Mountain Meditation: The Climb Down Begins

On Tuesday evening, June 13th, I went on a silent meditation hike with a few friends to commemorate the anniversary of my diagnosis. The hike was my friend Sarah’s idea; after reading my post “Climb Every Mountain,” she suggested that hiking down an actual mountain might be a good way to mark the end of the year-long uphill climb of diagnosis and treatment, and honor the path of ongoing recovery I’m on now and will be for a while: the (metaphorical) climb down.

Sarah and I planned to start at the top of Mill Mountain, and two friends would begin at the bottom, meet up with us on the trail, then turn back, and together we’d hike the rest of the way down. Two more planned to meet us at the bottom. I also carried several notes from friends and loved ones in my pocket, who’d shared words such as “hope,” “grace,” and “serenity,” and wishes for the coming year.

Sarah and I visited the overlook at the summit before we started down. I was almost moved to tears to see the sunset. Last year, Steve and I spent a few anxious days at the beach waiting to find out whether or not my cancer had metastasized. As I walked on the beach the first evening, the sun shone out from behind a dark cloud, its rays forming a kind of halo. In that moment, it felt like hope. As Sarah and I stood at the top of Mill Mountain, the sun once again shone its rays from behind the clouds. It felt like coming full circle.

Then Sarah noticed a smiling, shining sun painted on a rock that someone had left on the overlook sign. It was from the “Kindness Rocks” project. I snapped a picture and left it there to bring the next person who spotted it a smile.

At the trailhead I said, “Here’s to a new and different kind of year,” and then we started down in silence.

The metaphor is almost too easy; it practically writes itself. Much of the trail was rocky, though there were also smooth stretches, times when it was easier to look up and really take in the woods surrounding us. Some parts were wide and almost flat; others narrow and crossed by root-tangles. Once the trail jackknifed so hard to the left I almost missed the turn and became disoriented for a moment. One of my friends had to point the way. I walked in front, and there were times, especially when the trail grew narrow and steep, when I felt as I walking alone. But I knew I could just turn around and see people I loved were there, always behind me.

The downhill was relentless, and more than once I thought, “I didn’t think this trail was this long.” I also looked up at the slope we’d descended and thought, “That’s one big mountain. And I actually climbed it.” Metaphorically, vis à vis the physical Mill Mountain; literally, the mountain called Cancer.

At the start of our hike I mostly heard leaves rustling in the breeze, the soft thuds of my feet on the trail. In the middle I became aware of cars passing on the nearby road, the world outside the forest going about its business, unaware of our walk in progress. The closer we got to the bottom, the more birdsong I heard: owls hooting, wood thrushes whistling and trilling.

I stopped a few times to rest my cranky knees, to listen, to look. I saw a piece of glass on the trail and left it there because it wasn’t safe for me to pick it up and carry it; in my mind it represented worry, the thoughts and fears that can rob you of joy in the present. When I saw a golden glint, I bent down to investigate and found a tiny golden charm. I turned it over to see it read “create.” I laughed and put it in my pocket, thanking the Universe for the reminder and encouragement.

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At the bottom Sarah said some beautiful words: “In all the noise of living, remember the silence. And in the silence hear your soul’s voice. In all the rushing of living, remember the stillness. And in the stillness feel the pulse of life. In all the living of life, remember the dying. And know in the dying there is new life.” I had gone through a kind of death in the last year, she said, and now I was emerging, stepping into a new life, a new start.

There were hugs shared all around. I wanted to say something eloquent, too, express how much the love, kindness and support of my friends and family has meant, somehow capture all the ways my heart has broken and mended and split wide open in the hardest and most wonderful ways this year.

In the moment I squeaked out a teary “thank you.”

Two words that contain multitudes. Maybe, sometimes, “thank you” is enough. Sometimes, maybe, it is everything.

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Thank you to all who voted on a name change for the blog, and for the thoughtful suggestions that I consider a title without the word “cancer” in it at all. The clear preference (at 85%) of the poll choices was “Still Life, Beyond Cancer.” While I’m still on the mountain, as I will be for a bit, I think that title fits—but the comments have made me think about entertaining another name change in the not-so-distant future that reflects moving beyond even “beyond.” Thank you, dear readers and friends.

Tomorrow I’m scheduled to undergo my final major reconstructive surgery. I’ll be reporting soon on the new bionic boobs (an improvement, I hope, over the tissue expanders, also known as “bricks in your breasts”), and sharing more stories, resources, and fun hats. 

Climb Every Mountain

April was a month of celebration and struggle.

