Evolving Perspectives on Cancer and Recovery

In The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.  I find all eight pillars are relevant to my recent cancer diagnosis and my years as a recovering alcoholic.  I generally view myself as a “glass is half full” kind of person, but the Dalai Lama’s discussion of the “perspective” pillar presents a more complex and holistic approach:

We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles.  This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive.  – The Dalai Lama, from The Book of Joy, p. 196

Even from a simple dualistic approach, I find that considering alternative perspectives provides incredible “aha” moments.

Why me? vs. Why me?

I took to sobriety pretty much from the day I committed to a detox unit in 1984.  Although relieved, I asked “Why me?” even though accepting that I was an alcoholic and unable to drink like “normal” folks.   In early recovery, alcoholism became my burden to bear or my lot in life.  When I was 20 years sober, I had an “aha” moment.  I began to ask “Why me?” again.  But now I asked the question because I maintained my sobriety for two decades where so many others had relapsed.  Why was I so fortunate?  I know sobriety does not rely on intelligence, depth of alcoholism, or many other factors.  Since my “aha” moment, I have maintained a new perspective on the “Why Me?” question.

I can’t drink alcohol today vs. I don’t have to drink alcohol today

I vividly recall walking out of my 30-day detox program with a fear that I would be drunk within 24 hours.  However, I stayed sober then one-day-at-a-time with a commitment that I “won’t/can’t” drink for that today.  In the first six months of sobriety I had an another “aha” moment.  I was driving home from my sobriety bowling league feeling good about being sober at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night.  I thought about how I would not wake up hungover the next morning and could spend the day doing something enjoyable.  Life was good.  And then it hit me – if I chose to drink alcohol I would lose that good life.  I no longer had to drink to escape a life I despised.  I came to accept living life on life’s terms.  The I “won’t/can’t” drink today changed to I “don’t have to” drink today.

I am going to die vs. I am alive today

I have stage 4 cancer with an ambiguous prognosis.  The chances are good that cancer will be my cause of death. Today, I look out over the rooftops of the same neighborhood where 40 years ago I stomped the streets in anger, despair, and drunk.  Today the cold snap broke with temperatures in the mid-60s.  I spent the morning raking leaves and branches from our backyard, planted two trees, and began to get ready for our spring gardens.  I am in no pain and my body is functioning as normal.  As I sit on the back porch writing these words, I look out over our backyard which is my kingdom, my Garden of Eden, my heaven on earth.  The sky is incredibly blue today.    I cannot imagine a better way to live my day in my favorite city in the world.  I am at peace and having cancer means nothing to me as I am alive this day.

I am not certain my oncologist agrees with me, but I believe one of the reasons my cancer has not progressed more than it has to date is because I am blessed with a perspective whose seeds were planted over three decades ago when I entered a rehab for my addiction to alcohol and drugs.  Consistently since that time, I learned that feeding the solution and not the problem produces a meaningful and joyful life.  Today I accept the problem of having cancer but also have come to appreciate the lessons and wisdom that my response and solution to the disease has brought me.

What Not To Tell Me About My Cancer

I recently read a post about what not to say to folks with cancer written by someone in their 40s undergoing treatment for the disease.  Much of the discussion did not ring true to me.  Here are some of the reasons why:

  • I am 65 years old.  I would have been dead long ago had I not gotten sober when I was 32.  From this perspective I have existed on borrowed time for quite a while. I have lived a good life, especially the last 20 years with my bride.
  • For someone with Stage 4 cancer, I am fortunate that my treatments to date are minimal and I remain pretty much pain-free.  My biggest physical manifestations are fatigue and some gastric distress and I am often uncertain whether these conditions relate to cancer or age.
  • My wife and I are both technically retired, though we maintain active lives in our chosen professions/vocations.  However, we could pull back on those activities if need be.  Though we are not wealthy by any stretch, we have the luxury to make do on our retirement incomes if we are frugal.

Therefore, I am not the 30-something with ovarian cancer and three kids to raise, undergoing chemotherapy, trying to figure out those life challenges with a possibly terminal diagnosis less than half-way through their life expectancy.

So, I consider myself truly blessed.  As I write these words, I am listening to the Huayno song Adios Pueblo de Ayachuco and reflect on my time working in Andean Highlands of Peru where I made many friends, have three Godchildren, and had some of the most satisfying professional work of my career.  Today my wife Emma and I were going through boxes of “stuff” filled with paperwork, mementos, letters, and photos of our adventures over the past 20 years.  I have truly lived a good life.  Yes, I would like to live another 10 years, but if it is only going to be two, that is okay too.

