The Monster in the Closet


Every December I go to the city to see my oncologist and to get scans done. It is a gruesome process as my cells seem to remember other times when I was not as healthy, or times when I did not have as much faith in my body as I do now. Yet, the whole process makes me feel unhealthy, and most important it shakes my faith. Every December is like opening the door to face my own monster in the closet; the one I thought I would eventually stop fearing when I grew up.

I’m not sure if it’s the memories of being there in that medical center, the smells, the too well-known routine. Or if it’s the whole industry, the forms you have to fill out with the same information again and again. Or the blood work. Or the discourse about diagnosis: “By the way, you have cancer, you still have cancer, and you will always have cancer even if you do not have cancer in this precise moment.” That makes me sick to my stomach. Oh gee, thanks for the reminder, I have honestly forgotten!

In 2011, I was diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer, which immediately put me at “stage four.” That was after 10 years of being blissfully in what the establishment calls remission, since my very first diagnosis was in 2001 and I was just “stage one” then. (Was it really blissful?)

Now, I have been tumor free for several years, though as my oncologist likes to remind me, the fact that the scans can’t detect any tumor doesn’t mean cancer cells are not swirling all over the body. Because, according to her, they are. Great! My stage four cancer has become a systemic disease. Her words not mine. And one that I should be treating (with poisonous medications) forever and ever, and ever. Whatever that means.

How do you respond to such a categorical statement? Well, let me remind you, whoever YOU are, that there are cancer cells swirling around our bodies all the time anyhow. And the fact that in my past I had creatively activated them does not mean that it is in my future. That is the faith part. And I have grown to know my body to realize she likes to be healthy, and has always guided me to what is best for us. And this is a fact.

We live in constant fear. We live in a society that is driven by fear, and profits from it. No wonder our liver, our digestive system, and our kidneys are out of sorts. We constantly make decisions based on the unlikely probabilities of the worst. From the insurance we purchase to the medications we take – and I am not only talking about health insurance or Tylenol. I am talking about life, house, and car, and trip insurance, just in case, because we just don’t know. And even the three-year extended guarantee that we purchase for that electronic toy we will give our kids this Christmas. She will eventually break it, so I better get my money’s worth. We assume the worst, we expect the worst, and then we are flabbergasted when we get the worst.

What if we say NO? What if we start to believe that the best is going to happen. What if we believe that everything happens for a reason, and we can make reason of whatever happens for good. What if we start looking at the body as the best part of ourselves, our protector, the perfect organism that it is, and listen to her, and take care of her, and love her, and stop judging her, and treat her respectfully. What if we do not wait until we are in our sixties to start saying “no.” No to the energy-sucking parties of the season. No to the super costly seasonal family trips. No to the consumerism that promises happiness yet delivers misery and bankruptcy. No to the stress of the merry jolly Christmas, or happy Hanukah, or whatever it is that you inherited as celebration. What if we say no and mean it.

What if I keep my faith in my beautiful body, and rest, and smile instead of crying, trust instead of doubting, sleep instead of worrying, relax instead of making lists of unwanted things to do? What if, like nature, I save my energy during winter and darkness, and become strong and flexible like wood, and powerful and malleable like water? What if I keep healing myself and my self, and do not pay attention to the same drag-me-down-kill-me-now discourse my lovely doctor has to tell me? Because it is what she does, and she has to be responsible and follow protocol, yet it is the same words for everybody: despite age, race, religion, creed, conditions, situation, glucose levels, plasma levels, cholesterol, etc., etc….

What if I open the closet door and hug my monster, and love her, and wish her well, and let her go, this time for good?

Change can be paralyzing…

I started this blog with the hope of writing two (ok, one!) entry a month during my sabbatical year. A little bit of writing and a little bit of resting seemed like a good balance. I did not want my inspirational juice to go dry or my readers to forget about me (less than one entry a month would have done that). Yet I also wanted to rest, which is what a sabbatical should be about (after all, the word implies an abstinence from work).

