Healing Your Heart After Cancer

We’ve all received bad news. Usually, it’s something like, “Somebody dented your new car in the parking lot,” or a loved one is sick. Perhaps a loved one has cancer. Or worse, a loved one has died.

But what about when the loved one is you? What about if the bad news is about you and it sounds like, “You have Stage 4 cancer” or “You have a year to live?”

The Five Emotional Stages

stages-of-grief

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler Ross (EKR) wrote her book, On Death and Dying about the five emotional stages we experience when faced with impending death or similar bad news.

The 5 emotional stages are:

  • Denial – the “No, Not Me” stage.
  • Anger – the “Why me, it’s not fair!” stage
  • Bargaining – the bargaining with God for more time stage
  • Depression – the “I’m so sad, why bother with anything” stage.
  • Acceptance – the “It’s all going to be okay” stage.

This is pretty self explanatory. It’s easy to read this and say, “Yep, that sounds well thought out; it probably bears some true.”

The problem is, these are emotional stages and you have to FEEL them. It’s not an intellectual exercise. Cancer weighs heavy on your heart. You can’t appreciate it without having experienced a similar situation where you broke down into one or more of these stages.

I can now tell you with perfect authority that EKR was dead on in her assessment of the emotional journey. She points out that it’s not always in that order, but we experience these steps nevertheless.

For me, Denial was over quickly. When you have emergency surgery to save your life, it’s hard to deny it. It just is.

cryingI tend to not be a very angry person, so for me, it was more a feeling of frustration. The triple whammy of healing from surgery, emptying a colostomy bag several times a day, and treating myself for cancer was enough to anger the best of us and I was definitely there.

The thing about cancer is that we’ve been told, and are conditioned to believe, that it’s a death sentence. That was what I knew at first. I freely admit to bargaining with God. I asked God to help me understand what my life was for, now that I might die. I asked for more time. I asked God to teach me what I needed to know. I asked God to live through me so that what remained of my life would mean something.

What followed was a bouncing around between depression, more bargaining, and some grudging acceptance. It took a while to allow all these concepts to settle in my heart. To “get used to it.” But that didn’t make it any better.

Which brings me to the notion that EKR did not mention, which is Surrender

Surrender

Surrender is the step between the steps. And it’s done often. With each emotional state, the heart holds onto it, indulging itself in the moment. It doesn’t want to let go because it’s entitled to it. The heart is Angry and, damn it, it’s entitled to be angry!

Eventually emotions pass. Passing, though, is the heart surrendering to the inevitable reality of the situation. Here’s where it gets tricky, though.

If cancer is a “death sentence” and you surrender to cancer as a death sentence, then the heart makes the death sentence real, i.e., you will die.

I’ve spoken to many people with stories of loved ones who just surrendered and did nothing about it, did not change any behaviors and died pretty quickly.

Between the emotional state and surrendering to death, there are gradations. For example, just surrendering to the truth of the diagnosis and NOT to the “inevitability” of the prognosis. That would mean that you accept that you have cancer, but you don’t just accept what your doctor told you about the death sentence.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial and my dad taught me to fix just about anything. So I took those skills and started scrambling to learn more about cancer. I took my prognosis as a hypothesis and set out to disprove it.

I researched everything I could find on cancer. What it is, how it works and, most importantly, how to treat it.

For me, surrendering to the truth of the diagnosis was useful to me and did not leave me paralyzed. I was, rather, motivated to learn what I could do for myself.

Does this mean I did not get depressed? Does this mean I accepted everything? Not really.

What I learned challenged me more than anything else I’ve ever had to learn or do. Between reading this or that, I fought off depression, gloom, feeling distraught.

I had many things to accept and it’s not been easy. Here’s a list of some of the things I needed to accept in surrender.

  • that I had cancer at all
  • my body will continue to grow cancer
  • I might die sooner than I expected
  • the doctor might be right
  • the doctor might be wrong
  • the medical profession might be suppressing other ways of successfully treating cancer
  • I might be able to treat myself
  • I might live a full life, even with cancer

Trust

Fortunately, I’ve had some great mentors. In 1987, my first client, Antreas, told me that I needed to trust myself and trust in the karma of the universe.

Acceptance of something inevitable requires little more than simple surrender. Then, it’s more like waiting and just doing nothing.

