I’m not dead yet…

…but it probably won’t be very long. You know, reality can be a tough pill to swallow some days. You want things to go one way; life seems to be pushing you in another direction.

This is what happened to me this week. Both of my oncologists have confirmed that there is nothing really more to do. The cancer is taking over this tired old body. The chemo (Gemzar) isn’t really working, and there aren’t any more systemic options that don’t process through the liver. My liver is full of mets–both microscopic and significant. We thought about seeing a gastroenterologist, but the chances of a stent in one or more of the larger lesions bringing long term hope and correction is nil. It’s more likely to cause an infection. It looks like the cancer is spreading to my cerebellum, and there are more bone mets than before. It was a truly depressing PET/CT scan, but it told the truth. My body is dying, even through my heart and mind feel more alive than ever before.

Oh yes, my friends, I’m still praying for a miracle, and I will right up to my last breath, and I ask you to join me in this prayer. I’m also asking for prayers for peace, strength, and courage to face whatever lies ahead. We just never know.

Image: “Last Will & Testament,” Ken Mayer, Creative Commons LIcense

What I’ve learned so far this week from my teacher cancer:

  1. Be prepared. Have your will, healthcare power of attorney (or Five Wishes) and POA updated BEFORE you really need it.
  2. Make decisions about what you want done with your body and do whatever is necessary to ensure those decisions are carried out. We’ve had to scramble a little bit because of Maryland’s way of handling body donations to science.
  3. Make sure you’ve handled things like getting a handicapped hang tag for for your car before you really need it.
  4. Don’t wait to call Hospice until it’s too late for them to make a difference.
  5. Do talk honestly and openly to your loved ones about what is happening, how you are feeling, and what they are feeling.
  6. People will want to help, but they will often be anxious and afraid to ask you what you need. If you need meal help, ask for a meal train to deliver meals that can be frozen and reheated. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you can and can’t eat.
  7. Friends and family will want to see you, and you will want to see them. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Avoid completely tiring yourself out with visitors. Consider FaceTime and Zoom as options.

Above all, don’t let cancer or whatever illness you have steal your joy. Avoid worry. Treasure each day, and love like there’s no tomorrow (because there may not be). Know how deeply you are loved by your Creator and by friends and family. Sure, your favorite people may act a little squirrely and uncomfortable because we don’t do death and dying well in our culture. But draw them in and keep them close, even if it feels awkward.

Finally, don’t pull away from my journey just because it feels like I won’t “win” the battle. Let me show you what it’s like to lean into the Creator of the Cosmos and die to self and this life. Let’s walk as love in action to the next phase of reality. I promise to be honest and straightforward, and I will answer your questions. Your support in walking with me means the world. Thank you.

I shouldn’t be writing this, but I am…

so please keep those positive thoughts and fervent prayers going! They truly do matter and make a difference.

Image: Gebet, Prayer, Kurt Stocker, Creative Commons License

My liver has been quite uncooperative of late. Actually, my oncologist now thinks the liver has been involved all along since my initial diagnosis included a large pleural effusion and ascites. The taxol and abraxane and Ibrance have just kept things in pretty good check. Fortunately, the ascites has not returned (knocking furiously on my noggin), but the pleural effusion has been a periodic and unwelcome visitor.

If you saw my last post, you will note that we’ve taken more aggressive action with a PleurX catheter and a change in chemo cocktails. The Abraxane was working beautifully until one day it just took a nasty turn in the wrong direction. It happened fast, too! I remember telling Dr. Mehta when we started Abraxane that it would either work well or it would annoy the cancer. The latter is the path the cancer took, so we started last month on Gemzar (gembicitine). This is a rather old chemo drug as such things go, and it has the potential for some nasty side effects, but it also has the potential to reverse this trend. So bring it on, Gemzar. Let’s sparkle and glitter like a pink unicorn and send these micro liver lesions and the accompanying inflammation into apoptosis!

It is a scary time for Rob and me because last Tuesday, based on my labs, Dr. Mehta was ready to have a very different conversation with us. Yet he admitted that my clinical presentation did not match my labs. My bilirubin is climbing–this week 16.5, but my alk phos levels are falling some. I don’t look as jaundiced as I should be, and I have enough energy to walk a mile or two (albeit slowly) and climb three flights of stairs. I’m not confused, and my appetite is improving. My symptoms of being a lovely shade of yellow and itching like a dog with fleas are manageable. It doesn’t make medical sense, but Dr. Mehta says he has seen this happen a couple of times before. So here’s to medical anomalies and miracles.

