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:  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” (  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.

(I) Don’t Cry for Me

Betty Rollin’s response to the diagnosis of her breast cancer was the title of her book:  First, You Cry.

For reasons unknown, I still haven’t cried over this, but I came close once.

Only a very few friends knew about my cancer the first week.   John and I wanted to tell our son and daughter before telling anyone else.  John volunteered for this unhappy task.  He decided that a letter as an email attachment would be the best vehicle for bad news–Dan and Diana could read it and react in private before having to talk to us.  The email itself warned them to read the attachment somewhere quiet, preferably with their partners nearby for comfort.

When John told me he was about to push the “send” button, tears suddenly welled up and I was headed for a good sob session, feeling miserable that I would be causing my children pain.

Just then the phone rang.  Our phones have a usually handy caller ID that audibly announces who’s calling.  A telemarketer had an urgent and important message to deliver.  My annoyance at and the ludicrous timing of the call snapped me out of my self-pity moment, and I shed no tears that day.  Zen masters come in surprising guises.

One of the most important acupoints used in breast diseases, including breast cancer, is a point on the foot called “Zulinqi,” aka “Gall Bladder 41.”  “Zu” means “foot”, “lin” means “to overlook or to arrive at”, and “qi” means “tears or to weep (silent tears)”.  It’s usually translated as “near tears on the foot”, “foot governor of tears” or (Jeffrey Yuen’s translation) “receptacle of tears that should be overflowing.”  Most text books explain this name as a reference to the point’s influence on the tear ducts.  One tongue in cheek commentator suggested the point causes patients to cry from pain.  The classical Chinese medicine interpretation is slightly different.  Yes, Zulinqi does influence tear duct fluids, but, as the opening point of the Dai Mai channel (lots more on this later), it also helps people release pent up emotions.  (In defense of this excellent point–it rarely causes pain when needled.)

Brendan has needled Zulinqi on me several times.  Not one tear has fallen.  Perhaps I’m not ready yet to open up those flood gates.

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.

Waterfall Oracle

Now that I’ve thought about it, my spontaneous quip about consulting waterfall oracles makes sense.  Nothing soothes me like water.  Ponds, rivers, babbling brooks, fountains all help, but waterfalls are magic.  I’m sure this attraction is hard-wired into everyone’s brain, but I know my love of waterfalls began when I was two at Ohiopyle State Park in PA and grew stronger on other childhood vacations to Cumberland Falls, KY and to the Smoky Mountains.  When my heart was broken in college, I tended to the hurt one winter’s weekend by hanging out next to a tiny half-frozen cascade near Asheville.  (Icing the injury?)  I’ve made pilgrimages to the big ones (Yosemite, Niagra, the Sacred Falls in HI, Pagsanjan Falls in the Phillippines, and others), but I prefer the human scale falls that have just enough power to exhilarate but not enough to overwhelm.

Shortly after we moved to Vermont from Boston eleven years ago, we got a Rhodesian ridgeback puppy (Katy No-Pocket).  Katy gave me the incentive and, when she grew bigger, protection to explore the abundance of trails near our home.  We are rich in small waterfalls here!  My mental health has never been better.

So when faced with scheduling the lumpectomies, of course I would need a few waterfall conversations to help me sort out how I should manage this disease.

The first and most important oracle consultation took place the day after meeting the surgeon.

I had already booked an acupuncture appointment with Brendan Kelly, sight unseen, because he had also taken Jeffrey Yuen’s classes on cancer treatment.  Still, you never know how you’ll hit it off with anyone, and I wondered if he was the right person for the job.

Brendan’s office is in Burlington, which is on the other side of the state from my home in Norwich.  It’s a straight shot on I-89 over the postcard pretty Green Mountains, and the drive takes about 100 minutes.  My smart phone’s navigation system got me through Burlington’s streets to the clinic’s parking lot without a problem.  So far, so good, in so many ways.

Imagine my delight to find that the clinic is next to the Winooski River Dam!  I admit that my methodology often lacks scientific rigor, but some omens cannot be discounted.

