter the terrain that allowed the cancer to develop in the first place.  This cancer diagnosis has given me the opportunity and the responsibility to examine the unfinished business of my life, to discover where unhealed wounds exist that I need to touch and make whole, and to teach my heart how to truly sing.  I need peace and freedom to go inward as well as safety and guidance to process what I find.

My friends and loved ones give me sanctuary and listen to my ramblings without judgment.  They also feed me when I’m too tired to cook, give me things to laugh about when I get down, sometimes weed my gardens, and keep me supplied with great reads when I need to take a mental vacation from this work.  John provides the necessary financial support that gives me the luxury of time and acupuncture treatments and herbs (which are not covered by our health insurance–how ironic that the biomedicine route would be cheaper for us).  How lucky I am!  Thank you, all.

Retreat, Part 3

The most urgent task for the week was to learn what I should eat and how to prepare it.  I brought bags of fresh fruits and vegetables, dried and canned legumes, black olives, varieties of seaweed, shiitake and portabella mushrooms, dried rosemary, olive oil, tamari sauce, pork from our meat CSA, white fish, Job’s tears (coix lacryma-jobi), and nuts and popcorn for snacks.  I also brought an intimidating new juicer.

Class notes had outlined mostly what I couldn’t eat:  no sugars or artificial sweeteners, dairy, red meat, seafood with legs…  In April I had consulted with Cissy Majebe, founder and president of the Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville.  Cissy specializes in cancer treatment.  She urged me to eat, every day, mung beans, asparagus and rosemary for their detoxifying properties.  These meager guidelines obviously needed fleshing out, so to speak.  First Step (9/5/12) sums up how that project went.

After each morning’s hike, I made vegetable juice to accompany my daily bowl of cooked mung beans (yum).  Some juices were more successful than others.  I experimented with blends of kale, celery, cucumbers, and other gifts of the garden.  I tried to learn to like juices that contained no fruit to sweeten things up, but, no joy there.

I had bought this machine because juicing was so helpful to Kris Carr in Crazy Sexy Cancer, even though I had been a bit unsure about juicing, since too much raw food–according to Chinese medical theory–injures the Spleen.  Cooking starts the digestive process, thus sparing the Stomach and Spleen’s energy to do what they do best–“ripen and rot the food”, and sort out and distribute the “clear and turbid” components to their proper organ systems.  The general guideline in Chinese medicine is 80/20–no more than 20% of your food should be raw, and people with weak Spleens should avoid raw food altogether.  But Kris Carr’s results from juicing were so compelling, I ignored my own doubts and gave it a go.

(Seven months after this retreat, I attended a Jeffrey Yuen class about treating cancer with diet.  Chinese medicine uses basically two strategies to treat cancer:  “induce latency” and “clear fire toxins”.  I learned in class that raw foods–especially juiced foods–induce latency in cancer, cooling down tumor activity to buy time for the body to rebuild its immune system and basic qi until there’s enough strength to advance to the “clear fire toxins” phase.  Raw foods, even at room temperature, are “Cold” and “Dampening.” These two qualities act like water around nuclear reactor rods to contain the toxic fire of the cancer.  This works for Kris Carr and others, but it isn’t the best treatment strategy for me, since Brendan judged my qi to be strong enough to work on clearing the tumors.  I rarely juice foods now.)

That week I learned how to prepare mung beans and Job’s tears (which dry Dampness).  Not so hard, as it turns out.  Soak mung beans overnight with a 2″ square of kombu, then rinse and cook in plenty of water for about 30 minutes.  Job’s tears also cook in 20-30 minutes but don’t need to be soaked.  Job’s tears, by the way, should be purchased from Chinese herbal pharmacies (it’s called “yi yi ren”).  “Job’s tears” sold over the internet often is pearl barley, which it resembles but actually isn’t.  These accomplishments in the kitchen don’t sound like a lot for a week’s effort, but I had much resistance to overcome concerning my diet.  Sequestering myself in the woods, far from grocery stores and restaurants, with limited ingredients to work with, forced me to grapple with the inevitable food issues that came up.  The diagnosis was recent enough to motivate me to make radical changes in my diet, and that was a good start.  Tweaking the food plan and recipes could, and did, come later.