I hosted a tenth-year anniversary gathering for alumni tutors of the writing center I direct. I had a lovely visit with my parents that included planting herbs and taking a road-trip to the American Museum of the House Cat (quite possibly every cat lady’s dream…). I dropped off my leftover chemo-side-effects drugs at a safe-drug-disposal event—most cathartic! And I attended my 25th college reunion at Agnes Scott surrounded by smart, accomplished, inspiring women, an event especially meaningful because of all the moments in the last year I wasn’t sure I’d be able to be there.

I made a decision in April to embrace celebration as much as possible; my still-limited energy went to people and travel (and cat museums). That left little for writing. The danger (if one might call it that) of concluding my story on the blog with that triumphant dance down the hallway is that it suggests my journey through cancerland is complete. If I’m honest, my writing hiatus reveals my own deep-seated desire for that to be true.

But it’s not.

Being declared cancer-free is cause for celebration; being done with treatment is, well, tremendous. One small hiccup: being done with treatment is only the first piece of the process. Thus, with the celebration comes the struggle.

I’ve come to think it’s like hiking a mountain. Diagnosis and treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation—that’s the climb. The climb is hard, arduous, laborious. Many would say it’s the toughest part of the hike. There’s not much of an appreciable view along the trail; you keep your head down and push forward to the top. The summit, if you’re lucky, will be the ultimate reward: a cancer-free body, a beautiful view of a healthy, promising future.

It’s lovely, beyond lovely. But you’re still at the top of the mountain. And you can’t stay forever at the top of the mountain. You still have to make the climb back down.

Maybe only those with knees over forty can really relate, but trust me when I tell you: climbing down can be harder than climbing up. It puts pressure on different parts of your body. It requires adjustment to your sense of balance. In terms of perception, descending a steep slope is often scarier than ascending; fear of falling is heightened. And while, when you’re going up, your goal is clearly defined—you want to reach that summit—when heading down, the end-point is a bit more amorphous. You want to get off the mountain, eventually. You want to be done hiking and take a load off and relax. But when is the hike over? When you get to the trail-head? When you’re back at your campsite, or cabin, or house? After a warm shower and a thorough tick-check? And then there’s the fact that after making that climb and seeing that view, nothing will ever feel or look quite the same again.

Since completing radiation I have experienced ongoing pain and mobility issues related to something called “cording” in my left chest and arm (reaching, carrying, just getting dressed are problematic), along with the accompanying possibility/threat of lymphedema. I’ve had anxiety about recurrence and occasional flashbacks to particularly traumatic moments, events my doctors have likened to PTSD. “Chemo-brain” frequently robs me of words mid-sentence, and I often feel like I’m living in someone else’s body. I used to run 5Ks, lift weights, hike, bike, and paddle for fun; now it’s a challenge to walk 2 to 3 miles a few days a week and complete my physical therapy exercises daily.

I don’t share these facts for sympathy. I just want to paint a realistic picture of what recovery—even in the best-case-prognosis-scenario—looks like. Since treatment ended in early March, I’ve had 17 PT appointments, 5 therapeutic massages, 2 counseling appointments, 2 support group/Komen education meetings, 3 appointments with cancer-related specialists, and 3 additional doctor appointments, 2 of those to treat conditions likely brought on by my weakened immune system. That’s 33 recovery-related appointments in 72 days. I have 7 more appointments pending between now and the end of May.

My survivorship experience is not unusual. My physical therapist has repeatedly told me that it typically takes 18 to 24 months after the last major surgery to get back to something that feels like normal, and I won’t even hit that surgery milestone until mid-June.

It’s gonna be a long haul down a big mountain.

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Sharp Top Mountain, June 2016

Various (well-meaning) folk have described that mountain as “the new normal.” And while I know it’s a big hike, and that my mind and body are in some ways permanently altered, I feel the need to warn everyone I’m likely to punch the next person who suggests that this trail will never turn a corner. It may be the “now normal,” but long-term? In order to heal, I need to believe there will come a time when my social and creative obligations will outweigh the medical appointments on my calendar, when the daily discomfort will lessen enough that it’s not a constant reminder of the hell of so much of this past year.

I can’t predict the future, of course, and I’m working on accepting there’s more bushwhacking ahead than I’d like. But my hope, eventually, is to get back out there and climb a different mountain, a real one, with a name like Sharp Top or Buffalo or Bald Knob. I want to lift my face to the sun and drink in one of those views, feel gratitude in my heart and strength in my body. And know that my knees, however creaky, can handle the steep climb down.

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Buffalo Mountain, May 2015 — with eyes toward a return engagement!

Stay tuned for a chance to vote on a name change for the blog (don’t worry, this URL will still work, too!), more bionic boob stories, new books and resources, and—of course—more hats!

Heads Up! #7: Cozy Cobalt Felted Wool

img_0912Like much of the U.S., we recently had snow here in Southwest Virginia. I usually welcome snow, as it tends (at least here in the South) to make us slow down a bit and refocus our attention, for a day or two, on things like nature’s beauty, play, and family. The cold inspires gratitude for the warm shelter I call home, a gift denied to too many.