Image: A Bouquet of Prayers, Ajay Goel, Creative Commons License

Friends, the only thing to which I can attribute all this is my faith in the cosmic Christ, the one who holds every atom and molecule of the universe together, and who hears our fervent prayers. Sure medical science helps, and these tools have been given to us by God and healing hands raised up in divine power. Whether one identifies as Christian, a practitioner of any of the world’s religions, or someone who simply believes in the connectedness and sacredness of all creation, we are all on the same page when it comes to desiring wellness and wholeness for ourselves, for one another, and for creation.

So thank you! Thank you for your ongoing prayers, good intentions, and many kindnesses. They keep me going. They lift me up. The allow the glory of God to be shown through this process. Thank you.

I do have some specific prayer requests if you are able: 1) please add me to any and all prayers lists at your houses of worship; 2) I would seek specific prayers for the cancer to cooperate and exit my body; 3) that the divine will for my life will be realized; and 4) that although I am not afraid to die to this life, that I will be given more time to live, laugh, and love. Above all, I pray that Christ will be glorified in, by, and through whatever wholeness, healing, and life there is to come. Thank you! To God be all the glory. Amen.

Image: Prayers at Western Wall Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Asim Bharwani, Creative Commons License

Finally, friends, treasure each precious day of life you have. The present is all any of us is truly guaranteed. So live boldly, love lavishly, and make this world a better place for all people with all that you can.

You can’t always get what you want…

…but if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.

This snippet of lyrics from the Rolling Stones kept going through my head yesterday while I waited in pre-op at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center for my turn to go to the operating room. I was there to have the dreaded PleurX indwelling catheter installed. It wasn’t what I wanted at all, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed after all.

Image courtesy oncolink.com

Note: For those of you who are curious about a PleurX catheter and why it’s needed read on. If you’re not interested in detailed medical information skip down past the image and start reading again.

You may remember from past posts that my liver has been rather uncooperative for the last several months–since last summer when the cancer decided to take up residence there. Your liver is critical to your body’s overall functioning so this has not been good news at all. Since December I’ve had increasing bouts with pleural effusions. These collections of fluid gather in the pleura, a two-layered membrane that surrounds each lung to cushion and prevent friction as the lungs expand and contract. A small amount of pleural fluid resides between the layers to keep things moving well. Unfortunately, sometimes liver metastases can send extra fluid upward into the pleural space where it basically becomes trapped and pushes the lung upward. This in turn causes breathing problems and spreads cancerous cells. There are three solutions to the situation:

  1. Thoracentesis: I’ve had about half a dozen of these in two and a half years. It’s usually an outpatient procedure guided by ultrasound in which a surgeon inserts a needle into your back or side and uses a vacuum bottle to draw off the fluid. Theoretically, the lung will expand and all will be well. Sometimes, like with me, the fluid will return and eventually cause atelectasis (partial lung collapse). Relying on this procedure repeatedly puts one at risk for the fluid to collect in several discrete areas that makes drainage more difficult or impossible. Cancer is tricky.
  2. Pleuradesis: This is a permanent surgical solution that uses medicine, usually talc or doxycycline, to fuse the two layers together. This was what I had hoped to have, but my lung would not fully expand, so it was not an option. There are risks such as procedure failure, infection, etc., but then no medical treatment is without risk.
  3. PleurX catheter: This is a surgical procedure where the surgeon inserts an indwelling catheter into the pleura. The catheter hangs out of your body several inches, and you are able to work with a home health nurse or drain the catheter yourself using medical supplies and vacuum bottles delivered to your home. Eventually, the drainage should slow enough or stop completely, and the catheter is removed. My very excellent thoracic PA, Kevin, says that sometimes the pleura will even fuse on its own since the catheter is an irritant. I will do all I can to help that process by using my trusty spirometer.

No, it’s not what I wanted at all, but this morning my coloring was already better, and I have more energy. I have been able to eat more and move better; even stairs are easier. This is a good thing. Those who live with metastatic disease know that cancer can turn on a dime, and that disease progression is a reality that cannot be predicted. You learn to live in and for the moment. You begin to grasp the preciousness of each day. You treasure the texts, cards, small reminders of love and care, and some days you get a special lagniappe like I did when I arrived home from the hospital–a beautiful flower arrangement from our friends B and K. Thank you, friends, for making my day, my birthday, and my life so much brighter.