The qigong portion of the retreat went less well.  I liked Nan Lu’s DVD (Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Woman’s Guide to Healing from Breast Cancer), but I preferred the more meditative version of guolin qigong that Jeffrey Yuen teaches, “Huff Puff Qigong” (http://daoisthealingarts.com/Huff%20Puff%20Qigong.html).  Nan Lu’s video is “one size fits all”.  Jeffrey Yuen’s video offers modifications for gathering qi (when you’re weak or tired) or dispersing qi (when you’re feeling strong enough to get rid of the fire toxins or if you need to expel unwanted energy, such as anger).  My problem with learning qigong that week was my confusion about where I was energetically.  Clearly I had enough qi to take long walks, but was I ready to clear the fire toxins?  My overthinking on this question left me spinning my wheels, so I shelved the project for the week.  Food seemed the more pressing task to work on.

After lunch I worked on my stack of 3 x 5 cards, a card for each fruit, vegetable, legume, spice, etc., discussed in my books on Chinese dietetics, noting the different qualities each food possessed (such as “Heating”, “Dries Damp,” “Tonifies Qi,” “Tonifies the Liver”…).  As I’ve written earlier, complete consensus among the authors was rare.  I had hoped for a definitive list of foods to eat and foods to avoid; I settled for a list of foods that probably are good for me.  I can live with a lot of ambiguity, but it took the whole week for me to accept that, even with intelligence, diligence, and high motivation, I would not end up with a food plan in which I felt completely confident.  To muddy the waters further, there are excellent and totally unambiguous books on cancer and diet written by biomedical researchers.  The best of the lot, Anticancer; a New Way of Life, (David Servan-Schreiber), has charts of foods that help fight different types of cancer.  The breast cancer list looked great, and probably will be useful to me someday when the tumors are gone, but many of those foods messed with my current treatment strategies.

I spent the remaining time each day writing in my journal, meditating, pretending to do qigong, and reading my “for fun” books.  Cissy Majebe had also recommended a daily three-part regimen for detoxifying the body and for boosting the immune system:  dry brush the skin, soak in a hot bath (“as hot as you can stand”) with epsom salts and rosemary essential oil (for at least 20 minutes), then shower off in tepid water.  A hot soak was a lovely way to end each day.

I was busy!

Though an introvert, I’m not much of a loner.  I surprised even myself when I conceived this retreat.  I think it was a brilliant move.  Without the usual distractions and temptations and busy-ness of my home/work environments and social life, I was able to focus and think deeply about the big issues of my life, celebrate my strengths and assets, and make peace with my shortcomings.  I know that such celebrations and peace-makings are fragile states, but I left the woods feeling fundamentally certain that I’ll do just fine.

Retreat, Part 2

Katy was not my only companion on this retreat.  Toward the end of the week Judi arrived with fresh fruit and veggies, followed the next day by John.  Both went home after a couple of days so I could finish up the week in solitude.

In reality, I was never alone.  I brought gifts to place on my altar:

  • a teddy bear from Linda (her own breast cancer talisman, never far from her side for the past 16+ years)
  • a dragonfly ornament from Judi
  • a stained glass panel from Karen, made in her California studio as soon as she got the news and found out what colors I like best
  • Nan Lu’s DVD on qigong for breast cancer, sent to me from a total stranger–a breast cancer survivor and acupuncture teacher/mentor of my friend and colleague Pat,
  • who gave me a medallion quoting Julian of Norwich:  “All shall be well”
  • inspiration cards from Ginny, John’s sister
  • a favorite piece of early art from each of my now-grown children
  • photos of my husband, children, and grandson
  • cards and letters from friends expressing their concern and support
  • a shawl given to me years ago by Gardner, who died of AIDS a few days after we had one of the most moving conversations in my life, in which he convinced me that love really is all there is

My hill top house at WCT had a large window looking out to a small mountain through an open field–a peaceful, soothing view.  I hung Karen’s stained glass panel in the window, along with Judi’s dragonfly.  The coffee table in front of the window became the altar, upon which I placed the gifts, along with my special “breast rattle”, incense, some crystals, my wand, a candle, and a goblet of water over the shawl/altar cloth.  I set a couple of drums next to the table.

(Maybe now’s the time to mention that I was heavy into “women’s spirituality” in my 30’s and 40’s, so I like to set up altars and know how to cast circles.  I could write a whole blog about Isis.)