Our recent snow days–accompanied by single digit temperatures–seemed like the perfect time to feature my cozy cobalt felted wool hat, handmade by artist Sandy Stanton. I purchased the hat new back in September at the Asheville NC Homecrafts store, located in the Historic Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville. There were so many wonderful hats there to choose from, it was tough to select just one (I didn’t; I’ll be featuring my second purchase at a later date…). But I was immediately drawn to the beautiful blues of this hat, its primary cobalt accented by a band and flower knitted from an ombre-dyed yarn that shifts from jade to turquoise to cadet blue, into gray, brown, and finally cobalt at the flower’s center.img_0951

I gravitate toward shades of blue in my winter clothing, perhaps as a way of harnessing and transforming the emotional blues I often suffer in cold weather and its long, dark days. When so many other colors disappear from the landscape in winter, we are left with the blues: the crisp cerulean sky that reigns over the coldest days, steel-blue clouds signaling an oncoming storm, ice’s translucent aquas, the ethereal periwinkle of moonlit snow. Beautiful in their own right, these winter hues also recall the blues of kinder seasons: the robin’s egg blue of a cloudless autumn afternoon, a pewter horizon hanging over a sapphire sea, water lapping at the azure edges of a sunny backyard pool.

Occasionally snow days are an unwelcome interruption: they frustrate routines, delay travel, cancel our much-anticipated plans. But even when the clouds confound us, the thing about snow is this: it eventually melts. The storm will pass, the roads will clear. And as the world emerges from its white cocoon, the sky above will spread its wings, inviting us once again to delight in its fair, wide, beautiful blue.

Heads Up!

Photos by Steve Prisley


 ∼ Beautiful, quirky hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼

Autumn on the Parkway

img_9940Yesterday my husband Steve and I took a short drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, hoping to see some fall colors. My energy and mobility are still pretty limited—for whatever reason, the Taxol has settled into my knees, leaving me to creak around arthritically—so a mountain drive seemed like a nice way to get out of the house and breathe in at least a little fresh air.

The sky was clear and blue, the weather a perfect balance of sunshine tempered by a crisp, occasionally brisk breeze.

The colors this year are pretty lackluster, however.img_9957

Just driving along, looking out over the long-range vistas provided by many of the Parkway’s overlooks, there wasn’t much color to see. The rolling mountains along either side of the ridge, while always lovely in their swells and dips and graceful silhouettes, didn’t offer any breathtaking vistas of brilliant hues. Most of the mountains and valleys remained green, or had simply faded to a kind of dusty, rusty brown, without any fanfare, without any autumnal spectacle. From that perspective, it would be easy to say there was no color at all.

img_9945But every so often, as we rounded a bend and the sun shone just right, a beam filtering through the trees lit up a few yellow poplar clustered a little ways back in the under-story. A low-growing shrub dappled the roadside bank with orange here and there, if you watched carefully. We had to pull over and walk a few feet up the Appalachian Trail to spot the scarlet of a single sassafras leaf, the mottled red and gold of a maple.

Some seasons of life, perhaps, are like that. The beauty is there, it’s just harder to see. You have to look a lot closer to find it. You have to let go of your ideas about the grandeur that should be, and cherish instead the smallest offerings.

Like a quiet afternoon with the man you love, a few moments on a windy ridge with the sun warm on your face, a sliver of splendor you can hold in your hand.

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Everywhere’s a Metaphor

You know how when you buy a new car, suddenly that make and model starts showing up on every street you drive, every lot where you park? You’d never noticed it before you owned said car yourself, but suddenly it’s everywhere?

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the same thing happens. Instantly, it seems, every magazine you pick up has an ad for a new cancer drug, or a story of someone’s battle with cancer, or both. Every novel you read features a character with a mother or brother or friend who struggles with the disease (often used as shorthand for explaining the character’s current problems, especially if the mother’s/brother’s/friend’s cancer resulted in death). Watch any TV series long enough, and there will be a cancer mention, if not a full-on plot-line. Turn on NPR, and it comes up in that day’s interview.

Was I just not paying attention before now? Sometimes I wonder. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who reveal, once they hear I have breast cancer, that they are survivors: the technician who administered my pre-chemo EKG, a nurse practitioner I saw for an unrelated issue, my massage therapist. Friends have told me about mothers, aunts, sisters, co-workers who’ve traveled this path. It’s not that cancer had never entered my personal sphere: my sister-in-law is a six-year breast cancer survivor, and my husband, though his journey took place long before we met, is twenty-nine years cancer-free. But now I see it everywhere. Now it feels epidemic.

And with it come the metaphors.