Acceptance of an uncertain future possibility requires Andreas’ kind of trust. In my case, it’s surrendering to trust. Trust is the essence of faith.

What I had to trust was that there are physicians who are healing cancer outside of mainstream medicine. I had to trust that surgery-chemo-radiation (slash-poison-burn) were not the only possible treatments. I had to trust that completely healing my body was possible.

The alternative was for me to surrender to death without a fight. To just accept the common conceptions and accept the doctors’ words without question and just go gently into that good night.

I don’t think so.

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

~ Dylan Thomas

My first surgery did save my life by removing a cancerous tumor blocking my colon. There was no choice in the matter.  My second elective surgery reconnected my colon, giving me normal bowel function. These last four months have been an up and down journey. I’ve experienced the full range of emotions and come to terms (mostly) with my situation.

I am still dealing with these emotions, though. Surrender and Trust help to get through it. I choose to trust that I can heal myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t get a little down, or frustrated, or want it healed right now. It doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts.

It means that I’m human and I own my emotions. It means that I’m not completely ruled by my emotions. I surrender to reality and the now. I will not go gently into that good night. I practice living in the moment and trusting in tomorrow.

UPDATE: My 2nd Surgery and Recovery

I know it’s been a while since my last update. When I last posted, I was getting ready to go back into hospital to take down my ostomy, i.e., to reconnect my colon. Since January, I’ve recovered from emergency surgery to remove a tumor blocking my colon, and then treated myself for stage 4 colon cancer. The treatment was going so sell that my oncologist suggested I just keep doing it for a while and go in for the second surgery.This from a man dedicated mostly to the use of Chemotherapy. May 9th, I went in for surgery 4 months to the day since my 1st surgery! Now that’s some progress! I checked in at 197 pounds. I was in such good shape that I had played racquetball twice in the previous week. I remember that week. I was properly dreading going in for roughly the same surgery with a similar recovery period of 4-6 weeks. I just HAD to get on the court and FEEL ALIVE! I thank my friend Lee for indulging me with some friendly competition. On May 9th, at 9 am, Nanette and I went to the hospital and check in for my 11 am surgery. It was pretty uneventful. They were expecting me. I got my ID wristband, got out of my clothes and into a hospital gown. Then up on the bed to start the IV and get me comfortable. The anesthesiologist came to visit me and offered me an epidural which I declined. I didn’t think it was smart for have people messing around with needles too close to my spinal nerves. Better safe than sorry.

Pain Scale Graphic

Surgery, Recovery and Pain

There is a strange thing that happens when you go in for surgery. There’s the before surgery time, the surgery, and there’s recovery. It’s like you close your eyes one moment, and then almost immediately open them in recovery. There’s no sense of any time passing. For me, one moment I was very happy and comfortable. Then I was given a little something in my IV to “relax” me, and the next minute I was in absolutely excruciating agony unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. Don’t think for a minute that I’m being dramatic. I actually can’t think of words that adequately describe the despair I felt amid this agony. It was just awful. No wonder they wanted to give me an epidural block! For the rest of that day following the surgery, I just endured the pain between doses of pain killer every 8 minutes. It got so that Nanette set a timer on her phone to remind me to press the red “pain” button every 8 minutes. I did this because god forbid I went some time without pressing it, like if I dozed off. After waking up, the pain comes roaring back and I’d have to play catch up to get the pain killer level back up. It takes 3-4 presses over a half our before I would get relief because of that 8 minute between pushes limit. This went on for 4 miserable days. During this time, they got me up to walk (more like an ambling shuffle) holding on for dear life to my rolling IV bottle holder. I seemed to be slowly getting better during this time. On the 5th day, I got up for my walk and didn’t make it 75 feet from my bed. I could barely stand up. Something was wrong. Turns out that I had an infection rapidly developing under my abdominal my wounds. My surgeon came in for a look. He had to pop open some staples and literally open the incisions to allow the infection to drain. For the next 5 days I drained and received IV antibiotics to help clear it up. I didn’t get out of bed for a couple days, though, because the infection knocked me out pretty badly. By the 8th day, the infection started to get under control and I started walking around again. Things were looking well enough to send me home by the 10th day.

