Old Wounds

About a year into my Hormone Suppression Therapy—designed to slow the growth/spread of my Metastatic Prostate Cancer—I noticed a old scar on my hand that looked red and raised. The wound had occurred more than three years earlier, caused by grease from the grill splattering up on the top of my right hand. It left three small scars, in the general shape you’d expect from drops of hot oil. 

I thought it might be an infection, but topical medication wasn’t having an effect.

Later, a small red circle showed up on the top of my foot. Like my hand, the area was red and raised, very prominent and noticeable. It was in the exact location where I'd been stung by a wasp several years earlier. (Not to be gross, but I included a couple of pictures below)

What could cause these old wounds to suddenly become prominent?

And then, the paranoia sets in.
I think anytime something unusual happens in the body of a cancer patient, we experience a small amount of panic.
And the questions:

Is this connected to my cancer?
Is the cancer spreading?

So, I consulted my Oncologist, who suggested I visit my dermatologist to have them checked.

Another doctor. Another doctor visit.
That's probably one of the most common activities in my schedule—visiting doctors.

My doctor examined me, and told me the medical name was Granuloma Annulare.
My first thought (again, cancer-centric): Well, that doesn't sound good, since it rhymes with melanoma, and I know what that is!

But he calmed my fears, assuring me it was harmless. Even without treatment, he said it would probably go away…in a year or two. (Two years?) It was more than likely caused by an elevation in my blood sugar.
Interesting, because an imbalance in blood chemistry is one of the side effects of my cancer treatments.
Which means, I have a side effect that's caused by another side effect.

Lovely!

But it did bring up a philosophical realization. Cancer is our body, turning on itself...destructively. And I think it triggers a similar phenomenon in the non-physical aspects of our life: emotional, spiritual, psychological, relational, etc. Cancer upsets our well-being. All of it. The disease has a way of highlighting old wounds and aggravating old scars, forcing them to the surface so we can (must?) deal with them. It persistently challenges weak places in our sense of identity—stirring up buried issues of inadequacy, chipping away at the facade of a deeply ingrained negative self-image, scratching away our perceptions of beauty, infecting flaws in relationships, revealing unhealed hurts.

I know that’s definitely been true for me. Painfully true!

  • I look at myself sometimes in the mirror and I'm barely recognizable. My body has undergone significant changes, including the embarrassing loss of some bodily functions, excessive weight gain...and BREASTS! If we are what we see in the mirror, then this disease will wreak havoc on our self-esteem.
     
  • The limitations brought on by pain and fatigue have me almost home-bound. I lost a successful career that I'd worked for many years to create. If we are our jobs, the inability to work will devastate our sense of value.
     
  • I’ve confronted the grief of losing my biological father who abandoned us when I was very young. I’ve also dealt with the life-long emotional distance that exists with my adoptive father, and the pain (and wounds) I live with because of his verbal abuse. He had never once asked about my cancer nor how I'm doing. I stood up to him a few years ago, and he hasn't spoken to me since. Truth is, the disease can challenge our most significant relationships, regardless of the stability. Wounds and weaknesses will surface!
     
  • It hurts that I am not able to give my partner the intimacy that we once knew, but thankful that our marriage is not built solely on that one dimension. I cry as I watch him listen to the doctors. I can see that a union based on the physical, or the sexual or the visual could crumble under the weight of the devastating results of cancer. (I know for a fact that many relationships don’t survive the adversity of this disease.) If we are the part most affected by our disease (a breast, a limb, sexual function), we will feel inadequate. 
     
  • I've found that someone with control issues (Not me, of course!) will be dismayed at their inability to be in charge—of our bodies, of our energy...often, of our destiny. And if we see ourselves as self-sufficient, that will quickly be impacted. Cancer is a force in our body, asserting control. More than a year ago, my doctor optimistically talked about "managing" the cancer, now we know...that's an illusion.
     
  • This disease impacts those around us as well, drawing attention to their wounds, too. Their fears, their insecurities, their grief come to light with this diagnosis. And they may not always respond in the best, kindest way. We may learn they are more comfortable not being part of our struggle, and they exit our lives now, rather than face what they perceive to be the ultimate separation later. It's sad. It's cowardly. And it's hurtful. But I've come to understand, and seek to forgive. 
     