I liked Brendan immediately.  Another great team member!  The treatment room has a huge window looking out on the river and dam.  That day I experienced one of the most relaxing acupuncture treatments in my life, lulled by the somehow comforting roar of early mountain snow melt pouring over the dam.

For the first time since I felt the lump seventeen days earlier, optimism replaced fear.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Five months ago, on March 24th, while examining a bruise on my right breast (given to me–the bruise, that is–by my very large and playful and obviously undisciplined Rhodesian ridgeback), I felt a lump the size of a grape next to the bruise.  Surely this was a hematoma?  Yet the lump itself wasn’t discolored, and it seemed too rigid to be a mass of blood.  This was on a Saturday night.   On Sunday I got up early (I hadn’t slept much, anyway) to find and review my class notes on breast cancer.  I also considered, for sanity’s sake, that the lump could be benign.  Finally, I told John (my husband of 37 years) and Judi (my best friend) about my discovery.  Sunday was a long day for all of us.

My class notes (see Welcome page) reminded me that hormonal cancers express in life cycles of 7 years (for women) and 8 years (for men).  I am 63, at the beginning of my 9th life cycle, so no surprise there.  The notes outlined the typical etiology of the disease and discussed risk factors and symptoms that, in the main, described my case.  This increased my confidence that Chinese medicine has a handle on this disease.  (And yes, I did wonder how I’d managed to ignore warning bells during class.  And how I had not noticed a lump that large before?!  Ah, denial–so much more than a river in Egypt.)

By Monday I was ready to face, well, whatever.  First, a quick solo trip to my primary care provider’s office to see a nurse practitioner, who assured me the lump didn’t have to be cancer but got me an appointment right away at the hospital’s cancer center.  Judi, a fierce and loyal friend, then stepped onto the conveyer belt with me as I went from one end of the hospital to the other.  She took notes, asked great questions, and dared anyone to talk down to me (one resident tried, but he was no match for her).  The tour began with The Kind Nurse in Charge of Keeping You Calm and Focused While She Outlined What Would Happen Over the Next Few Days, then moved on to a series of diagnostic suites for mammography, ultrasound, biopsy, and MRI.   The radiologist pushed the pathologist to read the biopsy slides asap.  Before noon on Friday, the radiologist phoned to say I had two tumors, both malignant and invasive, one ductal and the other lobular.  It was quite a week.

The following Monday John and I went to the medical center for a second MRI (the “real one”–the first one being for research only).  We were turned away (the scheduling nurse had given me the wrong date–the only glitch so far) and told to return Tuesday evening.  After the MRI on Tuesday, I needed a break!  I had already signed up for a four-day class on Chinese medicine (not cancer related) in Asheville, NC, so I left Vermont and headed south Wednesday morning.

Back to the hospital on Monday, April 9, for a chest x-ray and blood test to determine whether the cancer had metastasized (happily, it hadn’t) before meeting with the surgeon.  First,the surgeon explained that she considered my cancer, due to the size of the larger lump, to be Stage II.  But she also thought that blood from the bruise may have seeped into the tumor, enlarging it enough to create a palpable mass (good dog!).  She recommended two lumpectomies and a sentinel node biopsy, followed by radiation treatment, and she could schedule the surgery for two days hence.  John was there and also took notes and asked questions.  The surgeon couldn’t have been more caring and patient with us.  Somehow she kept a straight face, not even sputtering in disbelief, when I explained I was going to Seattle in a few weeks to play with my grandson and would use the intervening time to (this just popped into my head unbidden) consult with my waterfall oracles.  I’d get back to her in a month about when or whether I was ready for surgery.

The next day I met with an acupuncturist in Burlington, VT who had attended the same cancer classes I had taken with Jeffrey Yuen.  I didn’t actually know him, but he had the credentials I was looking for.  When a waterfall oracle appeared to me, moments before this first appointment, I knew I’d found the right person for the job.  To be continued…