My breast cancer story began around 1982 when I found a lump on my breast. I was 36. The results of my mammogram indicated a cyst and no need to be concerned. I soon forgot about it.
At 43, I got separated and moved to the Cape with my five-year old son. My new job, teaching art at The Laurel School, required that I have a physical. When discovering the cyst Dr. Deborah Pressman at Fontaine Medical Center saved my life by insisting I have it biopsied.
I was stunned and disbelieving when hearing the results. I was so confident that it was a cyst, and I felt great! How could I possibly have cancer? I never heard of a cyst becoming cancerous.
From that day until my surgery, I held on to a belief of doubt that I really had cancer. Instead, I thought it was just their way to keep money flowing into the medical system’s wallet.
But, when learning that the cancer had traveled to my sentinel lymph nodes – which lead to the removal of the secondary nodes – I had to accept reality. I began to thank God for having the courage to leave my marital situation or I wouldn’t be alive right now. I would have never had that lump checked in time. The cancer was on the edge of spreading though my body. This brought the Divine to my door and into my life.
A friend who was on her own journey through breast cancer gave me the book The Anatomy of The Spirit by Caroline Myss, Ph.D. It was the beginning of my spiritual journey into healing and re-living.
I purchased from www.soundstrue.com the six-cassette set Energy Anatomy, The Science of Personal Power, Spirituality, and Health, also by Myss. This enabled me to listen while I recuperated from surgery and chemo treatments.
I bought Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, MD, wherein she recommends the book and wisdom cards Motherpeace, A way To The Goddess Through Myth, Art and Tarot.
These four sources had a tremendous impact on me educationally and in terms of opening to the possibility of healing through my own Higher Power and my body’s incredible ability to rebalance and heal. By becoming aware of my met and unmet needs and desires, with a change of programmed beliefs, thinking and being, and with the addition of a slew of alternative methods for the healing the body: detoxification, juicing, vitamins, laughter, exercise, etc. I could do it.
After receiving my cancer news, with the support of my sister and then-husband who has remained a dear friend, I met with a few surgeons. The doctors suggested I consider having a double mastectomy to eliminate the worry of recurrence!
Oh my God, I was shocked! No freakin’ way! That felt like paranoid behavior, quite unnecessarily drastic and certainly not something I would consider. My lump was on the outer edge of my breast, not deep within it. I knew I didn’t need that and that it wouldn’t recur, (still hasn’t and won’t after seven years).
A friend in Manhattan recommended a top surgeon, Dr. Hiram S. Cody III, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, (www.mskcc.org) who, at my first meeting said I was a perfect candidate for a lumpectomy – finally! My intuition confirmed! I was thrilled and scheduled surgery two days later.
After successful surgery and removal of all my lymph nodes on the adjacent underarm, he then recommended chemotherapy. For this I returned to Cape Cod where Dr. David Lovett, at The Cape Cod Hospital, was my oncologist.
My journey began into the landslide of elusive facts about breast cancer and follow-up treatments. The more I learned, the more I saw that the doctors were also learning. There is no perfect treatment. Most treatments are trial-and-error based on similar, previous patients and statistics. It was rather frightening. Every cancer and person is different.
I wasn’t even sure why I had to do chemotherapy since they had gotten all the cancer out during surgery. Why go through the nightmare? I was told that if I waited for it to show up again – and if it did – by that time it would be too fierce for the chemo to work. They reasoned that it would be more successful killing the one or two cells that might be rollercoastering aroundmy internal highways.
Whoa. I couldn’t believe I would need to go through that, maybe for nothing. Scary. I didn’t want to do it and decided it was time to look into alternative methods.
I had listened often to Gary Null, Ph.D. on WBAI Public Radio in NYC. For over 30 years, Gary Null has committed his life to making a difference in the world of health and beyond. I knew he’d done numerous interviews and created videos on doctors doing alternative therapies for multiple maladies, including cancer (www.garynull.com).
I made an appointment at his center, was interviewed and given their protocol for cancer therapy treatment. It resonated within me as being much more agreeable and in sync with my body and being. I purchased three videos which documented alternative cancer centers and their programs, as well as interviews with patients before, during and after treatment.
I had medical insurance coverage for mainstream treatments – chemotherapy etc. I was a single mom and couldn’t ‘step off the sidewalk of life’ to focus 100% on healing naturally. As it was, even with the chemo, I continued my teaching job and lived my life as normally as possible for my son, who was only six and had been living away from his dad for a year.