Ah, the breast rattle.  I bought it in Taos almost 30 years ago, drawn to its unusual shape.  It’s a large rattle made from a gourd that resembles the semi-flattened breast of a reclining woman.  The stem forms a nipple.  I liked the shape; I loved the sound.  I used this rattle when I worked with the fire element.  (Since you’re no doubt asking yourself:  on the altar in my study back then I had an ocarina for “air,” a drum for “earth”, and a small rain stick for, yup, “water”.  But I digress.)  On a windy summer’s day about 25 years ago, the window next to this altar blew out (old house, strange windows, you’d have to have been there).  The wood frame landed on the rattle, breaking it into about two dozen pieces.  I grieved.  Because it was a fire rattle, I decided to burn it in our fireplace as soon as the weather cooled.  In the meantime, all the pieces and the stones that were inside remained on the altar.

It happens rarely–but often enough, alas, to reinforce my natural inclination–that procrastination pays off.  Before I could return the rattle to its spiritual home (I do realize how silly that sounds), I met a man who makes drums and gourd rattles.  When I described my rattle’s accident, he told me if I glued it back together with wood glue, it would be as strong as ever.  So I did, and I took the opportunity to add some small quartz and celestite crystals to the stones within.  The rattle now looks like a breast with scars all over it, but it’s whole, and it sounds amazing.

I grabbed the rattle automatically when gathering altar pieces for the retreat, not realizing until actually setting up the altar how perfect a choice it was.  In Five Phase/Five Element theory of Chinese medicine, the Heart belongs to the Fire Phase.  I needed to rid my body of Fire Toxins while strengthening my Heart Fire.  Something else to ponder:  Heart’s season is Summer.  Who knows how long these tumors have been gathering mass in my breast.  I wonder if they began the same summer when the rattle sustained a hit.  What better instrument to use for my healing than a breast-shaped fire rattle that was once shattered by Wind (considered a major source of disease in Chinese medicine) and then made whole by my own hands?

What does an altar have to do with Chinese medicine, really?

Chinese medicine describes “spontaneous remission” as “the Heart Vaporizes Phlegm.” In a nutshell, when you open up to your Heart energy and focus it, nothing unwholesome can withstand its radiance.  Most of us have heard tales of people coming out of prayer, meditation, retreat, or just a peaceful walk on a beautiful day in a garden, fully healed.  You can label this phenomenon amazing Grace, the power of prayer, divine intervention, or whatever you wish.  I prefer the Chinese metaphor.  According to Chinese medical physiology, the Heart houses the Spirit.  It’s all and always about Spirit.  (Much much more about this later.)

I placed my altar in the center of the house to remind me that I love and am loved. There’s no better cure for the blues, and I believe there’s no cure for cancer that works without first engaging the Heart/Spirit.

In reality, we’re never alone.

Retreat, Part 1

My insurance company pays for one MRI a year, and the next one is coming up on June 24.  I’ve had two ultrasounds in the interim, each one has shown a progressive shrinking of the tumors, so this MRI shouldn’t be such a big deal.  But I’ve been a student for a good part of my life, and I still get anxious before big exams.

I’m preparing for this exam by 1) maintaining the regimen I established last year (I’ll outline this later), 2) following Sun Si-Miao’s 100 day exorcism program to expel “Worms/Ghosts” (definitely more on this later), and 3) gardening like my life depends on it (turns out, it just might, gardening being a major source of joy for me).

I also plan to use the next 4 weeks to reflect on this past year’s events, both external and internal.  How much “history” gets covered before the Big Day depends on the June weather (remember the gardening part of the program–if it’s sunny, I’ll be outside).

It seems I was in constant motion, physically and emotionally, most of April, 2012.  So many hoops to jump through at the medical center, so many health care providers to consult with, and so much information to gather up and evaluate.

By the end of the month, I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the changes and the choices I needed to make in my life.  So, like Henry David Thoreau, I went to the woods to learn how to live deliberately.  On May Day I packed the car up with my dog, food, clothes, books, 3 x 5 cards, class notes, and altar materials, and drove an hour to the Wildlife Conservation Trust in southern New Hampshire.  I had rented a house there for a week in the middle of nearly 3000 acres of conserved woodland.

WCT isn’t terribly remote, but the houses there are secluded, cell phone service mostly non-existent, and the forest pretty deserted during what we in Vermont/New Hampshire call “mud season.”  Caretakers, a husband and wife team, live on Trust property and share a party line with the rental houses.  For me, it was the ideal blend of solitude and reassurance. I needed time to figure things out sans distractions.

My goals for the week:

1.  Plan a diet that would nourish me and not the cancer, be varied and palatable enough to sustain for what might be a long time, and would support my treatment goals (at that stage, to dry Dampness and to cool Heat in the Stomach).