  • I think when we initially hear a “cancer” diagnosis, regardless of what might come next about prognosis and treatment, the word will scream in our head, and echo back with the dread of death. It brings to the surface the issue of our mortality. That's rarely pleasant. If there are any suppressed metaphysical questions (e.g., "What happens after this?"), having a life-threatening disease will shine a bright light on it. We can become paralyzed with fear, lost in regrets and negativity can come to the surface, overwhelming our emotions, impacting those around us and actually hindering our recovery. 
Author's Note: I am so grateful for the reality of my faith, and I feel it's been a constant comfort to me throughout the ordeal. No, that doesn’t mean that I don’t get afraid, and I'm not presenting myself as a saint. But in the midst of the fear, there is always that “still, small voice” of peace that keeps me from panic. I’ve never doubted God’s love, God’s grace, God’s presence or God’s purpose. I’ve never questioned or been angry with God about the disease. ("Why me?") And I’ve refused to give in to the suggestions of some that my cancer is somehow an indication of God’s displeasure with me.
I don’t have all the answers, but I am not overwhelmed by the questions. 

So, in addition to the physical effects that any form of cancer brings to a body, it also reveals previous emotional hurts, scars, bruises and wounds: chinks in the armor of our self-confidence, the fragility of life, the fallacy of our ability to control, questions about our faith and destiny, faults in our relationships. And don’t get me wrong. I think, in the long run, this is a good thing. If we don’t face up to these old wounds, they are forever there, below the surface…waiting to infect and inflict us again. For me, cancer shows where I need help and healing!

 

Too gross?

Too gross?

Note: Portions of this post were originally published on a previous blog; it has been revised and updated for this entry.

Honesty. Honestly?

Thomas Jefferson said,"Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom."

From childhood we’re taught to be honest. In school, we're told "Keep your eyes on your own paper." 
We hear stories about famous, honest people, such as George Washington and the cherry tree (which paradoxically, may not be a true story) and Abe Lincoln, who was apparently so honest it became part of his moniker. (We probably don’t see lessons in this virtues using many modern politicians these days!) 
We are instructed not to cheat at games or in sports. (Wait until you get a pro contract for that one!)
If we were raised in church, it was part of our spiritual code.
In short, we’re commanded to tell the truth. It’s drummed into our moral psyche: “Honesty is the best policy.”

But is that…well, the truth?

I mean, is honesty always the right thing to do?
Is it always a simple choice between truth and lie?

If Aunt Ethel asks “Do you like this hat?” what’s my response if I think it looks like a plastic flower arrangement exploded on her head?

If your wife asks “Do I look fat?” do you respond truthfully that you’ve noticed she’s looking plump?

And don’t get me started on Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the Tooth Fairy!

Here's my dilemma when it comes to honesty as it relates to my cancer and my treatments. I regularly get asked “How are you feeling?” It’s usually accompanied by the tilted head nod and sympathetic look. Making it worse, sometimes they'll include qualifying statements as "You look great, so how do you feel?" or "How do you feel, because you don't look sick at all?" That seems to preclude any information I should give to the contrary. (Maybe Fernando, Billy Crystal's character on SNL was right: "It's better to look good than to feel good.")

Regardless, I’m never sure how to respond because I'm not sure what they REALLY want to know. There could be genuine concern, or they're only being polite. 

Am I honest, or do I lie to them?
How honest should I be?

Here’s The Truth: I rarely “feel” great; some days are better than others, but it’s all relative. I’m almost always experiencing some kind of discomfort—from achy joints to intense hot flashes to nausea to fatigue. Not to mention there are many aspects of my condition that Mom taught us should not be discussed in "polite company!" (Much of what I "feel" falls under the category of TMI—too much information.) 

How do you tell someone about the frustration of out of control bodily functions that require I stay inside, and makes me afraid to be outside, not "close enough" to get to a restroom in time?

How do you explain being so tired you can barely walk, or mood swings that causes you to cry uncontrollably?

Is there a way to politely talk about how emasculating it feels to have enlarged breasts that are so sore, even a t-shirt causes pain, or being unable to be sexually intimate with my husband? 

See...TMI.

I have a Pentecostal friend who tells me I should "speak" what I want as my outcome. In other words, each time someone asks how I'm doing, I'm supposed to say "I'm healed." Oh, and I should end it with "In Jesus' Name!"
Is that...honest? (There's an elaborate theology built around this concept, but it's not a faith-system I embrace! To me, it always sounded more like magical incantations.)

How are you feeling?
I don't know how to respond...honestly.

I don’t care for trite answers, such as “I'm hanging in there,” like there's a danger I might slip and fall off the planet at any second.
If I’m candid with everyone who asks, at some point, it's bound to comes across as perpetual whining or hypochondriacal complaining. 

Of course, there’s always the standard courteous, perfunctory “I’m fine,” which is good decorum and probably gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling because they asked. (This is not meant to sound callous or prejudge their motives, but let’s be…truthful. Most of the time, it’s just a polite greeting, without expectations of an "organ" recital: my bladder is infected, my kidney is inflamed, my penis doesn't work, I have breasts!) 