Pay it ForwardPay it Forward

Before I left though, I asked to see the ostomy nurse that was so very helpful to me in January when I first got my ostomy. She showed me how to use the colostomy bags and gave me the confidence I needed to go home and do this for myself. She also gave me a bunch of supplies to get started which turned out to be over 2 months of supplies. I had no idea how generous this was of her, though, until I went to order supplies. I needed to return this favor. I found out how generous she had been to men when I ordered 3 months of ostomy supplies in April right before finding out that I was to go back and have the ostomy taken down (reconnected). I had a big box of stuff for her that cost about a thousand dollars. It was already purchased and paid for before I knew I was not going to need most of it! I told you she was generous to me. Got to pay it forward!

Going home

When I got home, my mom came to visit during the first week. This is a week when it hurts to do pretty much anything. I was so doped up, though that I’m afraid I was not much of a conversationalist. Mom was great, though, and just kept me company which was about all I was up for. This was also much different than my first hospital visit in January. In January, I was given dire news and everyone was upset. Mom was extremely troubled back then. But after 4 months of healing to the point of being told to return to the hospital and take down the ostomy because I was so strong, it was cause for celebration rather than concern. Mom was as relieved as I was. And let me tell you something, never underestimate the value of a properly working pooper! The second week, Nanette was home for 10 days. Nanette took really great care of me and I cannot thank or love her enough for doing so. She was as patient and loving as could be. I really don’t know how I could go through this without her. After that, It was just me and I pretty much focused on relaxing and healing. Somewhere during this time, around the beginning of June, I got off any medications or pain killers and my head started clearing up. It also took about as long for my intestinal tract to get back in shape, due to all the antibiotics, so I could get back on my mostly raw veggie diet. It’s hard to digest raw food without the proper intestinal bacteria to do the work!

Today was an eventful day

During this entire recovery period, I have required daily home nursing visits to tend to the two holes I had in my abdomen up until today! One has just closed up as of today on the main incision. The other is the hole from the ostomy which was as big and deep as your index finger! To be expected, I suppose, considering that this was the hole through which they put my descending colon. Combined with all the nasty intestinal bacteria it was exposed to, this hole’s been tougher to heal. Every day they came and cleaned and packed the holes so they would heal from the inside out. Today was the first day that I was able to pack this wound myself with gauze. You have to do that with deep holes. You have to help them heal from the inside out. If you just sewed them closed, the hole would fill up with infection and you could become septic and die. This is what happened to King Henry VIII with his every rotting leg wound. None of that for me, thank you As of today, I can finally take care of this remaining much smaller and manageable hole myself. It’s about the size of a nickel and a centimeter deep, but it’s now healing rapidly. It will probably be gone within the next two to three weeks.

Gratitude

I’m so very thankful to the nurses that visited and cared for me over these past few weeks. There’s no way I could have done it myself. Also, thanks to all the folks at Wake Med in Cary. All the staff was so very genial, friendly and professional. I always felt like I was in good hands. Another thanks goes to the surgeon who saved my life in January, and gave me back a normal functioning colon in May, Dr. Michael Malik in Cary, NC. He’s really excellent in every way as a physician and healer. Thanks also to my oncologist for suggesting I get reconnected in the first place. He’s really been quite supportive of my “complimentary” therapy. He’s done a great job of monitoring my progress and advising me on how I’m doing and interpreting the numbers for me.

What’s next?

First, continue healing up the last of my ostomy wound. That should be done by the end of June. Exercise to get my abdomen back in healthy working order. Lots of walking to get back my my leg strength and endurance. Cancer therapy wise, I’m continuing with the modified Budwig protocol a la Bill Henderson. To that, I’m adding some pretty strong liver cleansing using coffee enemas. I know that may sound strange, but it’s a time tested treatment that used to be in the physicians treatment books until they took it out in the 70’s. (That’s another blog post) I made a deal with my oncologist that for the next six weeks, I will be doubling down on my therapy and focusing on my liver to reduce the tumors. After six weeks, we’ll do another MRI of the liver and see what we see. I also know that I need to start thinking about the future. That’s been difficult. I think that’s yet another blog post. I’ll end this update by saying thank you to you, my readers and loyal friends and family for all the unconditional love and support you’ve given me when I’ve needed it most. Nanette and I literally could not have made it without you. It’s my mission in life to somehow pay that forward in whatever way I can.

Owning Your Cancer: Courage vs Fear

Courage vs. FearIt’s been 3 months since my diagnosis.

