Learning from COVID-19 & Cancer

“You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.” — Dr. Anthony Fauci

“As physicians we’re trained to be reductionists. We rigidly follow protocol. But life is not that way. Cancer is not linear–it is completely non-linear. It lives in the science of chaos. There’s no single point of control. You need to attack it in a non-linear fashion across time and space, monitoring it and truly dancing with it.” — Dr. Azra Raza

Photo: Breast Cancer Cell, Wikimedia Commons

Chaos versus control: Oh how we humans prefer control, as long as we’re the ones wielding it. Give us a little power, the illusion of control, and we’re hooked; we won’t let go. Not without a fight anyway. Even when we can’t see with our eyes the viruses upon which we wage war. The body’s own cells even have a dog in the immortality fight, good everyday cells gone rogue (i.e. cancer) in that quest for ultimate control and mastery over all that cannot be explained or understood.

Both cancer (the body turning on itself) and COVID-19 (a viral attacker we cannot see and about which we know so little) have much to teach us about the illusion of control and the gift of embracing chaos. Living with metastatic breast cancer teaches one the hard truth that control is, indeed, pure illusion. I follow the palliative chemo regimen my oncologist sets forth. I accompany that with my own herbal supplements, shakes, and a vegan diet. I’ve been without caffeine, alcohol, and have had virtually no sugar in a year and a half. I exercise, practice yoga, garden organically, and prepare whole foods meals. All of this is wonderful, and I am fortunate to have the resources and access to what it takes to maintain a healthy, vegan lifestyle. Still…all of this does not equal control over the cancer situation. It’s still there, tentatively peeking out with every crack of bone or ache of joint. Cancer and I are still learning from each other and figuring out whether we can coexist, or which one of us will give in to the other. Control, you see, is highly overrated.

Photo: Social Distancing for Common Good, Daniel Lobo, Creative Commons

Take the control issues plaguing our country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wow! Talk about living in the midst of hot mess chaos. There’s been a whole lot of blame slinging, twitter storming, supply/distribution hiccups, chain of command confusion, and conflicting information. Makes one kind of simultaneously consider throwing in the towel and curling up in a fetal position or digging in to your particular version of “right” and spend precious time pointing, posting, and screaming at others in your righteous hissy fit of indignation. Control comes with a high price tag and suspect warranty. Buyers beware: Maintaining an illusion of control may cost you your life or other minor inconveniences.

Most of us now have firsthand experience with loss of the illusion of control. Many people were only one paycheck away from financial destruction; they now sit in the rubble of despair. Others had to continue to work in front line health care, essential services, or public safety jobs. Still others suddenly found themselves without work, installed as teaching assistants for homebound students, and wondering where next week’s groceries are going to come from. There is no time or energy to put up an illusion of control when the new normal is anything but normal. Let’s all step back and take a deep breath. Forget the FOMO. Stop and smell the world burst forth in a riot of greens, reds, yellows, purples, and fuschia. Yes, smell the colors. Think outside the dualistic and limiting boxes of the past. Live the now and savor it. Live it and love lavishly every atom and molecule, every person you meet. Live and love the very source of love, the Creator of all things. Let go and live.

My body’s own rogue cells, the ones feasting on my skeleton and chipping away at the foundation, taught me a hard lesson: I have no choice now in letting go. I can do everything right–and I should respect my body and life enough to try–yet the cancer may very well outpace any human efforts. I can truly let go, give up all that does not truly matter, and experience the same level of disease progression. Or, I could be one of the ones for whom spontaneous regression and/or radical remission are more than hopeful words. Perhaps none of us really has as much choice as we think we do. Anything can happen. All we are promised is the now. Wouldn’t it be a pity to waste the one thing we really do have while scheming for an uncertain or unmanageable future?

There is so much we do not know about cancer and COVID-19. Yet we can’t let that prevent us from embracing the chaotic mess of life right now. If we let go and let love be our guide, chances are we won’t mess up too badly. Imagine yourself beyond the break, catching and swimming with the waves, letting go and riding them to shore. Learning to let go may be the toughest thing you ever have to do, but I’m here to tell you that initial reports are it’s worth it. Let’s keep one another posted! Here’s to letting go.

Sources

The quote by Dr. Anthony Fauci is taken from this Forbes online article.

The quote by Dr. Azra Raza is taken from her book The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer To the Last. New York: Basic Books, 2019, p. 175.

Birthday Giving Challenge

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Birthday celebrations are considerably different thanks to COVID-19, but then much of life is different now. On April 4, I will celebrate my 59th birthday. I have everything I need and want already. I am simply grateful to be alive 19 months after my stage IV cancer diagnosis. Every single day is gift, even these unusual days spent sheltering at home.

In honor of a new reality and our current health crisis, I want to do something different for my birthday. That something is a digital fund-raiser to benefit Christ Lutheran Church Health Ministries, an amazing community ministry of the congregation of which I am a member. Services include a nurse-run walk-in clinic in partnership with Holy Spirit Hospital that serves uninsured and underinsured area residents. Other services offered include a dental clinic, prenatal clinic, urgent care clinic, and a durable medical goods closet. You can learn more about the ministry by visiting the website here.