Whether you live with this precarious reality in your life, or whether your life is just peachy keen and dingle-dog-dandy, don’t take one breath for granted. The present moment is all any of us really have. Let us remind one another of that fact by not taking anyone for granted; love lavishly, serve generously, and give prodigally. The one with the most toys still dies but doesn’t get to take any of it along for the ride.

Yellow is NOT my best color…

Yellow was never my color–not even back in 1973. Here I am on the steps of the Parthenon in Nashville with my parents.

Let me just reiterate that statement…I do NOT look good in yellow. Right now I’m being compelled to “wear it” thanks to an explosion in my bilirubin counts that has left me jaundiced. It’s not a hot fashion look I assure you.

But things were going so well, weren’t they? Yes! Just a few short months ago a PET scan revealed encouraging changes and reduction in activity in my bone and liver mets. My tumor markers were going down, down, down, and all was looking super encouraging thanks to Abraxane.

One thing about metastatic breast cancer is that you never can count on one day being the same, or better, or even worse than the previous one. Cancer cells are smart, and they can learn to outwit the drugs that we throw at them. In fact, I remember telling my oncologist that Abraxane was either going to make a big difference, or it was going to make the cancer really mad. The latter is clearly the response.

About three weeks ago I started having trouble breathing again. Going up stairs required a major effort, and I was increasingly fatigued. The end result was a trip to the emergency room that resulted in a hospital stay, a pleural tap that removed 1.6 liters of fluid from my pleura complete with cancerous cells floating around in it. I did not improve significantly after a few days of rest at home, so I knew something was up (and it was probably going to be the tumor markers).

Sure enough, things took a 180 degree turn with my liver numbers and tumor markers. Why? Who knows? There’s so much we still don’t know about cancer. So what does this mean for me?

Image: Gemzar’s chemical makeup. Wikipedia

My oncologist at M.D. Anderson-Cooper is starting me on a new chemotherapy drug tomorrow in hopes that it will get those numbers headed in a better direction. So it’s bye-bye Abraxane, and hello Gemzar, aka Gemcitabine Hcl. It works somewhat differently from Abraxane and is classed as an antineoplastic, antimetabolite.

As I understand it (sure wish I’d been more attentive in chemistry), this drug is similar enough to a natural chemical to participate in a normal biochemical reaction in cells but different enough to interfere with the normal division and functions of cells. Evidently it’s pretty good at inserting itself into the work of quickly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, inhibiting their greedy metabolic process. I hope this little chemical trickster will do the trick for me.

It’s an old drug, patented in 1983 and approved by the FDA for medical use in 1995, that’s used in the treatment of many cancers, including metastatic breast cancer. Gemzar is also used off-label to treat certain cancers in the liver, so I’m hopeful that it will act accordingly for me. It does come with a slew of side effects, some of them quite serious, so I’ll have to watch and be watched closely. That said, I have come to appreciate the rather glib saying “Better living through chemistry,” so I’m willing to give it a 110% shot.

Additionally, next Wednesday I’ll have a PleurX catheter inserted to help drain the nasty fluid that’s preventing me from breathing well. It’s an outpatient surgery done under general anesthesia similar to that used for everyone’s favorite but completely necessary colonoscopy. I’m a little nervous about that, but it’s the best way to treat this problem. If I’m lucky it may even irritate my pleura enough to fuse it to my lung if my lung will completely reinflate with the negative pressure of the regular drainings.

Image: Pinterest, Creative Commons License

I remain optimistic about this cha-cha dance of life. Even when I take two steps back, there’s always the potential to step forward. And, hey, every day is gift. We all need to make the most of the days allotted us.

Please send all the prayers and positive energy you can spare my way. I truly believe that prayer is powerful medicine–better than any chemo without the nasty side effects. Life is beautiful, friends. Don’t take it for granted! Thank you so much for walking this journey with me. I hope and pray that we have many more miles to go.

I get by…with a little help from my friends

Toasty warm in a matching handcrafted set by my dear friend, Sarah.

It’s been a challenging year for all of us, and frankly I’m glad to see 2020 pass on by tonight. My prayer is that 2021 will be a better year for all of us. It can be if we lean in, strengthen our web of connections, and pay attention to life.