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Professional hazard: when you’re a writerly type, and you’re trying to make sense of the weird detour your life has taken, the metaphors are dogged. You’re in the early stages of diagnosis and testing, and you drive to the beach. The weather is gorgeous for a few miles, then suddenly the gray gathers ahead, and your road leads straight into dark, threatening clouds. Rain pummels the car with such force you slow to a crawl. It lets up, a breather. You keep driving, round another bend, the storm crashes again. Just when it seems you’ll have to pull off the road to breathe without fear, the road bends westward, and the sky ahead shines clear and blue. You even catch a glimpse of a rainbow before it shimmers away. A bank of black clouds still hovers to the left. Will the rain follow you? Will the road turn directly into its path again?

You walk a mountain path through a nearby park. The first 100 yards of the trail are open, exposed to the blazing sun. It’s hot and uncomfortable until you reach the wooded portion of the trail that winds through the trees, where the dappled shade and a light breeze keeps the heat in check. It’s an out-and-back route, so you’ll trace those same 100 yards at the end of your walk. They weren’t fun at the beginning, and you know they’ll be even harder once you’re tired and spent and sweaty from the rest of your walk. But the only way home is back through.

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According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Chemotherapy, I think, is a first-rate test of a first-rate intelligence—and it’s a tough one, physically and psychologically. Embracing chemo means embracing toxic chemicals and nasty side effects that feel a lot like “harm,” even as you understand they’re doing “good” by helping you defeat the threat of the cancer.

Though the comparison feels more cliché than metaphor, chemo, for me, has been a roller coaster. Most breast cancer patients who have chemotherapy are on an every 2-week or 3-week cycle. As a two-weeker, I have one good week and one tough week. To concretize: imagine you’re going to be hit by a truck and catch the flu at the same time. For a week, you have intense body aches, nerve flare-ups, fatigue, nausea or other digestive issues, headaches, some fever. The worst passes after four to five days, followed by a couple days of lingering, less intense symptoms. You feel better, maybe almost normal, for a week. Then you willingly throw yourself in front of the truck again, because the truck is going to save your life.

I’ve been lucky, all things considered. My treatments have consisted of two sets of drugs, the first four a combination of Cytoxan and Adriamycin, and the second four rounds of Taxol. The first were the hardest, in part I think because of the ripple effect of adding drug-upon-drug to control side effects. In addition to the two chemo drugs in my drip, there was a steroid and two anti-nausea medications. I was also given a drug to boost my white-blood-cell count the day after chemo. Add Claritin to counter the bone pain brought on by the white-blood-cell booster, two at-home nausea meds should I need them, and laxative because all the anti-nausea meds cause constipation. I was already taking Ativan to sleep at night and Tylenol for discomfort. We’re talking twelve drugs going into a body that until a few weeks before hadn’t been processing anything more complicated than ibuprofen and the occasional Tums. Thankfully, I didn’t need all that was on offer—nausea wasn’t a major issue for me; I’ve only thrown up twice since I was eighteen. For what it’s worth, I did spend those eight weeks belching like a seventh grader. This phenomenon was not caught on camera.

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Taxol, for most, is more easily tolerated and requires fewer maintenance drugs, though I am in the 20% of patients (yay!) who experience fairly pronounced bone and muscle pain, and the cumulative fatigue that’s been promised is setting in. But on the whole I’ve done well. I’ve hydrated like crazy, brought yoga and massage on board to help, stayed in communication with my doctors so adjustments could be made, and (knock on wood) had no major allergic reactions. The worst event was a single scary blood pressure crash one evening after the first treatment.

The being yanked back and forth has been, perhaps, the toughest piece. The days I’m out and about, dressed, seeing friends, playing with hats: those are the good days. I seize them joyfully because I can (and because after a week parked on the sofa binge-watching The Mindy Project, I am restless and bored and eager to interface with actual people). It’s necessary to find and relish the joy, to resist succumbing to the undertow of I feel good now, but I know I’m going to feel bad again. The upside of knowing: I can plan around it. The downside: the pressure of trying to cram in everything I need and want to do, especially with increasing limitations. At first, I was fully functional during my “good” weeks. Then I started limiting myself to no more than 2 outside-the-house commitments or errands per day, then one, and I’m rapidly heading toward an every-other-day energy conservation model.

In truth, all of life moves this way, back and forth between the strong days and the hard ones. In a way, having some measure of predictability is a rare gift. In our everyday lives, none of us knows when such shifts will occur, when we will turn into the path of the storm, when the trail will grow hot and steep, when or if the rainbow might reappear.

My current shifts are dramatic and clearly delineated, but the biggest change is in my own awareness. These shifts have always been. They will always be. I can neither anticipate nor thwart them, and trying to do so just makes more wasted energy. The best, the only, place for me, for any of us to rest is here, now, in this intricate present.

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