Prognosis

The MRI a couple of days ago went smoothly.  For one thing, I’m not claustrophobic, and the other thing is, I kind of enjoy the clanging and banging sounds when I have ear plugs to blunt the noise level.  I spend the 40 minutes or so trying to discern a rhythm and make up songs to fit, a bit like composing melodies to accompany jack hammers.  This time I didn’t even mind the IV (for sending contrast dye into my veins).  The best part, of course, was the post MRI celebratory lunch with John, Judi, and her husband Stan.

I don’t know why I felt the need to celebrate, except that an annual MRI represents a milestone of sorts (may there be many more in my future).

Unlike ultrasound scans, which give feedback in real time, MRI pictures need to be analyzed, then the report is sent to the surgeon before I get to see it.  I don’t remember from last year what the time lag is, but I think it’s about a week.

In truth, I’m not sure what results to hope for.  No matter what I learn about the size of the tumors, interpretation will be open.

The general prognosis for the Clearing Fire Toxins stage of cancer treatment in Chinese medicine goes like this:  as the fire toxins cool down and lose strength, all the cancer cells in the tumor are forced to mature without reproducing, and then the mature cells die because their environment no longer supports them.  The body mops up the dead cells and excretes them out through increased urine, feces, sweat, and/or (not this one, please) skin eruptions.  The expected healing crisis is tumor enlargement followed by some personal hygiene problems for a while.

So, although it’s been gratifying and reassuring that my tumors have been shrinking, it won’t upset me to learn they are growing.  The surgeon has been warned.

Yet, this will be the time when I’ll need a lot of support and self-confidence to keep from freaking out that the tumors are growing oh my god are they metastasizing am I doomed?

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”  (Hmm, did Walt Whitman have cancer, too?)

If the tumors continue to shrink, that’s also just fine.  That could indicate a more relaxed manifestation of spontaneous remission: “The Heart Vaporizing Phlegm in Slo-Mo”  (my contribution to Chinese medical metaphors).  There’s no explanation for this in Chinese medicine to my knowledge, but I would guess that my wei qi (immune system) is nibbling away at the cancer cells.  Or, it could also mean that my cancer cells have had a change of heart and are giving up their rebellious ways and returning to normal, thereby achieving a different type of cell maturity, so to speak.  (That’s what I’ve been visualizing.)

Should it turn out that nothing’s changed, that outcome would provide me with another great opportunity to practice the virtue of patience.

So, each of the possible MRI results (larger, smaller, the same) could be a winner.

The envelope, please.

Shiny Red Omen

Last week I got a call from a man who lives down the street.  Even though Jonathan’s a neighbor, he and his wife are busy raising small children, so our paths rarely cross, and he knows nothing about my cancer.  Jonathan’s an amateur mushroom hunter.  He phoned in reference to a conversation we’d had three or four years ago about ganoderma mushrooms, highly prized tree fungi used in Chinese medicine.  I had forgotten about this conversation, but fortunately Jonathan had not, since he had just found more hemlock reishi (ganoderma tsugae) than he could use and wondered if I’d like the extras.  Fresh, wild, local ganoderma!  Of course I’d like the extras!

“Reishi” is the Japanese name for what the Chinese call “ling zhi.”

Let us now pause for a small Chinese language lesson.  “Ling” means “spirit, spiritual, soul, miraculous, sacred, or divine.”  Chinese herbs designated as “zhi” are considered to be longevity herbs, but “zhi” can also mean “excrescence.”  I had to look up that last word:  “excrescence” is an outgrowth on an animal (including humans) or plants, and it’s usually the result of disease or abnormality.  “Ling zhi” is commonly translated as “divine longevity herb,” and it’s classified as a Superior herb–one which treats many conditions but has negligible side effects.  Coded into the name, perhaps, is its cancer-fighting properties, since Chinese herbalism, like our Western traditions, sometimes follows the Doctrine of Signatures.  The fungus itself is an excrescence of trees; cancer is an excrescence in animals.

A great deal of research has been done on ling zhi’s effect on various cancers.  See, for example the article in the October 2006 Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17034284?dopt=AbstractPlus.  It turns out that the hemlock reishi specifically treats breast cancer, and the results are promising.

There are many varieties of ganoderma.  Chinese herbal medicine classifies them and their actions according to their colors.  Ganoderma tsugae and ganoderma lucidum are both red, which, in Five Phase/Five Element theory, is the color of Fire/Heart/Summer.  Red ling zhi enters the Heart, Liver, and Lung channels.  It’s primary traditional action is to Nourish the Heart and Calm the Spirit.  As such, ling zhi smoothes out difficult breathing and also serves as an anti-anxiety medicine and sleep aid.  Modern research has also discovered and confirmed red ling zhi’s immune-enhancing properties.  Even if subsequent research should find ling zhi’s anti-neoplastic actions to be weak or non-existent, cancer patients taking ling zhi strengthen their immune systems, enjoy more nights of peaceful sleep, and feel less anxious about their health.  Who wouldn’t want such a sense of well-being, of feeling whole-hearted?

The earliest recorded mention of this fungus is from the third century, BCE.  At that time, ling zhi was called “ruicao.”  “Cao” means plant, or herb.  Rui means auspicious or felicitous omen.

In spite of the dramatic results I’ve seen so far by choosing classical Chinese medicine to treat my cancer, sometimes I feel disheartened about how long this haul is and start to doubt the wisdom of my choice.

Then the phone rings, a gift is offered, and once again, an auspicous, felicitous omen encourages me to continue on this path.  Thank you, Jonathan.

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.