My first reaction was, “damn, that sucks.” I had no context for any significant emotional reaction, at first.

I studied cancer for the next six weeks seeking a cure. Then I met with my oncologist, who gave me some emotional context in the form of his telling me, “if you do nothing, I’d give you 12 months to live – if you do Chemotherapy, I’ll give you 30 months.” How’s that for context? My oncologist said that part of his job is to instill a sense of urgency in me.

Mission accomplished! Now I was scared silly, filled with fear of cancer with his two choices and my own 6 weeks of study. Well, doors number 1 and 2 from my oncologist are completely unacceptable. But my own door number 3 was looking better and better. All the cures I’d been reading about had much better cure rates than my oncologist. So, door number 3 it was.

Having decided on my cancer cure, I began my treatment in earnest, following Bill Henderson’s modified Budwig protocol. I’ve been doing that for a couple of months now with high hopes for a good outcome.

Last Thursday, I went for my second MRI, but I still have to wait until Monday to get the results – to see if my Liver is much improved.

Do you remember the Heinz Catsup commercial, “Anticipation… is keeping me waiting….”  Well, I didn’t realize how much I’d been bottling up while I “cheerfully” went about making my shakes in the morning and eating well during the day and exercising. Deep down, I’ve been harboring this nagging fear, “what if it does not work?”  I didn’t realize, though, just how this anticipation and trepidation were feeling inside of me until I made a simple phone call.

bill-sarineOn Friday, the day after my MRI, I called my friend Bill Sarine. Bill is one of my favorite people, a mentor and a good friend. Bill did not know about my cancer diagnosis before the call. So, I called him to tell him about it.  Before I got to tell him, though, he got to telling me a story.

First you need to know that Bill is a great story teller. He’s lived a life so rich in experience that his stories echo with sage wisdom.

He told me a story about a man named Pedro that he helped find a job many years ago. At one point in the story, Bill told the man that his time was his own and he should not waste a moment of it.

Since a cancer diagnosis typically includes a significant lifespan reduction, Bill’s story took me right over my emotional edge. I found myself crying on the phone with Bill asking me what was wrong?

What was wrong was that I’ve been on the razor’s edge teetering between courage and fear – and I just had not been fully conscious of the extent of my true feelings of fear.

On the one hand, I made a choice to follow a non-traditional course of treatment. I had to trust myself and the treatment. I had to have faith and believe that a good outcome was not only possible, but inevitable.

On the other hand was the fear and uncertainty that was there all the time since the diagnosis. I had been trusting and believing in my chosen path, all the while sitting on a nagging fear that it might not work.

Make no mistake, I do feel that I’m on the right path. I do feel better. I’ve had an MRI to verify that my treatment is actually working and healing my liver – and I won’t find out the results until Monday, a wait of 4 days, or, more precisely, 8 weeks and 4 days!

For 8 weeks, in cooperation with my oncologist, I’ve been running my own little clinical trial of one. This MRI will prove that I’m not crazy. It will prove that I may have been inspired.

All the while, I face every day with my courage battling to win over my fear. No matter the way I feel, the evidence of healing, my outward demeanor, my telling people that I’m healing myself and feeling fine, there’s an underlying primal fear of dying that can not be ignored.

My surprising awakening came right in the middle of my friend Bill’s wonderful story about Pedro. I am so thankful for that. Serendipity comes to us in many ways. Sometimes it’s just a phone call away. Thank you Bill! 

After Bill’s call, I realized that fear of cancer does not have to rule me. Having a little fear does not mean I will fail to heal myself. It’s human to have concerns. But we deal with them. Every business person understands Risk – calculated risk. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have to venture a probable cure against a certain death.

By the way, Bill is allowing me to reprint his very moving story on this blog for your enjoyment. That’s why I’ve not told you much of the story here. I want you to hear it from Bill in his own words.

I’ll end with the promise to let you know as soon as I get my results on Monday. I’ll also be posting Bill’s story next week and will let you know when it’s available for you to enjoy.

Just remember, when you are afraid, it’s not real, even though it sure feels that way. Go ahead and look your fears right in the eye and acknowledge them. Then, ask them to step aside so you can move on and do what you have to do.

After that, it’s up to you. Set your goals and make one better choice at a time, every day.

Until next time ~ Robert