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!

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.

Results are in

I haven’t actually seen the MRI report, but Kari, my surgeon, emailed me the executive summary yesterday:  the smaller tumor remains the same size; the larger one, which was 21-23 mm in February, is now 34 mm (approximately its size at the time of diagnosis).  The lymph nodes all look normal.

I have to admit I had some moments of doubt when I got Kari’s email.  Of course.  But they really were just moments.  Doubt morphed into respect when I remembered that Brendan changed his treatment strategy about six weeks ago to precipitate this healing crisis because he judged, from my pulses and presentation, that I was strong enough to clear the Fire Toxins.  We were expecting the tumors to grow.  Still, having my Heart Vaporize the Phlegm (spontaneous remission) would have been so much easier (though less interesting, I suppose, as blog material).

Subjectively, I’ve known that The Fish is growing.  It’s now closer to the skin and seems much bigger than it was.  It does seem softer, though.  Biomedicine cannot measure the density of a tumor, just it’s size.

The smaller tumor, The Ghost, has remained fairly stable in size.  I can’t speak for its probable density, since I can’t palpate it.  I’ve been puzzling over why the treatments haven’t had the same impact on this tumor as they have on the The Fish.  After reviewing all my class notes, I think I now have the answer.

Last summer I attended Jeffrey Yuen’s annual retreat for his advanced students.  These retreats aren’t focused on one topic like his regular seminars.  Instead, he addresses concerns and questions that arise when experienced practitioners want to go deeper into their understanding of classical Chinese medicine.  One of the days was devoted to questions about the seldom used secondary acupuncture vessels known as the Divergent Channels.  Divergent Channel treatments focus on serious chronic diseases.  Divergent Channel treatments require nuanced pulse diagnostic and needling techniques that are difficult to master.  Since cancer is clearly a serious chronic disease, Jeffrey used me as the class’s case study.

In the course of interviewing me, taking my pulses, and working out a possible treatment strategy, Jeffrey talked to us about breast cancer in general.  He said that ductal tumors are problems of the jin-ye fluids, especially the ye (don’t worry about that) and are usually related to the Triple Heater and Small Intestine (Fire organs, the yang aspects of the yin Pericardium and Heart).  In his experience, these tumors resolve faster than lobular tumors, which he believes arise from Dampness and Phlegm, terrains that create the most stubborn pathological states.  The Fish is ductile, The Ghost is lobular.  That explains why one tumor is responding more quickly to the treatments than the other.

(A few months ago, for a different reason, I started a 100 day Daoist regimen for exorcising ghosts.  More on this later.)

Now that I have proof that the healing crisis is upon me, I need to adhere more closely to my diet, exercise (gotta get back to qigong), and detox bath regimens.   I don’t want to give those cancer cells any excuses to linger.  “Get off my plane!”

It looks like I might have to go through a second healing crisis down the road to clear the lobular tumor, unless my Heart can vaporize The Ghost’s Phlegm.  All things are possible!

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 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.

(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.

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…