So, what don’t I want people to tell me about cancer? I do have a couple of things:

  • Although I appreciate hearing suggestions on the latest experimental and holistic treatments, please do not keep asking me if I have tried the one you suggested or be offended if I have not.  I am not that desperate to spend all of my waking hours to find a miracle cure.  I am very pleased with my care from the fabulous oncology folks at Touro Infirmary here in New Orleans.  And I remain open to alternatives.  For example, my friend Janet Davis’ recommendation of Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer is a critical tool to enhance my quality of life.
  • I don’t want the focus of my interactions with people to be about cancer.  But I find that often folks either stay away or avoid any discussion when seeing me.  I suppose that says more about their discomfort in talking about the issue than mine.  I mean, if I were not open to conversation, I would not blog all of this.  In fact, I see this blog as a way to keep those with an interest informed on my status.  Folks are able to say “read your blog” and know the details, like if I had a broken leg.  We can then move on to other things.  In fact, as I posted recently, many of the seemingly smaller things in life are of great significance to me – like my door of cards received from friends throughout the country over the past few months.

As I say often, my three decades of addiction recovery in a 12-Step program proved the perfect training ground for living one-day-at-a-time with cancer.  Life is good and I am blessed.

Redemption, Resurrection, and the 12 Steps of AA

Recently my wife and I had dinner with two friends whose family was very active in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  I commented how much I enjoyed living in Jackson, Mississippi years ago because there was such a spirit toward racial reconciliation that is not present in many other locations I have lived.  Indeed, as our friend noted, the newly opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is the only such institution sponsored, supported, and operated by an individual state in North America.  He then commented with something like the ‘Redemption is commensurate to the degree of the sin.’  In this way, Mississippi, and the rest of the U.S. in my opinion, sin(ned) greatly and are in need of substantive redemption and resurrection.  I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Richard Rohr:

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

I have long equated my sobriety as going to that depth of death with the opportunity for coming out the other side in resurrection.  Compare the general content of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with Rohr’s Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now:

 

Twelve Ways to Practice Resurrection Now

1. Refuse to identify with negative, blaming, antagonistic, or fearful thoughts (you cannot stop “having” them).

2. Apologize when you hurt another person or situation.

3. Undo your mistakes by some positive action toward the offended person or situation.

4. Do not indulge or believe your False Self – that which is concocted by your mind and society’s expectations.

5. Choose your True Self – your radical union with God – as often as possible throughout the day.

6. Always seek to change yourself before trying to change others.

7. Choose as much as possible to serve rather than be served.

8. Whenever possible, seek the common good over your mere private good.

9. Give preference to those in pain, excluded, or disabled in any way.

10. Seek just systems and policies over mere charity.

11. Make sure your medium is the same as you message.

12. Never doubt that it is all about love in the end.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pp. 211-212, Josey-Bass

This past December I had the opportunity to hear Richard Rohr speak.  During a book signing session, I spoke to him briefly.  I commented how my experience as a recovering alcoholic paralleled so much of what he discussed in his presentations.  He noted that recovering alcoholics by virtue of their resurrection are folks who are often better able to understand the spiritual development toward true self.  I certainly agree and find that journey one of the true blessings of recovery for which I am grateful.

Why AA works. For me.

Recently I had an interesting interaction on the value of Alcoholics Anonymous in dealing with alcohol – whether considered as an addiction, problem drinking, disease or whatever.  Over the years I have had this conversation on numerous occasions, but this interaction got me to thinking a bit more. I can come across as a strong proponent of AA or as I have posted before, I might come across as an AA heretic.  I have not been to an AA meeting in a while and have not had a sponsor in quite a few years. But, I am a firm advocate of the 12-Step program as a means to address my alcoholism.  After over 30 years of sobriety, I consider the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous more integral to my life today than ever before.

After the conversation, I sat down and read the entirety of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, commonly referred to as The Big Book.  My 1984 detox copy is underlined, dog-eared, and well used, but I don’t recall just sitting down and reading the book cover to cover before.

What I got out of the read is that I can quibble with the nuance of the content.  For example, even the book title, I do not consider myself “recovered” but recovering.  As the title of this blog makes clear, I consider recovery a process and not an event.