Based on Gary Null’s protocol, I took very expensive and large quantities of vitamins, herbs and detox products, which were generously given to me by my then-husband, friend and supporter – thank you dear Gilles.
Weeks went by anguishing about what to do. With heels dug deeply into the ground I remained adamantly opposed to getting chemotherapy. One day my mother sat me down and burst into tears, begging me to begin it immediately. I felt pressured, confused, scared, stuck and angry.
I grasped for one last thing to avoid the chemo. I found myself stepping off an elevator onto the fourth floor of a large prewar warehouse building – turned into modest offices – in New York City’s China Town district. The pungent wall of unfamiliar scents both startled and comforted me as it lead me down the hall to the office of the Chinese doctor who greeted me with a serious face. I figured the ancient wisdom of the Chinese culture would help me make my decision.
Home I went with six rather large plastic bags filled with the forest floor
and followed his cooking and drinking directions. I completely loved the flavor and smell as it filled my homeand spirit while it helped me heal and protect my body from the onslaught of chemical invasion.
He listened quietly to my story then, looking at me with a warmer expression, he said, “Why, do all! You do all. You do every thing possible, chemo – yes – vitamins, herbs. I give you three-month supply Chinese herbs, boil each bag six hour, you drink three time a day. These build immune system and help you through chemotherapy.”
I almost couldn’t believe my ears, this was ancient wisdom recommending chemotherapy. Okay, I thought, I’ll do it. Somehow, I felt much safer making the choice then. We went to an immense wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor wooden unit with hundreds of 6”x 6” drawers with white knobs. I noticed that there were no labels on these drawers. He scratched some Chinese characters on a pad and took a scoop of root from one drawer and a dash of leaves from another, bark from the next – and who knows what else – from eight others. I was getting drunk on the intoxicating smell that consumed the room.
Home I went with six rather large plastic bags filled with the forest floor and followed his cooking and drinking directions. I completely loved the flavor and smell as it filled my home and spirit while it helped me heal and protect my body from the onslaught of chemical invasion.
The healing I did for myself while going through chemo – in addition to that already mentioned – was honoring my body by resting in the afternoon, doing yoga with Jane Higgins. I also danced at The Squire in Chatham with my colleagues and our families on Friday evenings, to our local band, The Strangers. Fortunately, they usually played during the third week after my chemo treatment, when I had the most strength – I think I danced the cancer out of me.
I was also blessed by the graceful, gentle and spiritual touch and massage by my first friend on the Cape, Deer Sullivan. Deer gifted me her healing powers through weekly massages and spirit work. I felt grateful to have a hairless head when experiencing a head massage like no other. Deer helped me through my hardest times with her friendship, generosity and loving nature. Thank you so much Deer!
I took a deep breath
and shifted my focus
back to what I was seeing. This brought me again
to the present, where
I was fine–feeling sick
but fine–and doing
what I loved, painting, which gave me
joy and peace.
I continued painting and drawing. I created a visual diary of myself and my physical experience of the chemical invasion on my being. Being bald was quite a journey unto itself. I was fascinated with it and wanted to remember it, as it would be the only time in my life I would be bald. I’ve done many self-portraits over the years in various mediums, and the
importance of this experience demanded that I summon the strength to record it in oil.
I challenged myself to go beyond literal representation and convey the sick feeling that was erupting within me. For the first time, I chose to use color expressively and painted a
self-portrait in oil titled Chemo Going Through Me, Me Going Through Chemo. I used green for the skin tone. The background is the original wash put in during the initial stage of painting. I never had the strength to finish it.
There were moments during its creation when thoughts snuck in that it might be my last painting. When such thoughts came, I took a deep breath and shifted my focus back to what I was seeing. This brought me again to the present, where I was fine – feeling sick but fine – and doing what I loved – painting – which gave me joy and peace. This painting was chosen to be on the April 2006 cover of the American Journal of Nursing.
Also in the issue is a two-page article and self-portrait drawing entitled You’ll Be Okay, I Said to the Mirror. The drawing represents my fears – mortality looking me in the eyes. The act of drawing (and painting) was meditative and calming. It focused my attention on the tasks of seeing and recording, rather than on the usual all-consuming fears and worries. The emails I’ve received from nurses, doctors, PhDs and cancer patients in response to the article and cover have been incredibly moving. My story has been used by leading medical professors, to teach the importance of using
creativity as a healing modality.
Knowing that I was not going to die kept me strong in the face of it all. As did the loving support of my family, husband and friends I made that first year living on Cape Cod.
Thank you for reading my story.