Living with a chronic and/or terminal condition can be a lonely, confusing, and difficult journey. Most folks are really good about responding to the initial crisis, but when it settles into weeks, months, or years of treatments, medical procedures and appointments, and life adjustments things can get complicated. It’s tough to know what to say or do when your family and/or friends are hurting. My advice? Each person’s situation and needs are different. But try. It’s better to be awkward and say the wrong thing than to say nothing at all or just slip out of contact.

For me the situation is two-fold. First, I don’t like to bother folks with my problems, and 2) it’s one of my growing edges to ask for and gratefully receive help. Thankfully, many good friends and my amazing extended family continue to pray and walk with me on this journey, and that makes all the difference in the world.

Last week I wore this new hat crafted by my friend, June.

When I see your posts and “likes” on Facebook in response to my blog entries or posts, it does wonders to pep me up and keep me going. When a card or note arrives in the mail, it’s a big boost. Why? I know that prayer works, community matters, and people care.

Recently I received gifts of beautiful handcrafted (and WARM) hats and accessories. When I wear the hats and scarves or when I cuddle under a gift blanket during chemo, I carry you with me, and I am blessed by your ministry of presence and caring. When I gaze on the beauty of flowers (a luxury I rarely allow myself to purchase), your love and care are right there. Yes, presence and caring; even though COVID is keeping us apart, it’s these tangible signs of your love and solidarity keep me bounding up that staircase at M.D. Anderson–Cooper on the wings of eagles to receive my chemo and fully and faithfully live another day.

A friend and colleague who is also undergoing cancer treatments sent me this awesome sticker that now graces the front of my treatment notebook. Thank you, Courtney! Not 2021 Cancer!

Right now, most cancer patients cannot even have someone accompany them for treatment/procedures in an effort to keep us from COVID exposure. Little things like notes, texts, and practical expressions of love and support–like warm hats and socks and kind encouraging words–stand in for the lack of face-to-face time with friends and family.

On this last night of 2020, I want to thank all of you for the many ways you have lifted my spirits, augmented my courage, and kept me strong during a particularly grueling few months. I love you all and am so grateful to be a part of this wider, stronger web of connection that just continues to ripple across the cosmos. To my many friends, family, and colleagues who are living with chronic and terminal conditions, please know that I hold you in daily prayer. We are all stronger together, and don’t forget: We all get by with a little help from our friends. Thank you! Happy New (and better, please) Year!

Love your liver

I must admit that I’ve never been a big fan of liver. Maybe it goes back to having to eat it as a child, once even cleverly disguised as country fried steak (no amount of breading and gravy can hide that distinctive taste). The only way I can stomach it is all jazzed up as pate.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

While I may never love liver, I am learning to love my own liver. I never gave it much thought until I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Then I began to understand just how important this strange looking organ is as I watched various numbers on my lab reports start to go haywire this past summer, things on my comprehensive metabolic panel like alkaline phosphatase, ALT, and AST. What followed was a series of tests to try to figure out what was going on: a liver biopsy, an MRI, a PET/CT, and a triphasic CT. The PET/CT and triphasic CT finally revealed the presence of metastatic liver lesions.

This would explain the sudden weight loss, the inability to digest my food fully, the presence of repeated plural effusions and ascites. Within a span of days I went from walking four or five miles a day to barely being able to walk up the stairs. It was scary stuff. Add to the physical issues the fact that we were also moving to a new state and had to get a house on the market and packed up. Yikes!

Fortunately my new oncologist wasn’t overly worried and felt that the chemo we already had planned to address the rising cancer markers would also address the liver mets. And if it doesn’t, he told me, there are other ways to address them. So while what was a minor bump in the road turned into a pothole of sizable proportions, it is nowhere near the end of the road. My markers have come down significantly after only one cycle of Abraxane, and my liver numbers are stable or dropping. Whew! Come on little yew tree with your bound protein molecule, do your thing to bring this body back into balance.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

What’s the point of this post? Learn to love your liver now–before you are diagnosed with liver mets and/or stage four cancer. Begin an anti-cancer lifestyle now and take care to the best of your ability of your body for you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Whether you love liver and onions or despise the stuff, well, that’s your call.