But the read, as always with AA literature, brought me new insights into why the program works for me.  In a nutshell here is why the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous serve as the basis for my recovery:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

I could nuance even the 12 Steps to death – is it “were powerless” or “are powerless” – a debater’s point in which I have no interest.  I know when I put the first drink in my body I am powerless to not take the second drink.  I tried for years.  In terms of manageability, from the perspectives of never being able to predict how much I would drink, my behavior when drinking, or  where I would end up – yes my life had become unmanageable.

I don’t care whether alcoholism is called a disease or not.  In the scientific method there will always be attempts to further refine the understanding of alcoholism.  Were I offered a drug that guaranteed me I could drink alcohol normally, I would not take up the offer.  From the start, I drank alcohol to escape – to not live life on life’s terms.  Today I embrace my reality.  To drink alcohol is the antithesis of my life today.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Although I had proclaimed myself an atheist in elementary school, I had no problem with Step 2.  Again, I am not interested in nuancing the term “sanity” but acknowledge that the best efforts in my drinking career lacked logic for even a marginally meaningful existence.  I had no problem in recognizing that my best efforts landed me in a detox unit where I sought wisdom or resources beyond myself.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

I grappled with Step 3 for years in recovery.  I used the group as my higher power, good orderly direction, and all the other possibilities.  A conflict was to reconcile the AA Higher Power concept with what I learned as a young Roman Catholic in the Baltimore Catechism.  Some 7 or 8 years ago I was in an AA meeting and when the third step was read, it was like I heard the words as we understood him for the first time.  That is, I was going to have to take some action to understand this God and not pigeon-hole the concept into some variation of Abrahamic or other traditions.  That understanding is incredibly liberating as I have posted before (for example here and here) and continue to explore.

For me, the first three steps of AA set the stage for freedom from the bondage of alcohol, pure and simple.  Consider as a model the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  I can liken the AA Steps and their application over the past 75 plus years as Scripture and Tradition.  Experience is what I bring to the table.  Combining the previous three, Reason, it is clear that alcohol is not going to work in my life and I need help beyond my resources.

For me, Steps 4-12 allowed me to take the basic understanding of Steps 1-3 and walk down a recovery road for the past three decades. I will return to this in a future post.

 

 

 

 

2018 and a New Perspective in Cancer & Recovery

I write this on December 31st, after a day of tying up loose ends, relaxation, and reflection.  The tying up loose ends primarily involved preparing for the hard freeze over the next couple of days.  I harvested our winter crops of lemons, grapefruit, bok choy, spinach, annual herbs, and brought in our new fruit trees we have yet to plant.  Relaxation included New Year’s Eve dinner with Emma, watching a movie, and reading.

Reflection occupied a good bit of the day. I had several health challenges in 2017 – an increase in my chronic back pain, a serious bike wreck, and a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  As posted on this blog, I spent a good bit of time coming to terms with these new realities.

I commented often how my three decades as a recovering alcoholic prepared me well for dealing with the health challenges, particularly the cancer diagnosis.  I have new lessons on living with an attitude of gratitude, one-day-at-a-time, and into the solution and not dwelling in the problem.

I did a lot of growing up, learning, introspection, and prioritizing in 2017.  Besides family and friends, I benefited from the insights of my faith community at Rayne Memorial UMC and the School for Contemplative Living.  A fellow contemplative noted the synchronicity of the gifts of community coming at the precise time I faced new life directions.

Today I note a subtle but substantive shift in my perspective as we enter 2018.  The best way I can articulate the shift is to compare the past six months as a time of intensive study and growth akin to my experiences during graduate school.  Upon completing my formal academic coursework, I did not stop the lifelong process of being a student and learning.  But upon graduation, I did make a shift where I began to apply in the real world what I learned in my formal training.

In 2018, I want to move from understanding my cancer diagnosis to fully applying and living into the solution.  In so doing, there is a subtle but substantive shift in perspective.  Instead of thinking, “I plan to do X but have contingency plans if I start chemo, etc. etc.” I will shift to “It is reasonable for me to commit to doing X.”  This latter perspective holds true whether I live for another 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years, or longer.  In fact, no one, whether a 21-year-old or a 65-year-old has a guarantee of living one minute longer than I.

I am blessed to have the lived as a recovering alcoholic for the past three decades and to have a wonderful group of contemplatives to explore life with today.  I am committed to a 2018 that will be a time of continuing meaning and fulfillment.