2.  Teach myself qigong from videos, especially guolin qigong, a form developed to treat cancer and other chronic illnesses.

3.  Identify the stressors in my life and figure out how to minimize them and/or change my response to stress.

4.  Take stock of whatever activities and beings make my heart sing and rearrange my life to do/see more of that/them.

5.  Call upon, though meditation, ritual, and journaling, whatever inner resources I might have to see me through this crisis.

It rained most days, sometimes hard.  The woods, which were already pretty wet from the spring snow melt, became downright boggy. Katy and I ventured out every morning, anyway, with map and compass (trail maintenance and markers neglected in recent years).  We explored a different trail each day, bushwhacking our way through the woods and discovering old cellar holes and farm walls long abandoned and forested over, waterfalls, and vernal pools.  Our only encounter with wildlife involved a couple of nesting geese overreacting to our presence on the other side of their pond (Katy and I fled).

I have a glitch in my brain, no doubt from one or more auto accidents, that gives me vertigo when I cross streams that have turbulent water, to the point that sometimes I get stuck mid-stream, too flustered and disoriented to move, even in shallow water. I usually walk along busy paths, so I’d always found help when I needed it.  Near the end of a three hour loop on the second day of my retreat, I came to a small stream with rushing water almost 18 inches deep.  Big trouble.  I couldn’t turn around to get home, having engaged in some exciting mud sliding down a steep ravine just a while back where the log “bridge” was too slick to negotiate.  Also, I didn’t have the energy for another three hours of hiking, even if I could have scrambled up Mud Mountain.  My only real option was to cross.  I took a few (or a hundred) calming breaths before devising a plan to make my own stepping stone path across the brook.  After twenty minutes of searching for large rocks, prying them out of the earth, and lugging them to the brook, I managed to build a serviceable, though underwater, path to the other side.  I crossed the torrent with two sturdy sticks to support me against the inevitable vertigo.  Luckily the plan worked, because there would be no helpful hiker to rescue me.

I mention this episode because I had brought, in addition to a stack of books on breast cancer and on Chinese dietetics, a few books to read for pleasure.  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild was one of them.  Cheryl’s solo wilderness trek across the Pacific Crest Trail taught her who she is and what she’s made of.  I hadn’t intended for this retreat to be that kind of challenge, but I did feel a small measure of triumph when I crossed that blessed creek!  I believe it’s true that, each time you refuse to let fear stop you, your courage gathers strength for the next challenge (like video games in which you get more powerful with each victory?).    I made it back to my woodland house muddy, thoroughly soaked, and exhausted, but also exhilarated and lighthearted.  Crossing the brook that day quelled a sense of helplessness that had been growing in me faster than my tumors.

Quick Update

It turns out that changing your life can take up a lot of time, so writing here got shoved to the bottom of the list. Now that some of the dust has settled on the (re)construction site, I’m ready to resume this story.

Just so you know, the tumors are retreating. Tumor 1 (which Judi nicknamed “The Fish” because of its shape) was 32-34 mm and Tumor 2 (“The Ghost”) was 14 mm at the time of diagnosis (March 31, 2012).  Last week’s ultrasound roughly estimated that The Fish is now 21-23 mm (and the length of its spicules about half) and The Ghost is 12-13 mm.

My surgeon, who has to authorize my ultrasounds and MRI’s, met with me a week later with huge smiles on her face.  The best she had hoped for me, she confessed, was for the tumors to remain stable.  She’d never heard of tumors shrinking before, nor could she imagine I’d have such dramatic results so quickly.

The next look-see will be an MRI, which gives a more accurate measurement, in late June.

In the meantime, I’ll fill in what’s been going on since my last post, almost 6 months ago.

First Step

Jeffrey Yuen says that a cancer diagnosis is “an invitation to change your life.”

I had been meaning to get around to overhauling my life, anyway, sometime soon, but my schedule kept filling up.  Trust me, though, when I tell you that Samuel Johnson got it right.  He said, sort of, that “when a women is diagnosed with breast cancer, it concentrates her mind, wonderfully.”  Time to change!

I quickly outlined a master plan:  eat differently, exercise more, have more fun, and avoid negative thinking and negative people.  I needed to live more consciously, to change old habits, take charge of my life.  Simple!

Oh, if only.

Today I’ll just discuss food.  We’re all familiar with “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” sound advice from Hippocrates that’s rarely followed until our health hits a wall.  Cancer can’t be dieted away, of course, but certain foods, as well as body fat, feed tumors, and other foods enhance the body’s ability to fight tumors.