Check out these facts about your liver and read more about this fascinating organ here:

  1. Largest glandular organ – Our liver is the largest glandular organ of the human body and the second largest organ besides our skin.
  2. Multifunctional – Our liver simultaneously performs over 200 important functions for the body. Some of these important functions include supplying glucose to the brain, combating infections, and storing nutrients.
  3. It contains fat – 10% of our liver is made up of fat. If the fat content in the liver goes above 10% it is considered a “fatty liver” and makes you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  4. It stocks iron – Our liver stores important vitamins and nutrients from the food we eat and stocks them up for when we need them later.
  5. Detoxifier – Our liver detoxifies the harmful things we take in like alcohol and drugs. Without the liver the body cannot process these items.
  6. Creator of blood – The liver creates the blood that circulates in our bodies. In fact, the liver starts producing blood before we are born. Without the liver there would be no blood and no life.
  7. It regenerates – Our liver has the amazing ability to regenerate itself, making liver transplant possible. When people donate half their liver, the remaining part of the liver regenerates the section that was removed.

Ch…ch…ch…changes…

Oh yes! This has been a season of so many changes. Not just for me but for all of us. 2020 will likely go down in the books as one of the strangest years in history. There’s been so much loss, grief, change (good and bad, personal and communal), and uncertainty. Some days it feels like living with metastatic breast cancer is a microcosm of the greater narrative of which we are all a part.

For us the changes came fast and furious beginning this summer. My cancer situation has become more complicated, and we discerned that major lifestyle changes needed to happen. First, my beloved husband decided to leave administrative ministry to return to the parish. God opened the way for us to become part of an amazing congregation in Maryland. This turn of events also enabled us to live right next to the place where the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, complete with a healing and gorgeous water view. Already I feel more centered and grounded and embraced by community. This move has also put us two hours closer to MD Anderson Cancer Center–Cooper where I am now being treated.

We are grateful to family and friends who helped us pack up our Harrisburg house, which sold four days after going on the market. We are thankful for the many, many prayers, notes, cards, and kind words extended during this transition time. Of course, we both miss many good friends, neighbors, and colleagues, along with our church family at Christ Lutheran on Allison Hill.

Here’s what the last couple of months have taught me:

  1. Change rarely happens without some level of pain and risk.

2. Living in the present moment is really the only feasible option. The past cannot be recaptured, and the future is uncertain (but filled with possibility).

3. If you’re not willing to take risks you won’t get very far, and you just may miss out on the universe’s calling for you.

4. Life is filled with beauty, awe, and wonder, but we have to pay attention to see it. And, we need to practice gratitude.

5. The world will always try to sell us fear and anger, but the movement of the cosmos is toward love and unity. Lean in to one another and learn from your differences, celebrate your commonalities, and build bridges.

6. Connect. Connect. Connect. We are better together than we are apart.

7. Love wins. Every. Single. Time.

Right now

Image: Kelyan, Creative Commons License.

Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know. — Pema Chodron

How are you doing right now? This minute? Are you fully grounded and invested in what you doing (which is reading a blog post)? Are you able to let the past go? Are you ready to stop pining for an uncertain future? Are you open to experiencing life in a radically different way? If so, then living in the now is the answer.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to give a trite answer to a difficult situation in trying times. I want you (and me!) to take a deep cleansing breath or two and commit to this present moment in this particular day. This practice has been an important component of my self-care in a recent season of big, bitter NO’s.

Image: Sean MacEntee, Creative Commons License

It was tempting to dismiss my grief and uncertainty. After all, a lot of folks have much greater challenges and daunting problems. But that would be an unhealthy and unhelpful way of dealing with my emotions. Instead, I have chosen to honor the emotions and situations that have triggered them. That way I can move through them in a way that honors both my dignity, humanity, and context. For me this has been a time for lament.

My list of big, bitter NO’s began back in late February when my health didn’t seem stable enough to take part in this year’s Women’s Pilgrimage to Israel and the West Bank. Turns out none of the pilgrims were able to go due to COVID=19. Some of my sisters-in-travel-and-faith didn’t get their NO until they were standing in the airport check-in line, and one woman was already in the air flying to meet up with the group for the last leg of the trip.

Quickly deducing this was going to be a strange year for travel, we decided to install a backyard pool. Wouldn’t the water be good exercise and stress-reducing? Our kids might come around more. All good and happy thoughts. Do you know how difficult it is to find an above ground pool kit thanks to, yep you guessed it, COVID-19? Suffice it to say there was no pool to be found in Harrisburg. We found a bigger one than we really wanted in the midwest and ordered it, only to discover that the only place it would fit without significant terrain alteration and a construction permit was directly under power lines. Thankfully, the company said yes to the return and we were not out the money. This was one of the smaller NOs in the season.