Christ Health Clinic 1

I asked our pastor, The Rev. Drew Stockstill, how I might help, and here’s what he said: “In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, The Medical Outreach Clinic continues to see sick patients, meeting the need of our most vulnerable neighbors, while also keeping mildly sick patients out of hospitals that are already under a great strain. Funds are needed to purchase over-the-counter medications and medical supplies.”

Here’s the birthday challenge/opportunity I extend to you:

I received a Thrivent Action Team Grant of $250 to use as challenge money in hopes of at least doubling that amount to benefit the immediate needs of Christ Lutheran Health Ministries. Please consider a donation by either using the secure PayPal link here (you do not need a PayPal account) or by mailing a gift to Christ Lutheran Church, attn. Health Ministries, 124 S 13th St, Harrisburg, PA 17104. Please note “digital fundraiser” in the PayPal note section or on your check so we can at least try to track the total (or PM me if you prefer).

Christ Health Clinic 2

These are tough, scary times for many people, but I know that many of us are looking for ways to help, to make a difference. Thank you in advance for helping as you are able, thanks to Thrivent for supporting this fundraiser through a generous Action Team Grant, and an EXTRA-SPECIAL thank you to the nurses, staff, and volunteers of Christ Health Ministries for continuing to be a “beacon on the hill” in the midst of pandemic. An extra $500 or so will go a long way toward helping stock the clinic.

Oh, and don’t forget to give thanks for every single day of life. You are worth it! Please stay safe.

(Photos: Will Clayton, Creative Commons, and Christ Lutheran Church, Harrisburg)

COVID-19, Cancer, & Change

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Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, NIH Gallery, Creative Commons

Here in central Pennsylvania most businesses have or are preparing to lock their doors. Essential services like grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations are still open and  populated by gaping holes and apology notes on shelves that once stocked toilet paper, cleaning supplies, bread, milk, eggs, and the ever-popular hand sanitizer. For many people life has taken on the surreal appearance of something between a snow day and a scene from a bad movie. It’s no wonder. We humans don’t do change well.

As I pondered the disruptions and strangeness of this unseen menace, it struck me that the physical distancing and suggestions pertaining to COVID-19 avoidance aren’t all that different from life with ongoing cancer treatment. For those who regularly adjust their lives to the whims of a compromised immune system this IS pretty much life as usual. Sure, for those of us who live and thrive with metastatic cancer and other immuno-suppressing conditions, we’re usually the ones making the determinations about what’s safe for us, which crowds are worth the risk, what the potential health-trade-offs might be, and making sure that hand sanitizer is always nearby. In short, you get used to it. It becomes a new normal. You learn lessons from this life and from your own rogue cells. You adapt–if you want to live.

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Metastatic breast cancer in pleural fluid, Ed Uthman, Creative Commons

Hopefully, for most of us this time of social distancing (I prefer the term physical distancing. It feels more accurate.) will come to an end in a couple weeks or maybe more. For many of us this feels like more of a major inconvenience than a life-altering threat. We’ve had no choice in changing our patterns. Yet, we still have so much choice and abundance around us. I hope that we all avoid the temptation to hoard, that we take this opportunity to care for our neighbor in both small and great ways–like not buying out an entire shipment of Lysol spray to hoard just because you have the resources to do it. How much Lysol can one family go through in a month? It’s simple. Use what you need. Share what you have. Consider others. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Love lavishly. Be creative. Use this time to examine and perhaps reorder your life, your goals, your hopes, your plans.

Pay attention to others. Pay attention to everything around you. Listen to the silence. Look at the stars. Marvel at your breathing. Did you know that you breathe more than 23,000 times per day? That adds up to about 8,409,600 breathes each year. Talk to those with whom you are sheltering during this time of COVID-19  distancing. Learn about your family and friends. Play an instrument. Cook. Sing. Take a walk. Garden. You have so many possibilities.

Importantly, care for others. A lot of people will be hurting because of this time of distancing. There will be great economic disruption. Please continue to support the non-profits you value. If you are part of a faith community, please give generously either online or by mailing a check. Support local businesses that have online ordering right now. Make extra donations to your local food pantry if you’re able. Check on elderly neighbors and single parents who may have no way to pick up items they need. Above all, love lavishly.

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Live and love lavishly! Image: Kate Fisher, Creative Commons

May you celebrate many ordinary and extraordinary moments today, living in the here and now like it’s all you really have. Wisdom, cancer, and other teachers know that it truly is really all that any of us have. This one precious moment. Live it for all it’s worth!

Of course, I’m still holding out for that day when we find NED (no evidence of disease). I know it’s possible. I know people who have experienced this radical healing.

UPDATE:  I haven’t written much lately because I’ve been too busy living. I highly recommend it!  My December CT scan showed no progression of disease. This is really good news! I remain on the oral chemo regimen of Ibrance and Letrazole. I augment these meds with a lot of supplements, Frankincense and Myrrh, vegan diet with no processed sugar, alcohol, and very little processed foods period, along with other complimentary treatments like yoga and far infrared-ray saunas. I still live with a lot of aches, back pain, and fatigue, but every day is gift! Thanks for following along. It means a lot to have your prayers and intentions.