However, around February, my rhythm stopped. My world was a bit turned upside down by the possibility of “change,” and I went into “waiting” mode. That is why I have not been posting since. I am back now to fix that, in the midst of changing, which is happening all the time whether we want it or not.

To summarize what kept me away from my blog for around three months: I won’t bore you with details, let me just say that we considered the possibilities of new jobs and a cross-country move from north to south. Yes, the promise of sunny, warmer weather, warm fresh tortillas all year round, and close proximity to family and friends made it very tantalizing. Decisions needed to be made, and that was the hard part.

But what did I really want? Was a great opportunity knocking at my door and I was being too lazy to get up and open it? Or was the shimmering object further down the road just a mirage? I could not decide if “the grass is greener on the other side” was at the root of our temptation to pack and move, or if fear of change was the grounding reason to stay put. Of course, there were all the other more insignificant minor details of money and job security and what not. But at the root of my paralyzing indecision were not the details of the overall package, but the feeling of being out of control and making a mistake.

We all know the things we need to change to be healthier, to have a better day-to-day existence. We all could do with little changes in our lives. But why is it so hard to change our ways of being? Why do we resist it so much, even when we know the benefits it could bring?

Spring is the time of the year when everything in nature is changing. It is a time for regeneration and new beginnings. From my Qigong training I have learned that to be healthy I have to go with the flow and, most important, not go against the natural flow of what’s going on in nature. How was I to renew my spirit if I was feeling immobilized by the possibilities of change during the spring?

I think of myself as someone flexible, easy going, someone who likes to explore ideas, and who can change her mind easily if presented with good arguments. But what I think of myself, and what my nature truly is, are not necessarily in line with each other. My brother-in-law told me (well, told us: a room full of “accomplished” family members–whatever “accomplished” may mean) that we were all type A controlling freaks­: competitive, highly organized, ambitious, impatient . . . you get the idea. And maybe there is some truth to that. Being out of control, in a chaotic environment, not knowing what is going to happen next, is not something I feel comfortable with.

Life is chaotic, unpredictable, and again and again, it shows us that we are NOT in control. Control is just a myth; control is something we like to construct to ease the anxiety of not knowing. I have learned that the hard way. Yet, it is an ongoing lesson, to be learned again and again in my daily practice.

Changes are always happening, and if we go with the flow, we can experience changes as good, positive things. At least we can always, and I mean always, find a silver lining even in the hardest of situations.

While being confronted with my own energies and feelings of uncertainty I asked myself: what does it really mean to go with the flow and to be flexible like the seasonal Qi of Spring?

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, spring is the season of the liver. Liver energy rises during the season, and if it does not flow easily, it can get stuck and create all sorts of health problems: from season allergies to menstrual issues for women, from headaches to emotional upheavals. It will also show in the digestive system, as the liver supports the stomach, but only if its energy moves smoothly.

At an emotional level, I know that I need to do something about my stress and anger in a proactive healthy way. For me, kicking and punching in my martial arts classes helps a lot–helps letting that energy move out of my body. Taking breaks from computers and electronics saves my liver energy and relieves a bunch of symptoms. Not trying to control my children (or my husband for that matter) and walking away when I need to, is another way to flow more freely. And practicing Qigong daily is a must; it is like plugging into an electrical outlet in the wall when I am running short of energy.

When I do all of that, accepting that everything is in constant flux, things become easier. And this also means that it becomes more manageable to not hold on to a preconceived idea of how things should be, how my children need to act, or even how things used to be. The Tao teaches us that there is not simply a “good way” and a “bad way,” just different ways…

Everybody needs to find what it is that gets energy flowing for them. And changing accordingly will only come easier once that energy starts flowing.

In the end, we decided to stay put in the north, not because we did not want to change, I am happy to report, but because we decided to listen to our hearts. It just came down to where we felt at home…at least for the time being.