The very worst NO was the murder of one of our church family in a horrible act of fear and violence–a wrong place/wrong time scenario that took from this life a truly bright star. It has shaken and shaped our communal worship and online gatherings. The effects of this young man’s death will affect our community and his family for a long time to come.

Another big NO was the cancellation of our bucket list trip, an Iona Pilgrimage with John Philip Newell, again thanks to COVID-19. This trip was something I’d been hoping for since 2001 when I stood at Heritage Wharf in the shadow of Oban and looked across the firth toward the Isle of Mull, beyond which Iona rises across the water. I didn’t make it on that trip, and I won’t make it in 2020. That was indeed a big NO, especially since we made the decision not to push the reservation forward until we have a handle on the really big NO–my health.

Concurrent with the rise of the Corona Virus, my CA 27-29 tumor markers started to rise from the low sixties, to above ninety, and onward and upward through 100. The last test revealed a jump beyond 200. This means the cancer is spreading. I had my first bone scan and lit up like a Christmas Tree with metastatic lesions (mets) from my skull to my femurs and everywhere in between in my increasingly fragile frame. So it’s bye-bye Ibrance (and I say good riddance) and hello Faslodex and Verzenio. Both drugs have some uncomfortable and dangerous side effects, so I am approaching this change with trepidation. We are definitely in a state of unknowing with this big NO.

What does one do with a string of big, bitter NO’s? You might want to try this practice I find helpful: Take a few deep centering breaths, ground yourself by walking barefoot or lounging in the grass, and focus on the present moment. Don’t bring an agenda to your time. Bring an openness to be present to life and listen to the guidance of your higher power. Invite guidance and wisdom to reframe the problem, situation, or experience. Try to look at the situation with fresh eyes and see what the Creator has to reveal.

Image: Sustainable Economics Law Center, Creative Commons License

Don’t expect immediate answers. You might get one, but my experience is that these bright and hopeful reframed yeses come along when you least expect them but are primed to receive them. You can’t spot a divine yes when you’re looking back at your past or leaning too far into the future. You can’t spot an abundant yes if you’re too focused on what you think the yes should be. Be open. Hold loosely. Embrace unknowing as holy soil in which to take root and learn. Perhaps the key for all of us in this strange, liminal time is simply to pay attention, live fully in the moment, and embrace the uncomfortable and vulnerable position of not knowing. The more we reframe our NOs, the more likely we encounter divine yeses.

Next time I’ll share how I listened for and received the blessing of some unexpected yeses. Until then, be brave, be kind, and live fully each precious moment.

Remember that you are (star)dust…

IMG_6050

Ash Wednesday held new meaning for me this year with the stage IV cancer diagnosis. I’m six days in to my unplanned medical sabbatical (what I prefer to call my time on medical disability), and it’s been sobering to observe my body finally coming off of the adrenaline high that kept me going for far too long. This day has given me the permission to speak truth: I am tired. I am weary. My body needs this time of rest if there’s any chance to recover, heal, and hear those magic words “No Evidence of Disease.” I won’t get there by depending on myself or any imagined “super hero” abilities to defy death and appear magically in control.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the powerful and painful words my friend and colleague said as she marked my forehead with ashes this morning. I deliberately chose the quiet chapel service at the church she serves because I needed safe space to experience this moment in a new way, in the shadow of dis-ease and with the words “terminal” and “palliative” still ringing in my ears.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not throwing in the towel. I’m not crying “uncle” to the cancer cells. Not a chance! What I am doing is entering the season of Lent by acknowledging that the shadow of death is just over my shoulder, and my hope lies in God and God alone. But this is true for all of us. None of us is promised more than the present moment; we just choose to live like we have an unlimited span of life ahead. We can wipe that cross off our foreheads, but we can’t erase the truth of it.

Yep, nothing like Ash Wednesday and a cancer diagnosis to set the record straight. This is also a powerful gift to carry into the 40 days of Lent. Without this journey to the cross, without death, there can be no resurrection and no promise of real and lasting life. Only by walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and looking unflinchingly at death is there lasting hope or reason to live for something beyond oneself. This is the only path to the risen Christ.