My class notes on breast cancer and diet are sketchy.  In general, avoid all sugars (including most fruits and carbohydrates), give up alcohol completely, limit dairy to occasional low fat yogurt and perhaps small amounts of cottage cheese (since I’ve become lactose intolerant recently, all dairy is off the menu for me anyway).  Eat 10 black olives every day.

Easy guidelines so far.  Now it gets complicated.

Chinese/Daoist dietetics classify foods by flavor (sweet, pungent, salty, sour, bitter), temperature (Cold, Cooling, Neutral, Warming, Hot), organ influence, and action (such as draining Damp, resolving Phlegm, nourishing Yin, …).  Know, too, that the way food is prepared affect its properties.  I need to eat foods that drain Dampness, resolve Phlegm, and clear Heat and Fire Toxins, while avoiding foods that promote those qualities (foods that are too sweet, fatty, warming, or hot).  I also need to nourish my Spleen Qi, moisten my Lungs, and strengthen my Intestines and Kidney Qi.  It’s a delicate dance to drain dampness without injuring the body’s vital fluids.  Likewise, too much nourishment can clog the system, giving rise to more stagnating dampness.  What’s good for the Spleen may not be so great for the Liver…   You get the drift.

Here’s a typical Daoist dietary maze:  the Sweet flavor nourishes the Spleen and Stomach, but too much Sweet food overwhelms the Spleen, hindering its ability to distribute fluids; these stagnating fluids generate Dampness, the accretion of which eventually leads to Accumulations (such as fibroids and tumors) and then to Heat and Fire Toxins.  I need to nourish my Spleen but also avoid most Sweet flavored foods, because breast cancer cells feed on sugar (in all its forms).  How much Sweet is enough but not too much?  How else can I nourish my Spleen?  (Aargh!  Just cut the damn things out and let me eat in peace!)

After I figured out the general dietetic principles involved (I’ve been studying Chinese medical theory for over 20 years, so I can do that without flow charts most of the time now), the time arrived to learn what foods I can eat. I have a master’s degree in library science.  I also have 3 x 5 cards, since my MLS degree predates personal computers and therefore Excel spreadsheets.  I gathered up five or six books that classify foods a la Chinese medical theory.  How hard could it be to compile from these books a list of foods that match all criteria?  Too hard, and I’ve mostly given up, as has my friend Judi, a professional researcher with a doctorate in epidemiology from Harvard, a woman who has taught statistics, for Pete’s sake.  I ended up with a thick card file on individual foods and their properties, but I’m still pretty confused about what to eat.  Did I mention that worrying also damages the Spleen?

My diet, as of today, is pretty limited.  Breakfast: a bowl of Job’s tears (there’s an irony in there somewhere), asparagus, and ground flax seed.  Lunch:  mung beans cooked with seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, and occasionally bits of pork.  For dinner I eat any of the following:  steamed veggies (chard, bok choy, napa cabbage, eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, watercress, okra, celery, fresh corn), shiitake or portabella mushrooms, chick peas, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, buck wheat groats (rarely), animal protein a few times a week (haddock, flounder, cod, tilapia, scallops, lean pork, duck eggs).  Raw foods can damage the Spleen, so I severely limit the number of salads I eat.  I’m hoping it’s okay to flavor with wheat-free soy sauce, sesame oil, and olive oil.  Snacks:  almonds (just a few–they moisten the Lungs in small amounts but create Dampness in larger quantities) and black olives.  Popcorn is iffy, but I indulge frequently anyway.  Chocolate!  After abstaining completely for two months, I relaxed the rules a bit and now treat myself several times a week to some organic dark chocolate that has just a tiny amount of sugar.  I can also eat, in limited amounts, watermelon, blueberries, apples, and Asian pears.  No wine or any alcohol again, ever (not a loss) and no coffee (ouch).

I’ve lost almost 40 pounds since March and my pulses indicate I’m achieving my dietary goals:  less Heat in the Stomach, less Dampness overall, and stronger Spleen Qi.

Classical Chinese medicine, even more than other medical modalities, requires active participation in your own healing.  Yes, I get acupuncture treatment weekly and take Chinese herbs several times a day, but I also need to support Brendan’s efforts (or is that vice versa?) by eating properly, exercising daily (specifically, doing quolin qigong), managing stress, and shedding useless stuff.

Figuring out the diet has proved to be my greatest challenge so far, and I’m still not comfortable that I’ve got a handle on it.  But I refuse to worry about that.