How are you feeling?
I reckon I could come up with some cleaver, witty comebacks. Of course, I'd have to avoid being rude, crude, cynical or sarcastic...and for me, that sometimes an effort. ("I feel like I might barf at any minute, so be prepared to use that hymnal as a shield!")
At times, I want to respond in my best Jack Nicholson voice: "You can't handle the truth!"

Then we have the other part of my conundrum: family and close friends who actually want to know.
And what about my husband?
In the past, I’ve resisted giving him too many details; I don’t want him to be concerned about every new symptom, side effect or pain.

be-honest-question.jpg

I looked up the word honesty and learned it originally carried the idea of “honor” more than our modern concept of “truthful.” That helped me with a strategy. I’m working on honoring anyone who asks me, at the level of our relationship.

For the casual—those who are being polite—I will honor their civility by responding kindly, but probably without much personal investment. "I'm taking it one day at a time. Thank you for asking." 

For those closest to me, I want to honor their genuine concern and be as honest as possible. "I am struggling today." "It's been a good day." And sometimes it may be: “Thanks for asking, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

 

It was William Shakespeare who told us “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
However, the Bard also warned us to “Take note…honest is not safe.”

Honesty?
To be honest, I'm not sure!

 

Note: Portions of this post were originally published on a previous blog; it has been revised and updated for this entry.

God, Christmas...and Cancer

Forewarning: For my non-religious friends, this one is a bit steeped in the concepts of my faith.
But hey, it’s Christmas. Allow me some latitude.

It’s the Christmas season, when Christians celebrate Advent – God coming to us.
Emmanuel – God with us.
Incarnation – God as one of us.

Part of the message of Christmas for Christians is the Good News that God infiltrated the human race, in the form of the Bethlehem baby. The apostle John tells us God “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 The Message)

It was unique.
It was extraordinary.
It was miraculous.
It was personal.
But most of all, it was unexpected.

No one could imagine that our Creator would take the form of an infant—in that place; helpless, and born in such lowliness as to be ignored, had it not been for the heralds of the angels. But God took this step to show us the magnitude of divine love and to demonstrate a desire for personal relationship with us.

But that message is not limited to Christmas: God continues to show up in places we don’t expect.

Even in the midst of cancer!

I’ve made it clear that I don’t see my cancer as either a gift from God nor as a punishment from God. I don’t think it was designed by God to get my attention, humble me, bring me closer or teach me anything.

Nonetheless, it has been humbling, dealing with a body that seem intent on rebellion and having to be so dependent on others. My diagnosis was not God’s attempt to impart some "Life Lesson," but I have learned some wonderful, eternal lessons. And while I don’t think I got cancer to “bring me back to God,” the disease has turned my attention to God even more than was part of my normal routine.

And so while (as I mentioned in a previous article) I am not thankful for the disease, I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m bitter. I can honestly say that I have never asked “Why me?” or expressed anger at God for this disease. I don’t see myself as abandoned by God, and it certainly doesn’t mean I think God was taken by surprise when I got the diagnosis. (I will avoid all theological discussion at this point on providence, predestination and/or divine permission.)

That said, God continues to surprise me with unexpected visits. 

Whenever I’ve had to sort through massive amounts of confusing information to make life-altering decisions, I’ve heard that “still, small voice” prompting me, parting the clouds of confusion and bringing a calming peace.

In those times when dark emotions reflected the sickness in my body, I’ve encountered unforeseen joy. In the midst of mind-numbing nausea, there has always been a subtle spark of hope. And there have been times when I wasn’t sure I could get out of bed, but the strength came, and I believe it was from a Source beyond my own.  

In addition, like we saw in that “little town of Bethlehem,” God shows up in human form. I am constantly moved by the support of those around me. Particularly and especially my partner—loving and longsuffering in every sense of the word. If this ordeal has taught me anything (more precisely, confirmed to me), he is a Gift from God.

I joke about the silly stuff, and even ridicule the absurd things people do and say…but I never want to convey that as the norm. There are people who write to me, or call me…and they comfort me at precisely the right moment. They aren’t the ones who come with “a word from God” of how I got the disease, but when they speak (or write), I hear the very heart of God in their kind words of encouragement.

So, while I would not have chosen this journey (Who would?), I wouldn't take anything for the gifts I’ve received along the way. Throughout the ordeal, I’ve lived in God’s Presence. Yes, I know it sounds metaphysical (It is, actually!), but I make no apology. No matter what's happening, or will happen down the road, I have an assurance that I am not alone in this battle. I don’t enjoy the experience, but I have no fear. For me, that’s divine. And that’s part of the message of Christmas: Fear not!

Note: Portions of this post were originally published on a previous blog; it has been revised and updated for this entry.