Death will come for all of us–sooner or later. Deny it all you want; it won’t change the truth of it. Every day is a gift of God. Every breath is Spirit-infused. All of creation is held together in Christ. Or, as Eugene Peterson so beautifully renders this idea in The Message (Colossians 1:18b-20):

“From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”

None of us makes it to Easter without the painful reality of Lent. We need that ash cross to tattoo truth smack between our eyes. But here’s the thing: we are not just the dust you dump out of the vacuum bag into the rubbish bin. We are stardust. We are inextricably linked to one another, to all of creation, and to the Christ.

Gianni cc

As my friend marked that ashen cross on my forehead and said those somber words, I took courage and comfort in knowing there is so much more. Cancer may strip me of all my illusions of security, invincibility, and layers of self-defined identity and worth, but it will never have the last word. That belongs to God, and here is truth for me–and for you, for all of us: “Remember that you are the stuff of stardust, and to stardust you shall return.”

(Photos: sblezard and Gianni, Creative Commons License. Thanks!)

 

 

In Praise of “Pond Scum”

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My morning “pond scum” ingredients. YUM!

Most of us living in North America fail the adequate nutrition test. In the land where Congress classed pizza as a vegetable (yes, really), it’s no wonder that getting enough servings of nutritious fruits and vegetables can be a challenge for the average American diner. I’ve always been a relatively healthy eater: I try to buy organic and local when I can, I’ve been mostly vegetarian for five+ years, and functionally vegan for almost three years. Cheese was my major fail in managing a completely vegan diet, but then we all have our challenges.

Enter a diagnosis of estrogen positive, stage IV breast cancer in September, 2018. Bye, bye cheese; hello full-on vegan diet! It was time to get 110% serious about nutrition. After all, diet appears to be partially responsible for some 30-40% of all cancers. More research is needed, but I’m with Hippocrates who knew the value of nutrition centuries before vegan was hip.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.  — Hippocrates

My family and friends have become well acquainted with what I affectionately call my “pond scum” drinks. These green concoctions earned their name because, well, they LOOK like pond scum. The taste is actually a quite delicious combination of banana, apple, carrot, dark leafy greens (kale, Swiss chard, spinach are my favorites), blueberries, and filtered water, all whirled into a smoothie in my handy Ninja. The morning version includes a scoop of Greens First powder that delivers an extra 15+ servings of fruits, veggies, and antioxidents. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

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Some of my favorite cookbooks. I also drink a LOT of herb tea in lovely mugs, like this Yogi brand DeTox tea.

I’m not suggesting that everyone choose a 100% vegan diet and forego caffeine, sugar, oils, and alcohol. This is my choice to give my body every chance possible to heal itself in combination with western allopathic medicine (i.e. chemotherapy). I’ve been influenced by the work of T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.,John McDougall, M.D.Joel Fuhrman, M.D., and Forks over Knives. What I am suggesting is that you consider some diet changes before you are diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or other serious illness.

When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need. — ancient Ayurvedic proverb

Sure, diet isn’t everything when it comes to health, but it is a major component. I’ll be citing the book Radical Remission frequently over the next few months because it’s had a huge impact on my approach to addressing my cancer. In this book, author and researcher Kelly Turner, Ph.D., explores nine key factors that cancer survivors share. Guess what? Radically altering your diet is one of those nine factors. In fact, it’s the very first factor Turner addresses. Your diet really does matter.

If you’re in great health, give thanks. If you feel that your health is slipping and you know that stress, lack of exercise, and a bad diet are markers of your lifestyle, take a deep breath and consider some changes–FAST. If you are dealing with cancer or another serious illness, consider how a healthier diet might be able to support your treatments. Do, however, include your care providers in discussions about nutrition and any supplements or complementary therapies you are considering. Above all, nurture your spiritual life and check out what your sacred texts have to say about food and nutrition. You might be surprised. In the meantime, I raise my glass of “pond scum” to your health–and to mine. Be blessed!

Disclaimer: I’m definitely not a health professional, but I’m in the business of learning all that I can to try to cajole my cancer into radical remission. If I can be of any help to you, great! Just know that what I write are my own opinions and reflect my own experience. When you find yourself living with a life-threatening illness or chronic condition, YOU are your best advocate. Learn all that you can, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or get additional professional opinions.